“Food prices; the shocking truth” was a programme broadcast on channel 4 with Jimmy Doherty presenting. Jimmy Doherty is a pig farmer based in Suffolk my co-author Andy pointed his farm out as we were on the way to London on the train to meet with our publisher. In recent years he has become one of these media farmers a bit like Adam from “Countryfile” on the BBC.
The programme started by looking at the situation we are starting to get used to – rising food prices. In 1950 we spent in the UK about 36% of our income on food, by 2008 this was down to 10% as food prices fell. Now its about 20%. After giving some examples of the increase in prices of some staples Jimmy asked the fundamental question. Are we being ripped off by the supermarkets or producers or are more bigger forces at work and are food prices going to keep on rising? Has this era of cheap food due to our industrial food system come to an end?
The programme focused in on four staple foods. Rice, beef, bread and chocolate.
Looking at specific foods Jimmy gave some really amazing statistics. For example Rice is the staple food for almost 50% of the global population and 718 million tonnes a year is grown. Its now grown all over the world but one of the biggest exporters is India. The green revolution doubled production over last 50 years and there is no shortage. Despite this in 2008 the price rocketed to an all time high. The reasons why according to Jimmy were very surprising to me. The Indian government spends a whopping 20 billion dollars in Indian subsidy to the poor (900 million) to help keep food prices low. A wheat short fall in this year caused Indian government to buy more rice at same time as the demand rose elsewhere. The Indian government banned exports. Other countries followed suit. Since then the Indian government stockpiles rice which has led to permanently higher prices. A different idea from free trade is now the rising idea of “food sovereignty”. If countries restrict exports we could be in trouble with rising food prices.
The price has been rising, 70% for mince alone over the last decade in the UK. 85% of Beef consumed in the UK is British. Jimmy cited three reasons for Beef price increases; fuel, fertilizer and feed. “Food prices” then turned its attention to the oil dependency of agriculture something we have discussed in our book. A farmer interviewed on “Food prices” said diesel costs had risen from 20p per litre to 70p per litre in 10 years. Fertilizer costs had also risen an astonishing 350% in the last 10 years due to increasing gas prices. There was more pressure on prices due to growing demand around the world. One British man Alan Savory in the US has an idea to break this dependency. Grazing cattle on open land but optimising where cattle graze by planning on maps and using them to fertilize the soil he claims increases production 300-400%. This struck me as a very traditional solution and way of farming we have lost due to our oil dependency.
“Food prices” turned its attention to another staple – bread. Fuel costs above have had their effects on the price of bread which has rocketed, but climate change entered the programme here. 2012 had a disastrous effect on our home-grown wheat production. But climate pressures are cropping up everywhere. In 1900 the USA produced 14-18 bushel er acre. Now its 3 times as much. However severe drought in the US and elsewhere such as Russia is affecting production. Another long term issue is that the aquifers in the US are running dry. India and China and Saudi Arabia have the same problem with water supply. Yes you did read that right Saudi Arabia grows wheat! Not for much longer though they have run out of water.
According to “Food prices” the British chomp their way through an amazing 1800 tones per day. Cacao prices soared by 80% from 2008. One way manufacturers have coped with the rising prices is by shrinking the size but at the same price per bar- cunning. Demand for Cacao is however outstripping supply. “Food prices” travelled to Ghana one the worlds largest producers to find out why. Part of this due to climate change, but also badly paid Ghanaian farmers are leaving Cacao production. One thing that surprised me is that the Ghanaian government controls their farmers prices of this commodity, meaning they may not always get a fair price. Speculation on the futures market is also having an effect. In the last decade the investment banks have entered the food speculation market. This speculation may cause extremes in prices (both and high and low). The EU worried by this is looking to introduce controls on futures speculation.
So there we have it, an interesting programme on the issue of rising food prices. Part two is next week which looks at issues around some more staple foods. I think pork and coffee? and some solutions. There were a few weaknesses in it which I hope will be addressed next week. Rising population, the idea of eating less particularly dairy and meat are some issues which were not mentioned at all. Also as a general point he tended to treat the reasons behind the price increases in food in isolation which I don’t think you can do with climate change and food’s oil dependency.
Our lent guide is available here No oil in the lamp – Lent guide.