If you have been unfortunate enough to listen to environment minister Hilary Benn over the past week you may have the impression that Britain is running out of food.
According to the government a growing population, combined with the impact of climate change on food production, will make it harder to feed the country.
The right wing press has seized upon the latest government papers from Defra, the department for environment, food and rural affairs, to warn that rationing will return to Britain and we will have to turn to vegetarianism in order to survive.
Reading the recent documents from Defra is infuriating. They are full of meaningless sentences and spin and short on concrete policies.
The one thing that is clear is that the government wants British farmers to produce more food. The reason, it says, is that there are many threats to global food production and making Britain less dependent on imports and more “self-sufficient” will increase our “food security”.
But Britain is more self-sufficient than it has been for years. Even the government admits it.
“Current levels of UK self-sufficiency in food are relatively high compared to the first half of the 20th century, and we are now more self-sufficient than we were in the 1930s or 1950s,” says Defra.
Moreover, “The availability of food per person has increased in recent decades and shows no sign of falling.”
Some have seen the government’s desire for self-sufficiency as reflecting a more “protectionist” approach where British farmers produce more food to safeguard the food supply in Britain.
But the government is not aiming to withdraw from the world market. It is aiming to position British capitalism better within that market by increasing exports.
Increasing production is not about making sure that people here have enough to eat. More than enough food is being produced already – so much so that exports are rocketing.
Defra boasts, “In the European Union (EU), we are part of the world’s biggest agricultural exporter, and the UK alone exported £12 billion worth of food and drink in 2007.”
Britain’s food and drink exports grew by 16 percent in the first three quarters of 2008.
Meat exports rose significantly. Exports of lamb went up by 43.9 percent in 2008, while beef exports rose by a massive 69.3 percent.
And the government will continue to import food – indeed it sees this as a way of achieving food security. “Our openness to trade makes the UK very resilient in terms of disruptions from one or a few sources of supply,” Defra says.
The government is spinning the need for changes in food production as being about two things – securing food supply for ordinary people and safeguarding the environment.
In reality it wants to give more power to business – not to give us a reliable or sustainable food supply.
Let’s take the environment first.
For all the government’s alleged worry about the environmental impact of the way we produce our food, the last thing the government is going to do is impose stricter regulations on agribusinesses and farmers.
In fact, it wants to do the opposite.
“We will continue to work with the farming industry and the European Commission to explore ways to reduce the impact of regulation,” says Defra.
It talks of “voluntary” schemes for supermarkets to sign up to and “encouraging” farmers to tackle climate change. But it will do nothing to make sure that any changes happen.
Government concern about food miles – the distance food is transported from where it is produced to where it is consumed – seems to disappear where British food exports are concerned. Once again, the competitive drive for short-term profits comes before meeting the needs of people and the planet.
And it’s a bit rich of the government to talk about ensuring that people are properly nourished.
Dramatic food price rises throughout 2007 and 2008 plunged millions of people around the world into hunger and starvation. In Britain price rises hit the poorest people, who spend proportionally more of their income on food, the hardest.
What did the government do? It could have imposed price caps or provided some foods for free to the poorest people. It could have banned speculation on food commodities, which would have had an impact on the soaring prices.
It could have increased benefits, pensions and the minimum wage to help millions of people cope with the rising cost of living. But it didn’t.
Instead it harangued people for wasting food, and issued “advice” on how people could make the most of leftovers.
The government itself spends £2 billion a year on providing food for people – in hospitals, schools, prisons and public sector workplaces.
Jamie Oliver’s TV campaigns over school dinners gave just one insight into the low quality of food that the government provides.
The government has not ensured food security for ordinary people. Its real concern is “security” for British agribusinesses.
But hang on, doesn’t the government have a point? Isn’t population growth and climate change going to lead to problems in the future?
The world’s population is growing and will continue growing. It currently stands at around 6.7 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
That may sound like a big hike. But the rate of growth is slowing, not speeding up. We are not facing a population “explosion”.
Food production has outstripped population growth consistently since the 1950s.
The United Nations predicts that it will continue to do so, and even the government’s own papers admit that the prospects for this are “favourable”.
“Overpopulation” is a dangerous argument that we must resist. The right has seized on the “population explosion” argument to attack immigrants.
So the odious columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote an article in the Daily Mail newspaper last week entitled, “Never mind food – stop importing people”.
The argument that a growing population will lead to poverty and a scramble for resources is centuries old.
But as the world’s population has increased, the world has become richer, not poorer. Living standards have increased and people now live longer.
In every modern famine there has been enough food to feed people. People don’t starve because there’s not enough to go around, they starve because they are too poor to buy it.
And people are not simply mouths to feed – it is the people who produce the food in the first place. A growing population means there are more people to produce food.
The argument about the impact of climate change on food production is more complex. Climate change is a serious and growing threat.
It is getting more serious as world leaders fail entirely to commit to any measures that could significantly tackle it.
In the most recent government papers, climate change is treated like an unstoppable force of nature that we must “adapt” to. But why can’t we try to tackle climate change itself?
It’s hard to take the government seriously when it says it is concerned about how food production is affecting the environment or about the amount of food miles contained in the goods people buy. This is the same government that has approved the expansion of Heathrow airport.
“Agricultural, land use change and forestry and responsible for around 7 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says the government.
But cars contribute much more. Road transport is responsible for about 25 percent of Britain’s total carbon dioxide emissions, with passenger cars alone accounting for nearly half that figure.
And air travel, which the government is committed to increasing, is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases.
Defra supports “the development of more advanced biofuels”. These are an environmental disaster in terms of deforestation and divert crops from food to fuel, making food insecurity worse for the poorest people on the planet.
The threat posed by climate change is real. Soil erosion, lack of fresh water, melting glaciers and extreme changes in temperature all have an impact on our ability to produce food.
The government should take real measures to tackle it. But it refuses to do so – because this would threaten British businesses’ ability to make money.
Instead, it will use the threat of climate change to tell us that unpopular things like genetically modified (GM) crops or nuclear power are “necessary” in order to save the planet.
Socialists should not fall for this.
There is a transparent agenda behind the recent government concern over food security.
It is to make changes to food production that benefit the rich – of which increasing the use of GM foods is just one example.
Socialists are not anti-science. We do not oppose GM foods and crops because they “interfere with nature”.
We oppose them because they increase inequality and put more power in the hands of rich agribusinesses while threatening both the health of people and the planet.
The government is not addressing the very serious problems with food production, the environment and the way they impact on each other.
It won’t do this because the problem of food insecurity is not simply an agricultural one – it is a social and political one.
The changes that we really need would challenge the interests of the rich.
Hunger in a World of Plenty – what’s behind the global food crisis? by Esme Choonara and Sadie Robinson is available for £1.50 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848. » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk