Bookbuster Book Review
Brexit: Britain’s Great Food Gamble?
A brief survey of our current crises, via books
by John Humphrys and Dennis Pirages
REVIEW BY TIM BARTON
In 2000 we had a Kentish blockade on refineries that led, after three days, to a crisis of food supply ultimately caused by a reliance on ‘Just In Time’ marketing. The ‘petrol strike’ made government aware, in the sharpest terms, how fragile our food security is.
This was an opportunity as well as a crisis: the warning could have led to a move toward sustainable food supply in these islands, or, failing that, at least a return to mass storage (on, at a minimum, a seasonal basis). This is, after all, something the human population of the planet strove for over centuries, but that we have blindly let go. Instead, the Blair government passed provision for army-run rationing at supermarkets within 48 hours of any similar supply-line crisis. This is, in effect, the better off saying ‘stuff you ordinary oiks’, and raising their drawbridge.
In 2001, news presenter, John Humphrys published an exposé of unsustainable food practices, The Great Food Gamble (which I reviewed at length on bluegreenearth.com when it was first published). As a smallholder, he had found that we sail closer to the wind than he had ever imagined. Not only was available stock barely enough for three days in a crisis, but also a huge percentage of the arable land needed to feed us and our livestock was abroad (today the figure is 70%); the ‘green revolution’, reliant as it is on an oil-based artificial fertiliser, was in effect over; natural soil fertility had bottomed out in most farmed land, as it no longer lay fallow to recover and, due to industrial-scale monoculture, had no out-of-season protections against leaching of minerals by wind and rain; and herbicides and pesticides were poisoning the water supply and our food crops.
Food resources are by no means the only resources we are reliant upon that require global markets and alternative methods, if we wish to, minimally, continue ‘business as usual’. The concept of ‘peak oil’ was talked about a lot a decade ago, by now we are at, or past, peak in most available oil reserves. And it is not only fossil fuels that are becoming scarce in a resource-intensive civilisation that is heavily reliant upon them: others include, for example, molybdenum, copper, lithium, and many other metals and minerals. The first book I read that really rang the storm warning was Global Technopolitics by Dennis Pirages – published in 1988, it was on one-day loan from the British Library for several years. The bottleneck was a long waiting list of corporate and civil service staff – it was widely read, and understood, yet not admitted into the wider public imagination.
Over the first two decades of the new century, we have seen massively increasing global crop failures – in one year, according to WorldWatch Institute, wheat lost was equivalent to twice the annual Canadian grain-belts production.
When Michael Gove took over DEFRA he was obviously fully briefed. And, momentarily, let the mask slip, declaring that capitalism had failed agriculture. Think about it: a Tory minister, a careerist and an opportunist, panicked when he got a whiff of reality. If this doesn’t petrify you, it should.
Pirages, and others, have covered these issues in other books, mostly published over the last few decades: I’d recommend in particular From Resource Scarcity to Ecological Security (2005). Naturally, as with the Club of Rome Report (1972), and despite a widely spread ‘green’ culture in the 70s and 80s, seeded by books like Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1974), nothing substantial has been done to avert or even alleviate this impending food security disaster.
When Theresa May, for no obvious reason, chooses to very publicly announce that Brexit will not lead to food shortages (?) this should make you shudder. In July, The Sun finally ran a story saying secret plans were afoot to stockpile processed foods, in case of a ‘hard Brexit’. And this summer a conference including food producers and academic professionals met, and concluded that any renegotiation of trade deals, especially with the USA, would leave a very serious supply issue for the UK. In the face of a globalised food crisis, we are dangerously exacerbating our own situation. The NFU, many of whose members voted to leave the EU (and most still would, seeing a sustainable future as possible long-term), agreed that we were heading for disastrous short-term food shortages. This was covered in an excellent review by Jay Rayner for The Observer last month, ‘Will Britain’s food cupboard be bare after Brexit?’
There will, undoubtedly, be trouble ahead, especially if we leave the EU with no trade deal in place. But I hope it is clear from what I have written here that the issue is far wider & deeper than our own island plight. And it is in light of this situation that I will be contributing occasional reviews of older texts that offer diagnoses and prescriptions that, whilst needing scaling up as ecological damage increases, still offer us, today, some positive alternatives.
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