Carry On Farming

by

the response to the flu pandemic in terms of food production is “carry on as normal”.

An extract from an article by Felicity Lawrence at Guardian.co.uk

The cost of the flu pandemic will be unquantifiably large, but it is not the industry that will pay. Instead, the damage will affect the poorest disproportionately. It is ordinary Mexicans who are most affected now, just as the sub-prime mortgage crisis has made those at the bottom of the ladder homeless.

Where the next shocks to the food system will come from is unpredictable. As well as outbreaks of disease, climate change may produce a sudden dislocation in supplies. A coincidence of drought in two or more grain producing countries could, for example, lead to price spikes and shortages. An energy crisis could expose how dependent our food system has become on an uninterrupted flow of oil and transport – earlier this year, after just two days of snow, there were worries that London might not be able to maintain its food supplies, according to Rosie Boycott, chairman of the mayor’s London Food board.

Official government figures show that there has been a steady erosion of any slack in the system. In the UK, stocks of all food are typically down to 11 days of supply. The UK now carries just eight days’ worth of stocks of frozen foods, and 10 days of perishable goods. Globally, grain stocks are down to 50 days.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and a member of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, warns that the whole British food network has become taut. “In that last 30-40 years there has been enormous investment in what is called efficiency,” he says. “That means there is no spare. The food system is like a fully stretched rubber band. If it breaks, there would be a sharp rebound. I don’t think a systemic failure is imminent but it is very vulnerable to shocks. They could be technical shocks, ecological shocks or human disease shocks. We don’t have a sustainable UK agriculture base at the moment and we need one.”

But instead of addressing these wider issues, the response to the flu pandemic in terms of food production is “carry on as normal”. Urged to spend our way out of ecological recession, we are exhorted to keep eating pork products. Keen to protect the economic interests of its meat industry, the US government took to calling this swine flu “H1N1 flu” a couple of days ago, in order not to put people off their chops.

The World Health Organisation, which depends on the US for a large part of its budget and has been bullied by it before, has now followed suit, rebranding the flu influenza A (H1N1). But simply saying “as you were” is no more an adequate response to the cause of this current crisis than it is to the banking collapse. If we carry on as before, the pigs may yet have their revenge. And if not the pigs, the chickens.

  • Felicity Lawrence’s Eat Your Heart Out: Why the Food Business is Bad for the Planet and Your Health is published by Penguin
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