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Trousers Brown: Blighty faces 'food security' threat

It's all about the energy, stupid

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Analysis Just in case we didn't all have enough to panic about these days - what with energy prices, global financial gloom, impending ecopocalypse, terrorism etc - the government says any British trouser not yet besmirched by fear is definitely worn by someone who isn't paying attention. Apart from all of the above, we now face a "food security challenge".

"The principal food security challenge for the UK is a global one," said Prime Minister Brown in a statement today, seeming to imply that food security is an issue not unlike energy security. We might be speaking soon, not so much of blood for oil, as of blood for beans. (Needless to say, biofuel is very much a part of this debate.)

"We cannot deal with higher food prices in the UK in isolation from higher prices around the world," added the PM.

As if that wasn't enough to be getting on with, the government says that the new push to feed us and the world (especially us) will need to be accomplished in an eco-friendly fashion. Victualling minister Hilary Benn explains:

"By 2050 we will need food for a world population that is wealthier and several billion larger... And, in addition, we will need to cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production."

So far, the main idea the government has thought of for enhancing "food security" is to waste less grub. According to official estimates, us Brits throw away a third of the food we buy for home consumption. This, according to the Cabinet Office, apparently means that:

Eliminating the unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions that this wasted food produces would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off UK roads. By using 60 per cent of food thrown away by households, enough energy could be generated to provide power for all the homes in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Crivens - that's about half a million households, according to the Scottish government (pdf). Average British households use 60 kilowatt-hours a day, so the waste food reclaim plan would apparently yield 10 terawatt-hours annually. That's a colossal amount of energy - and all we need to do is "use" - presumably burn, or something - 60 per cent of our household food waste to get it!

Steady on. Actually the food waste and associated energy figures used by the Cabinet Office appear to be the ones from the quango WRAP, which aren't based on how much carbon-equivalent emission and/or energy is actually present in the thrown-away food. If you turned all the garbage into ethanol or whatever, you wouldn't get 10 TWh out at the end - not even close.

Most of the carbon burden said by WRAP to be associated with wasted food comes not from rotting grub in landfill, but from the energy the quangocrats believe has been "embedded" into the grub during production, processing, transport etc. The only way to get the Edinburgh+Glasgow scale of energy savings and carbon benefits hinted at by the Cabinet Office would be to reduce food demand in the UK by 20 per cent - as would happen if we cut waste by 60 per cent.

Still, well worth doing, clearly.

Well, barely. Ten terawatt-hours annually equates to about three per cent of current UK energy consumption, equal to only a few years' natural increase, and the carbon savings would be similarly minimal. And bear in mind that WRAP would have no raison d'etre if there weren't serious perceived consequences to food waste - you can bet they've bigged the numbers up as much as possible.

Even so, you can pretty much forget about the energy/eco dividend to be reaped by reducing home food waste - the more so as the main method offered by WRAP for doing so is to keep more food in the fridge. That means bigger fridges, and if we all switch to bigger fridges and other methods sufficient to save sixty per cent of our waste food it seems fair to speculate that we might shove up our energy use overall - possibly even wiping out the energy savings.

But wait - at least the War On Bins would mean we needed less food, and thus we wouldn't be dependent on grub imported from dodgy areas overseas, starving the folk who live there and subjecting ourselves to huge variations in price with disastrous economic effects. We'd achieve some "food security", at least.

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