Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/07/brown_trouser_food_security_threat/

Trousers Brown: Blighty faces 'food security' threat

It's all about the energy, stupid

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 7th July 2008 16:04 GMT

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.

Well, according to the Cabinet Office:

In... value terms, half of the food eaten in the UK is home-grown, nearly 70 per cent of the rest comes from elsewhere in the EU. Everything else, from tea to pineapples to prawns is sourced from across the world.

Or in other words, almost all - 85 per cent - of our food by price comes from the EU, one of the more stable and reliable trade zones on the planet and the one we are physically next to/in. As far as UK food prices go, "food security" would seem to be a matter of "EU security", and the EU is actually pretty secure. The pattern, funnily enough, is much the same in America, another of the world's great breadbaskets.

The truth of the matter is that food security and energy security are the same thing. One of the main reasons - apart from recent bad harvests - that even EU food is going up in price is that fuel is going up in price. In effect we don't buy corn, we buy the energy that farmed it and fertilised it, shipped it and processed it and preserved it. Food is energy, especially if you start using it for biofuel. But, certainly if you can believe WRAP, it isn't - from our point of view - very much energy. High-energy societies like the EU and USA don't struggle to feed themselves, and indeed can produce a big surplus.

So there's no new problem here, just the same one: Energy. Higher energy prices mean pain for rich Westerners. For poor Third-Worlders whose main way of consuming energy is eating food, high energy prices are a disaster. As the government are noting, the world's population is growing and parts of it (China) are getting a bit richer and want to eat higher-energy food like meat more often, too.

"If food production in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world reached its potential," notes Gordon Brown, "global food output would be much higher, far fewer people would go hungry and the threat of food-related political and social instability around the world would recede."

Well, duh. If Africa was industrialised and governed effectively* it could feed itself easily. But that would mean Africa starting to use energy - much of it fossil fuel - the way the West does now and China is beginning to. And that's to ignore the issue of water. The Cabinet Office says:

Cereal production needs to increase by 50 per cent and meat production 80 per cent between 2000 and 2030 to meet demand. But this will need to be achieved in a changing climate and in a world where natural resources - especially water - are becoming more scarce...

Water is energy too, however. If you have enough energy, you don't need to fret about water - you just desalinate seawater, of which the supply is more than adequate.

Forget about "food security" and "water poverty" and all the rest of it. The big issue for the human race in the coming decades is going to be energy. If we can vastly expand our supplies of energy, it will be at least possible for everyone to stay alive - maybe even stay alive and have a decent time the way we decadent Westerners do now. It doesn't matter whether you believe in carbon-related climate change or not; oil and coal simply aren't going to meet the demands of six billion well-fed, warm, literate, reasonably mobile people, certainly not for very long.

So - how do we vastly expand energy supplies, while largely doing without coal and oil?

That's what the government should be asking, rather than making up silly new tags like "food security" and moaning at us to keep our apples in the fridge. ®

*Not necessarily democratically or nicely, but effectively to some degree - like China.