There have been many warnings recently about an imminent global food crisis, and since 2008 we have seen food riots in a number of countries, as well as seeing the price of food playing a role in the uprisings in North Africa. Modern agriculture is heavily dependent upon cheap oil in ways that most people are largely unaware of, and so the inexorable rise in the price of oil, give or take short-term fluctuations, due to the fact that we have now reached Peak Oil, is going to mean that the price of food is going to go up and up. On top of this, global warming is playing havoc with the growing seasons in many countries, and this, too, is going to get worse and worse.
It’s all the more disturbing, therefore, to read the FAO’s latest report on food losses and wastage:
It seems that we waste about a third of all the food we produce, which is a colossal amount. In the South a large proportion of what is wasted is due to faulty harvesting techniques, bad management practices, poor storage facilities and inadequate infrastructure, making it difficult for farmers to get their crops to market at the right time and in good condition. In the North a large proportion of the wastage is at the retail end, where retailers refuse food that is not the precise shape and colour that they deem necessary for their customers, or throw out good food because it has passed its sell-by date, and where consumers throw out perfectly edible food simply because they can afford to do so. In North America and Europe per capita wastage is 95-115kgs per annum; in South and South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa wastage is 6-11kgs per annum.
I remember when I was working in Tanzania 20-plus years ago that storing maize and rice so that rodents and weevils and the like didn’t attack it was a real problem. Getting produce to a market was also such a problem for farmers in some areas because of the appalling roads that they scarcely bothered. It also amazed me that farmers didn’t seem to use their animal dung on their fields, nor did I see any composting going on. At the same time, I was told of it being common practice in some regions to sell the milk from their cows rather than give it to their malnourished children. Maybe those parents were being advised by the IMF as their policy has always been to favour the production of cash crops over food crops.
All of those problems could have been greatly reduced if foreign aid had been used judiciously. Instead, it seemed as if foreign aid was there for promoting the use of chemical inputs and imported machinery – imported from the donor country, thanks very much. There were also aid workers who seemed to be getting paid for indulging themselves in agricultural research, no matter how inappropriate it was. I remember some such research which involved spraying cashew nut trees with chemicals which required vast amounts of water in an area of very low rainfall. Not exactly the sort of thing that would be of much use to the average farmer, but infinitely stimulating for the foregn aid worker, and doubtless invaluable for his future career prospects.
Expecting aid to be used in a way which best benefits subsistence farmers is, of course, hopelessly idealistic. Aid was, and no doubt still is, a wedge in the door to enable an influx of materials to be bought from the donor country. A con; a cosy agreement between the rich North and the rich rulers of the poor South. Who gives a toss about relieving poverty?
It would be nice to think that something will be learned from the FAO’s report. First of all about how to use aid money effectively to help subsistence farmers – and remember another recent report emphasised how small-scale, mixed organic farming holds the key to future food security, not industrial-scale farming or GM crops:
– and secondly to alert people in the North to the hidden consequences of their wasteful dumping of food. Imagine the amount of fossil fuels, especially oil, that have gone into the production of fertilisers and pesticides, into the machinery for planting, weeding, and harvesting, into transporting the food to factories where more fossil fuels are used to process it and then transport it around the world to supermarkets which people drive to before returning home with it, storing it perhaps in the fridge, and finally dumping it without eating it. What a colossal waste of fossil fuels, and what a massive increase in the burden of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere for no reason whatsoever.
Who knows? Maybe more people will begin to realise that we must start making the choices which will enable us to detach ourselves from this system of insane wastefulness. As things stand, the big farmers and food manufacturers make money hand over fist as long as we keep throwing out good food, and meanwhile the environment – Earth – is going to hell in a handcart.
So what can we do? We can buy local, and where possible buy organic. That immediately cuts out a huge amount of fossil fuels. We can make sure we eat what we buy, and we compost the scraps to go back into the soil. We can grow some of our own food, either in our own gardens or rooftops or balconies, or, if that’s not possible, join a community garden or start one. That takes us into the next step of working with your local community to bring about change, and that’s what the Transition Movement is all about:
Find out if there’s one near you, and join it. Otherwise, start one. There’s a course being run online which will give you a great introduction to all of this. Try it: