Monday, July 07, 2008

Food Price Increases

I am no expert in the field of food production, distribution or consumption (the latter on a personal scale only!) so the following comments are from a lay perspective.

Apparently the leaders of the G8 countries are thinking that one of the problems of rising food prices is man-made global warming.  I am not sure how they come to think this, other than they belong to the "we know better than the rest of you" political elite who continually look for new ways to apply control on the populaces they are supposed to serve.

Climate change is normal and inevitable and humankind is going to have to come to terms with that historically proven fact.  So, what other reasons do we have for higher food prices (and this is a worldwide problem, don't forget)?
  • Population growth - In the developing world the population is growing at a rapid rate, more than offsetting any population growth control that exists elsewhere.  Emigration from areas with high birth rates is on the increase.  As the planet's population grows, so the amount required to feed it must grow.
  • Lack of agricultural innovation - or at least the application of it.  Namely genetically modified (GM) food.  In the past agriculture benefitted from new strains of wheat and rice that were hybridized.  Now, much the same technique can be done in the laboratory and it has a stigma that many don't like and won't accept.
  • Medical advances - people are living longer and less likely to suffer from malnutrition.  This is obviously linked to population growth (above) but it also includes expensive and wasteful options like fad diets pushing up demand and therefore price of a sought after "wonder food".
  • The distribution conundrum - we grow food where few people live and don't grow food where too many people live.  Example, the Midwest of the USA vs. Somalia.  The simplest solution would be to move Somalis to Texas but I can't see that happening!  We have got used to having cheap transportation, so much so that vegetables have been flown from Europe to Africa and back just to be sorted and packed for the supermarket.  Foodmiles now mean something to the ordinary shopper, a good thing if too little too late.
  • Social expectation - "last year we tasted couscous in Tunisia when on holiday, now we want to source it at home".  Yes, our tastes have become more international as we experience foreign travel.  We also expect strawberries out of season and demand that our produce be "Tesco perfect".
  • Waste - this is the latest bandwagon - we are buying food we only end up wasting and throwing away.  Packaging is part culprit as are expiration dates on perishables.  We have even been encouraged to turn our waste into compost, a noble notion but surely not the means to an end?
All these reasons are controllable by humankind, the climate isn't.  So it will be interesting to see how much emphasis is placed on each influence over rising food prices.

Incidentally, global warming should generally have a positive effect on food production.  Plants grow faster in warmer climates and the conversion of basic raw materials into foodstuffs within the botanical world is more efficient with higher temperatures and with the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (photosynthesis simply doesn't work without carbon dioxide).