David Richardson: More talk and little action

I attended a conference in London last week on Food Security in the 21st Century. You may be aware that this is a hobby horse I’ve been riding for some time. So I thought I should be there.

It was organised by Chatham House under the rules associated with that body. For the uninitiated, that means journalists can report what was said but not who said it. So you may have to use your imagination as you read what follows.

My first conclusion, based on what one speaker said, was that when it considers agriculture and food, the British government still uses yesterday’s agenda – it has not caught up with the fact that there are no longer mountains and lakes in EU intervention stores and that, short-term volatility apart, the long-term trend is for scarcity.

OK, they recite the mantras about increasing population, growing demand and that this will mean shortages. But they are in denial that it can have any significant effect on British food supplies. Moreover, the default position is that we should be more worried about the plight of people in developing countries.

I agree, of course, that there are many millions in the world worse off than we are. And I advocate that we should continue aiding such countries – always provided we can ensure it is used for the poor and doesn’t end up in the pockets of corrupt government officials.

But government ministers need to be sharply reminded that their prime responsibility is to British farmers and consumers. Further, that the poor in the Third World are ill-served if we continue to import increasing quantities of farm produce from them. Too often it only enriches the few who exploit underpaid workers. It would help the needy much more if their land and labour grew food for domestic consumption.

My second conclusion was slightly more optimistic. It was that opinion-formers and highly-placed government officials, who were at the conference in significant numbers, were at last listening to the kind of arguments some of us have been putting for years. The wheels of government grind exceedingly slowly, but maybe those who draft legislation were hearing things that might begin to help them catch up.

It might be best not to hold your breath, because there was more talk of further debate than there was of action.

An American academic who thought there would be volatility rather than permanent shortages of food suggested rebuilding strategic reserves to be released when needed. I think that’s what we used to call intervention. A scientist warned that lack of fresh water would soon become the biggest constraint to food production. Another said consumers must be re-educated out of their expectation of everlasting cheap food.

I thought the removal of all but the most vital safety-based regulations would provide a massive boost to production. And for the longer term, the 40% cut, this decade, in government-funded research and development must be restored.

More from David online…

  • “It was probaby too much to expect, in the middle of the biggest financial crisis for nearly 80 years, that the Prime Minister would take the opportunity in his Cabinet reshuffle to give food production the priority it deserves. Instead, by downsizing DEFRA and putting Ed Miliband in charge of climate change and carbon footprints, he has once again elevated the environment above food security.
  • Read David Richardson’s blog

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