David Richardson: A new vision is needed to avoid food crisis

Gordon Brown is busy at present, but I don’t apologise for adding to the challenges to which he must respond. For while he seems to have begun to recognise the growing energy crisis the UK faces in a few years’ time, he has so far failed to grasp the fact that food supplies are heading the same way. If nothing is done we may have empty supermarket shelves as well as power cuts.

His so-called experts continue to tell him, presumably, that food security is not an issue with which he need concern himself that the brief flurry of commodity price rises a few months ago was a one-off caused by a temporary imbalance in the market place that there is still plenty of cheap food in the world that can be imported if need be. Indeed, the subsequent collapse of ex-farm values of most commodities might seem to confirm it, provided you ignore the extra costs of imports resulting from sterling’s slump in value.

Meanwhile, it is doubtful if Gordon is concerned about or even aware of the volatility farming is suffering that some farm costs have more than doubled and the value of some farm commodities has more than halved in a matter of months that this combination makes planning a farce and calls into question the point of planting crops that seem destined to leave huge losses.

Moreover, it seems probable that this kind of volatility will continue for perhaps 10 years until world consumption absorbs all that can be produced, even in years of high production. That, of course, is when the food crisis will intensify. We could, if nothing substantial is done to increase production around the world, see wars over food supplies. It would be like the collapse of the world’s financial systems, only worse. Because lack of food prompts even more primeval forces than lack of money.

But why, Gordon might well ask, should I worry about something 10 years ahead? Because, Prime Minister, it takes that long to breed new higher-yielding varieties of crops and livestock to the point of commercial exploitation and your cuts in publicly-funded research have seriously reduced the scientific effort being expended on this vital work. Like power stations, you have to invest and plan a long way ahead to avoid shortages.

The other priority the PM should urgently address is how to restore some stability to commodity prices. Recent experience has proved that market forces won’t do it. Government (and inevitably EU) intervention is required. That is not to say we need open-ended guarantees of the kind that led to butter mountains and wine lakes. But a light hand on the tiller to raise prices when production slips and lower them when production rises, like countercyclical aid in America, could transform the situation for food producers and consumers.

It’s not politically correct. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. So, let’s see some action to promote the concept before it’s too late.

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