If the trucks stopped moving, we’d start to worry and we’d head out to the shops, stocking up our larders. By the end of Day One, if there was still no petrol, the shelves would be looking pretty thin. Imagine, then, Day Two: your fourth, fifth and sixth meal. We’d be in a panic. Day three: still no petrol.
What then? With hunger pangs kicking in, and no notion of how long it might take for the supermarkets to restock, how long before those who hadn’t stocked up began stealing from their neighbours? Or looting what they could get their hands on?
There might be 11 million gardeners in Britain, but your delicious summer peas won’t go far when your kids are hungry and the baked beans have run out.
It was Lord Cameron’s estimation that it would take just nine meals – three full days without food on supermarket shelves – before law and order started to break down, and British streets descended into chaos.
A far-fetched warning for a First World nation like Britain? Hardly. Because that’s exactly what happened in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People looted in order to feed themselves and their families.
If a similar tragedy was to befall Britain, we are fooling ourselves if we imagine we would not witness similar scenes of crime and disorder.
Well, today Britain is facing a very real crisis. Granted, it is not the threat of a sudden, terrifying phenomenon such as the hurricane that struck New Orleans. But in its capacity to cause widespread hardship and deprivation nationwide, it is every bit as daunting.
Oil prices are spiralling – $120 a barrel this week, up 23 per cent since the start of the year – and the cost is being felt not only by drivers but by each and every one of us who has seen our food bills soaring.
This week, the British Retail Consortium revealed that food price inflation had risen to 6 per cent – the highest figure since comparable records began – and up from 4.7 per cent in April and 4.1 per cent in March.
At its most basic, the reasons for this food inflation are twofold: increasing demand (particularly in the emerging economies of India and China) and spiralling production costs.
The former had been predicted for years, but the latter is more unexpected.
Conventional wisdom had it that in an age of mechanisation, the cost of producing the food that we eat would decrease as technology found new ways of improving yields and minimising labour costs. But there was a problem that hadn’t been factored in. Production methods are now such that 95 per cent of all the food we eat in the world today is oil-dependent.
The ‘black gold’ is embedded in our complex global food systems, in its fertilisers, the mechanisation necessary for its production, its transportation and its packaging.
For example, to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires the equivalent of six barrels of oil – enough to drive a car from New York to LA.
Unbelievable? One analysis of the fodder pellets which are fed to the vast majority of beef cows to supplement their grazing found that they were made up of ingredients that had originated in six different countries. Think of the fuel required to transport that lot around the world.
Now factor in the the diesel used by the farm vehicles, the carbon footprint of chemical fertilisers used by most nonorganic beef farms and the energy required to transport a cow to the abattoir and process it. The total oil requirement soon adds up.
And so as oil prices have risen, so too has the cost of food – and I’m afraid it’s only set to get worse. The age of cheap food is at an end – and it will impact not only on our supermarket bills, but on the whole economy.
Fifty years ago, food represented around 30 per cent of the average household budget, whereas nowadays it is nearer to 9 per cent.
In other words, cheap food has not only helped keep inflation down, it also allowed the postwar consumer boom to flourish.
With our most basic and necessary commodity – the food on our plates – costing proportionally less every decade, we had plenty of free capital to spend on luxuries: flat-screen TVs; the holidays abroad; the home improvements and extensions that so many of us have acquired.
That’s all set to change in a major way. A new era of austerity is approaching, and we are illpreparedfor its scale and effect. As a farmer myself, who runs a smallholding in Somerset, I was one of the first to detect the winds of change, as the prices for my animal feed rose.
This time last year, it cost me around Â£7.50 a month to feed one of my pigs. Today, as wheat prices nudge upwards towards Â£180 a ton, that figure is closer to Â£15 a month.
Over the past year, wheat prices have doubled, leading not only to increases in the price of bread, but also to demonstrations by pig farmers like me who are going out of business just as fast as you can fry your bacon.
And while wheat farmers might be having a brief moment of glory in the sunshine of rising prices as the world competes for rapidly decreasing supplies, the crisis is hitting home in ways that I certainly never expected to see in my lifetime.
In a report published on Thursday, 18 charities found that many disabled people and poorer pensioners are having to go short of food in order to pay for home care or simple things such as transport to their local day care centre.
Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said: ‘The shocking reality is that people are being forced to choose between eating properly and using vital care services.’ So much for our civilised society.
It’s not just a matter of cost, either, but of real shortages. In the U.S., supplies of rice are so low that retail giant WalMart has been rationing the amount any one customer can buy.
Is that a prospect that now lies ahead of us – a life of rationing similar to the one my parents lived in the years immediately following the war, when we eked out tiny rations of orange juice, and a banana was an almost unheard of treat?
If so, how will a nation that has grown accustomed to having what it wants, when it wants, cope? We are no more used to real deprivation than we are to the pandemic diseases that claimed so many British lives a century or so ago.
Yet the truly shocking fact is that the Government has made no plans at all to prepare for this possibility. Indeed, it has utterly failed to address the vital issues surrounding our food supplies and security.
For years, experts who warned that the combined impact of climate change and oil depletion would converge and plunge food supplies into crisis have been ignored.
John Krebs, former chair of the Food Standards Authority (FSA), told me recently that not only was the issue not even considered, it was laughed at when anyone dared suggest that a country so apparently bountiful as ours could one day find itself facing a food shortage. But Britain, as an island nation, is particularly vulnerable. We have not been self-sufficient in food since the late 18th century, but the situation is rapidly worsening.
In 1995, 27 per cent of UK food was imported. By 2006 it was 37 per cent. The situation is obviously more critical in cities: London imports more than 80 per cent and a food shortage would hit the capital the hardest.
The situation is worsened, of course, by the fact that we are having to compete for supplies on the global market with many more nations than ever before.
For centuries, the typical Chinese diet consisted of rice and vegetables, but as the Chinese pour into the newly emerging cities, so their diets are changing. In 1962, the average Chinese ate just 4kg of meat per year: by 2005 that figure was 60kg and rising.
The result has placed huge pressure not only on prices, but on natural resources required to cope with this increased demand.
It is not simply that we do not have enough land to grow the grain to feed the animals which in turn feed us. In the past two decades, pressure on our natural resources has increased to a level which many experts fear has become unsustainable.
For example, in the U.S., the use of hydrocarbon pesticides has increased 33 times as farmers sought to increase production and yet, as soil structures weaken due to over-use and mono-crop cultivation, more crops are being lost to pests every year.
The world has a finite supply of fresh water too, yet 70 per cent of all freshwater is used for agriculture, often horribly wastefully.
For example, it takes four litres of water to grow a single Kenyan green bean stem which we in Britain import by the ton – and this is from an officially ‘ water-stressed’ country. And that’s before we factor in climate change, which many believe will render great swathes of land infertile.
Certainly, intensive farming methods are only adding to the problem: according to the UN, animal farming now accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, due to forest clearances and the methane emitted by cattle.
The net result is a looming crisis of which soaring oil prices could simply be the starting gun.
In this regard, the dominance of the supermarkets in British food retailing contributes massively to our vulnerability. Rising energy prices have an immediate impact on many of the food giants’ common practices.
Their reliance on diesel trucks for ‘Just in time delivery’ and ‘ warehousing on wheels’; their endless plastic packaging and their transportation of processed foods and raw materials around the world means that our supermarkets have been hit doubly hard by the high oil price.
(How much longer, I wonder, will the seafood business Young’s of Scotland find it economic to fly prawns to Thailand to be cleaned and de-shelled, before flying them back to Scotland for packaging)?
During the fuel protests of September 2000, we caught a glimpse of how even the supply of basic foodstuffs are dependent on oil: Justin King, the CEO of Sainsbury, warned Blair that we would be ‘out of food’ within ‘days not weeks’ if the protests continued.
Today, we stand on the brink of a longer-term problem. In the words of Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London: ‘We are sleep-walking into a crisis.’
Yet even now, the Government has not woken up to the immediacy of the problem. Indeed, it doesn’t even have a coherent means of taking control of the situation. Food, and its related issues, currently straddles no fewer than 19 different ministries.
When I questioned Joan Ruddock about whether the Government would change its policy about allowing pig farmers to feed their animals swill made from left-over food scraps (a practice banned after the food-and-mouth outbreak) she replied that she couldn’t answer the question because it fell under the jurisdiction of a different department.
This is madness. Food, along with shelter and safety, is one of our most basic needs. Professor Lang believes that nothing short of a radical change in our diets – away from meat and towards vegetables and grains – will solve the problem long term.
But in the meantime, alarm bells should be going off all over Westminster about the scale and impact of the impending food crisis.
Suddenly, that warning of being ‘nine meals from anarchy’ no longer seems such a distant or improbable threat.