10 October 2007

Going with the Grain

We have ignored the warnings about climate change in spite of floods, the total dislocation of our seasons, and undeniable impacts on familiar wildlife species. This autumn we are, for the first time, seeing major increases in prices of the very staple foods we rely on to exist. Will this persuade us to change our lifestyles?

It is a curious fact of life that the staple starchy foods of the most developed societies are grains. And an increasingly important one, as many of these grains are now being used to produce biofuels. As Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement in the UK said recently at a conference I was at, biofuels offer us the unattractive future of starving to death in a traffic jam. This future may be closer than we thought.

The first nation to experience a threat to their national staple have been the Italians, facing 30 per cent increases in the price of pasta as a result of an international shortage of the durum wheat used to make it, 40 per cent of which is imported. Italians have relied on imports from overseas, especially Canada, but the Canadians are putting their own needs first, or selling grain to the North American biofuels industry instead.

Last year the price of our national staple, bread, rose as a result of drought in Australia. This year's bizarre weather patterns have also affected wheat harvests. The National Association of British and Irish Millers (yes there is such a thing!) documents increases in wheat prices and predicts further increases this autumn. An all-time high of £190 per tonne was reached in August, with increases to £192 predicted for next month, some £90 per tonne higher than the equivalent period last year.

I'd like to feel smug about this and say that relying on my local community-supported agriculture farm, which is a short walk away, has insulated me against the vagaries of the global capitalist food distribution system. The problem is that while the theory of that is fine--closed loops, self-provisioning, minimal foods miles and so on--virtue is no insurance against climate change. First we had drought, then we had floods and all year we have had a plague of slugs. The potato blight has been something biblical.

In terms of national policy I would still feel considerably more confident if we were not so reliant on one foreign breadbasket or another to dispatch laden trucks over increasingly long distances to provide us with the staff of life. I wonder how long we will be waiting for a national Food Czar to be appointed.


  1. But isn't it true there is enough land to feed us all if we go veggie?

    Surely the issue is about ensuring biofuels don't do the bad things like destroy rainforests?

  2. I'm not sure about this veggie thing. Does it apply in the northern hemisphere? Can we manage without dung? I haven't seen the research. We certainly won't be eating rice and lentils and turnips could get rather tedious through the winter months.

    As far as biofuels go I think we should be concentrating on closing loops on individual farms. Using farm waste to make ethanol would be the obvious solution; or using dung to make methane.

    A few years ago I had an idea to funnel CO2 from power stations through long plastic tunnels filled with algae. I heard this morning on the radio that somebody has done this and found a way to turn the algae into biofuels. I'm not really a believer in technofixes but neat closed-loop solutions like that have an appeal, so long as the energy input is low.