18 August 2012
Norman Pagett writes
Tower farms, urban farms, hydroponics, genetic modification: these are just a few of the potential solutions being put forward to ensure that the world’s rapidly increasing population will have sufficient food in the future. As with alternative energy sources and fuels, these new food production methods are largely fanciful thinking perpetuated by those who expect you to believe that you can drift easily into the uncertain future of the coming decades while enjoying the well fed abundance of your present.
It is a dangerous fantasy to think that future market economics will maintain the profusion of foods in your local supermarket, especially as your life may depend on it in the absolute sense. The supermarket has now come to represent the prime food source at the heart of almost every community. With our collective and active encouragement, they have created a super efficient delivery system that keeps us fed and happy. It carries an excess of everything and gives an outward illusion of permanence, with no concept of the fragility of the infrastructure that keeps it there.
The electronic wizardry of the checkout records every transaction at a central base, so that the stock of every store is known to the last item and the last minute and can be replenished precisely to meet demand. Just in time delivery means no stock is lying around in warehouses that could otherwise be paid for and in the customer’s shopping trolley.
The reserve stock of much of our food supply system is effectively carried in the endless moving columns of trucks that arrive at every store throughout the day and night. They have become warehouses on wheels; think of that every time you overtake a truck destined for one of the main supermarkets. In terms of food storage that truck, and thousands like it, are just about all we have by way of food stocks. Food moves from the farm through the processing plant as fast as possible; everybody wants maximum speed at every stage because speed means fresh produce at low cost for the customer, and happy well fed customers keep coming back to the store.
The aim is to keep your food supply on the move until you eat it; while it’s stationary it’s dead in marketing terms; retailers lose money the longer it sits on the shelves. They want the food in your trolley and out of the door as fast as possible. As consumers, we had no choice but to welcome this system with enthusiasm because reducing the price of food relative to the working hours necessary to pay for it was an irresistible deal.
The food supply system grew precisely in synchronisation with the oil industry and could not have functioned without the energy input of fossil fuels, both through motor vehicles and an abundance of (oil based) fertiliser. We wanted cheap food in as great a variety as we could get hold of, developed western economies had the means to pay for it and cheap energy and cheap food fell into lockstep as hydrocarbon energy brought our food supplies to us.
Our oil-to-food production system added and extra 6 billion people to a planet than can realistically support about one billion. That means that without oil, those 6 billion don’t have much of a future.