Tightening Our Belts

Daily Mail (London), January 19, 2008 | Go to article overview

Tightening Our Belts


Byline: John Humphrys

THE headline news this week that spiralling food prices are adding [pounds sterling]750to the average family's annual shopping bill was as welcome as a slug in asalad. But bad as it was, there is almost certainly worse to come.

There can be little doubt now that the days of cheap food are at an end. Andunless billions of people around the world start to change their eating habits,there is very little anyone can do about it.

Let me remind you how serious it is already. The cost of the food on our plateshas been rising faster than at any time since the Office for NationalStatistics began keeping records, with the cost of a typical supermarketshopping basket soaring by 12 per cent last year alone.

There is no mystery as to why prices rise in a free market: supply and demand.If demand begins to outstrip supply, the price goes up. That's why oil has beenhitting $100 a barrel.

But in the past there has been one big difference where food is concerned. Wehave been able to grow more and more of it.

It takes an aeon for a barrel of oil to be formed but only the blink of anhistorical eye to discover new ways of increasing food production. That is whythe famous (or infamous) 18th century economist Thomas Malthus got it sohorribly wrong.

The pages of history are scattered with the names of great men who have madeidiotic predictions. The computer pioneer Howard Aiken is credited with havingdeclared that only six electronic digital computers would be required tosatisfy the computing needs of the entire United States.

When nuclear power stations were first developed, we were promised thatelectricity would become so cheap no one would even bother metering it.

The Malthus prediction was that the population of the world was increasing sofast that food production would not be able to keep pace with it.

We would run out of food and vast numbers of people would starve.

His advice was that the lower orders (not, you will note, people of his ownexalted status) should stop breeding.

Malthus was, unsurprisingly, ignored. The lower orders continued to breed andthe population continued to grow.

But there was always enough food to go aroundeven when famine struck, it was simply because the world's food supply wasn'tin the right place at the right time.

There are now roughly 7.7 billion people on the planet, ten times as many asthere were in the days of Malthus, and yet there is less starvation today thanwhen he made his dire prediction. For that, we can thank the ambition andingenuity of the human race.

We may not have conquered disease but we have won many great battles. Think ofthe terrible scourges that carried off so many of our ancestors so young. In myown lifetime I have seen the end of polio, diphtheria, smallpox and many morehideous diseases that were once taken for granted in this country.

WHEN the Victorians built the first sewers and transformed public sanitation,they struck a massive blow against infectious diseases that killed millions. Asa result, life expectancy in the rich West has increased at a staggering rate.

That same ambition and ingenuity has had an equally dramatic effect on the foodsupply. In the past few decades, we have learned how to produce food more andmore efficiently.

When I bought a dairy farm in Wales 30 years ago, I expected my cows to deliverabout 5,000 litres of milk a year. Now, many cows produce double thatthough their lives will be much shorter and can be pretty wretched as a result.

An acre of land that might have produced a ton of wheat 60 yearseven when famine struck, it was ago will now produce three tons.

It's the same with other crops such as barley and soya beans.

It has happened partly because of the agro-chemical revolutionartificial fertilisers have massively increased the yield while other chemicalscontrol plant diseases and kill bugsbut also because plant breeding techniques have been transformed. …

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