Norman Pagett : Cheap Food, Our Grand Illusion

It takes oil, and lots of it, to move our food. Image from Center for a Liveable Future.

Cheap food, our grand illusion

We built an industrial civilization on cheap oil, but now we’ve burned it all. We only have the expensive stuff left but we continue to burn that, believing our system of cheap living can go on forever.

By Norman Pagett | The Rag Blog | July 26, 2013

We are faced with a barrage of bad news about the imminent, and inevitable, rises in the cost of basic foodstuffs. Professor Tim Benton, head of Global Food Security working group, has warned that “meat could become a luxury by 2040, because emerging middle classes in South Asia and going to affect food flows”.

In everyday language, “food flow” is the nice way of saying those who can afford meat and luxury foods will buy them, while those who can’t will go without.

As Professor Benton makes brutally clear, “food is going to be competed for on a global scale and there is going to be a doubling and trebling in price of everything we need to survive.”

Tesco boss Philip Clarke backed up his statements: “The end of cheap food is over because of the surge in demand. Over the long run I think food prices and the proportion of income spent on food will be going up”.

Remember that bit — the proportion of income. It’s going to be critical to your way of life.

Two years ago Oxfam issued the same clear warning: Food prices are set to double by 2030 as the population grows from its current 7 billion to eight then 9 billion. There will be a perfect storm of ecological and sociological factors.

Again, we need clarification of polite-speak: what that really means is that people will not starve to death quietly, they will fight to survive. And that is going to get nasty.

Right now, we can feed ourselves (as an average) by spending only about 10% of our income. Until the 1950s that proportion was nearer 50%

That represents our current unreality of cheap food. We have become used to spending the other 90% on housing, heat, light, clothes, and luxuries. Not only that, but our entire economic system exists on the assumption that we will be able to go on spending it, forever.

We have created an illusion of “employment.”

Stop and consider that: we are all spending (spare) money to keep ourselves employed. As we come to spend more on food, there will be less to spend on other “stuff.”

More clarification here: we will have to use what money we have to buy the food energy necessary to stay alive. Because our economy depends on constant spending, that shortfall is going to increase unemployment. This will be a major consequence of food price rises that must never be mentioned.

Our cheap food has been a direct product of cheap energy. At every point in our food chain we feed oil into the system: diesel in tractors, nitrate fertilizers (natural gas) on the fields to increase yields, processing and packaging, transport, the fuel in your car to go and collect it. We burn 10 calories of energy for every food calorie put on your plate.

That is why cheap food is unsustainable and why promises of “growth” by governments and economists are nonsense. The gentle warnings offered by Oxfam don’t even touch on the reality of our future because doubling and trebling of food prices won’t be matched by doubling and trebling of income.

Our book, The End of More, shows how cheap oil gave money its illusion of value. That value holds only so long as we keep finding more {cheap} oil to top up our economic system.

We built an industrial civilization on cheap oil, but now we’ve burned it all. We only have the expensive stuff left but we continue to burn that, believing our system of cheap living can go on forever.

The forecasts of those at the sharp end of food delivery may yet turn out to be optimistic.

This article was published at The End of More and was cross-posted to The Rag Blog.

[Norman Pagett is a UK-based professional technical writer and communicator, working in the engineering, building, transport, environmental, health, and food industries. He blogs at The End of More. Find more articles by Norman Pagett on The Rag Blog.]

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