One course looked at how Britain's food industry kept fresh strawberries on Sainsbury's shelves year round. It was a matter of "chasing the sun" by growing strawberries wherever the climate was suitable at any given time across both the northern and southern hemispheres. Something didn't seem right about the whole thing so I did a bit of digging into these satellite operations.
"Chasing the sun" involved Third World operations in countries that were already food insecure, nations that experienced periodic famine requiring developed countries to begrudgingly send food aid to avert mass starvation. A lot of their prime farmland had been bought out by these foreign companies to meet demand in markets thousands of miles distant.
One thing led to another. I came across studies by renowned agronomists on the unmentioned global crisis in soils degradation. The main scourge was industrial agriculture that was destroying what had been for centuries, millennia, good and productive farmland. Intensive (excessive) agriculture produced bountiful crops thanks to the rapacious consumption of limited groundwater resources and the application of increasing quantities of agricultural chemicals - fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. What these several agronomists reported was that this Green Revolution was stripping soil carbon and other nutrients without which the soil was turning to barren sand.
Finally, in 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization acted on these agronomists' reports and issued a statement warning that our farmland would support a mere 60 more harvests. That was a somewhat confusing statement but it did convey the message that we were already experiencing a loss in soil fertility.
That's a terrible development for the people of the Third World but today's editorial in The Guardian reveals that those of us in affluent nations are also facing our own forms of food insecurity evidenced by empty shelves in our grocery stores.
The underlying problem is that just-in-time supply chains can struggle to cope with even relatively small shifts, and that a handful of retailers dominate the market. The top eight account for more than 90% of all grocery sales in Britain, with Tesco alone accounting for 27%. The efficiencies that have kept food prices low, and the long and complex global chains that bring us such variety, come at a price.
Border closures due to the virus as well as sickness could yet hit agriculture and delivery. Farmers say they face huge labour shortages, though Britain, France and others are discussing new “land armies” to bring in crops normally harvested by migrant workers. Some countries are imposing limits on exports of staples to ensure they can feed their own populations. Only half the food we consume in Britain is produced here.
The hardest hit will be those who suffer at the best of times. Food charities have warned that millions will need food aid in the coming days. The government says military planners are organising a food delivery system for the 1.5 million people most vulnerable to coronavirus, and is developing a scheme to support the 1.6 million children who rely on free school meals – probably in the form of supermarket vouchers.One of the many things our governments need to do is thoroughly examine our food chains. They need to identify our vulnerabilities and what we must do about them. Perhaps we should be de-industrializing our agricultural economy with less emphasis on massive exports and more focus on our own self-sufficiency. A return to smallholder farming and local distribution. Yes it might mean paying more for our food but bolstering food security is well worth the premium.