I’m still buzzing from a talk by Patrick Holden, chair of the Soil Association, at Pelham House last night, during which he described the mad vulnerability of our food chain to the complex man-made crises ahead. He reminded us of the collapse of other civilisations, usually because they ran out of food or fuel, often precipitously, because they continued apace until the final collapse. And because we globalised in the 20th century, the crisis in the 21st century is likely to be global, he said. Factors contributing to this include fossil fuel depletion, resource depletion (including phosphates we use for fertilisers), climate change, a rapidly growing population, diminishing growing land, the industrialisation of agriculture and a complete failure by our leaders to ensure we have a resilient plan B.
In our lifetime, in one generation, we’ve used up half of the world’s resources, laid down over hundreds of millions of years, including topsoil, fossil fuels and fish. Pause a minute to let that sink in; it’s deep. We’ve lived way beyond our means and we’ll pass down a severely depleted planet to our children. We’ve all been responsible, he said, even organic growers, so now it’s time to reverse the trend and start to take personal and collective responsibility. He said he sat next to Professor John Beddingham, the government’s chief scientist, at a lunch recently, and asked him about his thoughts on our resilience. Beddingham replied he thought that things would get very challenging in 15 years.
Holden’s main concern is that our food systems are far too concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and physically dangerously centralised, making them vulnerable to fuel price rises when peak oil hits. In the US 80% of arable land is planted with only two varieties of crops: maize and wheat, both genetically modified, so the seeds cannot be saved. A lot of that is used to feed animals in feedlots covering as far as the eye can see. It’s getting that way in the UK, he said. If you buy own-label milk in supermarkets, it comes from one of five milk processing plants. All of Sainsbury’s meat comes from one abbatoir. Even in Waitrose, if you buy carrots they are likely to come from one of 10 carrot producers, who produce 80% of all carrots.
Some of my best friends still shop in supermarkets, even though they admit that they don’t really want to. It’s almost addictive, the rut of supposed convenience and supposed savings that supermarkets tie you in to. They say they are too busy or can't afford to do otherwise. Yet I notice that cost isn’t such an issue when it comes to other expenses such as holidays and entertainment. But this isn’t about making people feel guilty or stupid; it’s about trying to raise awareness and talk about the issues. I’m wondering if we might need a sort of Supermarkets Anonymous – a 12 step programme to help us get off shopping and hand ourselves back to nature to feed us – any takers? Though a simpler start could be to simply join one of Lewes’s vegetable box schemes listed here.
And as I’ve said before, we shouldn’t demonise the supermarkets; they are doing what it says on the packet - maximising profit mainly through economies of scale and externalising costs (that means using our common natural capital as though it’s interest and exporting the pollution/cheap labour to somewhere invisible). And apart from being unsustainable and abhorrent, this practice is not resilient. The great thing about resilience – the ability to withstand shock – is that it’s about self-preservation – whereas the response to climate change is essentially a moral one. My hope is that once the penny drops and we all – from individuals, communities and governments, realise that the corporate food system, including Tesco, is not only unhealthy and immoral but also makes us dangerously vulnerable to shock - we will come to our senses and start to treat food as though our lives depend on it.