Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Regulating food security

All the talk of genetically modifying crops would be unnecessary if supermarkets — and consumers — weren’t so wasteful

By Alex Renton  /  THE OBSERVER

Chef-patron Michel Roux at Le Gavroche, the two-star Michelin restaurant in London, feeds his staff on potato peelings. This information, so in tune with our thrifty times, appears in Roux’s new autobiography. I asked how exactly he cooked them. The answer is that the peel is twice-fried in animal fat, like the best chips. Roux said that the potatoes should be peeled with a knife, “so as to leave a little flesh on the skin” for the workers’ nourishment. Which is thoughtful of him. And inspiring for a nation that throws away 359,000 tonnes of potatoes every year.

On the same day last week that I heard about potato-peel cuisine in London’s very upscale Mayfair, another grand establishment, the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House launched its report about food. This had no recipes in it, but lots to encourage us to squeeze all the goodness possible from every kitchen scrap. Food Futures: Rethinking UK Strategy pictures a bleak and hungry Britain not far ahead, suffering volatile food prices and recurring shortages, unable to distance itself from the famines expected to devastate the world as climate change bites and the population heads north of 9 billion.

The World Bank says that as early as 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food than it does now, chiefly because as India and China get richer, its newly affluent population will be demanding meat instead of greens. For 60 years, food production has risen in line with global population growth, but that is coming to an end. “The UK can no longer take its food supply for granted,” the report said.

At first sight, the British food economy is not healthy today and we’ve only begun to feel the first tremors of world food shortages. We import 52 percent of our food; the figure seems likely to rise since, as the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) figures state, 63 percent of our 300,000 farms are essentially not economically viable. But if you look a little further, these numbers mean rather less than appears. The UK imports a lot, but exports too — £10 billion (US$14.4 billion) in 2006. You might despair that the great arable lands of Scotland do not provide that country’s bread, but that’s chiefly because 60 percent of Scottish wheat goes to the whisky industry.


DEFRA’s figures for 2007 show that if you take account of the exports, the UK is a rather healthier 60 percent self-sufficient in all foods, rising to 73 percent if you look at foods that actually can be grown in this country. And these figures are higher than they have been in most decades of the last century; the UK produces far more of its own food now than it did in 1939, just before the biggest shock to UK food security in modern history.

Faced with the 21st-century’s equivalent of a wartime blockade, does the UK need to reach for high-tech solutions such as genetic modification (GM) and nano-technology? The experts’ consensus is that GM is no magic bullet; it could aid the small-scale farmers on whom the developing world depends, but is less relevant in a mature agricultural economy. Tackling waste could do a lot for food security. Hilary Benn, DEFRA’s minister, likes to tell people that the entire international food aid program amounts to only a fifth of what a single developed nation throws away in a single year.

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