Big cities risk a food crisis because they are too dependent on imported produce grown using chemicals, Britain's leading organic farming pressure group will warn this week.
The Soil Association will mark its 60th anniversary by holding its annual conference in London to draw attention to what it calls the "crisis" of feeding cities, which use up 75 percent of the planet's environmental resources. The choice of London is, it believes, a way of reaching beyond its farming base to urban dwellers.
The association has calculated that London uses the environmental resources of an area 120 times its own size -- equivalent to all the productive land in Britain. Thus its "footprint" on the planet is far larger than its actual size. The biggest drain is the appetite of most of London's 7.5 million inhabitants for food grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, produced with great quantities of fossil fuels. Another key issue is that 80 percent of the capital's food is imported, which uses even more barrels of oil. This makes London and other major conurbations "extremely vulnerable" to a rise in fuel prices or any extensive disaster, from hurricanes to a bird flu pandemic, which would cut off supply chains, said Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director.
"London is typical of large cities around the world," he said. "Behind the complacency of attitude stemming from over 50 years of global trade in cheap, anonymous food lies a chilling reality. If oil became really scarce or expensive, or global conflict reduced food availability, most of the world's cities would reach crisis point within weeks."
The conference will urge people to demand that more food be produced and processed near where they live. The association is campaigning with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for school meals to be locally sourced and organic, and near-London suppliers have been given preference at an artisan and organic market to be held in the capital after the conference next Sunday.
Native animal breeds are also being promoted because the demand for meat has exacerbated the intensity of fuel use to grow and transport animal feed around the world.
"The words organic and sustainable agriculture are the same thing; they are synonymous," said Patrick Holden, the association's director.
In the short term, locally sourced food would be more expensive, but in the long run it would be "better value," especially if rising oil prices pushed up chemical and transport costs, said Holden.
Spending on food has fallen from just below 30 percent of household income in the 1970s to about 10 percent, he said.
"For the vast majority of us it's a choice issue, not an income issue. And for those in the food poverty trap it's heavily processed [food they buy] ... they are not buying the best value food," he added.
In London, food accounts for only 6 percent of spending for high-income households and 26 percent for the lowest-income homes.
Other figures released by the Soil Association show that Londoners spend ?11 billion (US$19 billion) a year on food and that 500,000 people are employed in the food, drink and catering sectors. On the other hand, farming contributes only 0.25 percent of the city's annual wealth generation, and employs only 0.03 percent of its workforce.
Each year half a million tonnes of London's food ends up as waste in landfill, decomposing to release methane, one of the most potent gases blamed for climate change. The conference will also discuss using human sewage as fertilizer. Treated human waste, heated to kill off harmful pathogens, is already used on conventional farms but has been banned by the EU on organic farms since 1993. The use of human sewage as fertilizer is supported by the Soil Association and by Thames Water, which is sponsoring the conference.