14 Feb 2008
Will The Key Driver for the Relocalisation of Food Be Peak Oil, Climate Change or…. Obesity?
The debate has raged recently among the online peak oil/localization community about whether peak oil will result in the relocalisation of food, or whether it will in fact lead to a shoring up and revalidation of industrial agriculture. Stuart Staniford questioned the assumption that peak oil will inevitably lead to the relocalisation of food supply, an argument which was, I think, pretty thoroughly savaged by the astonishingly productive Sharon Astyk (does this woman sleep?). I want to offer a new angle on this which I hope might add to the ongoing discussion, triggered by a document produced by the British Cabinet Office recently. It raises the possibility that the discussion so far has rather missed the point, and that the key driver for relocalisation, of food at least, will not be peak oil or climate change, but could in fact be the obesity crisis.
The paper is called Food: an analysis of the issues and was issued by the Strategy Unit at the Cabinet Office. It is not a policy document, rather it is the initial findings of a discussion process; the front page carrying the following caveat, *“this discussion paper presents an analysis of a number of the key issues pertaining to food and food policy in the UK. It is not a statement of Government policy”*. It is however a fascinating insight into thinking within Government about food, resilience, and what might be the prompts for a rethinking of food policy.
The report starts by identifying the fact that food culture within the UK is changing, consumers wanting healthier food, but also wanting cheaper food, a tension that has not been satisfactorily resolved. The UK is at the moment about 50% self sufficient in all foods, but between 55 and 70% for indigenous produce. We are also in a context of rising food prices.
In 2002, the most recent year for which there are figures, food related ill-health costs the NHS £6bn, which is 9% of its total budget. At the same time, malnutrition, mostly among the elderly, cost £7.3bn. Obesity is set to rise, and children and young people are most at risk from it. The public health challenge, according to the report, is “urgent and compelling”, and the paper argues that “the diet of the nation and our food culture should be considered in the round”.
One of the intriguing things about the paper is its confusion over the meaning of the term resilience. It almost gets the concept, but doesn’t quite. It uses the following odd sentence when it begins on the subject;
>“Resilience is a more productive focus for food security than self sufficiency”.
You see, as far as this paper goes, self sufficiency and food security are not the same thing. It presents an interesting table (see below) which argues that people are confused about the term food security because it means so many different things. I understand what they mean, but I think it is largely semantic, in the light of peak oil food security means being able to feed your population independent of the input of fossil fuels.
For this report, and it is an interesting insight to see how they define resilience. They argue that resilience is not the same as self sufficiency in food. Rather resilience is about hedging your bets, and spreading the risk associated with where your food comes from. Resilience in food supply can be maximized, they argue, by “a diverse supply base”. As a high income nation with a growing economy we can maximize our resilience they argue by making sure our supplies come from as broad a base as possible.
They do concede that our present ‘just in time’ supply system leaves us more vulnerable, observing that “the very efficiency of supply chains under normal circumstances increases their vulnerability under abnormal ones”. It identifies the challenge of energy security (the standard Government term for peak oil these days), as one would very much hope they would. The building of resilience then, it proposes, comes not from building local, organic food systems, but from rethinking supply networks. The way we farm needs to be rethought, it argues, as existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low carbon, more resource constrained world.
The healthcare system, fresh from appearing to have smoking, for many years the largest cause of preventable deaths, on the run, are looking around for the next battle to fight. Obesity has become that next battle, one that is inextricably linked to diet. The authors observe that 10% of annual mortality in the UK can be avoided with a good diet, and that obesity has trebled in 20 years, with a quarter of adults now officially obese.
I found it all rather intriguing. It suggests that the discussion is at least taking place that climate change means we need to rethink how we feed ourselves, and that that rethink could be far reaching (not an argument that will come as much of a surprise to regular readers of **Transition Culture**). What engaged my imagination is that clearly emerging at the forefront of Government policy is the urgent need to confront obesity in imaginative ways, and that that in turn leads to thinking about how we feed ourselves.
Of course if Richard Heinberg is right, and the UK has to make the same kind of adjustment to peak oil that Cuba had to make, the UK will move from needing half a million farmers to needing 8 million. The move towards more physically demanding work is a good strategy for tackling obesity, but for the Government at this stage to recommend that reintroduction of 8 million new farmers as part of its national food security strategy is probably, in the absence of some kind of mind-focusing catastrophe, not likely to be a vote winner.
So how might Transition Initiatives make use of the insights from this paper? I would suggest that it could be very useful in terms of funding bids. Is a local food scheme just an opportunity to grow food, or is it also a key part of the emerging national agenda on tackling obesity? Might we see a Government, still denying the reality of peak oil (remember the UK government still argues that “on the balance of the available analysis and evidence, the Government’s assessment is that the world’s oil and gas resources are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future”) embracing the uptake and financially backing the rolling out of broadscale urban agriculture on the grounds of lower carbon food production but predominantly as a strategy to tackle obesity?
Perhaps a few hours down at the community market garden could be one of the things a doctor can prescribe for obesity, and perhaps he can also write a prescription to be redeemed against some of the food grown there? It certainly emphasizes the argument for talking to your local healthcare organizations, perhaps a Transition Initiative’s agenda and that of its local Healthcare Trust may be closer than we might think.
**Many thanks to Peter Melchett of the Soil Association for pointing this paper out to me, and for his initial analysis.**