Friday, October 05, 2007

A lack of engagement

In the Hindustan Times yesterday, a story bore the stark headline: "India’s food security future grim."

A similar headline could easily apply to the whole of Europe, but the Indian dimension was a warning that, unless its farmers produced 100 million tons of wheat by 2020, it could not only jeopardise the country's food security, but also force the government to expend £5 billion a year in imports to fill the gap. This year, India produced around 74 million tons of wheat but, according to current demand predictions, by 2020, India would need an extra 26 million tons.

Part of the problem is productivity, with the yield between 2002 and 2007 averaging around 2.8 tons per hectare. By 2020, it would need to be 3.8 tons per hectare, to keep up with demand. That much is, in theory, eminently possible. European yields are typically 6-8 tons per hectare and 10 tons is the ultimate target.

However, countries like the United States are only producing 2.7 tons per hectare, Australia 2.2 and Russia, 1.7 tons. To produce higher yields requires, in many cases, irrigation and extra fertiliser, although in the short growing seasons in Canada and parts of the US and Russia, this would be of little benefit.

For less developed countries like India, increases in productivity are at least possible – even if they require huge investments in agriculture. But, in Europe, where yields are not far from the theoretical maximum, there is little scope for improvement – without allocating extra land to production.

Strangely, though – despite the real prospect of world-wide grain shortages – European countries are not even beginning to focus on the problem. For instance, while the "green" agenda was uppermost at all three of the recent Party conferences in the UK, there were no discussions at all about the urgent need to increase production to meet the expected shortfall, much less any recognition that the rush for biofuels was massively exacerbating the problem.

Part of this myopia is undoubtedly due to the fact that we have handed over the management of our food production to the EU. With decisions made in Brussels – largely by the commission, notionally approved by the Council of Ministers (pictured) - over which we have little control or influence (Britain has only eight percent of the vote on the Council), there is a tendency simply not to devote time or effort to things we cannot easily change.

Such an attitude might be acceptable if it was clear that the commission had a grip on the situation. But, if events suggest otherwise, an even more recent speech by agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel seems to indicate that the commission is almost completely failing to understand the nature of the problem.

Her speech, entitled, "The future of the CAP: supporting sustainable farming", at a conference organised by BirdLife International, in Brussels on 3 October, was quite extraordinary in its lack of vision and complacency. Addressing two questions, what is desirable for the CAP, and what is feasible, she focused on the environment as being "right up there in our list of priorities", although she did then add that "it is not the only priority".

One might then have expected a homily about increasing production but, instead, she talked about "building the competitiveness of our farm sector", encouraging economic diversification in rural areas, and raising the quality of life for farmers. These attributes came under the heading of "desirable" and, as to what was feasible, her concern was to convince voters that the farm subsidies were worth paying from public funds.

With the increasing prices of grains, however – led by commodity shortages - we are reaching a point where, in the not too distant future, price support for arable crops will be unnecessary, other than, perhaps, to incentivise bringing more land into production.

But nothing of that came from Boel. She was content to argue that, as far as the CAP was concerned, we did not need a sharp break with what is already happening. The CAP, she said, "is already developing rapidly" and she expected "this organic development to continue."

Where the danger lies in this approach is that the CAP, historically (and contrary to myth) was an instrument to manage – and pay for – agricultural surpluses. Now that we are moving into a period where sustained shortfalls of production are expected, we have the commission using an instrument designed for one purpose which will – in the near future – have to be used for exactly the opposite purpose.

Unlike India, however, where at least we are seeing discussion of the problem in its mainstream media, there seems absolutely no recognition from Boel that there is even a problem. And it is that failure to engage which will, in the fullness of time, turn a serious problem into a crisis.


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