lördag 23 februari 2008

Wheat shortage


Winter wheat on the South Downs, originally uploaded by seadipper.

The farming programme today talked about the rising cost of wheat and its increasing scarcity. What is happening?

First, there is increased demand, apparently due to increased meat eating in India and China, which means that more land must be devoted to growing food to feed to animals; second, there is the amount of land being used to grow biofuels; and third, changes in the weather have led to crop failures.

This makes me want to tear my hair out. If animals are kept according to proper principles, they make farming more efficient, by eating left-overs and grazing land which cannot be used for crops. Cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and other farm animals go out and find their own food. That is the whole point of farming them. If farmers are buying food for their animals on any more than an occasional basis, they are keeping too many of them. Pig farmers, apparently, are in trouble due to rising costs of food, but traditionally, pigs used to be fed on skimmed milk and waste food. Sometimes they were put into fields to dig up left-over root crops after harvesting. In earlier times, pigs were just turned loose in woodland and rounded up periodically. Many people used to keep chickens for eggs, again feeding them with left-overs. The system was efficient and avoided the problems of biodegradable waste going to landfill.

The amount of meat, butter, cheese, eggs, etc that can be produced in this way is obviously limited, so we should all eat less of it. As these things are unhealthy except when eaten in modest quantities, everyone would be better off if they cut back. Which might go some way towards helping the fat epidemic.

The use of land for biofuels when it could be used for food is obscene. The simple fact is we all need to use less energy, especially for transport. Cars, aircraft and high speed trains gobble up energy which is in limited supply. This rate of consumption simply cannot continue and development in India and China will lead to conflict in the scrabble for resources. We will all have to travel less, and more slowly, and walk or use public transport.

Changes in the weather have always happened. Part of the solution is for farmers to hedge their bets by growing a range of crops with different requirements, so that some will flourish whatever the weather. The other part of the solution is that we need to be more willing to try new foods that grow under different climatic conditions. Humanity is too dependent on a limited range of food crops.

None of this is particularly difficult but it does mean that we all need to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

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