Friday, June 6, 2008

Nine meals from anarchy?

That's the headline of a report in the Daily Mail in England.

The phrase 'nine meals from anarchy' sounds more like the title of a bad Hollywood movie than any genuine threat.

But that was the expression coined by Lord Cameron of Dillington, a farmer who was the first head of the Countryside Agency - the quango set up by Tony Blair in the days when he pretended to care about the countryside - to describe just how perilous Britain's food supply actually is.

Long before many others, Cameron saw the potential of a real food crisis striking not just the poor of the Third World, but us, here in Britain, in the 21st Century.

The scenario goes like this. Imagine a sudden shutdown of oil supplies; a sudden collapse in the petrol that streams steadily through the pumps and so into the engines of the lorries which deliver our food around the country, stocking up the supermarket shelves as soon as any item runs out.

If the trucks stopped moving, we'd start to worry and we'd head out to the shops, stocking up our larders. By the end of Day One, if there was still no petrol, the shelves would be looking pretty thin. Imagine, then, Day Two: your fourth, fifth and sixth meal. We'd be in a panic. Day three: still no petrol.

What then? With hunger pangs kicking in, and no notion of how long it might take for the supermarkets to restock, how long before those who hadn't stocked up began stealing from their neighbours? Or looting what they could get their hands on?

There might be 11 million gardeners in Britain, but your delicious summer peas won't go far when your kids are hungry and the baked beans have run out.

It was Lord Cameron's estimation that it would take just nine meals - three full days without food on supermarket shelves - before law and order started to break down, and British streets descended into chaos.

A far-fetched warning for a First World nation like Britain? Hardly. Because that's exactly what happened in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People looted in order to feed themselves and their families.

The report goes on to point out how utterly dependent food production has become on oil and oil-based products like fertilizer, etc.

Conventional wisdom had it that in an age of mechanisation, the cost of producing the food that we eat would decrease as technology found new ways of improving yields and minimising labour costs. But there was a problem that hadn't been factored in. Production methods are now such that 95 per cent of all the food we eat in the world today is oil-dependent.

The 'black gold' is embedded in our complex global food systems, in its fertilisers, the mechanisation necessary for its production, its transportation and its packaging.

For example, to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires the equivalent of six barrels of oil - enough to drive a car from New York to LA.

Unbelievable? One analysis of the fodder pellets which are fed to the vast majority of beef cows to supplement their grazing found that they were made up of ingredients that had originated in six different countries. Think of the fuel required to transport that lot around the world.

Now factor in the the diesel used by the farm vehicles, the carbon footprint of chemical fertilisers used by most nonorganic beef farms and the energy required to transport a cow to the abattoir and process it. The total oil requirement soon adds up.

And so as oil prices have risen, so too has the cost of food - and I'm afraid it's only set to get worse. The age of cheap food is at an end - and it will impact not only on our supermarket bills, but on the whole economy.

If a similar tragedy was to befall Britain, we are fooling ourselves if we imagine we would not witness similar scenes of crime and disorder.

These are thoughts worth studying. I try to maintain a food supply equivalent to thirty days' consumption for myself. Living alone, that's not too great a problem. However, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I found myself with more than a dozen unexpected guests, all taking shelter from the storm. They came from New Orleans and points in between there and my home. Guess what? The local supermarkets were swamped with refugees, and one couldn't get supplies for love or money for a few days. My food reserves withered away like ice-cubes on a hot rock in the sunshine.

I have many friends who believe in a 'survival approach', and they make good sense. The one part of their preparations that I can't quite figure out is how they expect to keep their year-plus supply of food, when everyone around them is getting desperate, and willing to take what they need if they can't get it any other way. If you're living in a town or city, and you're clearly well-fed when those around you aren't, you're going to be a living, breathing target for anyone and everyone with less than you have. You can't kill them all. Sooner or later, they're going to catch you when you're off-guard.

In order to prevent such tragedies, and to anticipate the sorts of problems raised by the article cited above, I believe very strongly that every family should maintain a thirty-day reserve of food and water, sufficient for every member of the household. This can be built up reasonably cheaply, by buying a bit extra each time they go to the store. It doesn't have to include luxury foods, either: just the basic nutritional items, canned or dry, that don't need refrigeration. Milk powder can substitute for cow juice, and one can get containers for water.

If the proverbial brown substance ever hits the rotary air impeller, having a thirty-day breathing space for help to arrive, and/or for the situation to get sorted out, might just make the difference between being a survivor, or being a statistic.



GeorgeH said...

"The one part of their preparations that I can't quite figure out is how they expect to keep their year-plus supply of food, when everyone around them is getting desperate, and willing to take what they need if they can't get it any other way."

The dead bodies of the first looters decomposing on my lawn should warn off the rest.

Diamond Mair said...

The original "Omen" series of movies pointed out the AntiChrist's use of food stocks to control the masses .................. are we seeing the world preparing for 'life to imitate art'? Scary thoughts ...................

Semper Fi'

Anonymous said...

I am one of the few in la la land who has a bit of food- probably a month or two. When I tell folks it would be wise to have some extra food around, even when I couch it in terms of being prepared for ,say, an earthquake, they look at me like I was nuts. We have become complacent and dependent to a degree that would horrify our grandparents.