We’ve been getting new twists on an old story recently as a number of factors affecting farming and food for the foreseeable future have been publicised.
One is that the world population is expected to reach, then quickly pass, seven billion on Monday, October 31. Rather too precise a date, but give or take a few thousand or a day or so, the message is clear enough.
Another factor is that several scientific organisations, and a number of British politicians, are now emphasising the importance of producing as much as possible of our food at home.
Yet another is the official start of what can only be the long process of making changes to Europe’s common agricultural policy as it affects 27 member states at different levels of technical development, with varying climates; how relevant it can be to switch the emphasis of this policy to conservation and environment when the need is for more food for a growing population is another matter.
The old story I referred to is that going back to my earliest NFU branch meetings there would almost invariably be at least one comment that a public prepared to spend money on booze, baccy and bingo – ah, simpler if not happier, times – would only appreciate farmers again if Britain was at war and imported food supplies at risk.
We were much closer then to a world war that had cost many lives and was followed by tough times and food rationing that seemed poor reward for a country that thought it had won. As revisionist historians are fond of saying, Britain won the war, but lost the peace.
As it happens and as no-one needs reminding, Britain has been involved in a number of wars since 1945. But since the end of rationing there has been little threat to our food supplies. In a time of supermarket giants offering 10,000 and more food items, many of them imported, food shortages seem unthinkable.
Yet according to forecasters from various scientific disciplines, unless we think ahead with some seriousness there could be food shortages as the world population races past eight billion towards nine billion within the next 40 years.
Various ploys have been used by scientists and journalists in the past few weeks to encourage this serious thinking as the seven billion landmark loomed. One I saw was that about 20,000 years ago after some desperate climatic events the few tens of thousands of surviving homo sapiens were a threatened species.
In historical terms almost yesterday – that is, about 1800 – the world population was an estimated one billion. By 1930 it was two billion, in 1960 three billion, in 1974 four billion, in 1987 five billion and in 1999 six billion. The confident argument from many scientists and politicians is that ever since Malthus’s famous claim of two centuries ago that human population growth would be controlled by famine and disease was proved wrong, humanity has shown the ingenuity and inventiveness needed not only to survive, but to thrive. Crop yields and animal production have kept increasing. There are famines in some of the world’s poorest and hottest countries, but the argument is that these are usually more about politics than the possibilities of agricultural production.
There is also the argument that birth control would be the most effective method of matching future population with food supply. Stable and wealthy European countries – the present blip in our financial affairs notwithstanding – might be acting on that, but developing giants such as India show no such inclination, while in many other countries, such as those in South America and Africa, religion has an effect.
All this, I realise, is some way from farmers preaching to the converted at NFU meetings about the need for more home-produced food in future. But the seven billion figure at least made me think more seriously about what sort of world our children and now grand-children are heading in to.
A group of food scientists also expressed concern last week, saying that of the seven billion, one billion are malnourished and one billion hungry. Constraints on land, shortage of water, expensive energy to make fertiliser and, possibly, climate change will ensure that position gets worse.
Their argument is that science and technology can help counter and offset some of these problems and one proven scientific method is much greater use of genetically modified crops. Talk about another old story? Some of these scientists, and, not that it matters, I, have been arguing for GM crops for more than a dozen years.
But the European Union continues to resist GM crops. No one suggests they are the complete answer. But they could be part of the answer if EU politicians and the public paid more attention to scientific facts and less to emotion and unfounded fears.
Then again, I guess that’s the history of human development – panic and fear versus science and rational thinking. And we’ve still managed to survive in what are now astonishing numbers – but can we keep repeating the trick?