Why we don\’t actually want to be self-sufficient in food

The attractive-looking vegetable, which has become a staple in many chattering class households, has suffered due to the long, wet and cold winter.

Britain\’s biggest farmer of the vegetable said \”100 per cent\” of her winter crop had been wiped out and that there would be a severe shortage in supermarkets over the next few weeks, traditionally the peak season.

OK, purple sprouting broccoli is hardly an essential part of anyone\’s diet. But…

Sarah Pettit, who helps run Britain\’s biggest purple sprouting broccoli farm near Boston, Lincolnshire, told The Daily Telegraph: \”It has been the coldest winter on our farm for 50 years. It has been prolonged and at times it has hit -18C (0F) during the night.

\”Nobody could have predicted this. It\’s been terrible for winter vegetables.\” She said \”100 per cent\” of her crop was sitting in fields, rotting, after failing to sprout properly.

Neil Booley at Staples Vegetables, another major supermarket supplier, said that about half of all of Lincolnshire\’s crop, where about 45 per cent of the country\’s purple sprouting broccoli is grown, had been wiped out. The rest was about a month behind where it would usually be.

If we decide that we\’re going to get our food from one small geographic area (how small depends upon how seriously one takes localism and self-sufficiency) then we\’ve got to remember that floods and frost, torrential rains and droughts, these also affect specific small areas.

It simply isn\’t true that the entire globe gets hit by one or other of these each year: but it can indeed happen that the crops around any one town, or across any one county, can be wiped out by one or the other in any one year.

One could say that, well, OK so the Lincolnshire crop is screwed this year, but the people of Lincolnshire can just import food from Norfolk. And that\’s true, they can, precisely because we\’re not all self-sufficient. If we were all self-sufficient then Norfolk would only be growing the food for Norfolk: there wouldn\’t be any to ship to Lincolnshire.

There\’s much academic research showing the decline of famine in Europe since the turn of the first millennium. And it turns out that the best predictor of whether there is famine or not is not whether crops have failed or not: it\’s whether there are the transport links which make areas not self-sufficient in foodstuffs.

On another note it is reasonably amusing to to be able to see that the self-sufficiency thing only works as long as no one actually takes it seriously. Digging away at a quarter acre for your tatties is just fine: so is buying locally. But only as long as most food is still produced by specialists, in commercial quantities, wherever and then transported, so that the inevitable local failures can be covered.

If everywhere/everyone was self-sufficient then we really would be seeing localised famines each and every year. For there\’s always somewhere that has a crop failure and those who relied on that local crop for their food for the year would just be shit out of luck, wouldn\’t they?

Like so much of the Greenie mantra: it only works if almost no one actually does it.

13 comments on “Why we don\’t actually want to be self-sufficient in food

  1. As far as I can tell, locavorism isn’t about food security, or about being green, it’s about food fashion.
    Now that any nitwit can pick up out-of-season organic strawberries from the local supermarket, people who want to be known to care about food have to find another marketing difference.

  2. “Nobody could have predicted this. It’s been terrible for winter vegetables.”

    Well, quite. Everyone was too hung up on the terrible man-made global warming.

    We’re lucky Sarah hadn’t planted banana trees in anticipation…

  3. “Now that any nitwit can pick up out-of-season organic strawberries from the local supermarket…”

    To quote Crocodile Dundee: ‘Oh, sure, you can eat it. But it tastes like crap.’

    Strawberries in season, grown and harvested here are delicious. The other sort? Not so much…

  4. Transporting food is environmentally efficient, if it travels by ship or lorry. Flying your strawberries in is bad, and driving to the supermarket to fetch a single punnet is very, very bad.

  5. Slightly off topic, but it came up in conversation with a friend last night. Purple sprouting broccoli is very much the thin end of the wedge.

    Why is there no National Food Service?

    Why aren’t the left screaming for this and protesting in the streets?

    Surely food, the very staple of life, is more important than medical care? And the left already considers it inconceivable that anyone other than the state should provide medical care.

    After all, without food we will all die. How can the state possibly stand idly by (/sarc) while the poor starve to death.

    Something should be done.

  6. JuliaM – food fashion is not only about taste. My grandmother used to get complimented that her home-made ice cream tasted “nearly as good as shop-bought”, that was a time when buying it from the shop was more expensive than making it yourself. Chefs used to boast about their use of exotic produce, or, later on, about their use of organic products. And then as organic products became more and more widespread, suddenly buying local started showing up. Colour me suspicious.

    I do suspect that some of the local food is better, one of my relatives is a food technologist and he says that when transporting food it’s impossible to avoid a slight change in temperature, and that’s enough to change the flavour of some things, he mentioned ice cream specifically. But on the other hand, my Dad is a fan of blind taste tests and has quite often shown that we can’t detect what we think we can (with the exception of one of my brothers who is a professional chef and who generally blasts through his tests, but not with the exception of my mother, who is an enthusiastic foodie). There’s a lot of self-fooling going on in life, and I don’t think that food is immune.

  7. Of course when they had famines in India,thanks to a faithful adherence to laissez faire,they exported any rice they had ,often under armed guard,because it was fetching such a high price.The last thing you want in these situations is the government stockpiling buffer stores of staples in good times and feeding the starving in bad.Would never do.

  8. Why is there no National Food Service?

    Simply: insurance.

    Food (assuming we’re talking 2500 calories + appropriate vitamins and minerals, not the tasting menu at the Fat Duck) is a cost that you incur every day, and a cost that barely varies day-to-day.

    The only variance in the cost of eating enough food to survive is caused by fluctuations in food prices – and even when they are at their highest, even the poorest people in the UK (i.e. income support claimants) can afford to eat.

    Healthcare is the opposite.

    95% of the time, you don’t need to spend any money on healthcare at all to survive, because you’re either not sick, or you’re sick to the extent that your body can cope with it without medical intervention.

    Occasionally, you’ll need to spend money on healthcare to the extent of “10 minutes with a doctor and the cost of some antibiotics or painkillers” to survive. This comes in at about GBP40 for the doctor (based on the Australian system) + GBP20 for generic strong painkillers/antibiotics – so over a week’s income for the poorest in society.

    However, very occasionally, you’ll need to have healthcare that costs many times your annual income in order to survive – if you’re in an accident and end up in an intensive care unit for a week, for example, this costs about GBP20,000 just for the bed, before the cost of any drugs, tests, surgical interventions, blood, etc.

    So if we didn’t have some kind of state-directed system that spread out the costs of acute healthcare, then people without savings would die when they needed acute medicine. Like they do in countries without any state intervention in healthcare.

    None of this means that the NHS monolith is the best model for state-provided healthcare: Australia, Canada and France are all frequently held up as better models that still meet the core “nobody dies or is bankrupted by the cost of acute healthcare” requirement.

    But it does mean that comparisons to a National Food Service, or any other commodity that you need to consume a predictable and relatively constant amount of to survive, are fatuous.

  9. DBC’s point (somehow didn’t see his comment before posting) is also valid.

    In countries where incomes are low enough that fluctuations in food prices can mean that (for a short time, but long enough to die), the cost of enough food to survive is below the amount of money that people actually have available to spend, some kind of National Food Service is a bloody good idea.

  10. John B – food is far too important to be left to the government to run. If we had a national food service, we’d be going hungry a lot more often.

    We see this with healthcare, expensive operations cost so much and this seems to be because virtually everyone is insulated from paying directly for the costs of their healthcare, so the medical service lacks the sharp profit incentive to reduce costs. However, in cosmetic surgery, we see costs falling.
    As you say, most of the time humans don’t need healthcare, so we can live with a National Heathcare Service, but we always need food. We can’t afford those massive inefficiencies in food supply.

    For poverty, give the poor money and let them buy food. Food is way too important for a national food service.

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