Slightly strange piece

Clive Aslet doesn\’t seem to know whether he wants to scare us out of our shorts or whether it\’s all going to be just fine. Couple of minor quibbles:

Since 1997, the UK dairy herd has shrunk by 500,000 (22 per cent), vegetable production is down by 36,000 hectares and there are 3 million fewer pigs (a 40 per cent fall).

The thing is, none of those numbers are actually evidence of declining production of food, which is the bit we\’re interested in. They\’ve evidence of a decline in food producing units, whether land or animals, but that\’s not the same thing at all.

Now I agree, I\’ve not looked up the figures, I have no idea whether UK production of milk, vegetables or pork has fallen or not. But, as one example, we\’ve been told endlessly that each cow npow produces much more milk than it did a decade or two ago.

So pointing to a reduction in the size of the dairy herd is like pointing to the decline in mahufacturing jobs: all very interesting but not what is important. What we want to know is what has been the output of the nation\’s dairy herds: which might be up like manufacturing production and of course it might not be. But if it is up then that is, as with manufacturing, a cause for celebration: rising productivity is a good thing.

As ever, it will be the Africans who lose out. Despite fewer resources, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow even faster than that of the rest of the world, doubling from 1 billion to 2 billion. Already, overfarming has caused conflict: the war in Darfur began as a fight between pastoralists and arable farmers, provoked by the increase in size of the Sahara Desert. It could be a depressing augury for things to come. The Garden of Eden that was Zimbabwe has collapsed. Even in functional countries, 50 per cent of food rots before it reaches the consumer

What excellent news! So, all we\’ve got to do is create a decent logistical system in Africa and everything will be just fine? The food\’s already being grown, we just need to get it to people before it rots? Shades of the post-Soviet states really. They grow less, eat more and export more than they used to: the Soviet distribution system was so insanely wasteful that this has been possible.

7 thoughts on “Slightly strange piece”

  1. Well, I do remember seeing reports that milk prices were so low farmers couldn’t make money with their current herds.

    My chum Mr Pig Farmer also spends a lot of time complaining about the low price of pork*. He blames this on really cheap imports from places like Brazil.

    In both instances, assuming them to be true, a reduction in the herd size seems inevitable. Are Brits complaining that there is no milk or pork available? Are they complaining it is suddenly much more expensive? If they were, I’d start to think there might be grounds for concern.

    *When he’s not complaining about the number of times I pop round to vist Mrs Pig Farmer while he’s at market.

  2. I would hazard a guess that milk production is down. I doubt that production per cow has risen 22% over the last 10-15 years, as there haven’t been any great innovations in dairy production in that time. Growth hormones such as bovine somatotropin are banned in the EU and genetic modification as also out, other than natural breeding.

    Pig production is notoriously cyclical – pig numbers can move by large amounts in short periods so to take a snapshot of two given points is a bit pointless. You’d need to know the figures across the decade to see if numbers were down long term.

    Anyway, if current food prices remain around long term you’ll soon see production increases in the UK. Farmers are pretty good at responding to price increases, and there’s plenty of farm land that has been taken out of production by environmental measures, or purchased by non farmers, that could quickly be brought back into productive use.

  3. “As ever, it will be the Africans who lose out. Despite fewer resources, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow even faster than that of the rest of the world, doubling from 1 billion to 2 billion.”

    Sound’s like some Birth Control education is called for.

  4. “The Garden of Eden that was Zimbabwe has collapsed.”

    Note that he completely glosses over the reason for that.

  5. I really need to have my copy of the Rational Optimist to hand when reading these sort of articles.


    Matt Ridley argues that no one can quite pin down what causes populations to contract, but depending on country, it is usually several of:

    Child mortality increasing
    Improved standard of living
    Access to birth control
    Female emancipation
    and, errr, a couple of others that slip my mind.

    My point being that birth control will probably not help unless coupled with other improvements. In the book he also mentions Italy’s birth rate now being around 1.5, which suggests you don’t even need birth control – or at least you don’t need government sanctioned, socially approved, widespread access to contraception.

  6. Re reasons for population decline: there was an article in the Hellograph yesterday about how some ungodly proportion of young Japanese males were actually actively averse to shagging. I think once a society has a non-vanishing number of young men who wouldn’t screw Ann Widdecombe if she offered to make them breakfast afterwards then it is doomed beyond all hope of redemption.

  7. From here:

    “MP: The Tableau interactive graph above presents an amazing story of increased productivity in milk production over time, from an average of 5,410 pounds per cow in 1924 to 20,079 pounds in 2009, for a percentage increase of 271%. Or we could say that today’s cows produce 3.7 times as much milk as cows in the 1920s. It’s also true that we are producing record levels of milk in the U.S. with record low numbers of cows, and the significant improvements in milk productivity have dramatically lowered the real price of milk over time. Wholesale milk prices (adjusted for inflation) today are about 75% lower than in the early 1930s, less than half the prices of the early 1980s, and are now close to the lowest level in history. “

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