WE are just at the beginnings of a food crisis, which is likely only to fully drive home in 2023, and those that warn that we need to do something about it now are entirely right. The year to come is one that will challenge us in many ways, since a third of the world’s wheat is produced in Ukraine and Russia. The knock-on effect will be a rise in the price of bread, as well as meat, since livestock, if not grass-fed, is grain or soya-fed. The impact will be intensified even further by fuel prices and the rising price and shortages of chemical fertilizers, of which Russia is the world’s largest producer, and on which many farmers rely to increase crop yields. It’s a triple-whammy of impacts – and that’s even without mentioning the word Brexit.
It’s no wonder NFU Scotland’s president, Martin Kennedy, recently observed, “I haven’t seen anything like this before. It is unprecedented. The long-term implications of that is going to have a serious impact right across the food supply chain. We’ve heard the term before about a ‘perfect storm’, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. ‘”
Our governments need to be seriously focused on providing answers, rather than stumbling into a food crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should just, as some would have it, jettison all nature solutions, rewilding and sustainability strategies.
READ MORE: Methane, another rising gas to keep you awake at night
Last month biodiversity minister Lorna Slater received a barrage of flak for saying that she would not let the food crisis distract her from addressing Scotland’s “nature emergency”. But she’s right. We must hold onto these goals, but address the immediate crisis too. Both, please.
It worries me that while the oil and gas crisis has put a booster behind the shift to renewables, the growing food crisis is provoking more talk of leaving off nature solutions for the moment.
I suspect that’s because when it comes to food, the fear of shortage, of hunger, is primal and deep-lodged in all of us, even the well-fed. It goes deeper even than the fear of not being able to heat our homes. We hear talk of civil unrest. Pensioners choosing between heating and eating. Food banks are already at a crisis point. Fear spirals. It’s no wonder that many think that averting this food crisis should be a number one priority and dismiss rewilding as a luxury.
But we can’t afford to look at this issue in such a binary way. The aim has to be to achieve both. In Scotland the area of land that is productive for crops and vegetables is relatively small, and those areas, of course, should be put to growing.
But even in that land that is productive, it’s possible to create wildlife corridors, through hedgerows and pockets of woodland, more powerful through their connectivity than they would be in isolation. We should also be trying harder to ensure that prime agricultural land is not used for new housing developments.
This crisis comes as the Good Food Nation Bill passes through parliament, at a time when we have already been talking about food sovereignty But Russia’s war in Ukraine has meant that the slurry has hit the fan.
However, the problem is not a dependence, in the UK, on Ukrainian or Russian wheat. George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently observed, “We are largely self-sufficient in wheat production, growing 88 per cent of all the wheat that we need here. We are 86 per cent self-sufficient in beef, fully self-sufficient in liquid milk and produces more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 percent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes. ”
The issue is the fuel and fertilizer. It’s the fact that, when it comes to self sufficiency, we don’t grow nearly enough fruit and veg.
Crises like these expose the way the systems we rely on are not fit for purpose. Should we not now be questioning our reliance on chemical fertilizers – looking at alternatives like sewage biosolids?
There are many great ideas out there for how we might change our food system. Nourish Scotland in its manifesto, calls for a glasshouse revolution, giant greenhouses, heated by renewables. More urban growing can help supplement our diet with vegetables and is also good for wellbeing.
Or there’s Andrew Whitley’s Scotland the Bread campaign, which aims to promote the growing of bread wheats in Scotland through developing varieties of bread wheat that work well in our soils and climate. Scotland currently produces very little milling wheat, focusing on soft wheats, around 30 percent or which are sold to merchants for malting, and half for animal feeds. It’s generally believed the climate doesn’t suit hard wheat varieties used for milling.
Whitley and his team searched gene banks for wheats that may once have fed Scotland, and grew those varieties. He also challenges us to look at the land differently – in terms, rather than yield of a food commodity, of “people nourished per hectare of land”.
The fear, however, is already palpable – that fear of what happens when the shelves are bare, or when food becomes even less affordable for the poorest in society than it already is. It’s there because we know that, like the fuel crisis, the food crisis has few instant answers.
What farmers grow doesn’t turn on a sixpence. Its cycles are longer. Ecosystem restoration works on scales longer still.
Meanwhile we should bear in mind that the current predicament we are in is geopolitical. Much more solvable, in other words, than the kind of crises that are predicted as the climate crisis kicks in.