While we all enjoy the delights of modern cuisine, the world is heading for a food crisis with an explosion of prices we cannot afford unless food production is urgently boosted to cope with increasing population.
This was the unexpectedly grim warning that came at the launch yesterday (Saturday) of Marlborough’s first food and wine festival on the Common by award-winning critic and food guru Jay Rayner.
He believes that the projected population explosion of nine billion people by 2050 will put the planet in 21st century unsustainable jeopardy unless we are able to double the amount of food we produce.
The UK’s self sufficiency, according to official figures, has dropped to 60 per cent and some experts believe it is as low as 50 per cent with 60 per cent of our vegetables being imported.
And though he accepts the vibrant food culture promoted in today’s media as something to enjoy, his thundering warning announced at the Marlborough food festival came like the unwelcome rain-sodden clouds that deluged the site.
“It may seem slightly odd to say that standing in the middle of a food festival where everyone is going for the good stuff of life,” 47-year-old Rayner told Marlborough News Online. “There is nothing wrong in an aesthetic interest in food. I am a restaurant critic and I love the way food tastes.
“But what you mustn’t confuse is those lifestyle choices of the upper and middle classes and the wider debate of how we feed ourselves. That is my urgent message and I try to do it in as a lively and entertaining way as possible.
“We are absolutely in a dangerous situation. The issues around climate change and carbon sustainability are vast. It is not simply that the population is expanding at an enormous rate.
“It is the proportion of our population that is going into the middle classes that is huge. At the beginning of the century about 14 per cent of the world’s middle classes were in Asia. By 2056 some 68 per cent will be there and they will insist on eating like we do.
“Chinese consumption alone has risen by a factor of almost four-fold in the past three decades. There are an awful lot of them. And that is causing supply problems for us.
“We are used to abundance and that abundance cannot be assumed any more.”
Indeed, Rayner’s fears are not exactly new. He has highlighted the food riots taking place in Mexico, Thailand and Mozambique, where seven people died in protests over a 30 per cent hike in the price of bread.
And with Russia subsequently banning wheat exports, commodity prices lurched upwards four years ago.
This alone put at risk a regime of cheap and plentiful food at risk, as last seen in 1816 when global crops were hit by an Indonesian volcano eruption and Britain faced food riots.
He acknowledges that TV food programmes in which he takes part encourages our appetites.
“There is nothing wrong with a vibrant food culture, nothing at all,” he added. “The last thing I am suggesting is that people should don sackcloth and ashes and give themselves a hard time. It is not at all what I’m saying.
“But we need to separate out those things so that we stop being so righteous by saying I only shop at the farmers’ market because that is the sustainable way to go.
“Farmers’ market are great. I have one at the end of my road every Sunday and I’m always there. But they are not an answer to mass retail. They are an essential choice for people on good incomes, who need to understand how all the other influences work as well.”
He believes the explosion of foodbanks is not a sign of food poverty but poverty itself which needs to be tackled separately.
“Food prices in fact are too low,” he declared. “People get a bit upset if you say that. Well, food facts don’t work that way.
“Why can’t we create a food policy which sorts out the whole mess and not based on those who are socially excluded?
“We need a proper government with economics that deal with poverty and then we can deal with food separately.
He is dubious too about a growing belief that supermarkets are evil, especially now when they are promoting cut price competition.
“They are not evil because they have encouraged a very vibrant food culture and they have done a brilliant thing on a basis of scale,” he insisted. “And we do live in a small, tightly-populated country.
“But they have also raised the bottom line and they need to look realistically at the way they are sourcing material, how they’re paying for it. Otherwise food prices are going to go through the roof.
“British self sufficiency has fallen and fallen and fallen and we need a robust agricultural secretary to take action. And we don’t have one. This is a serious situation.
“You might say how can you come to a food festival and pour out this stuff. What I say is that if you are interested in this stuff, then you ought to be interested in what I’m talking about too. The two things are not in conflict.”