Previous agricultural revolutions have saved us from starvation – and we need another one now, says Michael Hanlon.
The storm is coming. One of the great dependables of modern life – cheap food – may be about to disappear. If a growing number of economists and scientists are to be believed, we are witnessing a historic transition: from an era when the basics of life have been getting ever more affordable, to a new period when they are ever more expensive.
For those of us in Britain, the severity of the situation is not yet fully apparent. Indeed, we are still living in something of a fool’s paradise. A century ago, people in this country spent more than half their incomes on food; for the poorer classes, that proportion was even greater. One of the most extraordinary phenomena since has been the relentless fall in the cost of feeding ourselves. Today, our shopping baskets now account for just 11 per cent of our average budget.
Globally, food is still cheap: but new data from the World Bank shows that it may not remain that way for long. A combination of factors – not all related to simple supply and demand – has seen basic prices for crops including wheat, soya and maize rise by tens of percentage points. Some foods are a third dearer in real terms than they were five years ago; after two decades of almost laughably cheap food (remember those 20p loaves of bread and £2 chickens?) supermarket shoppers are starting to feel the pinch.
In the rich world, it takes a while for food-price inflation to have an effect. But in poorer regions even modest rises can have massive consequences: it was a spike in the price of bread as much as political dissent that sparked the Arab Spring, for example.
Is disaster inevitable? Ever since the days of Thomas Malthus, who famously predicted in the 18th century that population increases would far outstrip gains in food production, those who have foreseen global famine have been proved relentlessly wrong. As the world’s population has doubled and almost redoubled (in 1900 there were about 1.7 billion people alive; this now stands at a little over seven billion), the era of mass starvation has stubbornly failed to arrive.