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Demand for food is costing the Earth

September 4, 2010

From The Telegraph

Hardly a morning passes without food making the headlines. This week has brought us the burger that thinks it’s a pizza and news that eating asparagus helps you stay slim (fingers crossed it’s the type covered in melted butter). And we heard that, if you eat pickled squid guts and single cream together, it tastes like strawberry shortcake.

However, this month has also seen news reports on escalating wheat and coffee prices due to bad weather and poor harvests. Then on August 19 came the headline “Australian mining giant launches hostile $40 billion takeover bid for world’s largest potash supplier”. It is not immediately apparent what we’re talking about here, but this is City champagne bar speak for “world runs out of food”. This really is news about food that consumers should be fearful of.

The takeover sprung upon Potash Corp of Saskatchewan, Canada, by BHP Billiton of Melbourne, Australia, is a seismic shift in the future of food. Demand for potash, a mineral salt that is mined and used as crop fertiliser, has risen because the world needs to produce more food to feed an increasing population, and there is limited land for cultivation. Added to this is the rising wealth of highly populated countries in Asia, with a growing appetite for meat. If you want to produce a lot of meat, you need a lot of grain – 7kg for every 1kg of beef – and the broad view is that to achieve this, you need large quantities of NPK – or fertiliser that combines nitrogen with potassium, the latter found in potash.

There is a finite quantity of naturally occurring potash, or potassium carbonate, in the Earth’s crust. You can manufacture it by burning down forests of broad leaf trees – let’s not go there. Digging it out of the ground is the agri-business-preferred option. Meanwhile, to produce the nitrogen for fertiliser you need to burn an awful lot of – er – crude oil. Yep, the world is going to look like a perforated airflow golf ball by the time we’ve finished with it.

Every government needs to pay attention to what is happening. This is the opportunity for a debate about what is the right way forward and it may well be that if, at this juncture, we choose the wrong food policy, there will be no going back.

The two colleges of thought – chemical farming and organic – both possess many unknowns. Choice one is to allow corporate control of the supply and let agri-business go ahead with a fully developed bio-technical revolution. Choice two is to restore fertility to the globe with an ecological plan that promises a revolution in our approach to utilising and recycling waste. Food policy experts are divided, with some saying squeamishness over controversial technology has to stop, or we risk not being able to feed ourselves.

From The Telegraph

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