We need our land to grow food more than to grow fuel

Let me commit heresy today. I think tackling global poverty and hunger is more important than curbing carbon dioxide emissions. To those who tell me you do not have to choose I say two things.
As people in the developing world become richer of course they will burn much more fuel and push out much more carbon dioxide. If the UK could eliminate all its CO2 output it would only stop India and China’s growth boosting the total for a few months. They are not going to move directly to carbon free activity, as the west has not yet got there or anywhere near.
As some urge the world to grow its fuel, substituting renewable crops for fossil fuels, they put limiting CO2 in direct conflict with feeding the hungry. The extra demand for crops to burn as fuel drives the price of basic foodstuffs up, pricing out the poorest and the most hungry. We should remember the population figures. 600 million Americans and Europeans live to a high standard. 2,500 million Indians and Chinese are now taking strong steps to get nearer to that standard. The driving force of future growth in CO2 does not rest with the developed world but with the developing.
Of course I favour the west making more rapid progress with fuel efficiency measures, with renewable power from something other than crops, with new technology that can be kinder on the air we breathe and the waters we use. We should, however, be more worried about economic failure and world poverty.
Over the last 60 years there have been three principal rival systems tried out to tackle poverty and change people’s lifestyles. In the USSR, Cuba, parts of Africa, Asia and South America countries tried out state planning and control. Their communist systems sought to sweep away the “waste” of competition, and directed labour and capital according to a great national plan. In every case the country concerned ended up much poorer in income per head than those trying different systems of development by a big margin. They ended up less environmentally friendly, with far less personal consumption, as well as with far less personal freedom. In my youth I often met people who told me the communist system was superior to ours. When I suggested they went to live in the USSR to live their dream they were usually reluctant. When confronted with the poor figures – and the lack of liberty – in communist countries we were always told that that was because the countries that were communist were not doing it properly!
The second model has been the US one based on free enterprise, a balance of powers between individual and state, and more limited government. Countries adopting a more limited state and a relatively free and lightly taxed free enterprise sector have all emerged as the most prosperous.
The third model was the European “social market” model, which combined strong elements of US capitalism with more government intervention. Higher taxes were used to transfer more income to people and areas that were doing less well, in the name of reducing inequalities. This model produced slower growth and less overall prosperity than the US system – indeed over the last decade the US economy has continued to out pace the European ones despite starting from a higher average income per head. Nor has the European social market model worked well in its own terms, as it has generated higher unemployment than the US model, leaving more people dependent on relatively low incomes from benefits. Most of the regions in receipt of regional aid over the last 20 years or so are still the poorer regions.
Globalisation offers the scope of transferring the benefits of free enterprise to many more countries, if their governments will receive it. As China and India progressively liberalise their trade, finance and individual sectors, so they grow more speedily. It will be a model of economic development that others look to. China herself is now a big inward investor, and manager, in African companies as well as in Asia. We should recognise today that the advent of many more empowered consumers in Asia is putting an unavoidable upward pressure on food prices, as the new rich seek more meat and better diets. The very least we could do is to back off from the idea that at the same time the west ought to be growing more of its fuel.
The world needs more of its land under the plough to feed the billions. Today we need a simple priority – let’s tackle hunger.


  1. Iain
    April 12, 2008

    "Today we need a simple priority – let’s tackle hunger."

    No, I think that misses the underlying issue, population, or rather over population.

    50 years ago the population of Africa was 250 million its now a billion, and with many of those under the age of 15 its likely to carry on exponentially rising. The world population if we achieve the median outcome is going to increase by 50% to 9 billion within the next 40 years.

    So yes we need to grow more food for the growing world population, but can we, for we are getting diminishing returns for fertilizer application, I understand the introduction of new herbicides, fungicides and insecticides has fallen to below the levels of the 1940's and many agricultural producing areas have been destroyed by our land use, eg I understand areas in California have been contaminated with salt through irrigating crops.

    But at the same time as we need more food we also need to find other sources of energy for oil is reaching its peak production, yet the demand is likely to increase by at least 50% in the next 20 years, for even if the 1.2 billion people in the West cut their energy consumption by a half , its no more than a gesture for its going to be completely overwhelmed by the increasing population and increasing demand coming from developing countries, rising from 4-5 billion to 6-7.5 billion people over this period, a consideration along with climatic considerations which made people look at bio fuels.

    So it looks as if we have got our selves into a double whammy, where God having stopped making land a long time ago we find need the land we have to grow both fuel and food for our growing population. Unfortunately our population growth has got to such an unsustainable state we can't do both, and are being asked to make a choice. What will be the next choice? Will the need for food completely remove our choice if we want GM foods or not? Will it be if we can afford to put land down to rearing cattle for meat? What next Soylent green? Or will someone by then have mentioned the ‘P’ word?

    Then of course there is the sheer insanity of the British states position, where with one of the most densely populated countries in the world, needing to import something approaching 50% of its food needs, and instead of allowing the population to decline naturally as it would have done if left alone, instead is seeking to increase its population by 10 million into a period when there is going to be both energy and food shortages. Insane or what? And yet not one political party is prepared to raise the issue!

  2. a-tracy
    April 12, 2008

    I read that the fuel prices may rise again through the Governments initiative on Bio-fuel and the idea that all fuel, from April 15th, must contain upto a 5% mixture of this ingredient, at the time I thought – last week we were being told grain and rice etc. were doubling in price – oh my this is going to hurt.

  3. Tony Makara
    April 12, 2008

    Every nation should be in a position to feed its population. The Chinese recognize this and have increased their agricultural production in spite of handsome reserves of grain. Currently vital arable land is lost to housing and in many areas of the world is simply not cultivated because of government intransigence. This must change and governments the world over must promote a return to the land. Most of Europe utilizes less than 2% of its agricultural base, this is an obscene waste of untapped food resource. Equally burning food when the world labours under hunger does not make sense and does not save lives. Surplus is always preferable to shortage.

  4. Mike Stallard
    April 12, 2008

    Nice thoughts. I could not agree more with your idea of American capitalism. I personally do not mind if the lazy, the weak and the unlucky go to the wall so long as there is a safety net of modest and temporary proportions to catch them.
    I have fallen myself and know what it is like.
    I watched the efficiency of market forces today on a public holiday in Thailand. I was offered food, a mat to sit on, water and some fluffy stuff to eat within a few minutes when I sat on some grass in a public park. I have seen, too, men sleeping under railway bridges and a blind beggar.
    But who cares what any of us untermenschen thinks? The EU machine dominates with its targets. Who dares to question global warming? UK Farmers have been told to provide 11 million of their 13 million ton grain harvest for fossil fuels and the third world starves. (Christopher Booker). But – hey – who gives a damn! The ministers still have their limos and Tescos is still in business!
    We are no longer in control of our own futures, and we had better get used to it.

  5. Rose
    April 12, 2008

    Dear Heretic

    I agree that the four horses of the Apocalypse are what we should fear most and your summary of human recipes for avoiding them is apt. You don't mention Malthusianism. I suppose that is because you are a happy heretic, rather than a profound pessimist, and that is why I like to read you.

  6. Brian
    April 12, 2008

    I'm not sure I understand the links here between green goals and various economic systems. Russia had an awful environmental record (statist communist) as does China (statist capitalist.) America, a sort of corporatised capitalism has admirable environmental protection in some areas but also unsustainable patterns of consumption and some flaws in how GDP is measured as we do in most of Europe. It's obvious that richer countries can devote more time and money to environmental goals-many tribal subsistence societies have a greater tendency towards deforestation for example, either due to poverty or poorly enforced property rights (which may belong to the state or trust/charity type institutions like the National Trust.) Thus, the connection between environmental standards is probably more closely connected to achieving 'first world' status than capitalism/communism or anything else.

    I would also argue that for all it's faults the European economic model is superior to the American all things considered. Public transport, health, possibly education and other public goods are better provided for. Equally unemployment figures mislead-most americans work far longer hours, have less holiday and there is less internal democracy/representation within firms. I also find 'The American Dream' a somewhat undesirable phenomenon and a dangerous thing on which to base a society around-people scramble for status and wealth which by definition only a few can attain. European cities/towns (and some Asian ones for that matter)are on the whole better planned than American sprawl, a consequence of state/bureaucratic planning and control which is both necessary and desirable.

    I fear that peak oil may get us before global warming, and again, it is richer countries that are doing more to develop alternative fuels-though international co-operation is essential. Ultimately though, we will surely need to re-define economic standards so that more consumption is not our key goal but a more-long term view is. Biofuels illustrate this well, they may be ok as a short term solution in limited cases but the idea that we can have business as usual in terms of car use is unfeasible. We should be aiming for products/buildings etc. that will last, not short-term junk that may keep people in employment and the economy booming. We may also have to accept some inefficiencies and less trade by growing more of our own food

  7. Stuart Mark Turner
    April 12, 2008

    Quite right too! May I also add that if it were not for the common agricultural policy and similar protectionist measures practised by NAFTA, then farmers in the third world would be more able to compete, thus driving the economic development of their respective countries.

  8. Rose
    April 13, 2008

    Yes, all Fair Trade should give way to EU-free Free Trade. What a difference that would make. And how much fairer than forcing poor African and South American farming families into Stalinist collectives just to make ourselves feel better. It is high time the Fair Traders were exposed for what they are: peeved lefties who are now trying in the Third World to sneak in what they have lost the argument over in the other two worlds. Western housewives who benefit from a certain amount of freedom and free trade themselves should stop colluding with this.

  9. Bazman
    April 13, 2008

    Very interesting John. Maybe you could explain why the Chinese and Russians are all getting oppressed despite following capitalistic policies? and the American dollar is worth nearly two pounds? The problem with capitalism is that it is all about someone getting 'some' to drag the rest up. It's not a caravan but a dance!

    Reply: Russia and China are not following free enterprise policies allied to proper democratic freedoms – the least bad model of government in my view. They are following state control, with permitted capitalism in defined sectors, allied to single party authoritarian rule inn the case of China. The more they liberate particular sectors, the better their economies do.

  10. John R
    April 14, 2008

    Mr. Redwood,

    The yield of diesel fuel from oilseed rape is about half a tonne per acre. The UK is around 66 million acres, of which around a quarter is arable and potentially suitable for growing rape. So even if the entire UK arable pasture were given over to growing fuel instead of fuel, it would produce only about 8 million tonnes of it. Annually, the UK uses around 90 million tonnes. So it should be abundantly obvious to even the thickest environmentalist that growing fuel is not the answer.

    It also isn't the answer for the farmer. The average UK farm is 160 acres, so if that were all growing diesel, the farmer's annual crop would be 80 tonnes of diesel. The wholesale price of diesel at ARA (Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp) was about £300 last time I looked, so that farmer's gross crop value – ignoring the cost of conversion to diesel fuel – is a stonking…er…£24,000 a year.


    So growing fuel isn't good for UK taxpayers either, because in Europe those farmers would have to be kept solvent by the CAP. And we know who pays for that, don't we?

    Something to make you laugh. In the 1990s the greenofascists convinced the EU to legislate the sulphur out of diesel, supposedly because it caused acid rain. So the sulphur was taken out and the result was crop failure all over Europe, because certain crops need the sulphur to grow. The worst affected crop? Er…oilseed rape!!

    The sulphur removed from fuel is now pelletised and sent to fertiliser factories, where it is processed into additives which are then trucked out to farms and sprayed onto crops.

    Talk about digging holes so you can fill them in again!

  11. Mark Wadsworth
    April 14, 2008

    "a quarter is arable"???

    Of that 66 million acres, about 10% is developed, can you reconcile the missing 65%?

  12. Span Ows
    April 14, 2008

    Land use roughly as follows:

    19% arable or fallow
    51.5% grass or garzing
    3.5% other agricultural use
    11.5% forest and wood
    14.5% urban or other

    World bank/IMF meetings on crisis of world food prices should take about 5 minutes: the answer is the biofuel stampede! However at least it does highlight the real underlying problem which is global population and our future inability to feed ourselves (as a race)

  13. Bazman
    April 17, 2008

    How feasible would it be to have natural gas from a meter in the home connected to some sort of mechanism that compressed and liquefied the gas overnight allowing it to be used in vehicles? The vehicles being adapted in the correct way.
    Would this not be a realistic proposition over electric vehicles with the generation and storage problems, that in the case of battery technology may never be solved.
    At my house and many others the gas meter is right next to the car. Not an answer to fuel supply problems I know, but another option. Clean too.

  14. John, wrexham
    April 23, 2008

    don't want to slaughter another sacred cow, but africa might be able to feed itself if a) it had decent governments b) did not persecute its farmers, white and black alike and c) concentrated on growing food for itself rather than selling it to us at a cost that is right for us but not right for them in the long term. as for fair traders, they are small players, compared the disasters brought about by the world bank, imf and the other new 'colonialists'.

    the stuff about European farmers is all a bit of a distraction, as even if British farmers stop growing biofuel crops, i don't think it will have much effect on the price of rice, let alone stop the chinese from giving up their vegetarian diets and becoming meat eaters. British farmers should look to their own interests as they won't get any help from a British government.

    as for overall prosperity, it is a statisticians' idea of the world. the US may be more prosperous than Europe, but only if you are the right side of the average. in Europe, you might not be as well off as a rich American, but equally neither might your situation be as bad a someone in the USA, no home, no health service etc etc. it all depends where you are on the scale as to which system you think is the best economically.

    Reply: At current wheat prices UK arable farmers are at last going to have a better deal. The USA has a larger free health care system for the poor than the UK, and far more chance of poeple getting a job than in msot places on the continent.

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