BBC Radio's "Farming Today" on energy depletion, alternative fuels and food security (transcript)

MediaBBC Radio's "Farming Today" on energy depletion, alternative fuels and food security

Host: Good morning. There are seven and half million people in the greater London area. They all need feeding. But, what would happen, if the oil ran out.

Man #1: Strikes me, that we have become horrendously vulnerable to some sort of event. Be it a conflict. Or, a climate event. Or, simply a hike in the price of energy. Because, we are simply unprepared for it.

Host: Later today, the Soil Association's Annual Conference will be asking; how are cities will be fed if there is an energy crisis. Well, we're here in London, to try to find out some of the answers. As we reported yesterday, the Farm Minister, Lord Bark told the Oxford Farming Conference; that this country is behind the game, when it comes to fuel from crops. On the second day of the conference, there was something of a spat, between a senior NFU official and a former boss of one of Europe's biggest oil companies, on the subject of bio-fuels. Our rural affairs correspondent, Tom Pead, was there.

Correspondent: Well, Lord Oxborough, former chairman of SHELL was giving a talk yesterday morning, about bio-fuels. But really, his emphasis was saying; you really need to find ways of using the waste that's left over, after you've got the food out of the crop. To make your fuel. He gave an example of a scheme in Canada. Where they used the straw, to make the fuel. They could then, of course, still use the edible crop as a food. He thought very much, that that was the way forward. And, he was slightly suspicious - I think the right word, of the actual carbon gain. If you use things like wheat. Or, oil seed ripe to make fuel. Because, he thought in the amount of energy that you had to use to fertilize the crop. To grow the crop. To transform the crop. Didn't totally outweigh the environmental gain. But, came close. Peter Kendall, very much keen on the active side of the actual growing the crops. Believes that the technology is coming round. That the environmental benefits, are improving. So, it might seem like a fine difference between them. But, they're both very keen on their own side of this story. And, that's why things got - I wouldn't say heated. But, quite strongly felt.

Host: The BBC's rural affairs correspondent Tom Pead. Reporting from the Oxford Farming Conference. In the past week, the oil prices risen by two dollars a barrel. Gas prices to consumers, have increased twice, during the last year. And, there are warnings of more to come. Many experts predict, that energy prices will continue to rise. Well in excess of inflation. The food industry, is heavily dependent on energy. And, the Soil Association, which certifies all organic farmers; is warning that the food supply to our big cities like London, is at big risk. If the oil runs short. It's the central theme of their conference this week. In a moment, I'll be talking to their director. But first; how does London's food get here. I'm at the famous Boro Market with Andrew Sharpe, who sells herd rigged lamb, from the Cumbrian Fields. Andrew, we've got your lamb here. Obviously, it's had to get here from Cumbria. What kind of energy and resources is used to get it to London?

Andrew Sharpe: It involves refrigerated type transit van or wagon. And, we're on a seven and a half tonner, which uses about 190 pounds for the round trip from Cumbria. Because, it's 300 miles, each way.

Host: As we look around us here, at the market; we've got the meat stores. And, we've also got bread, fruit and veg. What kind of journeys is that produce making, to get here?

Andrew Sharpe: Well, I think if you take a local apple, like from Kent. Not very much. But, if you're taking some of those foreign apples. Then, they could have come from New Zealand. Couldn't they? The poultry down there. Well, most of that poultry, will be from the South. But, it's still got to travel a fair old way, to get to Central London.

Host : If there was an energy crisis. And, oil prices rocketed. How would it affect your ability to sell your lamb, here in London?

Andrew Sharpe : We wouldn't be able to. It's as simple as that. If the price of fuel goes up much more, then it will make it uneconomic to do it now. Never mind in a fuel crisis.

Host: In terms of the way that we eat. If there is an energy crisis; what do you think is going to have to change?

Andrew Sharpe : People are going to have to learn to cook real food again. It's not really complicated. The biggest problem that we have, is people have a reliance upon ready meals, processed foods. And, semi-processed foods. They don't really use the whole animal. There's a whole - it would be a learning curve, like Mount Everest. I think we should start it now. And, start that learning curve.

Host : Andrew Sharpe. Thank you, very much, indeed. Well, Patrick Holden, is the Director of the Soil Association. Their conference, starts later on this morning. And, this is the central theme; how will our big cities eat, if there is an energy crisis? And, I asked Patrick, whether it really was a doomsday scenario? That people would go hungry and people would starve, if the price of fuel goes up.

Patrick Holden: I don't think we'd literally starve, overnight. But, it could become a very serious political issue. And, I think out of that - and, of course, it always takes a shock, doesn't it? To wake people up. We might start to think about trying to reconnect the citizens of London, with relatively local - or, at least regional food supplies. But, if you look round the edge of London today; you'll find that it's all horticulture and parks. And, there are relatively few farmers. Who are truly connected up, with the London food economy.

Host : So, what sorts of food would start to disappear and become scarce then?

Patrick Holden: Well, I think it would effect every food stuff. I mean, if I bought a sandwich on the train, courtesy of First Great Western. On my way here, up to Paddington. I looked on the back, for origin - information about origin. There was none. Simply said, it was packed in the UK. There were by the way, 13 E-numbers in it. It certainly wasn't organic. And, I think that's rather typical, of the food offer that we're getting in London. We simply don't know where the food comes from. It could come from the other side of the world. Or, it's certainly not named from a local producer. And, to me; the identity of a nation, is related to it's food. And, to it's food culture. So, what we need to do, is to reconnect with a story, behind the food we eat.

Host : Yes. But, is that going to feed London, if the oil runs out? Because, it's all very well, knowing where your food comes from. But, doesn't necessarily get it into the capitol.

Patrick Holden : No, it doesn't. And, of course, when oil becomes more expensive. Which undoubtedly it will. It's not a question of us all eating an entirely self sufficient diet. Which only came from 20 or 30 miles away. Hopefully, we're going to continue to drink tea and coffee. And, eat oranges and bananas. But, I think most people now, would like to see their indigenous food - their meat, their fruit, their vegetables; sourced where possible in season fro local producers. And, what we want to explore at the conference, is how that might come about.

Host : Well, Patrick. For the moment; thank you , very much. We'll return to you, later. In the meantime; what kind of preparations are being made for London's food, if there was an oil crisis. Jennie Jones, is chair of London Food; which helps to advise the mayor, Ken Livingstone, on food strategy for the city.

Jennie Jones : One of the simplest things to look at, of course; is having a local supply. So, that you don't actually have to move your food very far. Now, this could be, partly by people starting to grow some of their own food. And, a lot of people can grow their own food. Even if they live in flats. But, of course, to solve the bigger problem; we need our farmers, to be engaged. And, to be growing the sorts of things Londoners will be eating in five to ten years time.

Host : But, the idea of people growing their food in window boxes; that's never going to feed the capitol, is it?

Jennie Jones : No. Of course not. That's why farmers are so important. And, many of London's farmers, have some quite big problems. They've got alot of the problems, associated with being near a metropolis. High urban crime. And, quite high pay levels. And, they've got none of the access to London, that they really need to make themselves profitable. And, in fact; one of the crucial things is going to be just reconnecting London's farmers with the market. With the people in London. And, there are lots of ways of doing this. We've already had a conference. We've got a lot of views of farmers themselves. And realized, that many of them are suffering. And, we've got to make sure that we help them.

Host : Do you think that there will be a shortage of food, if energy prices go through the roof? Or, if the oil's cut off?

Jennie Jones: Well, the fact is, when we had a fuel strike, just a couple of years ago; we were actually down to two days' food supply in London. So, it really doesn't need the oil prices to go up, very much. Or, for other problems to happen; for London, to start thinking about running short of food. So, this is something we've clearly got to tackle. The sooner we tackle it; the better for everybody.

Host : Well, not everybody shares that view. That London's at the mercy of an oil crisis. Kevin Hawkins, the director of the British Retail Consortium; believes we should be concerned about energy. But, not alarmed.

Kevin Hawkins : For a start; I don't think there's going to be a big bang. In terms of an energy crisis, as such. I think what we've seen over the last few years, is it's been a steep increase. So, heavily in the cost of energy. But, in historical terms; it's still actually quite cheap. Yes, there will probably be more increases. But, I think the industry, as a whole. Not just the food industry. But, every other part of the economy. Are already anticipating that. They're looking for more efficient ways of using fuel. Alternative sources. And, I think, given that sort of scenario; then I think the food industry - the supply chain, will absorb whatever costs there are. And, will continue to function, efficiently.

Host : Do we also have to look at the way that we produce food? The Soil Association's argument is; that organic food is produced, using fewer energy inputs. Do we have to extend that to conventional? To look at how we actually grow the food, using less fuel.

Kevin Hawkins: Well, I think you'll already find that the more efficient, conventional farmers; are already looking at ways and means of reducing their energy bills, using bio-fuels. And, so on. I think the other point to remember, is that even given the recent increases in energy. Energy costs, are still a relatively small portion of total cost. Compared with labor and rent. And, borrowings, and so on. I don't believe for one moment, that there's going to be a mass move towards organic. And, even if there was; it would not in itself, come anywhere near to supplying a serious shortfall in the supply chain for big cities. Because, of the low yields from organic. And, indeed, the continuing high costs of organic production.

Host : Well, that was Kevin Hawkins. Who's director of the British Retail Consortium. Back with Patrick Holden of the Soil Association. Patrick, one of the things that Kevin Hawkins was talking about there. Was that if there is an energy crisis, it's not going to happen overnight. There will be time to adjust. There will be time for the food industry to become more efficient. And, cope with higher oil prices. Or, less oil.

Patrick Holden : Well, let's hope he's right. He may well be. Although, as I've said. We've seen recently about intervention from nature, as it were. Which might bring things to a crisis, quicker than we can imagine. But, he mentions efficiency. What do we really mean by efficiency? I mean, for instance; if the oil is cheap, or the labor is cheap. Or, the environmental costs are not internalized. Then the food may appear to be cheap and efficient. But, in fact; there may be a huge social and ecological cost. For instance, if fertilizers - which use alot of energy, were used in the production of food. Or, pesticides, which then get into the water. And, have to be stripped out, at cost to the public - well, actually to the consumer, who pay through their water bill. These costs don't show on the food product. And, high food miles; because, of low energy costs, don't reflect in a price. Now, if all those costs, were put back into to product. Actually, locally produced. Sustainable food. From hopefully nearby London, would actually be more price competitive.

Host : What are the consequences, if we don't tackle this issue?

Patrick Holden: Well, as Kevin Hawkins said; it may all be put right, gradually. But, it strikes me; that we have become horrendously vulnerable, to some sort of event. Be it a conflict. Or, a climate event. Or simply, a massive hike in the price of energy. Because, we are simply unprepared for it. And, throughout human history; there are stories about how societies have - civilizations even, have been swept away. Because, they forgot to prepare for unforeseen consequence, of an ecological problem. Often unrelated to agriculture. And, my fear is; that we're doing exactly that, in the early part of the 21st century. We're not prepared for a very sudden change in our food economy. Which could be brought about, by those external events.

Host : Patrick Holden, from the Soil Association. Thank you, very much, indeed. Miriam O'Reilly is here tomorrow morning, at 25 to 7. With "Farming Today: This Week" . But, that's all from me. I'm Mark Holstock. The producer this morning, was Chris Impe.

MediaBBC Radio's "Farming Today" on energy depletion, alternative fuels and food security