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Report reveals threat of Peak Oil to UK food supplies PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Dwindling oil stocks and EU trade and energy policies threaten food price hikes – and could cause the UK to be vulnerable to food shortages for the first time since the Second World War, according to a new report by Green Party Euro-MP Caroline Lucas.

The report calls on the Government to establish a Royal Commission on Food Security to examine the issue – and for the UK’s Competition Commission to consider its findings in its ongoing investigation of the supermarkets’ dominance of the food retailing sector.

Fuelling a Food Crisis examines the dependence of the EU’s food supplies on oil – for production, processing and transport – and concludes that food prices are becoming increasingly linked with those of oil, and therefore more exposed to the price volatility of the energy sector.   

“Higher energy prices are here to stay,” said Dr Lucas, Green MEP for South-East England and a member of the European Parliament’s Environment and International Trade Committees.

“Future oil price rises will have a massive impact on food security, and unless we address the problem now, we could face the prospect of food shortages in the UK - one of Europe's largest food importers - and the possibility of starvation in some developing countries.”

The report warns that we must change energy, trade and agriculture policies at an EU level if we are to avoid a food crisis precipitated by ‘Peak Oil’ – the point at which half of global oil production has been consumed, and beyond which extraction goes into irreversible decline, and prices rise accordingly.  

Many industry experts predict that Peak Oil will happen by 2020: an increasing number argue we are close to, or have already passed, the peak of oil production. Already, world oil and gas production is declining at an average of four to six per cent annually, while demand is growing at two to three per cent.  The last time more oil was discovered than used in a single year was a quarter of a century ago.

Dr Lucas said: “Peak oil is happening whether we like it or not: the fact of dwindling finite fossil fuel reserves is simply non-negotiable.

“Oil prices have already risen 7-fold in the last 7 years.  Our food supply systems have become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels. Industrialised farming techniques use about 50 times more energy than traditional methods – and we are importing more and more of our food from overseas: a staggering 95 per cent of all fruit eaten in the UK is grown abroad.”

Whilst researching the report, Dr Lucas asked the UK’s major supermarkets and several Government ministries what steps they were taking to prepare for the impact of peak oil on their food supply systems. None of the organisations contacted gave a serious response: the DTI and Cabinet Office both refusing to answer the question, citing restrictions under the Freedom of Information Act.

She commented: “The level of ignorance about peak oil amongst UK food retailers is absolutely staggering. The era of cheap oil is ending, and this will have a massive impact on the way supermarkets do business – but they don’t seem to have considered the issue at all.

“The Government’s response – that revealing its plans for peak oil could compromise international relations or run counter to the public interest – is ludicrous. I fear ministers are sitting on their hands whilst a food crisis unravels around us and using spurious Freedom of Information arguments as a way of refusing to admit it.”

The problem is exacerbated by EU energy policy, which calls for the large-scale cultivation of crops for conversion into bio-fuels, thus creating competition between food and energy for agricultural resources.

This in turn will decrease the amount of land given over to food production as energy prices rise – causing global food shortages exactly when we should be boosting food production to maintain stable prices.

The report calls on the Government to establish a Royal Commission on Food Security, demand changes to the EU’s trade and energy policies, examine the role of the supermarket chains in promoting organic, locally grown foods, and change its development policies to encourage agricultural production for local markets rather than export at the expense of local food security.

“We have to decouple the food and oil markets – by cutting agriculture’s dependence on oil, by promoting local and organic food systems where possible and reversing the UK’s current enthusiasm for international trade in food, and revising EU energy policies which risk promoting bio-fuel production at the expense of foodstuffs.

"The Government must establish a Royal Commission on Food Security to raise awareness of the problem and examine possible solutions, such as these.”

Fuelling a Food Crisis, which is based on research by Andy Jones (author of ‘Eating Oil’) and Colin Hines (author of ‘Localisation: A Global Manifesto’) will be published next Thursday, (December 28) – with copies being sent to relevant Government Ministers, the European Commission and the UK Competition Commission’s ongoing examination of the supermarkets’ domination of the food retail sector.

“The implications of this report are dramatic – our ability to maintain the current level of global food production beyond the age of ‘cheap’ oil is at stake, and doing nothing simply isn’t an option,” Dr Lucas added.

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The Soil Association will be looking at Peak Oil and Agriculture at its annual conference on 26 and 27 January 2007.  Click here for more details

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