Basic Food Prices Are Climbing Fast and the Need For Innovative Agricultural Solutions is Urgent

Barbie Espinol

Shoppers can’t have failed to notice the dramatic rises in basic food costs in the last couple of months.

These rises are not on luxury items, but on basics like bread, pasta, cheese and tean, and they are not the odd penny here and there.

Usually it takes up to a year for increases to feed through to the shops following price rises from commodity speculation. However, the process seems to have speeded up dramatically this year (2010).

But it isn’t only commodity speculation that is driving up food prices.

Some analysts think that the need to protect their profits is driving supermarkets to try to compensate for recession-hit consumers switching from buying luxury foods to buying only the essentials. So in order to keep their profits from falling the supermarkets are putting up prices on those essentials.

According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) annual food inflation rose from 1.7% in June to 2.5% in July, with the price of meat and fruit among the biggest risers.

Stephen Robertson, BRC director general, cites causes from recent dry weather increasing the price of animal feed to poor harvests reducing some fruit crops.

Problems with production in large wheat exporting countries, such as Russia and Canada, also encouraged commodity speculation putting up the price of wheat to £4.95 a bushel Рthe highest figure in almost two years.

According to the BRC report drought in Australia and floods in Canada, Pakistan and India helped drive up wheat prices by close to 50% since June. It warned that the price of commodities including palm oil, cocoa and soya oil had also risen sharply.

Experts from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN predict that in the next ten years, prices for agricultural products in the world will grow in real terms by 15-40%, partly because of increasing demand for food in developing countries.

Friends of the Earth’s Head of Climate Mike Childs has warned that with extreme weather events set to increase in future we’ll face the same crisis time and again – unless the Government takes urgent action to tackle climate change.

He said: “We now have a choice: investing in green energy and industries that will boost Britain’s economy and create new jobs – or failing to take action, which would spell catastrophe for the planet and our purses.”

According to the National Geographic the industrial food production model with its reliance on monoculture, mechanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, and government subsidies, made food abundant and affordable. However, the ecological and social price has been steep leading to soil erosion, depleted and contaminated soil and water resources, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, labor abuses and the decline of the family farm.

The emphasis now is on sustainable agriculture, which embraces farming practices that mimic natural ecological processes. Sustainable farming methods incude minimising tilling and water usage, encouraging healthy soil bty planting fields with different crops year after year and integrating croplands with livestock grazing. It also avoids pesticide use by nurturing the presence of organisms that control crop-destroying pests.

However, critics of sustainable agriculture claim, among other things, that its methods result in lower crop yields and higher land use and that inevitably will mean food shortages as the world’s population grows.

But there is some evidence that over time sustainable farming can be as productive as the previous model especially if it is coupled with investing much more in innovative biotechnology, whether it is in the fields of genetic modification of crops or in a range of low-chem agricultural products to help farmers.

A recent breakthrough in identifying the genetic sequence of the wheat genome by UK scientists is one aspect of this but another is the work being carried out by Biopesticides Developers in producing biopesticides, biofungicides and low-chem yield enhancers that can be used by farmers to minimise crop losses and protect their land from depletion of its essential nutrients.

With commitment and effort perhaps such new technologies will lead to affordable and healthy food for all.

Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers

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