Global factors keep pushing up UK food prices

Over the past two years, climate change and rising energy costs have been the two biggest sources of food price rises. Analysis by The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) suggests that even if energy costs ease, climate change will carry on pushing up food prices in years to come. With hundreds of acres of UK farmland covered with floodwater as I write, the water levels will lead to lost crops, forcing farmers to write off produce that would otherwise have counted towards the UK’s economic activity. Replacements will be required for the lost stock, which may need to be imported,

Climate change cost UK consumers an extra GBP 171 in 2022, rising to GBP 192 this year. While the ECIU expects energy price rise to ease in years to come, the think tank still reckons that households have had to find just over GBP 600 for environment-related price drivers in 2022 and 2023. Dr Tim Lloyd, at Bournemouth University, argues that energy pricing is behind 59% of all UK food price rises. All over the world, drought and heatwaves are affecting basic commodities such as olive oil, canned tomatoes, sugar and rice. Food prices are rising everywhere: this is inevitable, given the way food is traded.

Fast forward to 2024 and UK voters go to the polls. Next year, six years later than promised, the UK government is promising to phase in the plant and animal checks that were a part of the EU border control infrastructure. This inspection activity does not come cheap and will be added on to the cost of importing food. Just when consumers thought things were settling down, they can look forward to an unexpected surge in the cost of imported food.

Unbearable pressure

Town dwellers in Japan have faced a rising tide of attacks from black bears, which are driven by a lack of food to venture into what were previously uncontested spaces. A story in The Guardian puts the number of casualties since April at 158 as well as two lost lives. Unlike the United States, where black bears are a constant risk for human misadventure, there is strong evidence to suggest that the bears are being driven by disruption to their normal food supplies rather than selecting centres of human activity as easy pickings for a quick meal.

A museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu bear confrontation over a century ago. Pic: Wikimedia

Human fatalities arising from attacks by bears have figured in Japanese history for years. The museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu episode on Hokkaido in the early twentieth century is pictured here. It came about after human incursions into virgin jungle. A conflict of interest with the formerly unchallenged top species was resolved on human terms. The current spate of bear attacks has broken a previous record high recorded in 2020, with many incidents being logged in Honshu, the largest island in Japan.

Unofficial estimates of Japan’s bear population range up at 44,000, nearly three times the 15,000 recorded officially in 2012. Without a corresponding increase in territory and food sources, there is no avoiding a state of constant conflict between species.

Sharing the Earth

The final episode of Chris Packham’s series Earth was the cue to wrap up a long awaited prognosis for the planet. Pulling no punches, Packham expressed his belief that humanity would either resolve the many threats the planet faces or disappear into planetary oblivion. Packham’s uncompromising position is completely logical: what we refer to as “the natural world” or “the industrial world” or even “the industrial world” is in reality a single space that is shared by competing interest groups. The problems we face arise from the planet’s collective inability to find ways of sharing one space. For instance society’s habit of staying up after dark created an economic demand for lighting: the routine use of oil lamps to light houses in the 18th and 19th centuries drove whales to the brink of extinction.

Click screendump to visit BBC website

It is easy to talk about nature as though it exists in nooks and crannies that are somehow unsuitable for human economic activity. Humanity’s industrial intakes come from space that could just as easily be supporting other life forms. Industrial farming generates mile after mile of unvarying monoculture. There is no sustenance for wildlife such as orang utans in palm oil plantations. Yet the apes are ruthlessly hunted and killed for being a “problem” when they search for food among the serried ranks of trees that offer no suitable food for their species.

By making nature, industry, urban and rural environments aggressively mutually exclusive, the scene is set for all-out war. It is not difficult to see that if industry is allowed to declare war on nature, for instance, or for rural resources to be diverted into urban areas, the result will do more harm than good. The challenge of Chris Packham’s outlook is to identify and rationalise shared interests in such a way that life can evolve productively. The BBC Earth series is currently on iPlayer: click the screen dump to access the BBC website.

Value or price?

Today’s On Your Farm came from Yew Tree Farm, Bristol’s last city farm. Third generation farmer Catherine Withers faces existential challenges to a business that has adapted to extensive and rapid change, but is on the point of losing access to land that is vital to its survival. Part of a site of Scientific and Conservation Interest, the farm should have been spared the predatory attention of a local property developer.

Click the screengrab to access the programme on the BBC.

Instead, acres of hay and winter feed once intended for Catherine’s dairy herd is under lock and key. The tenancy on the field concerned was terminated in favour of a planning proposal for 200 homes that has yet to be agreed. When the BBC visited, the hay in the field was ready to be cut and the livestock would have been sure of winter sustenance. However, Catherine is kept away from her crop by a heavy padlock on the gate. Being able to see the crop but not gather it in just adds injury to insult.

Elsewhere on the farm, another tenancy on a field adjacent to a local council crematorium is set to end, as the town hall plans to extend the amenities for its residents. Again, it is the dairy cattle that will lose out. Catherine has a small dairy herd, as well as outdoor pigs: she also grows vegetables, which she can sell to local residents within walking distance of her farmhouse. Bristol used to have more than 30 farms within its boundaries: as the city’s only remaining farmer, Catherine is something of a local hero, not just to her customers.

Yew Tree has a high proportion of ancient meadow in its grazing, an irreplaceable asset that has been quietly sheltering threatened flora and fauna for centuries. Its value to Bristol is incalculable, but depends on being an integrated space, across which wildlife can roam. The shift from viable and productive to long term decline is an ever-present threat and determined by factors that neither Catherine nor her many supporters can control.

Listen to the programme while it is available on the BBC Sounds website. It raises questions for all of us, regardless of whether we live in a city or a rural area.

Day and night

For centuries urban populations have cheerfully ignored one of the most basic phases in the rhythm of the planet’s life, thanks to rapidly evolving technology. It is paradoxical, but completely normal, for millions of people around the world to treat the hours of day and night as interchangeable. In the twenty first century, the electric light switch rewrites all the rules governing what can be done at different times of day. For all practical purposes, such rules have no current application.

City life is 24/7, thanks to artificial lighting. A trivial gesture over a light switch is all many of us need to turn night into day. But this has not always been the case and if we make any serious progress with choking off climate change, we will have to rethink our energy expectations, too.

Before the widespread use of electric light, the availability of town gas pipes determined the extent of street and domestic lighting in industrial towns and cities. Go back a century and the demand for animal fats and oils to make candles and run lanterns was significant, if waning. But go back further and a gaping chasm re-appears between those who lived in sparsely-lit houses and those who could afford to routinely light their homes and entertain guests to dinner or dance the night away at elaborate balls.

Alaskan dockside scene, circa 1911.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dig a little deeper into history and the lighting fuel of choice was whale oil, initially processed in dockside refineries around the world, later produced on board ship as whaling vessels became large enough to accommodate the necessary equipment and tankage. From being a rough and ready battle with nature and the elements, fraught with danger for the dinghy crews, whaling became an increasingly ruthless war of attrition that drove whole species to the brink of extinction. As well as extracting all the oil from a huge carcase, the whaling industry earned substantial money from whale meat, with some cuts sold on for cheap food products and the rest sold to feed urban cats and dogs. In this context, the dog’s dinner was a secondary by-product from the days of lucrative barrels of whale oil.The whaling industry went into a long term decline as a direct result of its impact on whale numbers.

City life 2.1

Is the writing on the wall for hydroponics? Vertical Farming Daily reports on trials for aeroponics in an adapted hydroponics line. The new technology has to fit in with existing installations to stand a cat in hell’s chance of being considered, but rises to the challenge of producing crops faster using less water. The plug and play modification showed increased yields of just over 20% in trials organised by aeroponics developer Lettus Grow, using the firm’s Aeroponics Rolling Beds (ARB).

These replacement growing trays keep seedlings suspended in the air, receiving nutrients in a carefully controlled fine mist at fixed intervals. To eliminate any risk of blocked nozzles, the Lettus system uses ultrasonic technology to shake droplets of growing solution into the roots of the crop, generating a fine mist.

The application of the nutrient mist can be very closely controlled, keeping the growing medium dry and making the crop easier to manage. The technology is being trialled in widely varying situations. Farming family business GH Dean & Co Ltd in Kent is partnering with grower Ro-Gro in a bid to speed up the development of a new revenue stream, redefining the rate at which a return can be earned on a new agricultural activity.

HM Prison Hewell is using aeroponics to train inmates in the new techniques. As well as growing fresh food for inmates there is enough to sell outside the establishment, too. Local action group Cultivate is creating a local food network to feed communities around Newtown, Powys, while Grow It York is looking to develop food strategy with aeroponics.

Vertical farming has much to commend it. By focussing on one stage of plant development it is easy to miss one important detail, though. Since it does not complete the plants’ life cycle, it does not generate seed stock for further crops. This remains as an input in the sector’s otherwise admirable environmental credentials.

City life 3.0

On the surface, urban life appears to be very deeply compartmentalised, when large populations find themselves living cheek by jowl while maintaining social separations, such as class, race or status. However, there is no separation in nature, the planet has a single atmosphere, a single ocean, not to mention shared land masses. Ultimately, all nature’s resources are shared, with an often over-generous share being taken by humanity. The planet does not respond or challenge this phenomenon, but continues to meet all demands made of it, by human and animal alike, on a first come, first served basis.

Wherever humanity has left the by-products of its plundering, such as ash, exhaust gases or radioactive residues, these have accumulated and degraded down the centuries. Nature does not judge polluters, just keeps their dirty little secrets on view for all to see. To avoid eternal shame, humanity actively needs to work in harmony with nature, instead of emptying the sweet jars in the planetary candy store.

There have been civilisations which have lived in harmony with the natural world, spanning millennia, sadly we have very limited knowledge of their cultures, or indeed the roots of their eventual demise. Managing soil fertility was doubtlessly a cornerstone of their endeavours, making a closer study of the Indore project a high priority. It is time for subscribers to unpack Sir Albert Howard’s legacy.

City life 2.0

Food production has to compete fiercely for space in any urban environment. In a bid to escape these constraints, some food producers have gone up in the world, literally. Welcome to the world of vertical farming, a high tech adaptation of hydroponics, in which plants are raised in row upon row of troughs, each level illuminated by a blend of artificial lights that add up to a passable semblance of continuous light. Vertical farming has the squeaky clean credentials of a rising star in the food industry, earning extra points for season-free crops of strawberries, salad leaves and baby spinach leaves.

Converts and supporters of vertical farming point to the careful use of environmentally friendly electricity, the green credentials of the indoor space management in commercial growing operations that can supply high grade salad crops to supermarkets in a continuous production cycle.

The BBC has visited a leading exponent a number of times. Here is what they reported in August 2022 ( The Bristol-based Jones Food Company is preparing to launch the biggest vertical farm in the UK. There is a lot of high tech green know-how at work in the business. However, while its carbon footprint is doubtless beyond reproach, one is left wondering whether there is any role for nature in this high tech warehouse. After all, there is no commercial requirement for nature to be a part of any business plan.

The Jones Food Company website argues that its core business is farming sustainably, without some of the “hazardous substances” associated with field farming. By cleaning and reusing water up to 30 times, water intake is one tenth of what a conventional field crop would need. JFC also argues that in-house water hygiene allows the company to operate without toxic crop treatments, saving money and improving the flavour of crops.

This is an activity that sets out to be part of the solution, if not all of the solution, rather than any kind of problem. The basic assumption that what goes on in the wider world is either too distant or irrelevant does not hold water. There is a duty of care to the planet to give some thought to the whole ecosphere, when planning what goes into a growing space, however small.

Seen from that angle, the emphasis changes in a subtle shift towards a planetary view. To be sure, assuming that the vertical farmer is so close to her customers that food miles cease to be an issue, whereas procurement of fluorescent tubes probably requires a longer trip around a continent or two. It may be that the calculation of food miles needs to be done on the basis of inputs as well as outputs.

City life 1.0

The foundations of any society must needs be its harmony with, for want of a better term, nature. There is simply no way we can live outside nature, so we have to recognise that we are part of it and live accordingly. This is easier to say than to do, so my apologies for not having ready answers to the torrent of issues such a line of thought unleashes.

The inescapable paradox is that our cities are built to normalise anthropocentric lifestyles. Nobody is to blame for such a situation, it has just happened this way and would probably do the same again if we were to reinvent industrial society. In simple terms we lack the skill set needed to give the natural world a proper hearing and it is a moot point to suggest that we just need time to do so. We have had an incentive to learn for millennia and have spent that time dipping into finite planetary resources in the process.

The earliest settled cities devised elaborate systems for governing both city and hinterland, documenting their transactions with painstaking detail. Literacy was restricted to the ruling class, but every citizen had to be environmentally savvy if the metropolis was to survive, let alone prosper. History bears witness to the long term success of Sumerian cities such as Girsu or Ur, where archaeologists talk of habitation during millennia, an achievement that is unlikely to be matched by the modern industrial economy. Stumbling from environmental crisis to ecological impasse, the industrial economy has played fast and loose with nature, not to mention urban food chains, the subject of this blog.

More pressing than to understand the fate of early agrarian societies is to understand what they did correctly for centuries. There is good reason to suppose that they had sustainable sanitation of a sort that Sir Alfred Howard envisaged while working on the Indore project. A renewable, natural cycle producing humus within a month would go a long way to explaining the soil’s fertility in the world’s longest-surviving agrarian societies.