Squeezing money from geography

Travel often brings with it a taste for foods that consumers encounter while they are away from home. This broader view of food and drink gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, as shoppers started asking for avocado pears, a wider range of pizza and pasta products, not to mention a tidal wave of Asian foods that have been greeted with open arms and either adopted or adapted to British tastes. Many Indian foods have found their way to Britain over the centuries and some, like tea, became national institutions.

It is time to look at the historical context of moving food around the world and look at the topics of food security and self sufficiency. During the latter years of the twentieth century, Britain was about 50% self sufficient: the official headline figure was closer to 65%, but since UK food manufacturers import a variable proportion of their ingredients, these shipments should be taken into account. The impact of two world wars on the domestic economy of Britain leaves a residual malaise and feeling that the UK “…ought to do better…” at producing its own food, notably among older generations.

There is an array of variables that define the economic environment in which food is produced, some of which can be covered now. The first is the colonial plantation paradigm in which overseas territories are ruled and exploited solely to produce commodity crops for colonial powers. Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal come to mind as historic colonisers, shipping plant material and slave labour in to strategic locations, usually between the tropics. Feeding the work force was a low priority, but was usually a part of the operational model.

Down the intervening centuries this practice continued, developing into what is now referred to as landgrabbing. The topic is extensively documented by Fred Pearce, author of The Land Grabber. The 2012 book can be bought as a paperback or a download here. As the name suggests, land is bought or leased and fenced off. This has been practiced by countries such as China and a number of Arab states. The enclosed land is brought into cultivation usually by nationals from the states concerned and the crops are shipped to these countries as they are harvested. Local populations are excluded from these holdings, which are often of the highest quality available locally.

While this is a modern, pernicious practice, it is not without historical precedent. Irish Quaker and philanthropist Joseph Fisher was a poor law commissioner during the Irish potato famines of the 1840s. From his family home, overlooking the approach to Cork harbour, Fisher recalled seeing ships setting sail bound for English ports. These vessels were laden with grain grown and harvested by starving labourers in the surrounding counties. Fisher went on to write the 1865 book Where Shall We Get Meat? As it happened, shiploads of cheap grain started crossing the Atlantic, as the American railroad system reached the eastern seaboard and started a sea change in European livestock sectors. The entire history of North America to that point is itself dominated by a high profile land grab in which indigenous American peoples were marginalised by settlers and farmers.

The buying power of remote markets can have an immediate impact on the food security of rural populations. This is a measure not of aggregate harvests, but their availability for local communities.

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