The fallout from the temporary closure of the UK’s biggest biofuel plant, the Ensus factory in Teeside, due to the fall in oil and bioethanol prices, has not exactly helped. This closure has resulted in an additional half a million tons of wheat going back onto the open market.
Despite the tumbling farm gate prices, farmland has over the past decade risen 277 per cent, outstripping both Mayfair property, the FTSE All-Share index and even gold.
The demand for farmland is being driven by the increasing numbers of private investors and institutional buyers. According to Savills, land increased last year by 15 per cent to an average of £8,000 an acre for prime arable land in the West Midlands, and the north of England. Other hotspots include Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, which appeal to “lifestyle buyers” – those attracted to the prospect of breeding horses and hunting, or to owning a large country house, rather than farming.
Last year the amount of farmland for sale, according to the Financial Times, fell to the lowest level since records began. Most buyers are farmers, but they are having to compete against the private investors and institutions.
Wellcome Trust, the charitable foundation, paid £249m last year to acquire the 40,000acre farm business of the Co-operative Group. This was the largest sale of farmland for two decades.
The experts believe the population will continue to grow, and we are told that we must produce 30 per cent more food over the next 30 years. However, a study by researchers at Yale University are now warning that we have already entered the era of “peak food”. This means that global production is slowing down, and could soon plateau. Peak corn came in 1985, peak rice in 1988, peak milk and wheat both came in 2004, peak chicken in 2006 and peak soya in 2009.
What makes the findings particularly worrying, said the researchers, is that the peaks are all happening at the same time, reducing the possibility of switching one staple food for another.
It would seem that Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary’s accusation that the “Green Blob” of officials and pressure groups, including Green Peace and the European Union is timely.
Speaking at the annual South African Biotechnology Industry Conference this week he warns that a food revolution that could save Africa from hunger is being held back by these pressure groups, and they are condemning people in the developing world to death by refusing to accept genetically modified (GM) crops.
The use of GM crops is expanding in the United States and South Africa, and approval has been given to trials of drought resistant strains in the Middle East and Africa, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph. But as Mr Paterson says, the “Green Blob’s” agenda for spreading misinformation and opposing such trials, which are supported by farmers, is comparable to the Ludites who in the 19th century smashed cotton mills in England.
He goes on to say that “these enemies of the green revolution call themselves ‘progressive’, but their agenda could hardly be more backward looking. They call themselves humanitarians and environmentalists, but their policies condemn billions to hunger and underdevelopment.”
If food production in the west has indeed reached its peak, and prime agricultural land is increasingly being taken for development as the population not only grows but relentlessly moves from the underdeveloped countries to the already overcrowded developed European countries, there could come a time when we look to Africa and elsewhere for food to feed the over populated west.
Owen Paterson is right to raise these important issues which must be taken seriously by the European Union and indeed the UN. Global food production cannot be driven or imperilled by minority groups with tunnel vision. As he said, “This is a time of extraordinary opportunity for Africa. One that can not only feed the 10 billion people that will inhabit our planet by 2050 – one that can end the shame of the nearly one billion who still go to bed every night hungry and malnourished.”
Carola Godman Irvine