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Oh,what a silly war
Andrew Gilligan and Hugo Rifkind say our mission in Libya is drifting into farce
Meeting Ratko Mladic: Charlotte Eagar
Who killed New York?
COVER_04 June 2011_The Spectator_ 1
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When you put your loose coppers in an Oxfam tin, it is tempting to think that they will be going towards a bag of grain for a drought-torn African village. Maybe they will, but there is also a chance they will be spent on the likes of ‘Growing a Better Future: food justice in a resource-constrained world’, a pamphlet published this week. Not alone among charities, Oxfam is diversifying into the thinktank business. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, though it will have to be prepared to have its work subjected to critical analysis rather than meekly accepted as an enlightened contribution towards the creation of a better world.
Oxfam’s claim is that we are in the midst of the world’s first ‘global food crisis’. It predicts that global food prices will rise by 120 to 180 per cent by 2050 as a result of ‘resource pressures’ and climate change. ‘Land is running out and fresh water is drying up,’ it asserts. ‘The global food system is broken.’ It sees a solution in pouring money into small farms in the developing world and breaking up the activities of speculators.
Malthusians have been predicting starvation for more than 200 years, of course, and there is little to suggest that this time
Half baked it will be any different: human ingenuity will triumph over myopic doomsayers. Like the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (which was criticised last year in a review commissioned by the Dutch government for overlooking research that predicts that some parts of the world will see rising yields and increased access to water), Oxfam has fallen into the trap of exaggerating the negative and suppressing the positive.
It is true that there has been a spike in global food prices over the past year and that this has caused pain to the world’s poor, but it is foolish to extrapolate from this a rising trend which will lead to global starvation in 40 years’ time. As with all commodity markets, food production is cyclical. A period of under-investment leads to shortage and rising prices. These in turn attract more investment, increasing the cost of production and eventually lowering prices. The cost of food collapsed after the last spike in commodity prices in 2008, and it will do so again.
Oxfam reproduces a graph showing that the amount of land in agricultural production has peaked, and uses this to assert that the world has reached its maximum possible level of food production. This rather ignores that a lot of land, including 23 million hectares in Russia, as well as all the set-aside in the EU, has been taken out of production not because it has become degraded but because low food prices in the two decades leading up to 2007 made it uneconomic to farm. Not only can this land be brought back into production, but the earth has vast untapped agricultural potential. Only 7 per cent of Russia, for example, is under the plough.
In any case, the link between food production and the soil is gradually being broken, as hydroponic production is developed on a large scale. In future farms may well be in multi-storey glasshouses with fantastic yields. Far from killing us, GM food is already increasing yields and leading to lower pesticide consumption. These are all developments which will require the involvement of big business, not just encouragement of small farmers — a truth that is not easy to swallow for those who have a romantic image of farming and expect the world’s poor to live hippyish lives of environmental purity.
If the world’s population were to continue to rise indefinitely we would inevitably one day reach the stage where the earth could no longer feed us. But, contrary to Oxfam’s half-baked theory, we are nowhere near that position.
‘Ihope I provide comfort, balm and solace for many a weary bottom,’ says Stephen Fry about the National Trust’s decision to honour him with a bench at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. It’s not any old bench, either; it’s an interactive, talking one. Sitters can listen to an MP3 recording of Fry describing the wonders of Felbrigg.
The Trust has installed celebrity benches at several other sites. Claudia Winkleman, the television presenter, offers visiting bottoms a five-minute commentary on Quarry Bank Hill in Cheshire; the comedian Miranda Hart soothes buttocks at Cragside in Northumberland; and the philosopher Alain de Botton postulates to posteriors about Castle Ward in County Down.
These ‘bench mates’, the Trust says, aid relaxation and help visitors enjoy the scenery. Tush. Surely those who can be bothered the spectator | 4 June 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk to visit heritage sites are looking for calm and quiet, an escape from pop culture, not another lecture from a TV personality. The patrons of the Trust can fulfil their mission to make history ‘come alive’ without such gimmicks.
As for the celebrities, they should see that there are places where they are not wanted. The public is fed up of being treated like an ass.