Is deglobalisation a good or bad thing?

Posted: 26 September 2023 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott examines the ongoing deglobaliastion of our food system and analyses its potential impact.

chris' corner

What food we buy, how we buy it and how much it will cost has been changing for many years. These changes are only going to continue, as we face a string of crises which are transforming the way our food system works.

The globalisation of the world’s food supply was achieved through a number of important factors coming together and the routes of this start with the advances in transportation systems, such as shipping and rail. Then came the invention of refrigeration, which brought about the establishment of cold supply chains. Logistical capabilities increased rapidly due to technological advances and sourcing and distribution of food became much easier to organise. The role of trade agreements cannot be overlooked, as these brought about a multitude of opportunities in the opening of many markets to trading in food.

Globalisation has brought many advantages in terms of access to a much wider range of food types, particular when out of season in the home country. It has also driven down the cost of many types of food and has given some degree of economic prosperity to the exporting countries. It has, until recent times, largely prevented food shortages in developed countries who can source from a wide range of different supply chains. But there are a number of substantial disadvantages to the drive for globalisation, which are becoming increasingly evident. Due to the pandemic and more acutely the Ukraine war, a number of supply chains (such as grains and oils) have become over stretched.

Even more apparent are the effects of climate change, with many crop failures occurring due to extreme weather events. Globalisation has also driven large scale monocropping, wich has created havoc with our planetary biodiversity. The massive carbon footprint of food transportation has added to the environmental impact we are now experiencing. The lack of transparency of complex supply chains has allowed large scale exploitation of workers in terms of low wages and labour rights, as well as driving massive amounts of fraud.

I often say that the world’s food supply system is the most complex system ever created and few, including myself, really understand how it operates and will be transformed over the coming years. However, what is clear is that we are now transitioning from globalisation to deglobalisation. There is a growing trend for food exporting countries to ensure their own populations are supplied with sufficient safe and nutritious food. Rice and India are a very good example of this as previously reported in New Food.

The reduction in the carbon footprint of food production is also a major driver, as many view locally-produced food as being more environmentally friendly. So many countries around the world are now looking at increasing domestic production to ensure their future food security. One of the most interesting examples of this is Singapore. It is ranked one of the most food secure countries in the world yet currently imports over 90 percent of all food consumed in the country. The government there has realiased that this is a massive future risk for the country and embarked on the ‘Singapore Food Story’, which aims to be 30 percent self-sufficient by the year 2030. With virtually no land to work with, the vision is to deliver this using science and technological advances such as cultured meat and aquaponics.

In terms of the UK, I believe the trend towards deglobalisation is leaving the nation in a very vulnerable place. We import over 40 percent of the food that we consume and have growingly relied upon the ability to source from multiple regions to ensure national food security.

I’ve written before that the UK has no national food security policy other than leaving it to a small number of multiple retailers to take care of. As the UK heads towards a General Election, there is virtually no mention of our looming food crisis, no mention of developing a long-term policy to ensure food security. The current soundbites are more about ‘let’s forget about climate change and the impacts it will have on the country, let’s leave this to another time’.

The food insecurity clock is ticking but no politician seems to want to know what time it really is.

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