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Volcano provides a chance to digest truths about our food

Nature’s special effects department is at it again.

The earth is cracked open, darkness fills the skies, civilisation trembles, and privation stalks the land.

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Or so it probably seems to anyone who has watched too many science-fiction movies while waiting for the Tesco truck to deliver a life-saving consignment of papaya, mange tout and Thai orchids.

No sooner open, the airports, at the time of writing, are once more closing down. This is not trivial, socially or economically, and no joke to the refugees waiting to be plucked from the desolate beaches

– says our correspondent nowhere near the scene – of France and Spain. But, seriously, it’s not funny, and yet some people give every impression that they are enjoying themselves inordinately.

There are the environmentalists, of course, who are running out of ways to celebrate the tonnage of pollution – not counting the stuff gushing out of Iceland, presumably – being “saved”. There is a larger group, encompassing almost

everyone, who have suddenly remembered that the modern airport experience is a hellhole with retail outlets. And then there are those pausing to wonder over silence and fragility.

Eyjafjallajokul – henceforth “the volcano” – has reminded us that the 21st century is a strange place. Things taken for granted turn out to involve fiendishly complex systems devoted, as often as not, to trivial ends. These are vulnerable systems, too, the sort capable of being blown apart by a puff of prevailing wind. They symbolise complacency and unnatural habits. And nothing illustrates the case better than food.

It is not, unless you happen to run a Kenyan packing plant, a big deal in itself. No-one is going to starve for want of an avocado. Odourless roses forced to grow year-round for home-wilting are not, in fact, a deprivation indicator. Britain air-freights only 1% to 2% of its foodstuffs, and few of those count as staples. But the silent skies bring to mind another, contrasting fact: in Britain we grow only 60% of what we eat. Why?

Governments have begun, just about, to get their giant heads around the idea of energy security. The imminence of peak oil – if it is not already upon us – has most of western Europe wondering about Vladimir Putin’s mood swings, feudal politics in the Middle East and a variety of flawed energy alternatives. There is also a nervous awareness that water might be the big issue of the 21st century, while the Chinese tour the world buying up every other natural resource.

But only 60% of our own food from our own soil when our farmers insist that they could add 10% to 15% to the total, given the chance? Sixty per cent does not amount to a hill of (Kenyan green) beans. And since, by definition, many of our imports, by air or otherwise, involve foods unavailable to previous generations, this amounts to an argument over mere snacks. But it is, or should be, a strategic issue.

In 2006, a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that the world’s food production will need to double by 2050. This week, the Soil Association, scenting official excuses for GM crops and a food industry bent on westernising the world’s diets, argued that the real required increase will be closer to 70%. The point – how can you have food shortages amid vast waste and an obesity crisis? – was well made. Still, 70% is not nothing: it’s vast.

Yet because of our supermarkets, our whims and a geological disturbance, Kenyan concerns are losing millions daily, laying off thousands of farm workers and “donating or dumping” thousands of tonnes of food. This seems foolish.

It seems inexcusable, indeed, when human Greens – not to mention our own recent experience – tells us that the world would be healthier with fewer aircraft evacuating their bowels into the atmos­phere for our passing pleasure.

Yet what about those poor African farmers? The cry, never discouraged by the supermarket chains, has become commonplace, and it seems to make sense. So rigged is the world trade game, so scarred by western dumping, punitive debt

bargains and suspect “aid” deals, it might appear that the purchase of some baby sweetcorn is the very least we can do to foster economic stability and self-reliance in Africa.

But that’s not why we indulge fads for exotic, fresh-to-your-door nibbles: self-indulgence, not sympathy, is the motive. Equally, if 5000 Kenyan farm workers can be laid off at a stroke, as happened this week, the footprint of a very big business can be discerned. Sadly, these are not, for the most part, sturdy, romanticised peasants tilling their ancestral plots.

We are confused, in any case, about food, its origins and uses. Every smart restaurant in the land now boasts of its locally-sourced produce. By such means, it is claimed, food traditions are preserved, local economies supported and the environment spared another kicking. The chic chefs insist that we should eat only what is in season locally for all these reasons and more. They abominate the trend for fresh delicacies on demand and the burping volcano, among other voices, says they have a point.

It is argued, for example, that western tastes are fostering the creation of water-profligate food industries in countries stalked by drought. “Fresh”, after all, is invariably a measure of moisture content where food is concerned. Yet water wars, with or without global warming, are predicted to arrive first – history is never surprised – in the systematically exploited developing world.

All this just because our supermarkets provide things we never knew we fancied, at a price. The volcano has merely uncovered an absurdity. Stuck with our feet on the ground, just for once, we get the chance to think again about our bizarre habits, and about the delusion of open-market security.

Grow fat and fatter while importing 40% of your provisions. Ponder security while throwing away £400 worth of perfectly good food per family per overstuffed year.

Wait for the next speculators’ crisis – the Chinese are eating yoghurt! – as dairy farms go bust.

Here’s a society with its head in the clouds, flying blind.

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