Science - June 15, 2006

Comment / Europe self-sufficient?

If current trends continue, it will be the Brazilian government that decides if Europeans have enough to eat or not in twenty years’ time, warns Dutch Euro MP Albert Jan Maat. According to him, there will not be enough food to feed the world population in 2025. If Europe cannot produce enough food for its own population it will be at the mercy of other countries, and hunger may be the consequence. Should we be worried?

Professor Arie Oskam, chair of the Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy Group:
‘Not at all. Every so often there’s a commotion about self-sufficiency. Often it’s people who represent certain interests, and that’s probably the case for Mr Maat.

‘Food export bans have been used in the past as a political weapon, but never effectively. The US punished the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan by stopping its exports, and in 1974 was there an American ban on exporting soya. Of course this had temporary effects, but studies have shown that ultimately, countries that stop exporting suffer most themselves.

‘The United States is not the only exporter of grain. When they boycotted the USSR, South American, European and Australian grain farmers were the ones who benefited. In the long run, the soya boycott resulted in Brazil becoming the top soya producer. If one country stops delivering, other suppliers will replace them. That’s how the market works. Countries that earn a lot from food exports will think long and hard before they jeopardise their trade interests. In the end a country boycotts itself by not exporting.

‘When it comes to energy, however, it’s a different matter. Energy provision requires very high and long-term investments. In addition, there are only a few countries that supply oil. From that point of view, it is sensible to consider Europe’s strategic position. Spreading risk is a good idea, for instance by investing in wind, atomic and bio-energy. These forms of energy should be more expensive than oil – that’s the insurance premium you pay for greater security.

‘If Mr Maat gets his way and Europe decides to go for self-sufficiency, we would also have to pay a similar premium for food. Consumers would pay a higher price for their shopping in return for greater certainty that the goods are available. Over the years we would pay a huge premium and that would be untenable for food. What would we be paying for? Our food is composed of so many ingredients that are grown all over the world. But, unlike energy, it is possible to produce food with relatively low investments. In my view, people who argue in favour of self sufficiency have not thought enough about economics.’

Korné Versluis