Weaning the world off Russian grain means letting farmers decide how to use their land
Even worse, we have blocked the emerging technologies that could have been significantly increasing yields. Huge advances have been made in gene editing and in genetically modifying food, to make crops more resistant to diseases, or to boost overall yields, or to make them simpler to harvest, or to stay fresher for longer.
Just about all of them have been banned or nothing more substantial than some flimsy, panicky claims about “Frankenstein foods” that make the arguments of anti-vaxxers look rational by comparison. The UK has made a few noises about liberalising that after leaving the EU, but, as in so many other areas, has so far done virtually nothing.
In many ways, we have gone backwards. The EU is steadily limiting the use of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weed-killer. That may be the right or wrong decision, but the blunt truth is that it is not going to make it any easier to grow more crops.
In reality, there is a simple solution to the looming food crisis. We should sweep away all the restrictions on agriculture, and let the free market lead a transformation of how and where we grow crops instead.
We should allow farmers to decide how they want to use their land, and how they can most efficiently maximise their output. With wheat trading at more than $11 a bushell they shouldn’t need much encouragement to start producing more.
We should allow genetic engineers to figure out ways of enhancing yields so that we can grow more food locally, reducing transport costs, and reducing our dependence on increasingly rogue states.
If people don’t want to eat GM foods, that is of course their choice, but so long as labelling is clear, and no one is misled, there is no reason why they should impose their views on the rest of us.
Finally, we should be encouraging even more innovative agricultural technologies such as vertical farms close to distribution hubs and plant-based meats that would reduce the amount of grain we use. In reality, just as with energy, within two or three years, we could have easily made up for all the production lost from the war in Ukraine, and keep both ourselves and the rest of the world fed at reasonable cost.
We may well see spiralling prices, and even some shortages in the year ahead, but until we get back to a free and open market in agriculture we only have ourselves to blame.