Monday, 12 January 2009


A while back we conducted an investigation into a jar of special edition Guinness Marmite.

If we were to extract the key point from this investigation, it was that Guinness Marmite was actually totally ace. As you could imagine, I was delighted to learn of a new type of Marmite:

Lovely. Its still very much Marmite, but this is a rather bourgeois relative, featuring a cheeky dash of champagne! Luxury combined with 1900s factory sludge - Yum.

On the nose, you get a lovely waft of bubbly champagne, combined with that distinctive yeasty aroma.

In the jar it appears as you would expect, dark brown and sticky.

In the mouth (obviously spread thinly on buttered toast), it presses all the right Marmite buttons, salty, savory goodness.

Premature perhaps, but the perfect gift for a loved one on February 14th?

It Ain't Coca Cola It's Rice (or a year in food production)

“Let me tell you about your blood bamboo kid, It ain’t Coca Cola it’s rice” sings Joe Strummer on Straight To Hell, the M.I.A sampled Clash barnstormer. Essentially the lyric is from the position of the USA, addressing a kid from a foreign land who’s mum got banged up by a US soldier, explaining why there’s no chance of a visa to the ‘land of the free’.

That line struck a chord (geddit?), mainly because for me rice has always symbolised hunger or starvation or something along those lines. Roughly a fifth of all the calories consumed in the world today are rice and cultivation of this wonder crop takes up close to 11% of the Earth’s farmed land, so the idea’s pretty justified. Also, I always thought the juxtaposition of rice, this unstoppable edible force, with the Coca Cola brand was pretty swish.

But that’s a little off topic, I wanted this blog entry to look at 2008 in terms of what’s happened in food production – it was an eventful year. 2008 saw riots over food price rises kicking off from Africa to Asia. In Haiti things got so serious five people died in the ensuing carnage; there were even pasta protests in Italy…

Many factors were responsible for this steep rise in the costs of staple foods - biofuel crop targets set by the US and EU and the sky-high price of oil (at least in the first half of 08) being the most obvious. Increasing numbers of middle class in newly emerging economies such as China and India were also responsible – they creates a higher demand for red meat, which takes a lot of grain to produce and generally isn’t the most efficient use of cultivated land.

Money spent on research and development of new scientific initiatives in food production fell again too in 2008, as it has since the late 21st century, when developed countries, satisfied with unprecedented crop yields cut funding. This didn’t help matters either.

Another worrying move in 2008 saw countries like Madagascar, Sudan, Cambodia and Laos signing of hundreds of hectares of arable land to richer countries and corporations. Laos for example has now leased out 15% of its viable farmland. The main motivation in this buy out was worry about long-term food supplies, probably sparked by the sharp spike in food prices earlier in the year. The people losing out are likely to be the small farmers, especially those who don’t posses solid claims to the lands they farm as they may find themselves booted off. The UN Food and Agricultural commission has already raised fears of “neo-colonialism”. If the investors are unlucky the whole plan might not work out quite as they would like anyway. Land has always been a sensitive thing and it would be foolish not to expect some kind of hostility from the locals.

On a more positive note, however, Bill Gates is without a shadow of a doubt this blog’s hero of 2008. Two of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations initiatives last year were pretty damn important, not to mention trailblazing. Firstly he funded research into Ug99, a fungus with an unfortunate appetite for wiping out as much of Asia’s wheat harvest as it can. As mentioned above, governmental spending on agricultural R&D is ever decreasing, making it even more admirable funding came out of the chap’s own pocket.

Secondly the Purchase For Progress scheme (also set in place in 2008) looks set to achieve big things. One of the major flaws in US food aid (and the US is the world’s biggest food donor), is a stupid protectionist law stating that a minimum $1.5 billion worth of aid must be grown stateside and subsequently shipped to its destinations aboard US flagged vessels (which costs billions of dollars), meaning US aid donations are pretty inefficient.

Purchase For Progress looks set to help out nearly half a million (mostly) African farmers grow food for use by the UN World Food Program. Importantly this food should be redistributed on a local scale. Even better, instead of the crops being bought outright the majority of the cash will be reinvested in teaching better farming techniques and in helping with crop storage and transport. These are all major obstacles for farmers in undeveloped countries, many of whom find it hard enough to just feed themselves from their turf.