Ye’ll have had your tea…

Famously thrifty, the Scots may well fail to offer you a meal on arrival. But you’ll be in good company. Many people in the world today will also have missed their “tea”. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that number at 925 million people. Three times the population of the United States.

Of those who have eaten, many will have had too little, and out of those who ate enough food, a good many will suffer from hidden hunger. This particular flavor of  starvation is insidious, a lack of essential vitamins and micronutrients. The kind of deficiency that led to the scurvy outbreaks described in The India Road. The kind of problem that vanished in Western Europe and the United States, where any supermarket has rows of vitamins and supplements, by and large unnecessary given the variety of our diet.

Central Scotland has been unusally cold this week, paralysed by snow that is rapidly turning to ice, and reaching temperatures of minus fifteen degrees centigrade or lower. Local people tell me they don’t remember a winter like this for the past twenty years. I gently remind them that we have two weeks to go before winter even begins. The country appeared rather unprepared, many motorists spent a night or more in their cars, and the Scottish minister of transport has been on TV making apologies, explaining (unusually for a politician) that the buck stops with him. But then there are elections for the national parliament coming up in a few months, so this is a bad time for St. Peter to come out in support of the opposition.

A winter wonderland - unseasonal Scottish weather

In a developing country, a comparable natural event would undoubtedly have resulted in many deaths. The fragility brought on by lack of food and shelter, by lack of logistics and government commitment, is a recipe for tragedy. That’s one of the key differences between the two worlds: in the west a major natural disaster usually has relatively small human consequences, in the developing world it’s the reverse. The gap between world food requirements and supply is widening. It is estimated that about 30 million tons of extra aquatic products will be needed to feed the world by 2050. I’ve had a very interesting week discussing how best to address this, mostly through aquaculture – the farming of animals and plants in lakes, in ponds, and in the oceans.

The vision varies widely, depending on where you come from. In a medley of people from Egypt, China, Brazil, Ghana, or the United States, you quickly become aware of the different priorities. In the US or Scotland, local people protest against the siting of a shellfish farm because they want an unobstructed view of the water.  The NIMBY factor, not in my backyard, or more recently, the NIMTO effect, not in my term in office. The Chinese always show you a picture to highlight their view; in this case, a photo taken at Guangzhou railway station in the big freeze in 2008. A mass of immigrant workers trying to get home for the Chinese New Year. Too many mouths to feed. To quote the Chinese saying:

Ren Shan, Ren Hai – People Mountain, People Sea

I’m one of the lucky ones, and in this cold weather I might well start the day with a bowl of porridge. Dr. Johnson, the famous XVIIIth century pontificator, described it as “a food fit only for horses and Scotsmen”.

After that, time to do battle with the Scottish transportation system. It’s going to be a long day.


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