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Author: David Gowing

The real story behind cereals

Updated Monday, 29th November 2010

What has changed when it comes to breakfast cereals, and who is paying the true cost of apparent abundance?

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Breakfast cereals can make their manufacturers large profits on the back of cheap input materials.  The cost of raw commodities (primarily wheat, maize and rice) account for only a small proportion of the products’ selling price. 

Not so long ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, concern was focussed on how we would feed the world’s burgeoning population in the 21st century.  Now an abundance of cheap staples, such as grains, are almost taken for granted in the developed world.  What has changed and who is paying the true cost?

Harvesting cereals in the Cheviots

Some of answer lies in the so-called “green revolution” that started in the 1960s, when the methods for producing grain were revolutionised by science and technology.  Cereal varieties were bred to give higher yields, fertilisers mass produced, chemical compounds tailor-made to kill pests and mechanisation developed such that a large farm could be run by a single person rather than a legion of farm labourers.

The result was that wide expanses of uniform high-yielding crops, largely devoid of weeds and insects appeared across Europe, North America and Australia.  These fields of gold are often depicted on breakfast-cereal packets as a promotional device, inviting us to think of the product as a wholesome commodity from a sustainable agricultural system.  Unfortunately, such images do not tell the whole story.  There are costs to be paid for producing cereal grains at the absurdly low price of 15 p per kilo.

A current concern is in terms of climate change. Agricultural production is often seen as on the side of the angels, because plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it into a useful product.

So far so good, but to persuade plants to do this at a maximal rate in order to drive down costs means supplying them with huge quantities of nitrogenous fertilisers.  In a natural system, nitrogen compounds, produced from bush fires and lightening, fall in the rain at a rate of one or two kilos per hectare per year.  In contrast, farmers may supply their crops with up a hundred times this amount in the form of cheap, bagged fertiliser. 

The reaction that converts atmospheric nitrogen gas into the nitrate and ammonium compounds that plants absorb requires high temperatures and pressures, fuelled by petrochemicals. 

In addition to the carbon costs of using these fertilisers, adding large amounts of reactive nitrogen compounds to the environment has many indirect impacts, including pollution of groundwater supplies with nitrate and enriching natural habitats with nitrogen to the point that native species give way to a small subset of highly competitive species, thereby depressing biodiversity. 

The problem of pesticide use and their impacts on ecosystems further add to the problems of pollution and biodiversity loss.  These are stories not told on the back of cereal packets, though some manufacturers do seek to restrict themselves to raw materials grown in a wildlife-friendly manner.  Others go a step further and use organically grown cereals.


Organic farming does address most of the sustainability concerns, but it is not a panacea.  Agronomists argue that the world’s population cannot be sustained by organic farming alone.

Your choice of breakfast cereals therefore represents an ethical dilemma common to many foodstuffs; do you buy cheaply produced raw materials and leave the planet to pay the price? Or do you pay more for ethically produced grain in the knowledge that if everyone did so there may not be enough food to go around? 

Fair-trade products present another choice.  One of the by-products of the efficient industrial production of grain in the developed world is that supply can sometimes outstrip demand.  The government subsidies paid to farmers have encouraged maximum production independent of demand, leading to market distortions. 

Such systems of subsidies, indulged in by many of the developed nations, are the other part of the answer to our initial conundrum of how agriculture has changed in the past 50 years. The surpluses encouraged by these subsidies have often been “dumped” on markets in the developing world, undercutting locally produced food and thereby impoverishing local farmers. 

Fair-trade products seek to address such injustices, but many argue the only solution to the underlying problem is the re-introduction of global free trade via the removal of production subsidies to farmers in the developed world.  Subsidies may be better targeted as payment for environmental stewardship rather than reward for maximum production.  The stewardship role of farmers in the developed world is often overlooked or undervalued.

How many of us appreciate the range of issues staring up at us from our bowl of cornflakes in the morning!



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