There’s a lot to be said for optimism – but let’s not get carried away by jumping to conclusions in the wake of last week’s fall in oil prices. 

Many breathed a sigh of relief last week as oil prices fell from the $143 peak. Retailers could at last get back to the pursuit of low food prices and business-as-usual. Eighteen months of rising concern about a global food crisis will turn out to be a blip, we thought. Farmers will simply grow more food, enticed by high prices. Genetic modification will crack the global problem. A lot of people will make piles of money and, hey presto, things will get back to normal. Really?

What Chatham House calls Blip Theory has a remarkable grip on consciousness. Never mind strong evidence that oil supplies are approaching ‘peak’ (I attended a briefing last week where experts judged this as 2011 or 2012). 

Never mind the climatologists now urging even more dramatic cuts in CO2. Never mind the development economists pointing to countries that previously exported food now importing it. Never mind the water analysts worrying about embedded water in food. These are Jeremiahs to be ignored. Britons will be fed and cheap food is a right. This is, of course, dangerous nonsense. But it has to be taken seriously. Last week Defra launched a consultation on food security. It reassured us that although home production of food is dropping, it’s not a worry. The UK last fed itself in the mid to late-18th century. Today we produce about 60% of our food, the bulk of imports coming from reliable EU trading partners. We’re rich – we can afford to buy on open markets.

Meanwhile, a nascent war-time ethos emerged from the mass sub-consciousness. Dig for victory, queues for allotments, thrift. 

The prime minister’s office launched the complex Cabinet Office report on food policy as being about waste. Actually, although a theme, waste was not the report’s main thrust. That was the need to move urgently to a low-carbon food economy and to develop sustainable and healthy food systems. 

Far from a return to business as usual, now is when food companies need to act on making eco-sustainability their core business model. The Cabinet Office report promised a new annual strategic review. Politicians of all hues scratch their heads over big policy questions. What’s land for? How to juggle health, environment and economics? What prices would consumers tolerate? What does sustainable food look like? 

Breathe relief at oil price drops by all means, but remember, ‘normality’ is only a temporary state of affairs.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy, City University