Picture the scene: It’s the end of January 2012 and already it is clear the year to come will make that which has just passed seem something of a picnic. The last strains of Auld Lang Syne had barely faded before Greece defaulted on its debts. Over the next few weeks, Italy and Spain will follow.
Across Britain and the Continent, bank after bank goes down, a domino effect exacerbated by panicking customers desperately withdrawing their savings. Where three years ago the giants of High Street banking were seen as too big too fail, now they are too big and too many for any Government to save.
Panic ensues. Within hours, the cashpoints are empty of money and the supermarket shelves stripped bare.
To make matters worse the country is hit by freezing weather. As temperatures plummet and snow falls, the road network stalls to a grinding halt, while large swathes of the country are hit by electricity blackouts.
The warning by economists that Britain is just ‘nine meals from anarchy’ is brutally borne out. Unlike last summer, the rioters on the streets aren’t looking for trainers and flat-screen TVs — just food.
An absurd fantasy? Perhaps so, but in an increasingly uncertain world, such a scenario can no longer be dismissed out of hand. And strange as it may seem, it’s one that many believe is worth preparing for.
Across the country, steps are being taken to cope with such a situation. But not by central or local government. Their contingency planning for such an emergency is focused on the most important and most vulnerable in society.
Instead it is ordinary people who are taking action: stockpiling their larders with non-perishable food, buying water-purifying pumps and camping stoves.
While five years ago such behaviour might have been dismissed as the activities of ‘end-of-the-world’ eccentrics, those doing so today are professionals from every walk of life.
Companies selling freeze-dried food rations, sealed in giant air-tight multi-serving tins and with a shelf-life of 25 years, have seen sales soar in recent months — increasing ten-fold compared to previous years.
Most popular are the packs of instant meals that will keep a family of four going for three months once water is added. At around £1,500 they are not cheap. But many of those buying these emergency rations see them as a wise investment — and they are well-placed to make such a judgment.
‘It is not “crazies” buying this,’ says James Blake, whose company Emergency Food Storage specialises in freeze-dried foods. ‘We get a lot of high-powered business people as customers. Most people buy insurance for their health, their house or their life — this is food insurance.
‘Of course, we hope it never happens, but if there is a major catastrophe, then money is not going to be worth much after a couple of days. It will be food that becomes the most needed thing.’
Dave Hannah and his company B-Prep sell similar products. He says a number of his customers are bankers. Their average spend is £3,000.
‘It makes you think: “What do they know?” ’ says Hannah. ‘When we’ve talked on the phone, they’ve told me: “This whole thing is going to go down.” ’
Of course, that might just be sales talk: stoking paranoia to boost company profits.
But there’s no doubt some families are stocking up in preparation for harsh times ahead. Among them is 51-year-old Lynda Mayall from Poole in Dorset.
The divorced mother-of-four — she has 17-year-old twin girls and boys aged 18 and 19 — has suffered since the credit crunch took hold.
She was forced to close her domestic cleaning company and now teaches English as a foreign language and helps to train counsellors.
Her work is intermittent — while she had a two-month contract in the summer she is currently surviving on a few hours’ work a week. As a result, she has become acutely aware of how important it is to have sufficient food stored to feed her family.
As well as buying several hundred pounds worth of freeze-dried ‘survival’ meals, her cupboards contain more than 100 tins of beans, fish, soup and vegetables. She also has stocks of pasta and rice.
‘I think I have about a six-month supply of food in the house,’ she says. ‘The freeze-dried tins are great because they take up so much less space. It is something we can fall back on if times are tough. It is my security blanket.’ Miss Mayall says her stockpiling instinct has been sharpened by the way in which the European crisis is unfolding.
‘I think there is every possibility that we could see problems around the availability of food,’ she says.
‘We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m not totally pessimistic and I do have faith in the Government, but I have more faith in my store cupboard. I know we’ll have food in times of trouble.’
A wise precaution or an over- reaction? Either way, in recent years, a series of events have served to highlight the fragility of the infrastructure of developed First World countries in the 21st century.
Take the fuel strikes of 2000. Lorry drivers, fed up with high diesel prices, blockaded the refineries. Almost immediately they exposed the frailties of a society that feeds itself via a just-in-time supply chain.
Within days, shelves were bare and supermarket bosses were warning civil servants in Whitehall that there were just three days of food left.
Then there was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Within days, residents of the richest country in the world were looting to feed themselves and their families......
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