Potatoes and nuts - that’s all. | L. OLMO

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There is the story of the Austrian chemist, Albert von Filek, who claimed to be able to mix vegetable extracts and “secret ingredients” with water and create fuel. Albert already had form as a swindler by the time he presented his wonder technique to the Franco regime. If due diligence had indicated Albert’s previous, it must have been ignored, as Albert offered the post-Civil War Spain the chance to become an oil-producing power.

Albert’s scheme was aided by the fact that the regime had passed legislation to protect national industries. Franco was of the view that Spain had all the resources and means the country needed. Most anyway, as oil wasn’t one of them. And so a large area of land on the outskirts of Madrid was expropriated to allow Albert to use water from the River Jarama and help push Spain in the direction of fuel self-sufficiency.

There was, however, to be one snag, one fairly obvious snag. Scientists from the School of Mines conducted analyses and concluded that the Filek wonder fuel “lacked scientific foundation”; it was a scam. Albert was sent to prison in 1941. After the Second World War he was deported to Germany.

It beggars belief that anyone had gone along with this, but they did, driven by the desire for self-sufficiency and the economics of autarky. One national newspaper, La Vanguardia, announced on its front page for February 9, 1940: “National autarky in terms of fuel - Within eight months, Spain will be producing three million litres per day.” It was symptomatic of a hopelessly flawed system, which only helped to cripple an economy already greatly weakened by war. Eventually, the Americans and Opus Dei technocrats brought about change, which was embodied in the Stabilisation Plan of 1959.

The Filek fuel was an extreme example of Spain’s autarky, which was motivated in no small part by xenophobia as well as a great reluctance on behalf of countries such as the UK to have anything to do with the regime. There are, in principle, certain attractions with such a system, especially if it removes reliance on foreign suppliers. But however well endowed an economy may be in terms of resources, there is still the need to trade; societies and political regimes have discovered that over thousands of years.

In Spain, because of the failure under Franco, autarky is a dirty word. Or one, at the very least, to arouse scepticism. And this comes when there is talk of self-sufficiency, as there has been with food.

At the end of January 2020, the Balearic minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, Mae de la Concha, was asked if food sovereignty meant autarky. Food sovereignty, she explained, “is the right of people to healthy and local food and their own production at a fair price”. She went on: “Mallorca was a great agricultural power and now we have excessive external dependence.”

De la Concha was speaking in the aftermath of Storm Gloria, which had disrupted supplies for a couple of days. Imagine what would happen, she remarked, if there were a week-long storm or a prolonged transport strike. External dependence “makes no sense”. So, is this food sovereignty autarky, she was asked. “It’s not the same.” She was right, it isn’t the same, but there is still the implication of self-sufficiency.

Gloria was a storm in a teacup compared with what has followed. Zero kilometre principles, already being advanced, attracted ever greater prominence because of the pandemic. The rise in fuel and electricity prices, the war, the truckers strike have all added to the greater demand for zero kilometre, which in itself is an admirable objective but is also one, on a mass scale, that defies the logic of interconnected systems of trade and the realities of production capabilities.

What would self-sufficiency look like? Less bizarre than the Filek fuel was the Francoist system of cooperatives. Producers were required to focus on produce that could satisfy mass demand. Grain took preference over greatly more profitable growing - grapes for wine, for instance.

That experience is instructive only to a degree because the system was so flawed. Nevertheless, it offers an indication as to difficulties. There has to be realism as to what is achievable, as there can be no Filek wonder mechanism for transforming the whole of the countryside into fields for every imaginable food need.

What is Mallorca self-sufficient in at present? Potatoes and nuts - that’s all. Geographer Ivan Murray from the University of the Balearic Islands once calculated that some sixteen times more agricultural land would be needed in order to get towards self-sufficiency.
The Balearic government, which has made provision of local product an element of its new tourism law, does seem to appreciate the limits, regardless of what Mae de la Concha has said. At least three per cent of hotel food and drink will have to be local.
Three per cent!?