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Food security remains an important issue

 

Over the past few years, food security has once again become an issue which politicians are taking notice of. After the green revolution once again confounded predictions of an impending Malthusian disaster, the tendency was for developed countries to become complacent. In Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy was used to support an ailing farming sector, production quotas were introduced, and farmers were paid to set aside a proportion of their land. The problem seemed to be of too much food rather than too little; this was the era of wine lakes and beef mountains.

Agronomic scientists, the agricultural supply industry and other experts had been talking behind the scenes about the pressing need to increase medium-term food production for many years, but it took the food price spike of 2007/8 to bring this to wider public and political attention. A series of poor harvests, compounded to some extent by the increasing use of maize to produce bioethanol fuel, reduced world grain stocks and pushed prices high enough to cause food riots in a number of countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some governments felt obliged to intervene to control grain exports and prices.

Since then, prices have been relatively volatile, but higher than pre-2007 and at or above 2008 levels at times. For prosperous Western consumers, this is a nuisance, but in many developing countries it can make the daily struggle of the poorest people to feed themselves even more precarious. In 2010, according to Office of National Statistics figures, the average British household spent 11.2% of its income on food and drink; half a century earlier, previous generations spent more than double this percentage on a much less varied diet. Despite the significant rises in recent years, household expenditure on food has risen rather little from a low of 10.2% in 2005/6. Contrast this with the urban poor of the developing world, for whom food is by far the biggest part of their outgoings. No wonder there were riots.

The situation was put into focus for politicians in the UK (and elsewhere) by the influential paper Food, Energy, Water and the Climate: a Perfect Storm of Global Events? Produced by John Beddington, government chief scientist, in 2009. He argued for the important role of science and technology in coping with the food and energy needs of a growing population against a background of increasing disruption caused by climate change. The impact of climate change is, of course, arguable in the absence of a clear idea about what drives it, but it is indisputable that food and energy needs will increase and must be met in ways which are sustainable (in the literal sense of the word) for the foreseeable future.

As Professor Beddington pointed out, the issues are to a large extent interlinked: agriculture currently uses about 70% of available fresh water and energy is needed to fuel tractors and produce fertilizer and other inputs. Although arguably a secure energy supply is the essential prerequisite to fulfil all other needs, in practice adequate food is the more immediate need. As Trotsky (or Dumas, or possibly someone else entirely) said, no society is more than three square meals away from a revolution.

The latest organisation to emphasise the importance of food security is the CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) an umbrella body which brings together 15 international research institutes with governments, other funding sources and NGOs. They have published a seven-point plan for the so-called Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development, scheduled for late June.

According to a BBC report (Nations need food security goals), “Organisers [of the summit]say that the conference will focus on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development. Seven priority areas have also been identified, including: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.”

One of the CGIAR key messages is “We call on Rio+20 actors to make a clear commitment to sustainable agricultural systems that prioritize food and nutrition security in order to lessen the need for emergency responses.” Others include specific calls for partnerships, support for small-scale farmers and more equitable sharing of resources. But their spokesman, Bruce Campbell, is quoted by the BBC as saying that “the agencies were calling on the negotiators to reaffirm the role of science and technology.”

This is a critical point. All too often, the food security agenda has been captured by vested interests that focus on local production, traditional knowledge and organic farming. The aim of some (doubtless well-meaning) campaigners seems to be to tweak traditional subsistence farming sufficiently for people to feed themselves, while assuming that they will not want to better themselves by moving to the rapidly-growing cities. A better and more productive solution than this is needed if future generations in developing societies are to have food security.

To return to the theme of a recent newsletter (Farming doesn’t stand still) it is attitudes like this which, taken to extreme, fuel the Luddite tendency which opposes even experimental work on genetically modified crops. By next week, researchers at Rothamsted Research will know whether the activists of Take the Flour Back have carried out their threat to destroy the GM wheat trial, despite repeated attempts to engage them in a more constructive dialogue.

To end on a controversial note, readers may be interested in a recent Time article: Does organic food turn you into a jerk? This covers a report in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science which concluded that exposure to organic foods “can harshen moral judgements” and “organic eaters... tend to congratulate themselves for their moral and environmental choices, affording them the tendency to look down on others who don’t share their desire for pesticide-free living.” To what extent this can be generalised is a moot point, but it certainly highlights the danger of moral superiority when trying to improve food security. 

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Submission of evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology committee inquiry into the resilience of electricity infrastructure, September 2014.