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Newsletter 7th March 2008

- Food security comes first - Environmental priorities and choices

Food security comes first

Magnus Linklater, writing in the Times on Thursday, discusses what he sees as a looming food security problem (Who knows there's a food crisis?). A series of poor harvests, China's growing demand for grain imports, government subsidies for biofuels: all these and doubtless a range of other issues are contributing to a steep rise in food prices. But does this really pose a threat to our food security? The new government chief scientist, Prof John Beddington, certainly thinks so, and on Friday the Times reported his views under the headline of Rush to biofuels threatens starvation on a global scale. Frightening stuff.

Opinion on this will be deeply split between those for whom this reinforces their view of humankind's pernicious effect on the planet, now running out of control as populations continue to increase, and those who dismiss the whole thing as yet more neo-Malthusian scaremongering. In reality, there are no absolute blacks and whites, only shades of grey, and both groups express part of the truth.

For the hundreds of millions of people who still live as subsistence farmers, food security is often tenuous in any case, and these headlines really don't relate to them. Their problems are real, and they need the tools to lift themselves out of poverty, but their food security is not threatened by biofuel production or China's growing import needs. It is the rest of us who don't grow our own food who might need to be concerned. Whether scare stories worry us or not, they should give us pause for thought. The whole complex edifice of modern society would simply crumble if there was too little food. We may have made almost unbelievable progress materially and amassed vast amounts of knowledge in the ten thousand years or so since wild grasses were first deliberately cultivated, but we still need to eat.

So, complacency is not something we should indulge in, but neither should we succumb to the prospect of inevitable doom. Food security seemed to be an even bigger problem in the 1970s, and yet we now feed over 2½ billion more people from effectively the same land area. Better farming practice and appropriate use of fertilizers could boost production further in many countries.  Nevertheless, conventional plant breeding is not producing the significant year-on-year yield increases for crops that it was in decades past. Modern biotechnology – both marker-assisted breeding and genetic modification – surely has a major contribution to make to the achievement of increased real-world yields if we embrace the possibilities it offers rather than rail against its supposed problems.

As for the biofuels saga, this is only a problem because governments have made it so by subsidising bio-ethanol and bio-diesel production. Take away the subsidies and farmers will grow food once more. In perhaps five years time, they may also sell their straw and other waste biomass to companies which can economically turn it into transport fuel. This would not compete with food production.

In the meantime, whatever the reasons for the current enthusiasm for biofuels, it is inconceivable that governments in the developed world will willingly create food insecurity for their populations. If fuel competes with food, food wins hands down. But politicians do need to remember that much of our food supply comes from globally traded commodities, and policies which push prices up may affect other countries at least as much. Higher food prices may benefit the small-scale farmer who has a surplus to sell, but they are equally a problem for the urban poor who cannot grow their own food.

Environmental priorities and choices

Last week's item "Being green is not a black and white issue" attracted a number of comments. Our goal is not to make dogmatic arguments, but to put forward alternative points of view and encourage people to look at evidence and make their own judgements rather than accept without question media reporting of environmental issues. Eliciting comments, whether complimentary or critical, is a healthy sign and we encourage all readers to let us know their own points of view.

Next newsletter

Their will be no newsletter on 14th or 21st March. The next edition is planned for 28th March.