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Meeting demand for food

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IT IS interesting to compare speeches given by Defra ministers at the Oxford Farming Conference each year to see how government policies have changed. As recently as five years ago the emphasis was not so much on farming for food, more on ‘greener’ farming and protecting the environment. A lack of emphasis on producing more food had been a feature of government policy for several years and was based on the principle that food was not in short supply and that future supply could most effectively be secured through international trade. That view changed after the sharp increase in world food prices in 2007 and 2008 and, by 2010, food production was back on the Government's agenda. Concern for the environment was still there, reinforced by the realisation that the world's resources are limited and that, with a growing world population, there would be a need to increase production in a sustainable way, but somehow the emphasis had changed. At this year's conference the emphasis on increasing production sustainably was, if anything, even stronger, as was an emphasis on improved competitiveness. Of particular note this year was the emphasis placed on the part that technology can play in this process.

In his speech to the conference on January 3, Owen Paterson, the current Secretary of State at Defra, referred, among other things, to genetically modified (GM) foods, which has been something of a no go area for ministers in recent years, as well as to the Government's ‘Agri-Tech’ strategy. This is currently being developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and is intended to help address global environmental and food production challenges by making better use of technology while capitalising on the opportunities these present. BIS consulted on its Agri-Tech strategy in October and intends to publish the strategy early this year. Among other things, it is looking at ways in which new technologies (such as nanotechnologies, robotics and remote sensing), biotechnology techniques (such as genomic analysis, cloning and GM) and engineering might help.

Regarding GM, Mr Paterson told farmers, ‘GM needs to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits. We should not, however, be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel. As well as making the case at home, we also need to go through the rigorous processes that the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops. I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation.’

Mr Paterson was right to draw attention to the need to reassure the public, and this is an area where the Government will need to tread carefully. The public remains suspicious of GM and similar ‘new’ technologies and, if experience is anything to go by, it may take more than reassurance to persuade them of the benefits; they will need to be both fully informed about and understand the issues and actually be convinced. Elsewhere in his speech, Mr Paterson made much of the steps being taken by the Government to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy on farmers ‘to get out of people's hair and let them get on with what they are good at’. The application of such technologies, however, is not an area that can simply be left to the industry, but one where the Government must help to progress the debate and make clear the extent to which it is prepared to intervene.

Improving the efficiency of production represents half of the equation for meeting the global food security challenges of the 21st century; the other half is reducing waste. This was clearly highlighted in a report published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers last week. Called ‘Global food: waste not, want not’1, this suggests that, because of poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, between 30 and 50 per cent of the food produced worldwide each year ‘never reaches a human stomach’. Noting that the source of food waste differs in different countries depending on their stage of development, it suggests ways in which engineering expertise might usefully be applied to help find appropriate solutions. As the engineers point out, ‘The potential to provide 60 to 100 per cent more food by simply eliminating losses, while simultaneously freeing up land, energy and water resources for other uses, is an opportunity that should not be ignored’. Increasing yields is an appropriate response to an emerging food crisis, but there is not much point in producing more food if it is not actually used.

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