The Future of Our Food

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The Bristol Food Connections Festival is currently in the city and remains here for another 10 days or so. As part of the festival the BBC are hosting a series of live shows where members of the public can come to participate in various ways. For example, on Saturday I attended the first ever audience based broadcast of Farming Today where the discussion was based around local food and food provenance. Sadly, although I had tickets, I was unable to attend a later debate on ‘the future of our food’, hosted by the Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth. Thankfully however the programme was recorded and is now available online. The debate was chaired by presenter of Costing the Earth (and BBC1’s Countryfile) Tom Heap and panelists included Professor Charles Godfrey (Oxford Martin Programme for the Future of Food), Colin Tudge (Campaign for Real Farming), Christine Tacon (a former head of the Co-op Farms and the new UK Groceries Adjudicator), the economist Sean Rickard and Tristram Stuart, the winner of ‘Best Initiative in British Food’ at last week’s BBC Food and Farming Awards and food waste campaigner behind the ‘Feeding the Five Thousand’ and ‘Pig Idea’ projects.

The debate covered the ‘big issues’ around the subject although sadly one can only scatter ideas on the surface in the time available. Climate Change was one issue that, although mentioned, did not form enough of a grounding in the debate. It is certainly one subject, perhaps alongside how to deal with controlling population growth in the first place, that never forms enough of a focus in these kinds of debates, even at a time when we know how drastic the consequences could be and how much influence a changing climate will have on growing food.

The wide range of views represented by the panel illustrated very well the main problem we have in this discussion – so often views as to how we will be able to survive as a species in future years are polarised and concentration is placed on critiquing other points of view rather than coming up with proper solutions for feeding a future planet and looking after the environment (not how I didn’t say ‘our’ as some of the panelists did – the environment is not any more ‘ours’ than any other species on the planet). Indeed, only Charles Godfrey mentioned during the debate that we need to take the best of all options and experiment as to how we can generate a sustainable method of agriculture to feed the future human population and allow people a decent standard of living whilst also encouraging biodiversity and not polluting the planet and draining natural resources. As Colin Tudge said, ecosystem services are too valuable for us to dismiss.

It is clear that we have to produce more efficiently but we also need to become less greedy and reduce waste. As I see it there is a distribution problem in food across the world, not a production problem. In the UK, Europe and the US we are regularly producing yields of up to 8 tonnes of wheat per hectare. This will, I am confident, be increased still further but it is crazy to speak, as Sean Rickard did, of doubling this figure. ‘Science and technology’ as Rickard consistently repeated does, it is true, have an enormous role to play in future agriculture but the conversation must be such that includes all sciences, ecology included and we must ensure that growth and development is holistic and sustainable. We must put an end to the bizarre system of growing large amounts of grains for cattle in a world where millions of people, for whom the cattle are ultimately being farmed, are starving and malnourished. Further, I do not believe that industrial farming, particularly industrial farming devoid of a human workforce, is a better way of managing or ‘looking after’ the environment. Attention to detail and knowledge of species interactions is crucial is managing biodiversity and how natural systems work. This can only be done I believe by specialists who know what they’re talking about. We do not just need farmers to solve this ‘future of food crisis’ but a whole host of other professionals with different sets of expertise, so that we can make a start at answering the question of what methods will be the best to choose. Ultimately I believe it is a diversity and multiplicity of options that we will see. Industrial agriculture (and GM) will sit alongside pockets of more locally orientated, sustainable systems and each will learn from the other. I for one hope that Sean Rickard’s vision of a wholly industrial non-people orientated food system never becomes apparent. Food is about far more than just sustenance. Further, if we lost the family farmers, the bedrock of our rural communities and rural economies, rural life would be much poorer. This is not a world I wish to live in. However, similarly I do not believe that a fully organic, small system agriculture is the answer either. Consensus is required. Whether the bickering will ever stop and we reach that consensus is anybody’s guess.

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