Friday, March 07, 2014

Different versions of food futures

Earlier this week I went to a very interesting workshop on future global food systems. As is inevitably the case, two different versions of the future emerged.

One view is that in order to feed a growing world population (of which anything between 1 billion and 3.5 billion are under nourished and 0.83 billion underweight) we shall have to continue to rely on intensive systems of food production and make greater use of new technology.

An alternative view, which was developed rather more in the discussion, was that we were going to hell in a handcart and the present system of production is unsustainable in terms, for example, of the demands it is making on soil and water and its contribution to climate change. We rely on too narrow a range of plant and livestock species and overlook crops which could be safely grown several times in one year (although whether people find some of these crops palatable is another question).

Of course, how one moves to a different system is a more challenging question and it struck me that there was an element of naivety in some of the suggestions put forward. Urban agriculture such as growing mint in a suburb of Rotterdam may have educational benefits, but it is not going to start to feed large cities. If diversity is the enemy of capitalism, as was argued, how is one going to get round that given the structural and lobbying power of big business? How can one cope with the power of supermarkets which tend to make cosmetic changes in their offer to reflect concerns? One answer that was suggested was to convert consumers into citizens in relation to food, but that has its challenges.

I would suggest that sustainable intensification offers a possible way forward. I know that it is greeted with scepticism both by environmental lobbyists, who see it as a stalking horse for GMO, and by farmers who tell me that they don't understand what it is. What it involves is an acknowledgment is that we are going to have continue with intensive farming (although not everywhere) but it has to be done in a more sustainable way by using inputs in a much more careful way. Drone technology, for example, opens up new possibilities in precision farming, making it possible to avoid the over use of fertilisers.

One also has to recognise that business is not a homogeneous entity signed up to a common agenda and that some businesses are concerned about the possible impacts of unmitigated climate change, notably the insurance industry which plays a key role in the Aldersgate Group which is a coalition of businesses, NGOs and others: Aldersgate .

Where I would agree with many of the speakers is that the analysis of power relations is of crucial importance in understanding how systems of food production operate.

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