April 2011

To scale up or scale down? That's the big question facing global agriculture. The US and UK Governments and the biotech industry say up, the United Nations and Development Agencies say down.

At the start of 2011, the UK Government produced a report on 'Global Food and Farming Futures' (referred to as 'Foresight' in reference to the thinktank which produced it).

This “mammoth” Report was the culmination of two years of study involving 400 scientists from 34 countries.

While recognising that no single solution exists, the Report stresses that it is critical to achieve increased yields by “sustainable intensification” in the developing world. To achieve this, it says, will require the spread of existing knowledge and technology.

The title of 'Global Food and Farming Futures', coupled to “400 scientists” and “34 countries” all suggest a very serious international search for the best way forward to provide a sustainable food supply for everyone in the world.

Indeed, those involved in the report say all the right things on the subject: the authors call for “food and agriculture to move up the political agenda and be coordinated with efforts to tackle the impact of climate change, the supply of water and energy and the loss of farm land”, and the bottom line is that “transformation on the scale of the industrial revolution” is needed

Scratch the surface, however, and a different picture begins to emerge.

The 'Global Food and Farming Futures' Report came from the Department for Business Innovation (BIS), and was co-commissioned by the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The focus of the report is clearly on UK business interests, and how global food and farming futures can be shaped to benefit these. UK business has a habit of reflecting whatever America happens to want, and America has a habit of wanting whatever the biotech industry wants.

If this seems far-fetched, DEFRA Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, was quick to use Foresight as a vehicle to promote the free-market which the US is so keen to inflict all over the world.

The global problems found in the Report have been repeatedly aired in the past: one billion people are going hungry, one billion people suffer from nutrient deficiencies, and another one billion people are so “substantially over-consuming” that they suffer from obesity; 30 percent of all food produced is never consumed; our current agri-system is directly responsible for 14 percent of man-made greenhouse gases (or up to one third if we factor in deforestation for the expansion of farmland, and close to half if we factor in food processing and long-haul transport). Nothing new there. And nothing new in Foresight's 'solutions' either: these have already been very actively pursued for some time ... by big agri-business.

And GM?

UK Chief Scientist and overseer of the Report, John Beddington, was quick to use Foresight as a plug for his support of GM: “It is very hard to see how it would be remotely sensible to justify not using new technologies such as GM”.

In the report itself, however, GM is barely mentioned. It rather slips in as just part of the knowledge and technology it is critical to spread, and only “in light of the magnitude of the challenges”.

Agricultural scientist and high-profile activist, Devinder Sharma, is in no doubt that Foresight is just a clever camouflage whose main purpose is to kick-start GM research in the UK: the report simply conceals that intention by burying it amongst a lot of other issues. As he points out:
“The report does say 'that the food production system will need to be radically changed not just to produce more food but to produce it sustainably' but when it comes to spelling out the radical changes required, it not only fails but fails miserably to come up with any proposal/recommendation that is not an extension of the industrial farming model that has created the crisis in the first place.”
Another agricultural scientist and high-profile activist, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, also found a reason for distrusting the true nature of Foresight. She reports:
“I asked a few of my colleagues who are listed as among the report's “400 authors and contributors” what happened. They all indicated that they had had no say in the actual writing of this report. As one scientist, whose name is listed in the report, put it: 'I was invited by email to write a review to be published elsewhere. I didn't participate in any meetings, discussions, findings, or report writing. I hadn't even been alerted to the fact that a report had been issued. It isn't at all clear to me how the listed “stakeholders” actually participated in the process. The issue of GM crops never came up in anything I saw, and it doesn't even seem to feature strongly in the report. (The) conclusion that the (UK Chief Scientist) is just using the report to promote GM crops seems about right.'
Adding to the impression of a hidden GM, pro-biotech, agenda are the notable aspects of both GM and our food supply which have been ignored, glossed over or trivialised in the Report. For example:
  • The views of farmers, indigenous people and workers
  • The loss of control over, and right to, land in developing countries, promoted by powers such as the World Bank
  • The over-riding political aspects of hunger
  • The role of global commodity speculation as the root cause of food price volatility.
Concerns about gene technology (apparently these are based only on untenable ethical and moral grounds)
The huge cost of GM crop development, plus the training needed to use them efficiently, the legal oversight needed, and the on-going supply system required etc.
Anything which might annoy the biotech industry, the US administration ...

  • “Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized small-holder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.” (UN Conference on Trade an development and UN Environment Program, 'Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, 2008)
  • In the Tigray area of Ethiopia “previously known as one of the most degraded Regions of Ethiopia”, more than 20,000 farming families saw yields of major cereals and pulses nearly double “using ecological agricultural practices such as composting, water and soil conservation activities, agroforestry, and crop diversification” (UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 'Mitigating Climate Change, Providing Food Security and Self-Reliance for Rural Livelihoods', 2008)
  • The huge 'International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development' clearly reflected a growing consensus among the global scientific community and most governments that the conventional paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive, chemical-based agriculture is not the way forward. The key message as stated by the UK DEFRA chief scientist at the time (also chief scientist for the World Bank and IAATSD director) was that “continuing with current trends would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit”. On biotech agriculture, the report was definite: there is little role for GM as currently practiced, in feeding the poor. (see THE CARDS ON THE TABLE – News archive, May 2008)
  • “In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides”. (FAO conference, 2009)
  • “Conventional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (in advanced seed varieties, machinery etc.)”. “Green agriculture”, low-tech, high-skilled methods like “restoring and enhancing soil fertility through the increased use of naturally and sustainably produced nutrient inputs; diversified crop rotations; and livestock and crop integration” are called for (UN Environment Program, 2011)
  • One week after the above report, another UN conference reinforced the message. It called for a transformation from high-input monoculture to a diverse mosaic of 'regenerative' agricultural systems (UN Conference on Trade and development, 2011).


We need, as a top priority, for the people of every country to invest in a sustainable way of life.

The recurrent theme here is undoubtedly the need to scale down: all areas in the world must be helped to produce their own food sustainably. That means without dependence on foreign powers, international trade, multinational companies, dwindling global resources or expensive technologies. It means an exchange of knowledge and a gift of materials to set each area on the right track to food-independence. It means the world as a family of self-reliant areas which can then support each other in a time of need.

If you need more convincing, read the latest Friends of the Earth International 'Who Benefits from GM crops: Food Sovereignty', February 2011, Issue 121.

If, or when, all our natural resources (including natural germplasm and knowledge) have run dry, we will all starve. Ask your MP to remind the DEFRA and BIS about the IAASTD and the multiple UN reports. Perhaps if they realise the Foresight sham isn't fooling anyone, the Government might start really looking for a solution before it's too late.

  • Global food system must be transformed 'on industrial revolution scale', Guardian, 24.01.11
  • Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, GMO apologists ignore science – again, La Vida Locavore, 28.01.11
  • Devinder Sharma, Global Food and Farming Futures report creates panic to push GM crops, Ground Reality, 25.01.11
  • UN 'Green Marshall Plan' condemns large scale, chemical approaches to boost food production, Soil Association 8.03.11
  • Tom Philpott, Debunking the stubborn myth that only industrial ag can 'feed the world', GRIST, 10.03.11
  • 'Land Rush' as Threats to Food Security Intensify, Institute of Science in Society Report, 28.04.10
  • Sustainable Agriculture Urgently Needed, UN Agencies Say, Institute of Science in Society Report, 4.04.11

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