Oops! No food!

May 2013

CC Photo by Danny Nicholson on Flickr
For many years, GM lobbyists have been telling us that we need GM because people in other countries aren't getting enough to eat. Then, they tried the threat that people in 2050 won't have enough to eat if we don't grow GM now. Since these haven't been too convincing, agriculture minister David Heath has decided to try bringing the argument into our own backyard.

Britain only produces about 60% of its food, and the proportion is falling. To add to this deficiency we have nothing much stockpiled for a rainy day: our never-empty supermarket shelves are a carefully stage-managed illusion created by a steady stream of just-in-time deliveries and a constant rearrangement of the stocks on display. We are heavily dependent on imports and the global food market.

The blame for this extraordinarily irresponsible food supply system lies, it seems, on what happened “a few years ago when the idea got around” that the UK agri-sector could be laid to rest because “we would be able to buy our way through whatever was necessary to feed the country”

As a result, our food is riding on the global supply of oil for agri-chemicals and transport, and on the mass production of uniform crops and livestock to be funneled into this global system. Food availability and price are vulnerable to foreign political forces, disease, and natural disasters.

Heath's answer to our lack of self-sufficiency is that (surprise!) he believes we need GM crops for higher yielding varieties and to reduce inputs, and he therefore thinks there's a “need to move the EU forward on this”. (COMMENT If this particular stream of consciousness doesn't appear too logical in isolation, that's because it has all the hallmarks of another cog in the Westminster GM-for-Britain PR machine. See WHEN NON-NEWS IS BAD NEWS - April 2013).

Our agriculture minister also stresses the need for British children to know about the origins of their food and to “get their hands dirty and share in vegetable growing”. The government is reviewing how to attract skilled recruits into agriculture.


The good minister's script doesn't go so far as to give a reason for his 'belief' in GM's ability to raise yields and reduce inputs. It certainly isn't based on farmer's experiences to date: any reduced agri-chemical applications or prevention of yield loss (referred to as a 'yield gain' in biotech-speak) has been short-lived.

Neither does he explain how devoting expertise, time and cash to developing limited, expensive, short-lived technical tricks could provide a route to self-sufficiency.

However, perhaps something good will emerge from the realisation that we need to know more about the food on our plates and to promote British farming skills. Let's hope the government doesn't just have in mind a public sedation exercise dressed up as 'education', and the ability to read the instructions on the biotech seed- and chemical-packets.

Drop some hints in the right ears that when the planned new generation of farmers emerges, they will need land with healthy soil, access to non-oil-dependent inputs, and a diversity of locally adapted seeds to plant. The food-educated masses of the future will be much fussier about eating chemically- or genetically-messed-up offerings: farmers of the future will need to grow things people want to buy, not what government whims diverted our scientific resources into because a few year ago 'the idea got around' that we needed GM.

  • Tim Ross, Britain may need to 'dig for survival', minister says, Telegraph 16.04.13

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