Perspectives on Global Food and Farming Futures

Perspectives on Global Food and Farming Futures – next steps for policy ( the Beddington report ) by Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, Practical Action and Chair, UK Food Group. His contribution at the Westminster Forum on Food and Nutrition on 31 March 2011, follows a cautionary comment at the time of publication of the report in January 2011, which can be found here on Practical Action's website.

The almost formulaic Westminster forum on food and nutrition, sponsored by the Crop Protection Association, did not facilitate discussion about the need to radically change the food system to one that is healthy, lower input, biodiverse, ecological and sustainable and in the hands of the people who produce most of our food – the hundreds of millions of small-scale food providers in all regions – who are striving to realise food sovereignty.

The Forum achieved what it was designed to do. It generated a sense of well-being among decision makers, big science and industry participants, as reflected in food industry blogs (see below), that ‘business as usual’ – the continued strengthening of corporate power over food supplies and supporting research systems, especially for biotechnology – is not threatened by this government project. Indeed, the Forum demonstrated that the report opens opportunities for new funding and political support for UK science and industry.

The Beddington report was an expensive exercise in undermining the landmark UN/World Bank sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), approved by 58 governments. IAASTD, in its 22 Findings, called for a radical change in science, technology and practice towards a more agroecological and knowledge intensive form of food production in order to eradicate hunger, improve equity and restore the environment, all of which are being damaged by the increasingly promoted industrial food system. Practical Action was one of only 6 NGOs on the governing Bureau of this assessment.

Token contrary voices were included. One, was mine. Here is an edited extract of my contribution.

Thank you, Chair, for the introduction. The UK Food Group produced a much slimmer report than the Foresight one, ”Securing Future Food: towards ecological food provision”.  In that report you will find a summary of most of the issues that are raised by social movements - by people at the sharp end - who are concerned with securing future food for themselves, for the next generation, for the world.

Clearly this Foresight report represents a prodigious effort by many people, and indeed if you look at the background papers, many of which I have read, that go back over the past couple of years, represent a really massive range of data and evidence some of which is incredibly useful. However, the report describes many elements but it is thin at the recommendation end: it describes the dysfunctional food system, but it is weak on remedies.

I think it misses some major analyses, partly because of timing: for example, the recent final report of the Sustainable Development Commission and previous work by that Commission doesn’t get much if any coverage; the writings and speeches by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, who has recently published a report on agroecology on March 8th, and previously on speculation and other relevant issues (e.g. seeds), really do not feature at all.  The report misses a lot of major elements, I think, e.g. on intellectual property rights; on corporate concentration. You are all aware that, particularly in the seed industry, from many thousands of small seed enterprises in the past, 5 years ago or so 10 companies monopolised about 50% of global seed sales - now it’s three companies only. The report does not tackle those kind of issues.  It doesn’t really go into the important issues, from our perspective, of food sovereignty. It tends to gloss over that and talk about it in national protectionist terms - it’s not that at all.  It doesn’t deal with the importance of agricultural biodiversity, diversity of varieties within the field, within species. It doesn’t deal with the Precautionary Principle, hard won in Rio in 1992. And on governance, the report misses out references to and support for the role of the reformed and now much more democratic and open FAO/UN Committee on world Food Security (CFS) as the global governance mechanism for food and agriculture. It doesn’t deal with those kind of issues. 

The report co-opts and captures, it “name-checks”, all sorts of things that we have been talking about for decades and then uses them in a different context.  For example, animal welfare, which I know, Chair [Neil Parish MP, and member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee], you are particularly concerned about, is raised as an issue but then the report talks about promoting industrial livestock production and cloning.  It name checks but doesn’t deal with many of the issues.  It talks about agroecology, but doesn’t really assess what agroecology is and how it needs to be developed: it promotes genetically modified crops that cannot co-exist in agroecological systems developed in the framework of food sovereignty.

The context, briefly, is that 70% of the world’s peoples are fed locally.  The industrial food system and its technologies, at all scales, only provide for a small proportion of the world’s population. It is expanding, it’s pushing out. But 70% are fed locally and one would argue that the intensification that is needed, needs to be intensely local, “fiercely local” in the words of Peter Kenmore from the FAO.  Indeed if you look at intensifying at a local level, maximising ecosystem functions, maximising diversity and biodiversity in the food system, it is calculated that one can get sustainable increases in yield of around about 1% per annum, or slightly less, and that is sufficient to meet the future food challenge.  So I agree that there is a need to have intensification, but the intensification needs to be made in the context of what people are doing currently to increase the functioning of local agroecosystems

I think the challenge is how do you build upon the existing biodiverse and resilient technologies of local food providers that allow for those more ecological approaches, which maximise agricultural biodiversity in the production system and the surrounding area. I get very bored with the age-old mantra, repeated in this forum, that we must intensify to stop extensification.  That has not worked in the past, it will not work in the future. What one has to do is to look at a much more ecological approach, which maximises biodiversity in the production system, in order to meet future demand.

Agricultural Biodiversity is absolutely central to the future of the food system in the world. Many of us have worked a lot with the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, to develop programmes and policies which will sustain agricultural biodiversity. Understood in its broadest sense, agricultural biodiversity includes all the components of biodiversity that are in the production system, in the human managed ecosystem. In fact it is the largest part of biodiversity in the world. What is important is that by maximising agricultural biodiversity, which is not just a species diversity - diversity within species, and diversity amongst species - but the diversity of support species of pollinators, including bees (much threatened by pesticides, as highlighted in the news) predators, soil microorganisms and mycorrhizae (threatened by herbicides) and also the diversity of ecosystems. And how do you defend the smallholder farmers, especially in the developing world, who are being trashed, against technologies that contaminate their ecosystems, contaminate their biodiversity and disrupt the genomes of the varieties which they use and develop? We need to look at the holistic development of agricultural biodiversity and the ecosystem functions that they support.  (By the way, it is much more important to focus on biologically significant ecosystem functions, which regulate change and stability in agroecosystems, than economically advantageous and commodifiable ecosystem services per se.) 

So the Foresight report is not really news.  Many of the things that are name-checked are what the social movements have been saying for a long time. But what is required is a different kind of scientific approach.  I’m sorry Camilla Toulmin (Director, IIED) has had to leave early because much of the work at IIED on looking at different research paradigms is highly relevant to developing this new paradigm. It needs to be one that, as social movements say, a) builds on food sovereignty, including ecological approaches, b) has a research system that favours that and c) one that improves the linkages and development of what we call rural-urban food webs.

I ask this question, for whom is the Report designed?  It is clearly designed to impress somebody, but who?  Is it the Chief Executive Officers who gathered in Davos at the World Economic Forum?  Is it Government Ministries and programmes?  Is it industry?  Is it in fact a bid for funding and for acceptance of new technologies, particularly GMOs, wrapped in green clothing

I think there are some serious questions to be asked of this report. It is not really acceptable to many of us, and I am sorry that it has not been able to build properly on the IAASTD process, neither in content nor in process.

By: Katy Humphries | 31 March 2011

Food and commodity prices will continue in their upward curve as global demand outstrips supply, the food industry was warned today (31 March).

Speaking at the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum this morning, Dr Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, suggested that the current system of food production "is not fit for purpose".

  Food Inflation

Toulmin said that food producers, NGOs and governments must work towards a collaborative solution to increase food production while also reducing its impact on the environment. This solution will likely include the development of new production technologies, as well as methods to reduce waste and improve land-use efficiency, Toulmin suggested.

Nevertheless, she warned: "The price of food is going to go up relative to other things over the next 30-40 years. We are going to have to accept that we live in a finite world and there is only so much clever science can achieve."

This constriction of supply will have a material impact on the way food reaches consumers, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association Dominic Dyer suggested.

"Retailers have been able to supply us with a huge variety of foods," he said. "They aren't going to be able to offer us that much choice in the next ten years. There are going to be fewer products and they are going to be more expensive."

Meanwhile, UK MP Neil Parish, who sits on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, concluded that rising prices will likely have a profound impact on consumer attitudes to food. Higher prices will trigger a widespread reassessment of the use of various technologies in food production, including the controversial use of GM, Parish argued.

"We have got to use all technologies," Parish urged. "People's hearts are often on the left while their pockets are on the right. As food prices go up people are going to be very concerned about how to get competitive food and they may be less concerned about how that food is produced."


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