Food Miles professor Tim Lang has called for a dramatic shift in the world’s attitude to food consumption and production and slammed genetically modified food as promising too much.
Speaking at the Real Food debate at Earls Court, London last night, Prof Lang said it was beginning to dawn on people that something significant needed to change if the world was to feed itself over the next century.
Responding to concerns about rising food prices and tightening supplies, he said: “The debate is being dominated by a crisis mentality. The myth is there isn’t enough food to feed people. There is plenty but it is maldistributed.”
But while there had been food shortages before, this time something more significant had changed, he believed. “We’ve had crises before. It’s perfectly plausible to argue this is a temporary shift. But the reason most of us think that is wrong is because the new landscape is about eight fundamentals.”
The eight fundamentals were, he said: Land, labour, energy (oil), water, demographics, health/nutrition (including diet changes to more meat and dairy consumption), climate change, and price/cost.
It was too simplistic to take one or two of these in isolation he told Farmers Weekly after the debate. “We’ve got to have a policy framework addressing all these fundamentals. The difficulty is what to do. The danger is people are looking for instant easy solutions. Complex problems don’t have simple solutions, they have complex multi-layered solutions.”
GM food, he claimed, was not the answer. “There’s a probability of GM offering a solution to what it cannot resolve. It cannot resolve water and energy shortages. It cannot resolve health. It cannot resolve the impacts of climate change. It might tweak a bit here and there. GM is a side issue. It doesn’t address the real fundamentals. Most uses of GM are to preserve the agrochemical market.”
Food policy makers at global, regional, national and local level were beginning to address the subtleties of what needed to happen, Prof Lang said.
But, he added, the devolved administrations of the UK had got a much better grasp of this than Gordon Brown’s government. The prime minister needed to concentrate on resolving some of the fundamentals at home rather than talking about global poverty.
“The British food system is operating as though we have six planets – six times our ecological footprint. There’s a lot of waste. We have not got the planet space to feed the world like the British do. We now know the brutal indicators for the future, but we’re just fiddling while Rome burns.”
Local not organic
Cheap food is not cheap. Society pays twice thanks to the “political system, subsidies and policies”, says environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith.
“We pay £250m a year to clear pesticides out of water. If you had an even playing field where the polluter pays, you would find the so-called niche food we have today would not be quite so niche.”
But, he said, that did not necessarily mean organic. “I cannot understand why the government isn’t putting more into local food. We sell as much poultry meat to the Netherlands as we buy from the Netherlands – that’s madness. We should have a bias of bringing the food economy home wherever possible.”
And he added: “The moment the government recognises we need to follow a policy of food security, we’ve got it made – everything else falls into place.”