David Richardson: It gives me no pleasure, but I told you so

The spectre of world food shortages has arrived in less developed countries, leading to riots, violence and hunger. Similar problems are now making themselves felt in previously more favoured places, like Britain.

So “the powers” initiate conferences and debates on how the food chain and policymakers should respond. It is predictable and inevitable.

The debates are urgent and necessary. But why did some of the members of panels wheeled out to lead such events not foresee the crisis and advocate action years ago? Or, if I am feeling immodest, I might ask, why did those who had it in their power to take measures that might have averted the crisis, not listen to those who anticipated what would happen and warned that policies must change. It gives me no pleasure to say, I told you so.

Indeed, I have tried to resist those words at the meetings I have addressed on the subject in recent months. Far better, I believe, to promote united action now in the hope of minimising future damage. Although I am bound to say it is already late, and some of the debates I have attended suggest unity over what should be done is a long way off.

This was certainly the case at a high-profile gathering in London a few days ago. Former NFU president Sir Ben Gill and Chris Pollock, chief scientific adviser to the First Minister for Wales, were joint organisers of a conference entitled “From a Land of Plenty to a Land of Uncertainty”.

The platform speakers and the invited audience included a comprehensive range of “stakeholders” (we used to call them interest groups) involved in farming and the countryside.

There were representatives ranging from the Country Land and Business Association and the NFU to Friends of the Earth and The Soil Association, plus almost every organisation and government department and agency in between. Perhaps it was the first time they had been in the same room together.

And it wasn’t long before the tensions between them began to show. Genetic modification was the only answer for some, while others believed organic production could save the world. The concept of inclusiveness was well-intentioned, but it divided rather than united.

If I have learned anything from the crisis meetings in which I have participated, it is that a single magic bullet as the solution to world hunger does not exist. What is needed is a multi-faceted approach that includes biotechnology and improved conventional plant breeding, supported by better-funded independent research.

There also needs to be better training and encouragement for young people to come into the industry concentration throughout the food chain on avoiding waste and government policies that promote market stability and encourage production, not discourage it.

In addition, it is vital that the industry accepts the necessity to do all it can to maintain the environment. If we do not, we will forfeit the public approval that has so recently been achieved. And it is possible to do both. LEAF can show how.

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