Les Firbank

It’s time to engage the public with the difficult choices that lie ahead, says Les Firbank.

Food and farming have rarely been away from the headlines in recent years. One of the ongoing themes has been the alleged departure of modern food production and distribution from so-called ‘natural’ practices. We have seen it in the controversies over genetically modified (GM) crops, the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, and the risks to human health from BSE in cows and salmonella in chicken eggs.

But as concerns rise about food security and prices, it’s becoming clear that agriculture must try to square the circle between increased production of abundant, nutritious, safe food and maintaining the environment in a more crowded world. Unfortunately, this is far from easy and may require a rethink of public attitudes to food and farming.

For example, everyone agrees that we shouldn’t waste food by giving it to crop pests. So what’s so wrong with insecticides? The days of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ are long behind us; current pesticides, when applied correctly, are much more environmentally benign, are applied in lower doses, are well regulated and levels of residues on food are well below safety levels.

Alternatively, many crops worldwide have a gene that kills those beetle larvae foolish enough to eat them, reducing pesticide use. This gene comes from soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, and has been introduced into the crops using genetic modification.

Genetic modification is hardly natural; the present generation of GM crops were developed by moving genes from one species to another, and it is possible to create ‘designer’ genes from scratch. But nor is current conventional plant breeding; this often involves using radiation or chemicals in a scattergun approach to generate lots of random mutations. Why should some methods be more acceptable than others?

Difficult decisions

We want to be environmentally friendly. During the 1990s, this seemed to be a simple matter; organic farms were good because, typically, they are home to more wild plants and animals.

Now the choices are becoming more complex: the higher levels of biodiversity can come at the price of lower productivity, and slow-growing livestock release more greenhouse gases (PDF) (GHG) in their lifetime than do those in more intensive systems.

More environmentally-friendly livestock systems of the future may involve keeping the animals indoors: productive, good for GHG emissions and control of pollution into watercourses, but hardly consistent with current ideas of more ‘natural’, free-range farming.

Furthermore, the increasing global demand for meat and dairy products is being met largely by feeding livestock with crops grown on land that could be used to grow crops for people, using fossil-fuel based fertilisers that take a lot of energy to produce. Should we try to use more food wastes in livestock feed, even though such practices led to the outbreak of the cattle disease BSE?  Or is it simply too much to expect that we can meet the rising demand for affordable meat sustainably?

Looking at food labels and marketing material from the food industry, it would be easy to assume that much of our food comes from small, family farms raising a few crops and a few happy, smiling animals. This is a very nostalgic view of productive, environmentally-friendly agriculture that, for the most part, is decades behind us.

We may well need radical changes in the way food is produced if we are to produce abundant nutritious food in an environmentally sustainable way; radical changes that are likely to appear even less natural, even further removed from farming stereotypes. A new generation of food controversies is bound to emerge.  

The food debate is already high on the agenda. Now we need to move on from discussing the issues one at a time and engage the public in the difficult choices ahead.

About Les Firbank

Les Firbank has worked for many years on the relationships between agriculture and the environment. He led the UK Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Crops and has researched the impacts of organic farming on wildlife. He is one of the team undertaking the forthcoming UK National Ecosystem Assessment and is currently based at the University of Leeds.

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