Geoff Tansey unravels the rhetoric at a food security conference at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House.

Geoff Tansey

The meeting in London on 10-11 December 2012 was held under the Chatham House Rule, which forbids identification of speakers, so you may find this a rather frustrating blog.

One speaker asked participants the key question: why was the meeting talking about the sustainable intensification of agricultural production when the world already produces enough for everyone; when one third of all food produced ends up as waste; when an estimated 40% of corn in the US in 2013 is going to biofuel; and up to 90% of soya produced globally is used for animals not humans? And why produce more food when 1.4 billion people are overweight?

Yes, the world’s population is increasing but today there is no actual shortage of food (on a global scale) and every reason to believe we can produce enough food to feed more, climate change permitting. If the focus is on intensification of production and not on the real problems of getting food it where it is needed – on poverty and waste for instance – then we are not addressing the real issue: that every man, woman and child has access to food for a healthy life.

There may be a need to intensify crop production but that is primarily of relevance to the 500 million smallholder farm producers around the world, many of whom are women. They need to be able to double or triple production in a sustainable fashion – which may not require much new technology but application of what is already known. Sometimes, the speaker noted, it does require thinking out of the box. We saw this with Sustainable Rice Intensification (PDF), which uses different water and crop management practices to sometimes double yields.

Right focus?

The focus on smallholder farmers was often repeated. But there was a sense from the scientists and the businesses that what they really wanted to do was get on with the latest technologies and extend to the markets they haven’t been able to reach, without much interference.

There were predictable calls for less regulation on businesses involved in delivering new technologies, and to let the public sector scientists (who say they can clearly see there were no problems with genetic engineering) just get on with it. Was this their chance to engage with others who took a different view, and have a dialogue? No. Merely, a roll of different people stating their views.

There were opportunities for questioners to raise issues, including about major institutional changes that might be needed. To the intellectual property system, for example, or to the economics underlying the drivers of the innovation and the science, as well as the priorities for research and development. Possible game-changing technologies from lab-manufactured meat to making biofuels more efficient were also laid out.

But the question I think needs asking is: what game are these aiming to change? For without dealing with the systemic and deeply embedded issues that some speakers spoke about all they will do is continue the inequalities not address them. As was pointed out, for people to be nourished to their full potential – and so many are not – implies that there are deep structural challenges to the food system.

Some argued that we need to think about different scales; not simply farm and field level, but more narrowly on landscapes and more broadly to the different requirements for rich and poor countries. They pointed out that we need to face up to the trade-offs that may have to be made. But sometimes it seemed as if people wanted to go down the sustainable intensification route to avoid these other things that are really rather more difficult to tackle, because it just focuses on science and technologies not societies, economies and ethics.

Summing up

I wonder increasingly about the value of this kind of set piece discussion. Can a few questions and answers from the floor be a good way of taking us forward to actually address the real problems? Instead, more often than not they seem a way of allowing the powers that be to structure the debate, merely tipping their hats to people with perhaps different views from the mainstream.

On a more positive note, there were many inspiring practical examples of changes being wrought by rural peoples in different places around the world that improve their lives and livelihoods and yields.

I’m left convinced that there is a clear challenge to rethink the way we spend our research and development money; the way the public and private sector needs to support small farmer innovation and improvements of their livelihoods and yields and tackle the systemic issues. Will conferences like this make this more likely? Hard to tell. But to be judged successful, they need to.

I was there as a trustee of the Food Ethics Council, which published some of our materials including the special issue of the Council’s magazine on Sustainable intensification: unravelling the rhetoric. You can read more articles like this on my blog.

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About Geoff Tansey

Geoff Tansey has worked on food, agriculture and development issues for over 35 years. He has degrees in soil science (University of Aberdeen) and the history and social studies of science (University of Sussex). He helped found and edit the journal Food Policy in the mid-1970s, has worked on various agricultural development projects in Turkey, Mongolia, Albania and Kazakhstan. Since the early 1980s, he has been an independent writer, consultant, and occasional broadcaster. In June 2005, he received one of six Joseph Rowntree ‘Visionaries for a Just and Peaceful World’ Awards. He is a member and a director of The Food Ethics Council.

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