Agriculture Must Change

Our colleagues at Rothamsted are to be applauded for the way in which they have brought the GM debate to the fore this week.  At one level the case being made for an experiment to gather evidence on a modification that improves resistance to aphids appears undeniable.  How can we hope to evaluate the dangers that these technologies might present without experimental evidence.  Of course there is a slight risk associated with carrying out this experiment but this is the price that we pay for the evidence it will provide.  One of the questions that recurs is why is GM being singled out?  It is after all just an extension, or speeding up, of the breeding programmes that have underpinned much of the improvement in productivity that we have witnessed in agriculture.  Moreover, GM food has been produced and consumed outside Europe for years, and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone’s health has been adversely affected.

Perhaps there are more complex reasons for the continued opposition to GM.  Some argue that, beyond the hard-line activists, it is a reflection of widespread concern over what might be termed the industrialisation of the food system.  In a world where our food supply is going to be increasingly challenged it is important that we begin to tackle this fear.  Increased production of food is only going to happen with some significant transformation in the food system.  Increased food prices are the first signs of a system that is being stretched and wherever you are in the world, increased food prices mean that difficult nutritional choices have to be made by low income households.  Things will have to change if our food system is to sustain the ability to deliver affordable nutritious food.  In many cases these changes will be painful and will result in a food system that is some distance from our bucolic ideal.  But this has always been so, it was not so long ago that a one hundred cow dairy herd was thought of as an industrial operation.  The food industry cannot afford to ignore these concerns but equally we must all accept that change is necessary.  We have moved from an era in which the primary production of food was seen as a by-product of delivering our cherished rural environments to one in which it is of vital strategic importance.  With this change however must come an acceptance that the age old processes of technological and structural change will continue.

By Professor Richard Tiffin, Director, Centre for Food Security