A Green and Prosperous Land?

‘Everything we do around food production is having the worst impact on the planet. If we designed the worst food system possible, we would come up with the way we do it at the moment.’ said Dieter Helm in a panel discussion Future Proofing Food, Feeding the World, Saving the Planet at the International Book Festival this week. There is much to agree with in this statement. However, the suggestions about what kind of system we should be creating and how we bring that about left many questions.

Green and Prosperous Lands proposes a system that is informed by big data and implemented with new technology, ‘two unstoppable forces’. It promises to feed the rapidly increasing global population and resolve current issues by maximising ‘efficiency’. There is no mention of data ownership (e.g. tractors collecting data that are owned by John Deer, not accessible to the farmer who drives them – Monsanto-style monopolies). Promises about technological innovation taking tedious tasks of us ignore the fact that there has been slow progress in well-funded robotics research (to date robots can barely walk independently without falling over), and there is no discussion about who will pick up the implementation costs.

And surely the main point about our current system is that we live in a world of overproduction, where our technical capacity to produce food far exceeds demand? The focus on efficiency and technological innovation required for ‘feeding the world’ is a red herring.

When asked about food poverty and the problem of distribution and waste: the reply was that with efficient production we can make food available at a price that everybody can afford it, as food is a ‘basic right just like other public goods such as water and land’. However, when we see Nourish’s battle around persuading the Scottish Government to take the Right to Food Bill seriously, all this does not seem so straightforward.

Helm argues that all food production costs including carbon output, chemical pollution (fertilisers, pesticides, in water, in soil, to biodiversity) etc. need to be accounted for, and it makes no global sense to minimise our domestic carbon quotas by exporting these to other countries. In the case of food, he argues, these costs need to be borne by the agents who cause them, the farmers. In practice, however, we need to figure out how these costs are actually measured and what we do about the middlemen in our current system. (Supermarkets were mentioned once but not discussed in any detail.)

The voice of the Soil Association (Helen Browning, Chief Executive was also on the panel) was drowned out and clearly it was not an easy task to make that voice heard. The dominant thinking was that anything other than large scale high-tech is the only serious way of producing food, and the notion that anything else is just a matter of ‘romantic’ frills. It seems we need to shout louder