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GM: Feeding people or factory farms?

News Icon 14/03/2014

“The challenge is to get more yield from the same area”, says Sir Mark Walport, UK Government chief scientific adviser and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology (CST). “We’re part of a global food market. Competition is likely to increase. The world is already malnourished and the population is growing,” he reportedly said, following the launch of a new CST report calling for more UK field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops and fewer EU restrictions.

The hype around GM feeding the world appears to me little more than rhetoric. GM crops often tend to be the same varieties destined for use as animal feed; more a component of the industrial farming juggernaut than a food system aimed at feeding people.

The GM debate being played out through the media again today underscores one of the biggest problems of our current world food system; it’s hang-up on production. We are constantly being told that more food needs to be produced on less land, hence the need for so-called ‘sustainable intensification’.

There is already a billion malnourished and by mid-century, world population is set to climb to over 9 billion. According to those pushing greater intensification, we need to produce more food if we are to meet demand. To me, it’s a false premise that conveniently overlooks the real situation; that we already produce enough food globally to feed 11 billion people or more, but so much is wasted.

The real problem lies not in producing enough food, but with the extent that we waste it; from the simple act of throwing food away in our homes or at the supermarket, to letting it rot in developing countries for want of simple, low-tech assets like decent grain stores.

One of the biggest causes of food waste, all too often overlooked, is feeding grain enough to sustain 4 billion extra people to industrially reared farm animals who then return a fraction of the calories in meat, milk and eggs. That produce could often be produced more efficiently on pasture; that is if the definition of ‘efficient’ is how many people can be fed.

As I often argue, the world’s food system is like a leaky bucket; wasting half of what it produces. To trammel further head-long down the production-orientated path is to fail to learn the lessons of what is really going wrong; access to food, rather than simple production.


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