Shetland Life: Editorial

Technology and sustainability

The world has a problem. As the population of the planet rapidly increases – to an estimated nine billion by the middle of this century – the amount of land and water available for agriculture rapidly decreases. Combine this with a less predictable climate and suddenly the global food supply begins to look more than a little precarious.

Witness last year’s spectacular failure of the wheat harvest in Russia. A 40 per cent reduction in that country’s crop due to drought and wildfires led to an export ban, which is still in place. This, in turn, has led to a rise in the price of cereals and other foods. We are, it seems, increasingly vulnerable.

A major report published recently by the thinktank Foresight confirmed this view. The report,  The Future of Food and Farming, involved 400 scientists worldwide and was led by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington. It concluded that very serious difficulties lie ahead, and suggested that “Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”.

This is a radical sounding conclusion, but the details of it are somewhat less so. According to the report, that redesign would involve reducing the demand for “the most resource-intensive types of food” and significantly cutting food wastage. It would be hard to argue with this, certainly. But what is also needed, we’re told, is an increase in the use of and investment in “new science and innovation”. This new science and innovation should not exclude, Beddington believes, “the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock”.

The idea that technology can solve the planet’s food problem is far from new. For a long time farmers have been viewed with something like suspicion by scientists and politicians, who seemed to believe that fields were nothing more than green factories, where “productivity” could be increased without bounds by the interventions of science. The natural limitations of the soil were no less surmountable than those of the production line, so the thinking went.

But the “sustainable intensification” of which Sir John Beddington speaks has not always proved so sustainable in the past.

The last agricultural upheaval of this sort – the “green revolution” of the mid-twentieth century – did massively increase productivity around the world, particularly in countries such as India. But it also created a dependency on oil, for fertiliser and fuel, and on large agri-business corporations, that has tangled farmers up in a way they never quite were before. The new methods had unforeseen costs, too, in terms of environmental pollution, a loss of biodiversity, damage to the health of people and, most severely, to the health of the soil. Intensive agricultural methods may have boosted productivity, but in many parts of the world they have led to the widespread erosion of top soil and a dramatic reduction in its fertility. Huge areas of the United States, which once were used for growing crops, are now barren.

In addition, the “green revolution” changed people’s relationship to their food by making it cheap. Food became a commodity like any other, and fewer and fewer of us were involved in its production. Our demand for it grew, but our willingness to pay for it shrunk. The enormous wastage of food today is largely a symptom of that change.

We in the West no longer value our food highly enough, or where it comes from. Intensive agriculture and “factory farming” (that most horrific of phrases) are both the cause of this attitude and its result.

So where then does this leave us? There can be few now who do not understand that we have a problem with food and its production. But what is the solution? Do we continue down the route of technology and further intensification as we are being encouraged to do, and accept the multiple side-effects that may be suffered along the way? I’m not so sure.

If long-term sustainability is truly our goal then it is necessary for us to recognise that our own health is entirely dependent upon the health of the soil. When decisions are made – whether they be environmental, economic or agricultural – that recognition must be at the heart of our thinking. Without this fundamental change in attitude, and the changes in behaviour that will result from it, sustainability will remain impossible.

Malachy Tallack


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