Colin finds with regret that the erstwhile stronghold of the intellectual Left has seized the commercial shilling
To its shame, and I hope to its regret, The New Statesman, almost 100 years after its foundation by left-wing intellectual heavyweights, has published a blatant and in many ways misleading puff for the agrochemical industry: a special supplement on Food Security sponsored by the Crop Protection Agency. The opening essay sets the tone: written by the CPA’s chief executive, Dominic Dyer, and disingenuously titled, “Medicine for Plants”.
The medicines in question, Mr Dyer explains, are “man-made pesticides”; but these, he assures us (like human medicine) “are used only when a plant’s own chemical defences do not work well enough”. There are of course drawbacks, for “Like human and veterinary medicines, plant protection products can pose some risks if they are not used with due care”. Never fear, though, for “Pesticides are among the most thoroughly tested and strictly regulated chemicals in Europe”. Indeed, “More than 200 studies of a pesticide’s impact on human health and the environment must be completed and independently assessed before it can be approved”. Unsurprisingly, “Each new product takes around nine years and £150 m to develop”.
Mr Dyer’s analogies don’t quite work, however. It isn’t exactly true, after all, that pesticides are used “only when a plant’s own chemical defences do not work well enough”. Spraying at least in Britain is nothing like so cavalier as it was in the 1950s when Rachel Carson was prompted to write Silent Spring, or as shown in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by North-west. Even so, a lot of spraying is prophylactic as opposed to therapeutic — meaning that healthy plants are sprayed as a preventative. Some agriculturalists may feel that this is sometimes justified — but still the comparison with medicine is deceptive, for these days at least, healthy people are not routinely given medicines simply to ward off disease. We may be vaccinated, but vaccine is not medicine. Patients are given medicine on an individual basis, and only when they are definitely ill – and when they themselves seek the doctor’s help. There are indeed side-effects with human medicines but these, almost always, are confined to the patient. If I take Hill’s Balsam for a cough I would not expect to incommode the entire village, or to lay the local countryside to waste; but this has often been the effect of pesticide, and to some extent still is. Two hundred studies per product there may be, but it is impossible to demonstrate absolute safety either in practice or in theory. The enormous cost and time involved may well be heroic – but it also, of course, obliges the innovative companies to sell as much of their products as they can, to re-coup; which is why they spend commensurate amounts on PR and on lobbying MPs, and on supplements in political magazines.
The real issue, of course, is not how much the pesticides cost, or how hard the scientists may toil, but whether they are necessary at all. Of course they are, says Mr Dyer, for “modern crop protection products and technologies” are “playing a key role in the safeguarding of our food supply”. Indeed, he tells us, “Without pesticides to keep weed, pest, and disease pressures in check, crop yields would fall by around a third”.
Well, this seems pretty open-and-shut. Only an anti-tech nutter would want to reduce crop output by a third. Yet all is not so simple. To be sure, if you removed the pesticide from modern, industrial, zero-labour monocultural farming, or from the traditional farms of the third world which for the most part are seriously under-endowed, then you might indeed lose a third of your crops. But that is not the point. The real point (and the point of the Campaign for Real Farming) is to provide good food for everyone in the world and to go on doing so – truly to provide “food security”; and to do so without wrecking the rest of the world. As this website discusses at length, and as many a world expert has argued, the best way to achieve this is not to begin with zero-labour industrial monocultures, but with well-endowed, skills-intensive polycultures: highly complex mixtures of crops and livestock managed in synergy. With well-managed polycultures, we would not lose a third of what we grow to parasites and weeds. So yes: monoculture with pesticide is better than monoculture without pesticide. But whether monoculture with pesticide is better than well-designed organic or quasi-organic polyculture without pesticide, is very doubtful.
The pesticide industry has made improvements over the years, as we may happily concede. Modern pesticides are better targeted than in the past – more species specific, and more degradable. Furthermore, says Mr Dyer, “Farmers are also encouraged to use Integrated Crop Management, which combine the correct use of pesticides with other approaches, such as careful variety choice, crop rotation and managing field margins to encourage beneficial species”. Nevertheless, Integrated Crop Management would work much better if it was part of an overall strategy to provide good food without wrecking the rest – based on farms that are small to medium-sized, polycultural, tightly integrated, low input (quasi-organic), and skills-intensive. But today’s industrial farming lobby, of which the CPA is a part, is designed above all to maximize profit, and this requires high-input, zero-labour monoculture on the largest possible scale. In this context, Integrated Crop Management is an exercize in pushing water uphill; or indeed in correcting problems that are mostly created by the industry itself.
Then we enter territory that seems very murky indeed. For, says Mr Dyer, “The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that food production must increase by 70 per cent if it is to feed a global population set to exceed nine billion by 2050”. He goes on to tell us that if we’re to cope, or indeed to have any hope at all of averting the mother of all disasters, “producers will need to use every available technology – including pesticides – to meet future food needs and tackle the challenges of climate change”. Gosh! This sounds pretty serious! If we really do need high tech, then bring it on!
But the FAO’s dire warning seems to be nonsense. According to Professor Hans Herren, President of the Millenium Institute based in Washington, the world already produces enough food to support 14 billion people – twice the present world population, and 50% more than the estimated population of 2050. The UN demographers tell us too that the percentage rate of increase in the human population is diminishing, and is on course to reach zero by 2050 – which means that total numbers will then stabilize. So there should never be more than nine or 10 billion people on this Earth — so we already produce enough food for everyone who is ever likely to be born (and hence the title of my latest book, Good Food for Everyone Forever). The reason that so many people now go hungry (almost a billion of the present seven billion are said to be chronically undernourished) has nothing to do with the amount produced, and everything to do with maldistribution and the amount that’s wasted.
So how did the FAO manage to conclude that we need 70% more food? Presumably they are reckoning that over the next 30 years the Chinese and Indians in particular will abandon the marvellously nutritious and delectable high-plant and low-meat cuisines that they have evolved over the past few thousand years, in favour of the burger and pizza diet of the Texas trucker. Then, the world really would need a great deal more food (and a lot more statins and beta-blockers and all the rest to keep people on their feet). This, certainly, is what the food industry would like the Indians and Chinese to do, and urges them to do; and governments like Britain’s do whatever big industry desires, in the interests of GDP; and scientists feel obliged to sing from the industrial-commercial hymn sheet, or else be left on the sidelines.
Yet if people worldwide only took food seriously, and treasured their traditional cuisines, and learnt once more how to cook; and if we introduced a little social justice so that African farmers, say, were not obliged to give up growing food in favour of commodity crops that make other people rich; then we would not need more food. We will need more only if we continue to farm in ways that are designed primarily to maximize wealth, and to centralize control, so that the wealth remains with the few. Some might well feel that it is within the remit of governments to encourage good cooking, if that is good for general wellbeing, and to promote social justice. But don’t hold your breath.
Can it really be true, though, that the world already produces enough food for everyone – indeed produces twice as much as we need? After all, says Mr Dyer, “Only three per cent of land is available for agricultural production, according to Bayer CropScience”, and the cover of the New Statesman reinforces this message with a pleasant little graphic. But Bayer CropScience, and the New Statesman, should have checked the figure with the UN and FAO, for they tell us that agriculture accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s total land; and since the total land includes Antarctica and Greenland and the Sahara and suchlike places, that is quite a lot. To be sure, only a third of the agricultural land is arable, which is only about three per cent of the whole. But that is not the same thing at all.
In fact, says the UN, the world’s total land (including Antarctica and the rest) runs to 510,072,000 square km; and FAO declared in 2008 that the total area devoted to agriculture was 48,836,976 square km — which is just under 10 per cent of the whole. Of this, 13,805,153 square km was arable – and this alone is quite enough to provide all the world’s people with all the protein and energy that we need.
The calculation is simple. Yields of cereals from arable land vary from about one tonne per hectare (of sorghum) in the Sahel to an average of 8 tonnes per hectare (of wheat) in the UK. So the average cereal yield worldwide is probably around 2 tonnes per hectare; which is about 200 tonnes per square km. One kilo of the average cereal provides around 3000 kcals plus an adequate quantity of protein – more than enough macronutrient for the average person for one day (given that many of the world’s people are children, and quite a few of us are lazy). So each person needs about a third of a tonne of cereal per year; so one tonne feeds three people; so 200 tonnes feeds 600 people. So the world’s total area of arable land – just under 14 million square km – should feed 600 x 14 million which is 8.4 billion. So the world’s arable land alone provides enough macronutrient for more than the present world population, and almost enough for the projected population of 2050. That leaves the remaining two thirds of the world’s agricultural land – around 35 million square kilometres of pasture and horticulture — to provide flavour, texture, and micronutrients (plus a very large quantity of macronutrient too). So what’s supposed to be the problem? Why the alarmism? Why the hype? Can it be that those in charge of our affairs are being sensationalist?
Footnote: on its inside cover, the New Statesman/CPA supplement provides a table of unidentified provenance which purports to show the attitudes of people to “GM foods” from more than 1000 UK households in 2011. It seems that more than 40% agree that “GM crops should be allowed to be sold in the UK” while fewer than 30% disagree. More than 35% said they would “purchase GM foods if they are nutritious” whereas less than 30% said they would not. More than 40% said they would “purchase GM foods if they kept prices down” while only 25% said they would not. More than 40% said they would “purchase GM foods if they are safe for the environment” – while again, less than 25% said they would not. Thus, the anonymous survey suggests, attitudes to GM are seem to be softening. If GM crops are safe, nutritious, and cheap, what can possibly be the objection? Surely only fanatics, alias nutters, would protest?
But of course, this survey ignores all the real issues: that GM crops are not necessary; that GM technology has not, in 30 years, produced anything of unequivocal value that could not have been produced more cheaply and safely by other means; that safety has not been proved, and cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt; and that the real purpose of GM is not to “feed the world”, or “protect the environment”, or all those other high-sounding sentiments, but to maintain the commercial and political status quo: to ensure that agriculture is as profitable as possible and that it is controlled by what in effect is a self-perpetuating group of political, commercial, and intellectual oligarchs, who in practice keep hold of most of the wealth that is generated. Present-day agriculture is, in fact, a giant exercize in expropriation, a transfer of power and wealth from the many to the few, very much to the world’s detriment; and in this, alas, modern science in various commercial guises has become a principal player.
From many points of view, it’s all very sad.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, June 30 2012