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Bread and Roses: The Politics of Food -- Lecture by Hilary Benn

COMMENT from Patrick Mulvaney: Last night at the Fabian Society, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave a very heartwarming and wide ranging speech on the need for a new food system and announced the formation of a Council of Food Policy Advisors that includes Dame Suzi Leather (Chair), Sir Don Curry, Sue Davies, MBE, Professor Elizabeth Dowler, Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones, Iain Ferguson, CBE, Paul Kelly, Professor Tim Lang, Guy McCracken, Claire Pritchard, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Geetie Singh, Tim Smith, Stefan Tangermann and others to be appointed.

Benn covered the range of challenges that face the world (the same that are dealt with in IAASTD), quoted Article 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that includes reference to food, and argued that to realise this there is a need to change to sustainable and equitable production, fairer trading and a new global governance system.

But he did not address the problems of concentration in the food industry - corporate control from seed to sewer - that has produced the dysfunctional and unsustainable food system he described, and which abuses the rights of (poor) people and priviliges the monopolies of industry.

He did not actually use the 'GM' word that was trumpeted in the press yesterday[*], but it is worth reading the speech carefully as it is giving a clear message that the UK needs to fix a new world order to secure UK food supplies from other parts of the world using our (proprietary) technologies and knowledge... and presumably our corporations.

Had he built his arguments on the findings of IAASTD, it would have been more credible and had greater substance.

But it gives an opening for the new advisory council to build strong arguments for democratic, equitable, healthy and sustainable changes in the world's food system that will build resilient localised food economies.

Patrick

[* Environment minister calls for a 'food Kyoto' as a billion people face
starvation
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/10/food-foodtech ]
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Selected quotes:
 
"Food is politics at its most raw... Changing the way we think about food requires action."

."..intensive production of food has not come without a cost... If food production is not sustainable as the century unfolds, it will never be secure. Increasing production and protecting the environment are not in competition with each other; those who suggest they are, just havent got it."

"Domestic food production is hugely important we rely on it but we cannot and should not look just to the UK for all the food we need. Rather, we should look to maintain the security of our sources of supply."

"First, we need to work with developing countries to significantly and sustainably raise their agricultural productivity...

Second, we have to deal with the problem of inequality. We have the technology and the knowledge to feed the world. But their benefits are unevenly spread...

Third, we need a fairer trading system...

Fourth, we cannot simply focus on yields. We need to balance the amount we produce against long-term sustainability of production. So we need to change the way we produce our food..."

"We need to look at how we can build on the work of the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and others to create a kind of new Kyoto a global agreement to secure the future of our food.... The first step will be establishing a Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food Security..."

"...it is our responsibility to make sure that in the 21st century we make this poverty, and this hunger, history."
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Bread and Roses: the Politics of Food - A Fabian Society Lecture by Hilary Benn, 10th December 2008

[Not checked against delivery]

Thank you Rachael [Jolley, Director of Communications at the Fabian Society].

In preparing for this speech I was reminded of a passage from the Road to Wigan Pier in which Orwell describes a lecturer who would come to his school once a term to talk about famous battles. Orwell wrote:

"at the end of his lecture he would suddenly turn to us and demand, What's the most important thing in the world? We were expected to shout Food! and if we did not do so he was disappointed."

Well, I trust you won't disappoint me today! Because, of course, Orwell's lecturer was right.

Food or more to the point, a lack of it has been at the root of many of the great moments in human history. The French Revolution. The Peterloo massacre. The Irish Famine. China's Great Leap Forward, which turned out to be a great leap to disaster in which millions starved to death.

Food is politics at its most raw.

It is one of the reasons why differences in wealth and education become chasms in health and life expectancy.

And, it is the trigger of a great deal of inequality.

We live in a world where one billion people are overweight and one billion go to bed hungry every night.

A world where a child dies every 5 seconds from starvation or malnutrition.

A world where the entire international food aid programme amounts to only a fifth of what a single developed nation throws away in a single year.

As today's report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows, increased prices this year have pushed another 40 million more people deeper into poverty and hunger across the globe.

Those affected rioted as basic commodities like wheat doubled in price.

Over 30 countries started to restrict the export of food.

The Head of the World Food Programme, Josette Sheeran, called it a silent tsunami. She was right. But it was also a deafening warning to us all.

Because although prices are now falling again, the events of the last 12 months have given us a glimpse of what is to come if we dont change course.

My argument is simply this. Just as the 20th century was marked by the search for oil, so the 21st will be defined by the search for food and water.

By 2050 there will be 9 billion of us living on this small and fragile planet. And the question is: do we have the capacity to feed the equivalent of another two Chinas?

Global food production will need to double by the middle of the century just to meet demand. We have the knowledge and the technology to do this, as things stand, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability to succeed.

If anyone doubts the scale of the problem then consider this:

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are all currently in negotiations with countries in Africa to lease large tracts of farmland so that they can grow food and send it back home. The South Korean giant, Daewoo, is in talks to take a 99 year lease on half of Madagascars arable land. China is looking to south-east Asia; Libya to Ukraine.

This new Klondike rush for land tells us how the politics of food are changing, and we need to wake up.

We will have to produce more food on less land per person.

The growth of towns and cities, industrialisation, increased demand for meat, biofuels and other pressures are likely to further restrict the amount of land available.

Over the last 50 years food production has outstripped population growth thanks to the Green Revolution; mechanisation, fertilisers, and pesticides. And prices in the long-term have come down.

Malthus has been proved wrong for now.

But this intensive production of food has not come without a cost.

In many countries, agriculture is dependent on oil for fertiliser, to drive tractors and to get produce to market.

We are taking three times more water out of our rivers than we did fifty years ago.

Today a third of the worlds population is living in areas where water is scarce. By 2025 it will be two thirds. And there will be even more competition for that water as the planet warms.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has shown that 60% of our ecosystems are now being degraded or used unsustainably; the soil, the water, the air, the plants, and the forests are the natural foundation upon which our food and therefore our very existence depends.

One billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein, but the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that more than 70% of fish stocks are either over exploited or fully exploited. The problem is particularly critical for developing countries. Weak governance and comparatively rich fisheries attract illegal fishing boats to developing country waters.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is worth up to $23 billion each year. And it is a major threat to fish stocks, to marine diversity, and to the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities.

Zimbabwe is perhaps the starkest example of how poor, and this case tyrannical, government can ruin a land, depress crop yields, and condemn its people to intolerable suffering. It has gone from the bread basket of Africa to its basket case in a generation.

But the most serious threat to global food production bigger than all the other factors put together is climate change.

It could result in hundreds of millions more people going hungry.

Because beyond a certain increase in temperature, yields and the availability of water start to decline.

And thats when having enough food could stop being a question of distribution and access, and start becoming a scramble for whats available.

Now, some may say ok, but well be alright here wont we? The truth, however, is that when a drought in Australia pushes up the price of bread in the UK, we understand how we are all in this together.

Others may say: pull up the drawbridge and hope that the UK can produce enough to sustain itself.

Well, it is true that UK farming is doing alright overall. We have just had a record wheat harvest. We are more self-sufficient now than we were before and after the Second World War, and we have shown during wartime what we can do to raise production when we need to.

But to look at our food security in this way is only to think about part of the problem.

Domestic food production is hugely important we rely on it but we cannot and should not look just to the UK for all the food we need.

Rather, we should look to maintain the security of our sources of supply. And if we want to avoid too much demand chasing not enough world supply which would raise prices for everyone, including consumers in the UK then we need to help create a stable food market which can meet global demand for future generations.

This is both a moral duty and an investment in our future security.

So what do we need to do?

First, we need to work with developing countries to significantly and sustainably raise their agricultural productivity.

Because this is in our interest too.

As Douglas Alexander says: 25 years ago the world came together to try to feed Africa, in 25 years time Africa could feed the world.

So we need even more investment in agriculture, in research and in irrigation.

Microfinance can help farmers to buy better seeds, or fertiliser, to increase yields.

Property rights that give a sense of ownership can ensure that land is invested in.

Tackling disease malaria, crippling diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS can help keep people working in the fields.

A single mobile phone in a village can help farmers do business by providing vital information about rainfall, or prices at the local market.

And with some markets miles away on mud tracks, farmers also need to be able to transport their goods.

In rich countries a large proportion of food goes to waste in the supermarket, or in our homes. But in the developing world a large proportion rots before it gets anywhere near the people that need it because it cant be transported and it cant be stored in the meantime.

The World Food Programme is only too aware of the need to improve capacity. It is starting to concentrate less on shipping in food aid, and more on stimulating local production among the poorest groups. And it works. I have seen it with my own eyes in DFID programmes in Ethiopia and Malawi.

Second, we have to deal with the problem of inequality.

We have the technology and the knowledge to feed the world. But their benefits are unevenly spread.

In the UK poorer families spend around 15% of their weekly income on food, but in developing countries it can be as high as 80%.

Amartya Sen, who today celebrates 10 years as a Nobel Laureate, said:

Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.

Some people do not have enough money to get the food they need. Its as simple as that.

And as parts of the world become more wealthy, and consume more meat, milk and cheese, the inequality increases.

So the dilemma we face is how to overcome poverty so that poor peoples lives improve and they can look after their families better, while not adding to the threat of climate change.

Third, we need a fairer trading system something which Harriet [Lamb] has long campaigned for.

The Common Agricultural Policy imposes high import tariffs around 20% for agricultural goods and as much as 70% for some commodities such as sugar and beef. This keeps farmers from developing countries out of our markets, and our export subsidies undercut them in theirs.

If we want to encourage more agricultural production, it would help a lot if we stopped getting in the way.

Escalating tariffs must be removed across the board in developed and developing countries. And a deal in the Doha negotiations would be the best way of showing that we are serious.

Fourth, we cannot simply focus on yields. We need to balance the amount we produce against long-term sustainability of production. So we need to change the way we produce our food.

If food production is not sustainable as the century unfolds, it will never be secure. Increasing production and protecting the environment are not in competition with each other; those who suggest they are, just havent got it.

And as with climate change, there isnt a single answer we need to look at all the help we can get. Our food system uses a huge amount of fossil fuels, so our dependence on oil will have to change.

As Professor Michael Pollan said in his open letter to President Elect Obama, we need to wean the food system off its heavy 20th century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

We need to move from using ancient sunlight locked up in fossil fuels to grow food, to using to todays sunlight. Its about smarter use of fertilisers. Tractors powered from renewable sources. Asking science what it can contribute in the form of new crops and technologies.

In the UK, agriculture produces some 7% of our emissions, and the first report of the Committee on Climate Change - which was published just last week - called for cuts to be made.

Can we do it? Well, British agriculture has led the world on many occasions in the past, and we need it to do so again on sustainable agriculture.

So we are working with the Rural Climate Change Forum to help our farmers reduce emissions, and we have some real expertise on this in the UK.

Thats one reason why, when I visited China last month, I launched the Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network. Its not about money; its about ideas, knowledge and expertise.

When I was there I met with agriculture minister Sun, who is all too aware of the problems of unsustainable farming. After all, his job is to make sure that 1.3 billion people have enough food to eat every day.

And as consumers we too can act to help make our system more sustainable. By thinking more about what we buy and where its from more local, seasonal food, for example. Or what we grow why not grow some of your own food? And we need to think more about what we throw away.

The average UK household throws away around 420 of food a year 600 if youve got children. Food that sits at the back of the fridge or in the fruit bowl.

It is clear that we have a problem in the way we consume our food and what we decide to consume.

Each year 70,000 deaths could be avoided if our diets matched nutritional guidelines. On current trends, 40% of us could be obese by 2025.

As food prices rise, the temptation is to compromise on quality. And it is clear who is likely to feel this pressure most. Already the poorest 10% of people in the UK spend double the proportion of their income on food than the wealthiest. As George Orwell pointed out:

A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.... the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.

Changing the way we think about food requires action. Jamie Oliver has shown what a difference raw energy and a great idea can make.

And there are signs that were changing our ways.

A recent survey suggested that we may be beginning to turn our backs on fast food.

And as the year of food and farming comes to a close, over 600,000 children are participating in growing schemes, and the number of schools running cooking projects has doubled.

Indeed, earlier this year we announced that from 2011 - for the first time ever - every child will be given cooking lessons. Hands-on teaching about how to make cheap, healthy dishes from simple, fresh ingredients

I want to build on the success of these initiatives in edible education with better labelling to help us understand where food comes from, how it was made, which welfare standards were applied, and what its carbon content is. The situation now with Irish meat shows just how important labelling can be.

We can do a great deal here.

Thats why I said in October that I was setting up the Council of Food Policy Advisors to bring in expertise from across all of these areas to help us find the answers, and earlier today I announced the full membership of the Council, under Dame Suzi Leather, as Chair. And Im pleased to say that Tim Langs name was on that list.

And this brings me to the final and most important - thing we need to do.

As a world, we need to face up to the true scale of this problem.

And we need a long-term plan for dealing with it just as we have faced the question of how to share out a finite quantity of CO2 and greenhouse gases between different countries.

The single most important step we can take is to agree a new climate deal in Copenhagen next year. And my message to all those gathering in Poznan this week to lay the foundations of that agreement is this.

We need it. We need it not just to secure our climate. We need it to secure our food and our water for the future too.

But even a climate deal cant deal with all the problems we face.

Take the new Klondike land rush we are seeing right now in Africa. Is this the right way to ensure a fair distribution of such a precious resource? Will these deals be fair to the countries involved? What about countries that cant afford to buy more land?

Or take export bans, or failures in distribution, or unfair markets.

All of these things require action globally, and a new approach.

We need to look at how we can build on the work of the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and others to create a kind of new Kyoto a global agreement to secure the future of our food.

An agreement that will:

- move resources and co-ordinate humanitarian assistance through the World Food Programme and other agencies when crisis strikes.

- provide a quick response to these crises such as the jump in food prices this year and pre-empt the need for food aid.

- monitor global stocks, prices, supply, demand, and distribution.

- offer advice and technical and financial assistance to help countries with whats needed to develop sustainable agriculture.

- bring new leadership and ambition to bear on the great question of our age can we feed everyone on this planet?

The first step will be establishing a Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food Security, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.

It was 60 years ago this very day 10 December 1948 that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of that Declaration states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food...

I believe it is time we gave life to this Article. It is time sixty years after we proclaimed a right to food that we started thinking how we will ensure that right in the century that lies ahead.

The poem that gave this speech its title was made famous by the striking female textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, almost a century ago. The poem says:

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

Those women were crying out for food. But they were also seeking dignity.

And as Christmas beckons, and food is not far from our minds, we should remember that for too many of our fellow human beings, food remains far from their mouths.

The plain, simple, unarguable truth is that in the 21st century, it is wrong that anyone should go to bed hungry at night.

And it is our responsibility to make sure that in the 21st century we make this poverty, and this hunger, history.

Thank you.       

10 December 2008