Leading article: A technology that we cannot afford to dismiss

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The Government science office’s latest report, TheFutureofFood andFarming, hasanimpossibly dry title. But it deals with a subject that will have profound implications for every human on the planet: the ability of mankind to feed itself over the coming century.

The picture painted by the report of the existing efficiency of global agriculture is depressing. A billion people in the world’s poorest countries go to bed hungry each night. A further billion suffer from malnutrition. But the report’s forecast is that the situation will get bleaker still. Urbanisation, climate change, environmental degradation, population growth and changing lifestyles will create a “perfect storm” that could drive global food prices up by 50 per cent in real terms by the middle of the century. Hundreds of millions more people will be driven into hunger if that happens.We got a brief glimpse of what that wouldmeanin the riots that broke out in some of the world’s poorest countries when food prices spiked in early 2008.

Time to avert this grim future is short. Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, argued yesterday that “we have 20 years to deliver something of the order of 40 per cent more food, 30 per cent more available fresh water and of the order of 50 per cent more energy”.

The report recommends that governments move agriculture up the global political agenda. Action needs to be taken to improve farmers’ skills in irrigation to enable them to increase their yields. It urges significant investment in transport infrastructure to enable them to get their crops to markets before they perish. The report also calls for intervention by governments to protect the poorest from sharp food price increases and, at the same time, greater liberalisation of trade in food to offset market volatility.

This sounds almost utopian. If such reforms were simple they would have been enacted long ago. Global politics has long obstructed liberalisation of agricultural markets. Two of the richest global blocs, the EuropeanUnion and United States, still refuse to scrap their subsidies to their farmers despite mountains of evidence demonstrating the penal nature of these policies for the world’s poorest and hungriest.

But utopian as these reforms are, this report makes clear that they are necessary. If the global population continues to increase on its present trajectory and the 1.3bn Chinese shift to ameat-heavy Western diet, the demand for crops will increase, driving up prices. If the status quo continues, expensive food is assured.

And we are likely to need more than just investment and structural reform of global agricultural markets to feed the planet. We need a new “green revolution” of the sort set in train by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who transformed the agricultural sectors of India and Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s through pioneering crop technologies.

Genetic modification of crops will most likely need to be a part of the world’s response now. At the moment GM is a technology that serves only to inflate the profits of pesticide companies, in particular Monsanto. Farmers are encouraged to grow special pesticideresistant crops and then to drench their land in toxic chemicals. Yields do increase, but with disastrous environmental side-effects.

Muchofthecriticism that the corporate GM sector attracts is entirely reasonable. But outright rejectionism of genetically modified crop technologyas pioneered in scientific laboratories is not. The potential of GM is vast. A strain of crop, modified to be drought or salt-resistant, couldbring vast amounts of presently useless land under cultivation. We should not resist GM out of misplaced squeamishness or romantic luddism. This report makes the price of inaction soberingly clear.