Science in Society Archive

Full House for Food Futures Now

Sam Burcher

It was the warmest day of the year so far and inside the sumptuously decorated Jubilee Room in the House of Commons there was barely standing room. The capacity audience were gathered for the launch of the much acclaimed I-SIS report Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free [1], a compelling manual of the many proven and practical methods of organic and locally based food production that ensures both food security and food sovereignty in the face of the fuel and food crises and the challenges of climate change.

GM is not the answer whatever the question was

First to speak was the Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, who paid tribute to Food Futures Now as the most authoritative and comprehensive statement of an alternative and better world agricultural and ecology that he has yet seen. He also supported the findings of the recent International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) [2] (see “GM-Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World” , SiS 38 ), which are much in line with those of Food Futures Now , and maintained his stance on GM crops by saying, “GM is not the answer, whatever the question was.” He made an explicit link between the recent food riots in over thirty countries around the world and the reckless investment and subsidies by the US Government and international agencies that have misdirected a further thirty million tonnes of maize grains to biofuels.

He delivered a dire warning that the post peak o il prices that have now reached a record $119 a barrel [3] are set to rise to $200 a barrel in the next few years, and the reserves will not last us until anywhere near the end of this century. The current strikes shutting down the North Sea pipeline and soaring diesel and petrol prices are portents of the future of fossil fuels [4]. The energy crisis has apocalyptic implications for industry, particularly industrial agriculture and transport, he said. This will also affect the capacity for war, which for many would be a positive outcome. Whichever way one sees it, the world is being dragged towards a profound and inevitable transformation of its energy economy that aside from sustainable and local food systems requires the introduction of a high carbon tax, an overhaul of its trading systems, an end to US and EU tariffs and subsidies, and seriously addressing the mal-distribution of land, he said. Reform is only possible when the conditions for those in power becomes untenable, so (like the ancient Athenians) we were all called upon to be as “revolting” as possible!

Michael Meacher's speech left us all contemplating the curious paradox of the coming energy crisis and the opportunities for meaningful transformation that lie within it.

Food without fossil fuels now

Dr Maewan Ho (Director of ISIS) openly praised UK's Chief Scientists: Robert Watson (of DEFRA, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) for the IAASTD [2] and John Beddington (UK Government) for saying it is “profoundly stupid” to cut down trees to make room for biofuels [5] (see Food Without Fossil Fuels Now , SiS 38) . She said that in 2008 one third of the US maize harvest will be used up to make ethanol, and the prime beneficiary of the biofuels boom according to BusinessWeek is Monsanto.

She gave a quick overview of the Report, mentioning scientists who have provided evidence that organic agriculture can feed the world, and went one step further to say that only organic agriculture can feed the world. She spoke passionately about the need to mitigate global warming and the enormous potential for doing so with organic agriculture and localised food systems. She highlighted the innovative and successful ways of restoring degraded land through organic composting in Ethiopia [6], the greening of the Sahel region [7] where tree planting has encouraged rainfall and fertility back to the deserts and the remarkable achievements of urban agriculturists and organic market gardens in Cuba in response to the US embargo of fossil fuels over the “Special Period” of the last 30 years [8].

Finally, she delivered an inspirational message about an integrated food and energy farming based on nature's circular economy, which she calls Dream Farm [9]. The traditional integrated farming system with the symbiotic trio of farmer-livestock-crop is the simplest example of this circular economy, which can sustain itself indefinitely. But it can also dynamically expand to include more symbiotic partners – fish, algae, fowl, etc - with ‘wastes' always going back into the system to create new energy and resource cycles rather than dissipation [10]. A circular economy is characteristic of biodiverse nature at its most productive and is always ecologically balanced. Maewan has researched such systems in Japan and China and is currently collaborating with various partners to develop and implement actual Dream Farms with on-site research/education facilities in Java and elsewhere.

Government action required now for sustainable renewable food systems

Sir Julian Rose (Chairman of UK Rural Businesses) called for governments to support the sensible and democratic solutions at the heart of the Food Futures Now . Instead, he said, they are consumed with the prospect of more nuclear power stations, roads and airports, and the undiminished use of oil-based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He described the daily machinations of the House of Commons as a prestigious auction house where the welfare of humanity is auctioned off for the price of maintaining the corporate led status quo . It begs the question of when will the House of Commons be transformed into a place where utopian ideals can flourish alongside a new ecological paradigm [11]. Sir Julian made explicit the link between the independent farmer and the consumer, and strengthens the interdependency of their survival by what he calls the “proximity principle”. This means acquiring the majority of our ecologically managed food, fibre and fuel from our immediately surrounding areas to encourage not just local production, but provides a year round market for farmers on their doorstep. This model of ‘mutually assured creation' exudes the possibility of long term food security and democracy, as well as food and energy sovereignty that enhances the quality of soil, air and restores not only the cultural bonds between town and country, but also the organic links between humans and nature.

Practical project restores food democracy to communities

Sue Edwards, the co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) in Ethiopia shared her own experience of helping farmers to double grain and faba bean production using organic composting methods in some of the most grain insecure and devastated parts of the country [6]. This has enabled families to feed, clothe and educate themselves and to store grains for coming years, better than ever before. “Trapping farmers into debt is immoral” Sue said in response to the despair and suicides of farmers caught up in the input intensive model of industrial farming.

Significantly, Sue also showed data collected by farmers over seven years demonstrating unequivocal superiority of composting for increasing yields some 30 percent more than with chemical fertilizers. Nationally, this has shown up as an increased production of food over the past seven years as the use of fertilizer drops.

Sue dispelled the many common misconceptions about Ethiopia and showed us a country with adequate natural capital that has succeeded in developing the world's best resources in wheat, linseed and a rich diversity of sorghum varieties such as teff, which is fast becoming a popular food fad due to its gluten-free status. Ethiopia appreciates its 5 000 year old farming tradition and its huge wealth of biological diversity, and has made the connection that good farmers are good managers of the environment. The Ethiopian government has adopted organic composting for all farmers as a standard procedure and decentralised some of its power to regional governments to aid local decision making processes for farmer and land rehabilitation.

Stand up for your right to plan sustainably

Alan Simpson MP called for the UK Government to give local authorities the power to plan sustainably and to engage with the challenges of food security now rather than when the world is in chaos, confusion and division. He put forward the ideas of co-operatives which flourished in the post modern conditions at the end of World War II in France. He also related to and expanded on the Cuban experience. But the UK, he said, lost our sense of national diversity when we set up specific marketing boards for produce such as milk, bread and potatoes. In order to work coherently with the seasons we must have the courage to set a new co-operative agenda.

Alan then reflected on the laissez faire regulations of free trade that has allowed transnationals to set up shop anywhere and to dictate to planning committees the terms by which they do so. He gave the example of a “Slow Food” town in Italy where the whole town led by the mayor stood up to MacDonalds by demanding to know: “How does what you propose to do contribute to our culture?” All slow food towns have asserted their right to plan sustainably and potential MacDonalds were unceremoniously pushed off the planning agenda. This is a positive example of dynamic policy relating to local conditions that is working very well in Italy, France and Germany.

Low input is the magic key for economic growth

Organic farmer John Watson fully endorsed the Food Futures Now report and the playing down of biotechnology as a solution to food problems, which he said had now been thoroughly discredited. However, he explained that the sustainable part of farming, although it has been hyped up, is not easy either, but it is possible. John Watson started farming in 1951 and initially adopted all the industrial methods of the second agricultural revolution which eventually produced the wasteful food mountains in Europe. By the 1980s he was disillusioned with the outcomes of conventional farming and changed to organic. Over the last 20 years together with his sons he has built up Riverford Organic Vegetables in Devon, the UK's largest organic box scheme selling direct to the consumer, as well as four farm shops, an associated meat box scheme and a dairy.

“The complexity of low input systems such as circular economies in nature is difficult to master, so I suggest that people buy the Food Futures Now report. I consider practices like closed loop cycles that return human nutrients and waste to the land and no till organic methods wherever possible as the way forward”, John said. He believes in the prospect of economic growth from using already existing inputs. Low input systems are not attractive to the corporate establishment so motivation has really got to come from the Government to inspire the prolific work of individuals, he concluded.

Yeah! Organic agriculture can feed the world

Guy Watson, Chairman of Riverford Organic Vegetables said he was fed up with people telling him that organic is great but it can't feed the world. So much so that he travelled to Kenya and Uganda to work in the places where it really matters to see for himself. He found that farmers, particularly in Uganda who had adopted organic and local supply methods weren't just as productive, or a little more productive, but twenty times more productive that the market- based farm next door. “I wish that some of the people that say it can't solve the world's problems could see that”, he said.

He said there is a tremendous amount of truth and optimism in Food Futures Now, which is great. And, there is no doubt that collectively we have the wit, but there is a huge question mark in the developed world whether we have the wisdom to apply our wit to solving the problems. He said that weak governance had let us down as had past leadership within the major institutions such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA). He appealed to the cultural mainstream to accept many more of the valuable “freakish and fringe” ideas of organic food production. And for the public not to be fooled by bioplastics, which research shows are even more polluting to the environment than their oil-based counterparts, as reported in The Guardian a few days later [12].

Organic agriculture is the salvation of collapsing honeybees

Prof Joe Cummins (University of Western Ontario, Canada, and ISIS) outlined his thesis on the honeybee disappearing at a rate of 34 percent this year in the US, up from 25 percent last year [13] ( Saving the Honeybee Through Organic Farming , SiS 38) . He examined the multifactorial causes of the catastrophe called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which include pesticides, parasites, viruses, and radiation from cell phone transmitters. Joe explained that the behaviour of bees from the synergistic effects of these factors causes confusion which affects the bee's ability to forage and failure to return to their hives. (A worried worker from a major wireless telephone company in Australia contacted I-SIS directly to say that she had found many dead bees on the stairwell of the company building (see Letters to the Editor, SiS 38).)

Joe characteristically made a joke about the confusion and failure of agricultural regulators behaving like the bees, but behind this is the concern that despite his best efforts in transmitting his knowledge in the form of a Written Question to the European Parliament [14] there is both political and academic avoidance of the issue of sub-lethal levels of pesticides (including Bt biopesticides in GM crops) that are insufficient to kill the bees directly, but do so indirectly. They compromise the immune system of bees, making them more susceptible to pathogens, and also confuse them, so they fail to return to the hives. He argued that products showing such sub-lethal effects on bees should be banned and that the adaptation of organic farms should revive the habitats of honeybees to provide a sanctuary for the bees, and for the future of food.

Many ways citizens can control food production

Michel Pimbert, director, Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Program at IIED emphasised the importance of people and local organisations in relation to sustaining the ecological basis of food systems. He said that the conceptual initiatives for coming up with solutions and new thinking to deal with multiples crises was born out of citizens struggles to find alternatives to the neoliberal paradigm and to re-think food and farming differently and invent other worlds. He cited the role of women as being integral to recognising and ensuring a ‘fine-grain' approach to managing diverse environments and ensuring food and nutrition security, and taking control of the land on which they work. People work much better together and collective management is the hallmark of many food systems, Michel said. He continued that in order to have control over food production and distribution farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folks must have direct input into the policy formulation process and food and agricultural research. One example of this is farmer-citizens juries which are the collective expression of hearing and solving problems arising from the issue of food sovereignty (or the capacity to grow and eat what one wants free of the pervasive influence of corporations) especially in regard to local food systems and reclaiming sustainable futures.

Genuine social participation and the re-orientation of agro-ecological research can also lead the way to another type of science and policy regime, one that is more holistic, that understands dynamic complexity, ecology, cultural diversity and so on.

Special Award for Joe Cummins

At the end of the conference, Prof Peter Saunders (ISIS co- Director), who had ably chaired the entire proceedings and keeping to a very tight time schedule, sprang a pleasant surprise on Prof Joe Cummins. He praised Joe's valuable expertise and diligence in keeping track of the scientific literature crucial to the work of ISIS, and especially for all his efforts in producing reports countering the claims of the pro-GM lobby that GMOs are safe for health and the environment. Joe has been working with environment and citizens groups since the early 1980s and has won a number of awards including the Certificate of Merit from the Minister of the Environment in Ontario. Peter then called on Dr. Maewan Ho to present Joe with the new award especially created for him: ‘Distinguished Fellow of ISIS'. Maewan said: “Joe has been the main star in preventing the world from being invaded by GM crops. Thank you so much!”

Article first published 01/05/08


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  2. Ho. MW 2008 “GM free organic agriculture to feed the world. International Panel of 400 Agricultural Scientists call for fundamental change in farming practice. Science in Society 38
  3. Fortson D. 2008 Surge in oil prices promots warnings of global recession Wednesday 23 April 2008 The Independent on line
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  13. Cummins J. Saving the honey bee through organic farming. Science is Society 38, in press
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