The main benefit of the industrialisation of agriculture has undoubtedly been the elimination of hunger – first in the rich, Western world and thereafter, gradually, on a broader global scale. Most of us now take cheap food and food safety for granted. Indeed, cheap milk and cheap meat are almost considered basic human rights. But the realisation is now dawning that there is a downside to all this – and it’s becoming increasingly evident every day. Natural capital is shrinking all the time, while soil degradation and overfishing are accelerating. To address these and other related issues, we need to devise new production and distribution methods, reimagine the way we eat and understand why we are generating so much unnecessary waste. The food industry can no longer be seen as a gigantic buffet, with the US consumer as its role model. Awareness of these issues is rising, but it has now become a battle against time. What’s the point of having healthy people on a sick planet?
We need to start with what is possible to achieve in the short term, with a view to implementing more sustainable strategies in the long term. Currently, the picture is mixed: while there have been some improvements, other efforts have collapsed, and while some situations are getting better, many are deteriorating. On the plus side, we now have green GMO thanks to the advent of genome editing, but risks can never be eliminated as long as there is a human factor involved. Furthermore, a lot will depend on consumer behaviour in the ‘first’ world. Michael Pollan had the right idea when he said: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ And we can take heart from the soaring popularity of veganism – especially among the young – which has gone from being the preserve of a few extremists to a mainstream trend in an astonishingly short time. This shows just how quickly food consumption patterns could change in future.
Don’t underestimate the romantic nature of humans. Without it, we’d be zombies. Soul food, the smell of the local and a sense of place as part of our identity are all gaining in importance. Having roots is a positive thing and denotes a connection with nature – an awareness of the habitats and ecosystems of humans, animals, plants, lakes, rivers and forests. The whole ‘microbiocene versus anthropocene’ discussion demonstrates our realisation that humans depend on viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc. and that we are not the masters of the universe. Peaceful coexistence is necessary and possible, so focusing on organic is not wrong, it meets a basic need for romance and therefore plays a significant role. But we must continue to grow and eat conventionally improved, organic and green GMO.
This goes back to old concerns about dangerous manipulation of food by the likes of Monsanto or Syngenta. But we need to move on from that, and leading the way is genome editing. The CRISPR-Cas genetic engineering technique will take us to the next level of discussion in relation to tackling not just viruses like COVID-19 but also food production. It’s now more about biology and less about chemistry – as the ongoing drive to reduce the use of pesticides demonstrates.
As always, I’ll try to provide a comprehensive overview of the fascinating trends in the current landscape and create a map showing the connections between them. Providing clear orientation and focused knowledge is the GDI way of dealing with the big ideas of our time.
Farms, Labs and Beyond: Fixing a Broken Food System
– This conference will take place online –