Inspired by conference debate
Phil Stocker - 08 February 2010
Fresh back from the 20th Soil Association national conference in Birmingham – and full of inspiration – I feel more optimistic than ever as I write this blog.
This conference has to go down as one of the best ever in recent years. And this is even more remarkable given the difficult times that many farmers and growers are facing. But sometimes adversity brings a sense of purpose and resilience, and for me that shone through over the two days at the Birmingham Custard Factory venue.
Very rarely do we experience such a wide range of interests coming together in one place. Retailers and food manufacturers, politicians and producers, and researchers and the public – all were in attendance at the event. And, arguably more than ever before, many individuals and organisations with opposing views were actively involved in the conference at all levels. To see Syngenta and the NFU speaking and being involved in discussions was completely refreshing and, at times, you could sense a coming together of objectives – even if we are on different roads. While opinions will inevitably differ, it has to make sense to talk to - and involve - those with different opinions. I certainly believe that there will always be some common ground that we can build on.
The theme of the conference was ‘The Future of Food’. In discussing the subject of the UK’s role in feeding a rising population in a resource diminishing world, a fundamental difference of approach was evident between the organic camp and that of the NFU.
Is it the role of UK farming to maximise production of commodity tradable products, using whatever technology is available – and at the expense of our environment – to feed an unsustainable population until the next crash comes? Or should our role be one of supporting nations to increase their food security, within ecological boundaries, aiming to feed indigenous populations with staple crops, and accepting appropriate trade of non-indigenous foods? This seems to be a fundamental policy and public issue that will so heavily influence the future of our farming here in the UK - and it’s why we have to debate and engage with as wide an audience as possible.
It was great to have Peter Kendall and other NFU bods involved, as it was to have Oliver Walston and Syngenta taking part. They deserve credit for coming and it would be rude to abuse their willingness to engage. But they are robust enough to hear alternative views. And their ‘business as usual’ vision of British agriculture - maximising production of world tradable commodities to feed an ever growing population, supported by a blind faith in high risk technological solutions (including GM nitrogen fixing wheat and nuclear power) as alternatives to finite oil reserves – is a vision that I find frankly depressing, shortsighted and unrealistic. Furthermore, their opinion that organic farming is in any way ‘anti-technology’ or ‘anti-science’ is simply untrue and it is no longer acceptable to hear organic producers still being tarnished with such a reputation.
When we think of food security we also have to think of environmental security and social well being. We could start by wasting less food, accept that obesity is as common as hunger, and that poor nutrition results in people with full stomachs still being malnourished. How much more food could we produce within organic, rotational, and polycultural systems if feeding people was our objective and economics weren’t such a barrier?