A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to be invited to a questions and answers session with a panel of experts on the global and local dimension of food security. The discussion was being chaired by Dr. John Barry, Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainability at Queen’s University, Belfast. Dr. Barry is also the lecturer on my ‘Politics of Sustainability’ module.
The panel was an interesting mix of backgrounds and personalities:
- Professor Charles Godfrey (University of Oxford. Fellow of the Royal Society, London. President of the British Ecological Society)
- Bruce Darrell (Feasta – The Economics of Sustainability)
- Joe McDonald (Ulster Farmer’s Union)
The session opened with each member of the panel telling us a bit about themselves followed by their views on the issue of food security and how we might sustainably feed the projected population of approximately 9 billion people in the year 2050. Faced with such a daunting prospect, you would have expected a range of pessimistic replies and no concrete strategy for the road ahead. It was a nice surprise then, to hear that it’s not necessarily a doom and gloom scenario.
Of particular interest was Peter Melchett. Not only is he an extremely modest British aristocrat (despite talking with him for almost an hour, I only discovered he was actually a ‘Lord’ when I googled his name), but he is also a former executive director of Greenpeace UK and has appeared in court at least once for standing up for his environmental beliefs. He recently switched to organic agriculture, after farming non-organically for 30 years, in an effort to bring wildlife back onto his 750 acre Courtyard Farm in Norfolk, England. Until the current economic recession, he informed us, sales of organic produce had been growing by an average of 27% per year over the last decade, and that over 50% of people in lower income groups were buying organic food, debunking the myth that it was a luxury of the middle class (link).
Another good character was Bruce Darrell, a Canadian architect who has become interested in urban agriculture since moving to Ireland. He is currently building a house in Ireland’s only eco village, Cloughjordan, in County Tipperary. His focus was on the diminishing nutritional content of the fruit and veg we grow in the UK and Ireland, and how this is linked to the deteriorating quality of our soil and intensive agriculture. His main worry is that we will soon not be getting all the nutrients (i.e. minerals and vitamins) that we need from the produce we buy and that malnourishment could become an inevitable part of our future. Bruce is an avid supporter of the Transition Movement, and believes that localising food production is one of the necessary steps towards sustainable living.
The discussion dealt fairly generally with the problem, highlighting, as most of us already know, that it is more an issue of food distribution than food production. In 2006 it was reported that there are now more overweight than undernourished people in the world. We can easily feed 9 billion people, provided better mechanisms are put in place to make sure the food is being allocated more evenly across the planet. Of particular concern to the board was the prevalence of genetically modified crops and the dominance of certain major corporations in the ‘patented seed’ market. They agreed that small farmers in developing countries needed better support from their governments and that if adequate policies were implemented then perhaps they would be able to feel themselves and the people in their community, instead of having to sell it for export at a ridiculously low price.
The idea of localisation and organic farming is hardly a new one. Civilisations practised it long before globalisation, and chances are it is something we will be forced to return to in a response to the triple threat of climate change, peak oil and rapid population growth. The feeling from the majority of the board (Joe McDonald excluded) was that this is something we can and should be doing.
I felt that the discussion would have been a lot more interesting had their been a representative from a major UK supermarket (Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda etc.) on the panel. Certainly, some of the questions coming from the audience, concerning food waste and produce selection for example, would have been better answered by someone in this position. However, on the whole it was an interesting session and certainly a very interesting issue. It’s good to know that there is a potential solution to a very big problem. Time to put it in to practice.
Freddie Harris is currently studying for a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His undergrad is in Tropical Environmental Science. Freddie writes about his current experiences as a sustainability student, giving others an insight into what is perhaps one of the most interdisciplinary subjects out there. He hopes to remain optimistic about the future!