Royal Society report on science and agriculture: GM not the only answer

The Food Ethics Council gives a cautious welcome to the Royal Society’s report Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

As well as providing a useful snapshot of the science, it recognises that technology – including GM - is no magic bullet in the fight against hunger.

We are encouraged by the Royal Society’s understanding that social and economic policies must also be in place to ensure food security.

However, the report assumes that feeding people is about growing food, not how it’s distributed and consumed. It fails to face up to the fact that a billion people already people go hungry, while many more are buying – and throwing away – more food than they need.

[Tristram Stuart, author of Waste estimates that avoidable waste of cereal-based foods in the UK and USA would be enough to lift 224 million people out of hunger.]

Dr. Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, says:

"The Royal Society recognises that consumers and farmers should have a say in the way governments rise to this challenge. But they get ahead of themselves by demanding £2 billion more for science.

"That’s exactly the kind of decision that should be up for wider debate. The money might be better spent tackling the social and economic problems that affect whether growing more food makes a jot of difference to food security.

"Instead of asking ’how can science and technology help secure global food supplies’, we need to ask ’what can be done – by scientists but also by others – to help the world’s hungry?’

"The fact is that our scientific institutions, regulatory bodies, innovation policies and intellectual property regimes are in no fit state to speak for marginal farmers and the world’s hungry people."

The Food Ethics Council recommends that before we can find effective solutions to solving global problems of food insecurity, we urgently need institutional changes.

As a signatory to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) the UK government should already be on the case.

IAASTD found that the incentives for science to address the issues that matter are weak; and that many OECD members don’t consider social and environmental needs when trying to meet agricultural production goals. It calls for institutional, economic and legal frameworks that combine productivity with the protection and conservation of natural resources.

So we urge the Royal Society to take IAASTD’s recommendations to heart in its debates about GM and other technologies, by putting sustainability and social justice at the heart of the way it does research into agriculture.