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17/04/2014

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Food security

Tom McMillan demands a broader perspective

Since food prices rocketed in 2008, ‘food security’ has gained political clout, with research budgets to match.  But the billion people who go to bed with empty bellies have little say in the new millions being spent to aid their plight. Fair dos, you might say – it’s our money. But taxpayers aren’t getting much of a look in, either.

Research initiative

In the UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is at the centre of this newfound enthusiasm. In March, it launched Global Food Security, a major new collaborative programme bringing together the research interests of Research Councils UK and government departments in agricultural production, resource management, food economics, social sciences and nutrition.

This answered, in part, a call from the Royal Society for £2 billion more for science to tackle food insecurity. The society laid out its case in a report last autumn called Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

Reaping the benefits has much to recommend it. It recognises that technology is no magic bullet, and that how food is distributed is in practice more important than how much is produced. 

Empty words

Whether science and technology help or hinder depends on who has access to it. Know-how and inventions to increase yields, protect against drought or lengthen the shelf-life of food, can all help, if they’re in the hands of the people most at risk of hunger. But if it’s their better-off neighbours with the new methods or kit, the situation reverses as cheaper food floods the local market and does local farmers out of their living.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which reported in 2008, pointed out that improving food security for poor rural people is crucial.

The IAASTD recommends a shake-up of knowledge systems: developing interactive knowledge networks, engaging in multiple stakeholder participation, integrating local and traditional knowledge with formal scientific learning, and changing the focus of organisations to make them more responsive to the needs of different stakeholders.

The Royal Society agrees that participation by marginal farmers and rural communities around the world is crucial to getting research priorities right, and that science doesn’t have all the answers. But these seem like empty words when it focuses largely on the science, spells out what the priorities should be and says how much should be spent on them.

Root problem

The seed of this contradiction was sown when the impressive team that wrote Reaping the benefits were given their remit. It wasn’t ‘how best to improve food security’ but ‘how can plant science help?’ As it wasn’t an open question, they couldn’t give an open answer.

This problem comes up again and again. The latest incident is the Food Standards Agency’s call for a new public dialogue on genetically modified (GM) foods. The question will either polarise opinion or put people to sleep.  It would be more useful, exciting and engaging to debate what drives food insecurity and compare a range of ways to address it. Focusing on one mooted solution, however cleverly, misses the point.

Stuck in silos

The need to ask open questions, not close discussion down, was one of the toughest lessons of earlier GM debates. Almost a decade on, our research and regulatory bodies remain stuck in the same scientific silos that they were back then. For the most part, they are asking the only questions they legitimately can.

If we want scientific institutions that can listen to citizens – to the people affecting by all this and bankrolling it – then we need to make those institutions a different shape. After all, if you’re stuck in a silo you can only hear the sound of your own voice.

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Dr Tom McMillan
Dr Tom McMillan is Chair of the Food Ethics Council
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