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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 07:32 GMT
Lord Haskins on world food debate
Rural Recovery Coordinator Lord Haskins gives the second in a series of public lectures sponsored by the BBC, in association with the Regeneration Institute.
He considers the ongoing debate about meeting the world's food needs, as the global population continues to grow.
For centuries the prophets of doom have had a field day - forgive the pun - about the future of food and agriculture.
The 18th Century British political economist Malthus forecast that the world would not be able to feed its growing population.
In those days the world's population was probably no more than 500m, yet today we have the capacity to feed 6bn people, showing that food shortages and starvation are driven by political not agricultural failure.
The doomsters now worry that, with the world's population set to rise by 50% to 9bn in the next 30-40 years, Malthus will come back into his own.
I beg to differ because I believe that Man's ingenuity, which has resulted in perhaps a 40-fold increase in food production over the past two centuries, will solve the problem of having to double existing food production in the next 30 years.
The main reason why a 50% increase in population will require a doubling of food production is because the world's largely vegetarian poor are expected to become richer and, as a result, more carnivorous.
And the conversion of plant proteins into animal proteins demands a several-fold use of resources.
But the ingenuity of the past two centuries has been spectacular.
It includes advances in: animal and plant-breeding science; fertilisers, fungicides and herbicides; pharmaceuticals and vaccinations for animal health; increased production through mechanisation and irrigation; and the opening up of great but remote agricultural territories through the development of railways.
Growth in output has also soared through the use of refrigeration, enabling food to be stored and transported long distances, pasteurisation boosting products' shelf life, and distribution networks reaching entire populations.
But if he was alive today, Malthus might still argue that there must be a limit to this use of chemicals, fungicides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
He might claim that machines cannot get any bigger, water is getting scarcer, there is much less new land available for cultivation without having a damaging effect on the environment and there is little further scope for food preservation.
Environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners already argue for a fully organic approach to food production.
This would certainly bring Malthus's worst predictions to fruition as organic farming is much less productive than "conventional" farming and consequently, there would be less food available and food prices would soar.
It would lead to economic and political collapse in much of the developing world.
But the environmentalists and animal rights and consumer activists have some telling points which must be addressed.
The excessive and reckless use of chemicals, especially in the immediate 40 post-war years has endangered many wildlife species and caused potential threats to human health.
Intensive methods of silage, arable land and livestock use have created unacceptable levels of pollution, undermined the quality of the countryside, by hedgerow destruction, for example, impacted on wildlife, and raised serious questions about animal welfare.
Consumers have been alarmed by the apparent increase in food-related diseases, such as BSE and vCJD.
In Britain, people wonder about the future of farming, as farmers find more rewarding work in other parts of the economy.
So why am I confident the world will find ways of feeding an extra 3bn people, confounding the Malthusisms once again?
The answer lies in genetic modification raising food outputs to spectacular heights, satellite technology squeezing vital improvements from harvests and the elimination of inefficiencies in agricultural industries across the world.
It also lies in the EU and North America dropping their unfair agricultural policies in favour of fair trade practices with the Third World.
Of course these new sciences and technologies must be tested rigorously, and the global approach to environmental protection typified by the Kyoto Agreement pursued.
But, overall, I am convinced that we can produce the world's increasing food needs, whilst at the same time ensuring a "sustainable" environment.
Lord Haskins was speaking at Cardiff University, King Edward VII Avenue, Cathays Park, Cardiff on Wednesday 20 February.
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