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Is food security in danger unless our attitudes to technology and innovation change?

Providing a plentiful supply of safe and affordable food

The world’s population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050 – and that creates a number of challenges. Surely key among them is how we feed everyone. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that food production must be increased by 70 per cent if it is to meet this demand. While measures such as reducing waste and changing diets must play their part, they won’t provide the solution alone. If we are to tackle this food security challenge, it is vital we improve agricultural productivity so we can keep pace with rising demand.

In response, all the way from the farm to our shop shelves, we need to harness technological innovation so that we continue to provide a plentiful supply of safe and affordable food. We need to recognise that such innovation comes with responsibilities: to ensure we don’t harm the environment we fundamentally rely on to produce our food, to protect public health, and to ensure transparency along the food chain gives proper choice to consumers. However, we also need to ensure innovation is stimulated and rewarded, and that through effective risk management approaches, we strike the proper balance that means we can increase production and supply sustainably.

All of this should provide ample opportunity for the UK’s science and engineering sectors to work with food producers and the food industry to strengthen our position as a world-leading research base, and to contribute to the future security and sustainability of our food supply.

However, I sense the reality is somewhat different.

There appears to be an aversion, if not outright hostility, amongst the public towards the role of some aspects of technology and innovation in food production, particularly in the UK and Europe. While adherents promote the benefits of new technologies – from the introduction of GMOs in producing new beneficial traits in seeds, through to the use of increasingly targeted pesticides that enhance crop yields with minimal environmental or health impact – the public are reluctant to accept their arguments and instead are more easily convinced by the concept of a “natural” food system that harks back to a bygone (if not indeed mythical) era.

Crop production provides a good case in point. Modern crop protection products, techniques and technologies all have a central role to play in safeguarding our food supply. Pesticides, for example, keep weed, pest and disease pressures in check. Without them crop yields would fall by a third.

Yet, there remains heated debate about their use by farmers. Despite an extremely rigorous regulatory system, there is still a poor level of understanding amongst the public about the safety of these products and how they are used. While it is a complex and sometimes technical subject, much of the public debate around the use of pesticides (for instance the recent controversy with bee health and neonicotinoids) is conducted in misleadingly simple terms, and rarely with reference to their utility to farmers and food production.

We should be encouraging researchers to continue to innovate and produce ever more targeted and effective products that both minimise any adverse impact and improve at controlling pests and diseases. Instead, we are creating a hostile policy environment that stifles innovation while farmers increasingly struggle to produce food. In the UK, the great strides made after the war in increasing yields of barley and cereals have stalled for well over a decade, while threats such as blackgrass and flee-beetle become ever more difficult for farmers to manage.

I fear that negative attitudes to technology and innovation in food production are leading to a policy and regulatory environment that prevents proper assessment and uptake of those technologies, ultimately putting domestic food security at risk, and global food security too. At a time when Europe needs to play a greater role in producing food, we’re reducing our own productivity and putting the emphasis on developing countries to feed us instead, even though we know many parts of the world struggle to feed themselves and will continue to do so in the face of climate change. Its time our policy-makers recognised the challenge and rose to it. All of us - industry, the public and policy makers - need to embrace the solutions technology and innovation can provide in response to the food security challenge.

Nick von Westenholz is the CEO of the Crop Protection Association.

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Putting energy consumers at the heart of action against global warming

By Sacha Deshmukh, Chief Executive Smart Energy GB.

At the end of this month, representatives from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris to try to reach a new global agreement on talking climate change.

Heads of government will make solemn promises to curb greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to avoid the most dangerous increases in world temperature.

These commitments, though, will only be as good as the technological plans each nation has to meet their targets.

Economic growth and increased living standards typically require more energy, unless ways can be found to use existing supplies more efficiently.

As leading expert Dieter Helm argues in a new paper for Smart Energy GB: “without massive technical change, global warming cannot be cracked”.

Smart meters are an important part of the solution to climate change, according to Professor Helm.

This month, leading policy makers, environmentalists and energy experts will be gathering for our Smarter Britain, Smarter Environment event in London.

The meeting will discuss the role of smart technology in tackling climate change.

Smart meters will be offered to every home and microbusiness in Britain by 2020. In all around 53 million new gas and electricity meters will be installed.

This roll-out, unprecedented in its scale and ambition, is part of a profound set of changes to the energy market over the coming years.

There will be great focus in Paris on the way in which our energy is generated, and whether power comes from renewables, nuclear, shale, oil or coal.

But just as critical is the way in which energy is consumed by millions of homes and small businesses.

This is the vitally important “demand side” of the energy transformation that is currently underway.

Smart meters provide fast and accurate data on energy use of households.

For the first time, bill-payers are able to see exactly how much their electricity and gas use is costing in pounds and pence.

Estimated bills and inaccurate meter readings are fortunately being consigned to history.

Households are starting to engage with their energy needs much more effectively and consistently.

People can see – almost in real time – how they can save money by changing the ways they use electricity and gas.

New tariffs will, in future, also allow bill-payers to shift their most intensive energy use to times for example at the weekend or overnight when costs are lower. 

But, more than this, smart meters are enabling a much wider system-wide transformation of energy transmission.

The information from millions of homes and businesses can be used to match supply and demand more efficiently at the city and national level, as part of the “smart grid”.

This is absolutely essential, if we are to rely more on renewable sources of energy.

Solar and wind energy are intermittent. The most abundant supplies are rarely produced exactly where and when they are most needed.

So better ways must be developed to store energy and distribute it over larger areas – and even between nations.

Smart technology can also help at the very local level, by supporting the decentralisation of electricity generation.

The new meters will allow households to know exactly how much energy - in pounds and pence – their solar panels or turbines are producing.

With greater electrification (of heating, appliances and transport), these challenges become even more relevant.

If millions of people come home and plug in their electric cars at 6pm, the energy systems of the future must be able to cope.

These changes are genuinely exciting.

Smart technology not only provides environmentally friendly answers, but also supports products that consumers really want.

Consumer engagement with energy via smart meters is now providing an opportunity to bring action on climate change into our homes.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe - test