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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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MasterCard Worldwide

Could technology hold the key to eliminating financial exclusion?

Technology and electronic payments are a lever, providing new ways to bring people into the system and to reduce vulnerable citizens’ reliance on cash.

There is still a long way to go to improve the nation’s financial health.  A key aspect of this is to tackle financial exclusion, and to ensure that every adult is connected in the right way and affordably, to the regular, and therefore regulated financial system. Financial Inclusion is not a party political issue, it is a necessity which makes economic and social policy sense. Where people are financially included individuals, firms, and society as a whole benefit.   

The assumption that financial exclusion is a problem solely in developing economies alone could not be further from the truth. In Western Europe, the population of unbanked and underbanked totals 93 million people. The UK is also ranked ninth in the world in terms of banking inclusion, however two million adults still do not have a bank account. As the UK recovers from the economic crisis, living standards have fallen and inclusion in the financial system remains a major issue. This is despite the fact that the UK leads the world in financial services and technology. Sluggish wage growth, unemployment and macroeconomic uncertainties have placed great pressure on household budgets, exacerbating the fragility of personal finances for many of Britain’s most vulnerable citizens.

While there has been good progress made in the past to address the exclusion problem, the need to realise financial inclusion has never been greater. In March 2015 a report published by the Financial Inclusion Commission, a non-partisan, cross-party group of experts and parliamentarians, identified 20 key recommendations that policy makers could implement to create a financially healthy society. Among them was the recognition of the potential opportunities offered by developments in technology and digital innovation to connect all citizens to the banking system.

Technology and electronic payments are a lever, providing new ways to bring people into the system and to reduce vulnerable citizens’ reliance on cash. Evidence and experience has shown that where cash usage is higher, so is the level of corruption, poverty and exclusion, as well as lower levels of productivity and growth. The Bank of England recently published analysis of cash usage, finding that half of cash in circulation is held overseas or used in the shadow economy. Due to the untraceable nature of this tender, it is not known how much cash is lost to each market.

Promoting cashless economies, supported by technology, has a significant impact on the financial capability of individuals in managing private finances. New technologies enabling bank account holders to distribute their money into jam jars is an example of the role digital innovations are playing in addressing the exclusion issue.  There are already examples of where this is working. In the UK, the diverse London Borough of Brent recognised the opportunity electronic payments present and became UK’s first cashless local authority. Internationally, programmes like SASSA in South Africa and Adahaar in India, are overcoming the challenges of access and identification in disbursing welfare to remote communities, revolutionising the financial capability and access of the welfare recipients.

Yet, underlining all of this is a need for real leadership to drive the financial inclusion agenda. Politicians and industry both have important roles to play in joining-up and supporting the many organisations and individuals already doing good work in this area. Only through this leadership can the UK become a truly financially inclusive society.

Mark Barnett

President, UK and Ireland


Tackling financial exclusion is a global corporate objective for MasterCard, who provide support for the Financial Inclusion Commission.