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22 October 2014updated 28 Oct 2014 11:02am

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

Providing a plentiful supply of safe and affordable food

By Nick von Westenholz Nick von Westenholz

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.

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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.