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|GM crops can save us from food shortages|
Daily Telegraph - April 17th 2008
It is remarkable how rapidly the world has moved from worrying about deflation to worrying about inflation; from cheer to despondency about the reduction of poverty; and from concern about food surpluses to panic about shortages.
The hand of rising food prices is suddenly seen everywhere: in the riots in Tibet against Chinese rule; in drastic measures in the Philippines, Egypt, India and many African countries to restrict food exports; in calls for more aid; and even in the Bank of England´s reluctance to cut interest rates as fast as its American counterpart.
For agricultural commodity prices (what we call "food") to have more than doubled in the past three years is an astonishing and worrying turn of events. But in responding to it, we need to understand the true nature of the problem.
And we must recognise that a big part of this problem is our own fault - because of our ill thought-out enthusiasm for using food to fuel cars as well as stomachs; and because of our longer-established but also ill considered opposition to the use of genetic engineering to help us grow more food.
Start with the true nature of the problem of food-price inflation. Most attention has been given to shortages in supply and to the increased appetite in China and India for meat, which requires more grain.
But those explanations are incomplete and misleading. They are incomplete because food-price inflation is not happening in isolation. If it were, we would be seeing new BMWs popping up in farmyards all over Britain.
Cereal farmers are indeed doing well, but livestock farmers are not, and both share a problem common to farmers worldwide: farming needs fertiliser, and fertiliser needs energy, so farmers´ input costs have also risen.
High demand for energy partly explains those prices. But so, too, does the reluctance of oil-producing countries to expand their output to meet demand.
The Opec cartel, spurred on by Venezuela and Iran, does not want its windfall to end, and neither does Russia.
Thus Hugo Chávez, supposedly a "Bolivarian Socialist" helping the world´s poor, is contributing to a new bout of starvation. If we could get oil supply up and prices down, the food crisis would also fade.
The misleading element of the explanation is the attribution of the boom in food prices to demand for meat in China and India. It is true that, as those countries become more affluent, they are eating more meat. But this is a gradual process.
The immediate issue is that both are suffering from faster inflation, caused by a credit boom. In China, in particular, that credit boom is a result of its efforts to keep its currency artificially cheap. If that policy were to change - as it must, eventually - with a crackdown on domestic inflation, that demand-growth for meat would fade.
In the longer term, it is the self-inflicted wounds that we should be addressing. The surge of subsidies for biofuels, which has persuaded many farmers to switch crops, may prove short-lived, but subsidy schemes tend to be difficult to kill off once in place.
The rational approach would be to abandon trade barriers against the cheaper and less-polluting sources of ethanol in Brazil and elsewhere. But rationality and farming policy rarely go together.
That point can be multiplied a thousand times when it comes to attitudes in Europe to food technology. Every boost in farm productivity has come thanks to technology - from better fertilisers and pesticides to the high-yield rice varieties of India´s "green revolution" in the 1960s.
The past decade and a half of scientific discovery has opened up a vista of even greater improvements, yet our reaction has been to reject them all. I refer to genetic science and the ability to modify a plant to make it resistant to pests, to need less fertiliser, as well as many more innovations.
It is sensible to be cautious about science when it comes to our food. But we have rejected GM foods almost entirely. That rejection has been shared with the European Union, but it cannot be blamed solely on the EU: scares about "Frankenfoods" and the antics of Lord Melchett and Greenpeace are just as responsible.
Europe´s unwillingness to accept even a trace of GM products in imported feedstocks forces other countries´ farmers to steer clear too. And since the EU is one of the wealthiest regions on the planet, our rejection has set back progress in GM research and development hugely.
This has to change, and urgently. The evidence against genetic modification is as weak as can be. The longer we deny ourselves this technological way to increase food output and reduce the use of fertiliser, the longer the current imbalance between food supply and demand will last.
The era of cheap food does not have to be over. We have it within our power to bring it back.