Saturday, 30 August 2008

Let 'em starve!

August is always a slow news month. The key decision makers are generally on holiday, activity falls away, and not a lot happens. Newspapers, however, still have to sell copy. This has given rise to the ‘silly season’, where stories that ordinarily wouldn’t merit too much thought are given a prominence that they possibly do not deserve. One such story this August concerned a rant by Prince Charles (the heir to the British throne) over GM foods (see article). The Prince suggests that the cultivation of GM foods is a gigantic experiment with nature that has gone “seriously wrong”. He also suggests that relying upon “gigantic corporations” for our food would result in an “absolute disaster”.

From a futures perspective, this claim is worth examining. The cultivation of GM crops has been going on for 10 years now, and there is little evidence to suggest that there are any unduly harmful effects from this method of cultivation. The practice has been occurring long enough for any detrimental side effects to have become evident. We currently consume the produce from GM cultivation in three ways. First, there are the GM crops grown abroad that are imported into the UK. Second, there are the processed foodstuffs that are manufactured outside of the UK and then imported as finished products. And finally, there is the livestock feed that is processed with GM crops, that then enters our food chain through the meat that we eat. In this respect, the genie is already out of the bottle.

The Prince offers no evidence to support his claim. Equally, there is no evidence to suggest that the means of making a market for foods (the “gigantic corporations”) is either superior or inferior to any other form of market organisation. We can suspect that a global trade in food actually needs global corporations to move the food from the producer to the consumer.

On the other side of the coin, there is much to suggest that GM cultivation has been beneficial. GM cultivation is a way to improve crop yields and to cultivate crops more efficiently with regards to the environment. This year, we have seen the start of what we feel is likely to be persistent food shortages across the world. As prosperity wraps itself around the globe, as living standards rise, as people rise out of poverty, they are likely to want to eat more of a better diet. If the growth of the supply of food cannot match the growth in demand for food, global food prices are likely to rise – as they have this year. GM cultivation offers a technological solution for the growth in the supply of food to match the growth in demand for food.

Food crops, of course, are also resource intensive. One particular resource that is vital to crop growth, that is starting to register as scarce across the globe, is water. Water is a vital input to the growing process, and there are very few cash crops that can be cultivated successfully without it. An impending shortage of water raises the prospect of declining crop yields. Once again, GM cultivation offers the hope of a solution for this problem, as crop strains that need less water for successful commercial cultivation can be engineered.

If the Prince were to have his way, what would be the implications? We could expect a world in which there is less food than there is now as the GM crops currently in cultivation are replaced by lower yielding crops. We could expect the price of food generally to be more expensive than it is now. However, worse of all, we could expect the incidence of hunger and starvation to be greater than it is now. The cause of poverty eradication in the world would be set back much further than it is now.

I don’t know if Prince Charles is related to Marie Antoinette, but this sounds awfully close to exhorting the developing world to eat cake!

© The European Futures Observatory 2008

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