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Consumers, farmers and food: reconciling the future

With 6 billion mouths to feed, the global food system is extremely complex, and associated problems are many and diverse. If population projections are correct there will be 9 billion by 2050, making solving these problems increasingly urgent. A two-day conference organised by New Scientist and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London during 5-6 July, 2004 gave experts from different sectors the opportunity to share ideas on how best to approach the issues. Some of their views on reconciling the future for consumers, farmers and food are provided below.

Feeding the world but at what price?

"...we actually pay three times for our food. Once at the till in the shop, a second time through taxes that are used to subsidise farmers or support agricultural development, and a third time to clean up environmental and health side effects. Food looks cheap because we count these costs elsewhere in society."
Jules Pretty, Director, Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, UK

"The food chain is responsible for approximately 22 per cent of UK greenhouse gases...agriculture for 8-12 per cent... Food manufacturing is the third largest industrial energy user in the UK and the second largest industrial waste producer."
Tara Garnett, Wise Moves Coordinator, Transport 2000

"The European CAP and the US Farm Bill stimulate overproduction of many food crops, resulting in cheap food being dumped in the international market, primarily on developing countries, which undermines their export market."
Robert Watson, Chief Scientist and Director, Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, World Bank

"...today, a combination of increasing calorie intake across Europe as a whole and rapidly declining physical activity has produced extensive prevalent excess of weight and obesity. ...over one-third of the population of some European Union countries are overweight or obese."
Robert Madelin, Director General for Health and Consumer Protection, European Commission

Sustainable agriculture must be made viable

"Sustainable farming has to be economically viable to build in the requirements and drive for safe, high quality food, grown with care and environmental responsibility together with an awareness of the communities' needs."
Caroline Drummond, Chief Executive, LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming)

"As well as an understandable demand for healthy and nutritious food,...the consumer wants environmentally sound production, greater knowledge of the provenance of food and the means by which it has been produced. This includes a growing interest in the way farming affects the landscape and ethical factors around food provision."
Michael Pragnell, CEO, Syngenta AG

"Food security can be achieved. And the time is right - we're in a transition period, and we need to make changes now. There is currently huge optimism, in Africa for example, NEPAD is very positive. If we fail to make the changes now, we will look back and say we missed an opportunity."
Klaus von Grebmer, Director, Communications Division, International Food Policy Research Institute

"We're recognising that agricultural development isn't just about poverty reduction. The benefits are multiple, providing broader economic opportunities...we're also realising that we need to do things differently than before... we need to look at new ways, different ways to support farmers and poor people."
Tim Foy, Head, Policy Division, Department for International Development, UK

But how?

"The substantial external costs of modern agriculture, and the known external benefits of sustainable agricultural systems, pose great challenges for policy makers. A range of policy reforms could do much to internalise some of these costs and benefits in prices."
Jules Pretty

"...an international assessment on "How can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation, access to and use of agricultural knowledge, science and technology?"
Robert Watson

"...those who have the technology should be encouraged to apply it globally in ways that help people in diverse regions, and under diverse conditions, help themselves."
Michael Pragnell

"Today we have a disconnect between farmer and consumer: people have lost contact with the land. We need to reconnect... by investing in public awareness and education."
Patrick Holden, Director, Soil Association

"Food industry co-operation is essential to develop sustainable standards and a move towards market mechanisms for sustainable raw materials."
Steve Parry, Head of Sustainable Agriculture Research, Unilever Colworth R&D

"You can see changes if the right incentives are there. The price incentive is crucial. Canada is now the lead country in zero-tillage because farmers found they could make money from it."
Jack Wilkinson, President of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers

Constraints

"Everyone says they are in favour of sustainability, but few are willing to make fundamental changes. Most rural policy structures still encourage 'old' modernist agriculture - we need to go beyond 'greening the edge' to 'greening the middle'."
Jules Pretty

"...we have not communicated to consumers, or taxpayers for that matter, why we should be promoting sustainable agriculture. Why should I, as a consumer of goods and services, care about whether or not my food is produced by heavy machinery and lots of energy and chemicals or by a farmer who produces clean water, wildlife, and aesthetics benefits in addition to crops?"
Andrew P. Manale, Senior Consultant, Energy and the Environment Research Center, University of North Dakota, USA

"There is growing understanding and concern among rural producers, producer organisations, national governments, NGO networks, and some donors about the very damaging effects of OECD trade and agricultural policy on the prospects for farmers in the developing world... Major imbalances in global power limit the room for serious gains by African countries within such [WTO] negotiations."
Camilla Toulmin, Director, International Institute for Environment and Development

"Traceability is critical. It is required to get into the large chains, but it is going to be very difficult for small-scale farmers to meet requirements in a cost-effective way. ...It becomes a demand but under current systems there are no advantages to the farmers. It is also expensive."
Jack Wilkinson

Date published: September 2004

 

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