I was quite excited to hear that the Society of Biology was running a symposium on food security, partly in response to Tim Lang’s talk at the RSE back in February (slides from Tim Lang’s talk are available halfway down this page.) But when I found out it clashed with an Extraordinary General Meeting of my allotments association, I had some prioritising to do.
From the start I guessed that a symposium from the Society of Biology would emphasise the biotechnology aspects of food security, and would probably be quite conservative in the sense of providing technological solutions within the current economic system. With this in mind, I arranged to go to the allotment association EGM and catch the last of the talks at the Society of Biology. So Saturday had a flurry of food-related activity in the late morning.
Saughton Mains Allotments Association (SMAA)
Saughton Mains is one of the largest allotment sites in Scotland, with about 170 plots. The committee has been getting smaller over the last few years and has lost the ability to engage with the plot holders, so much so that the AGM back in September didn’t reach quorum of 20 plotholders. So an EGM was called to elect a new committee.
I had wanted to stand as an ordinary member, but as the meeting progressed I found myself standing for treasurer and got duly elected. This will be an excellent position to learn about the economics of small-scale growing, as the site buys seeds and potatoes for plotholders, and we will be able to apply for grants to develop the site. I feel quite honoured to get this position, and hopefully it’ll get me down to the site more often. When I popped down to the allotment site today I saw a note on the gate with all the new committee members, so I guess that’s it settled :-)
When this meeting finished, I jumped on the bike headed into town. I have never cycled so fast in town before.
Society of Biology symposium on Food Security
I always knew this would be a challenging session. I arrived a couple of minutes into the last talk, given by Professor Alison Smith and titled “the sustainable agriculture revolution”. The first slide I saw was about genetic modification of Desiree potatoes to deliver blight resistance, and the rest of the talk followed that theme: outlining the possibilities for transferring genes for fixing nitrogen from legumes to non-leguminous plants; and surveying challenges for genetically modifying wheat due to its large hexaploid genome. Now I don’t have an fundamental disagreement with genetic modification. I just see it as an unnecessary and overly-complicated technology that has a bad history of commercialisation.
So this symposium was challenging because the problems that were identified in the talk and discussion afterwards were spot on, centering on greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, over-reliance on fossil fuels, and a recognition that GM technology has been aggressively persued by industry. The recognition that solutions to these problems had to be approached from a system point of view was also fine and I particularly like the notion of sustainability as not going for the highest yield, but a high yield per unit of input. But then, at the last hurdle, the solutions posed were high technology. For example: the problem of over-reliance on nitrogen fertilizer was posed, then we heard that natural nitrogen fixation was “unfortunately only performed by leguminous plants” so the solution should be to transfer genes from leguminous plants to non-leguminous plants. Therefore reduced fertilizer use; therefore problem solved. This is a new avenue of research, as we see from the press release on 17 November 2011 “Genome sequence sheds new light on how plants evolved nitrogen-fixing symbioses” but would planting more legumes and improved husbandry not achieve the same end?
During the discussion at the end of the symposium, it become clear that the dominant discourse was biotechnological: big problems need big solutions need big science needs to talk to big players. The role of small-scale and informal farming in food security would not figure in their plans, and that’s where our views fundamentally diverge. It’s also why I responded to the 2009 BBSRC consultation on food security to argue the case for research into technologies that would assist small-scale farming, and it’s why I’ll continue to work in localised and small-scale food production.
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Food security begins at home.