Food ethics, tomatoes and feeding the world (May08)

I’ve been to a lot of food ethics events recently – being a member of the Food Ethics Council (FEC) is keeping me busy! I’ve chaired three of their Business Forum meetings – on food miles, meat consumption and ethical labelling; attended a working group meeting on the conflict between limiting air-freight food and fair trade; spoken at a food ethics conference in Birmingham co-hosted by the Food & Drink Innovation Network; and the FEC’s most recent meeting was discussion GM food – that’s going to be a feature for September’s newsletter.

It’s not just me – food is in the headlines. Can we afford it? Will there be enough for all of us? What’s the carbon impact of a pack of crisps? And how much food are we throwing away?

There aren’t many quick and easy solutions in the food arena. Take tomatoes for instance – they were one of the topics I included in my Birmingham speech. Should we be buying English tomatoes or Spanish?

It sounds obvious – local is best because it means less food miles. What’s more English tomatoes use far less pesticides than Spanish ones. But Spanish ones actually have a smaller carbon footprint, even when transport emissions are counted – they don’t need heated greenhouses because there’s enough sun to ripen the tomatoes in situ. But then again the Spanish tomatoes take up far more land space and regularly replace their plastic polytunnels, creating waste – I don’t know if this plastic film is recycled. And tomatoes need large quantities of water to grow, which is more scarce in Spain. Yikes – what’s the conclusion?

And we haven’t even covered GM tomatoes, which were first introduced in this country in tomato puree. It was cheaper (because less tomatoes were needed to make it) than the non-GM brand and people were happy to buy it until GM hit the headlines and the puree was whipped off the supermarket shelves in a jiffy.

You might think that the GM issue has gone away but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it will be back in the headlines any time soon. And, in my view, the debate will go back to where it started – that we’re not being given a choice. It’s simply impossible for get animal feed on a large scale that is GM-free. So GM crops are being imported into Europe, almost by the back door.

My view is that GM crops are not the solution to feeding the world but it won’t be possible to feed the world without it, simply because we won’t have any choice in the matter – GM rules.

But perhaps the debate over meat and fish will be even more pressing. As world population rises and developing countries get wealthier, the demand for protein increases but supplies don’t. And I haven’t even mentioned biofuels….


Originally published on Telegraph blogs

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