As if you weren’t worried enough about climate change, economic calamity and now swine flu, there is now a growing number of agricultural scientists who think we are heading for a food crisis. Dr Lester R Brown has a big piece in Scientific American this month, while over this side of the Atlantic Professor Douglas Kell has warned that rising temperatures and diminuishing energy supplies will lead to food riots unless the Government acts.
So far, so familiar to most environmentalists and oil peakists. But Kell has also called for £100 million of public money to made available for research into how crop yields might be maximised, so that the crisis might be averted. Now where do you think that money would go? From a cursory internet search I can’t find exactly what Kell, a professor of biotechnology, thinks about genetically modified food, but I would bet good money that this Government, with its affection for large, centralised, corporate solutions (think mega-banks, nuclear power, car manufacturers) would, in the face of a looming food crisis, cave in to the lobbyists and hastily push through a GM agenda.
I should add that I’m not a purist about these things. I have no fixed opinions about genetic modification, and my objections to it are more about corporate control, terminator seeds and copyrighted genomes than they are about the safety or ‘naturalness’ of the resulting crop.
What worries me is that the Government will hear people like Kell asking for research into increased crop yields and automatically think ‘GM’ rather than making the effort to explore the alternatives. A community gardening, “digging for victory” initiative would not only help tackle food scarcity at a minimum cost, it would also promote the kind of solaridarity and community spirit to see us through a major crisis. If we promoted food sharing to eliminate waste, we might not even need that much space. There is plenty of research which shows that a nation of small farmers tends to be more productive than a nation of a few large farms, centrally controlled.
What’s more, there are ways in which small farmers and gardeners can maximise their plots for higher yields simply by attentive design. The permaculture movement, founded by the Australian biologist and conservationist Bill Mollison, has created a low-energy, low-maintenence and yet high-yield method of food growing, by copying the patterns of growth seen in thriving natural ecosystems, such as woodlands. They have been doing this without corporate investment or government grants. According to Dr Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust, a forest garden designed for maximum yield could feed around ten people an acre. That’s about twice as much as conventional agricultural farming, and with a fraction of the work and none of the fossil fuel energy.
While the supporters of GM have been shouting from the rooftops and rallying an army of lobbyists to promote themselves as the saviours of a starving world, the permaculturists have been, in the words of Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins, ‘far too long hidden up misty lanes in the middle of nowhere’, quietly experimenting. They now need to get out of those lanes, and show Governments, communities and individuals the potential of their revolutionary system. Whether or not GM can feed the future becomes a moot point. If permaculture can feed us for less money and energy, and by liberating people to feed themselves as opposed to locking them into corporate dependence, then surely it’s infinitely preferable.
Earlier this year, the BBC made a fantastic documentary on permaculture solutions to the food and energy crises, called Farm for the Future. It’s just been made available again to watch on BBC iPlayer until 12 May. In my ideal world, Professor Kell, and the Government, would go and visit the pioneering food growers in this film first, and the GM corporations second.