The UK government wants to promote controversial crop-breeding technologies like gene editing. Foodservice businesses need to be part of the debate, says Nick Hughes.
“Now that we have left the EU, we are free to make coherent policy decisions based on science and evidence.”
So declared the environment secretary George Eustice last week as he announced a consultation on plans to allow the controversial technology of gene editing in British grown crops.
On the same day Eustice was making the case to use “the tools that science provides” in producing our food, the Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) launched a report on the potential for agroecology (which applies ecological principles to optimise the relationships between plants, animals, humans and the environment) to feed the UK population.
The juxtaposition of two visions with essentially the same aim – to feed the population sustainably and profitably – served neatly to demonstrate schisms that have always existed over the future of UK food and farming and are set to become more exposed now the UK is free to chart its own policy course following Brexit.
Transitioning to a more sustainable food system will be a project of huge complexity involving significant trade-offs (regardless of whether they are openly acknowledged); for this reason alone businesses should be cautious of immediately rowing in behind one particular vision for food production. But they should be cognisant of the arguments on all sides and consider what it means for their own future sourcing policies and CSR commitments. And they should also reflect on how their own commercial decisions and buying power will help shape the future – supermarkets lest we forget were instrumental in suffocating at birth the first wave of GM foods following a public backlash stirred up by sections of the media.
It was instructive to note the subject Eustice chose for his first set-piece speech following the end of the EU transition period. He could easily have talked up the government’s new environmental land management scheme which promises to pay farmers for good environmental stewardship, or the trade opportunities for UK farmers in the wake of Brexit, but instead he opted to reopen one of the most divisive debates in farming by making the case for a controversial technology that is currently prohibited by the EU.
Gene editing is a process through which animal or plant genes can be edited “quickly and precisely to mimic the natural breeding process”, according to Defra. Proponents stress the distinction from genetic modification, where DNA from one species is introduced to a different one, and argue the technology can breed crops that perform better, while reducing costs to farmers and lessening impacts on the environment.
Opponents, however, dispute the distinction with GM and argue the technology could present risks to health and the environment. “We have serious concerns that gene editing is being presented as a silver bullet when it can only be a ‘sticking plaster’ – diverting vital investment and attention from farmer-driven action and research for agroecology which could be yielding results, right now,” said the Soil Association.
The contrast with the FFCC report could hardly have been starker. The report models a scenario whereby, with the right enabling conditions, the UK can grow enough healthy food for a future 2050 UK population using agroecological methods while not compromising food security, nor offshoring food production and associated environmental impacts.
It argues this can be achieved by restoring a more mixed farming system with greater crop diversity, with native livestock providing natural fertiliser for crops thereby removing the need for artificial inputs.
Significantly, and contrary to a number of studies that focus more narrowly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it argues that relatively high emissions from cattle and sheep may be justified as a trade-off versus the benefits they can provide for soil fertility and biodiversity. Indeed, it says the biggest dietary shifts required would be a reduction in chicken and pork consumption whose production relies heavily on grains.
It’s a vision that may find popular appeal but would require a systemic shift that goes far beyond the blueprint emerging from Defra whereby more tech-driven intensive production on some land means other land can be spared for nature.
Downstream businesses like foodservice operators should be active participants in a debate that will thrust food production back into the public domain in a way not since the first wave of GM crops appeared on supermarket shelves in the mid-1990s.
Brexit and covid-19 have driven public understanding of food supply chains and resilience to new heights at the same time as technologies like blockchain are enabling consumers to peer down the rabbit hole of food supply chains and see what’s going on in the warren.
Some start-ups like Moyee Coffee have built their entire brand on what sustainability author and adviser John Elkington described at last week’s Oxford Farming Conference as “radical transparency”. But when giants like McDonald’s start opening up their supply chains to public scrutiny (albeit selectively) it’s clear the mainstream direction of travel is also towards full disclosure.
These are the conversations that will dominate food policy discourse for years to come. Foodservice businesses can play an active role in shaping the future of food and farming, or they can wait until it begins to shape them.