People living in arable heartlands like East Anglia should take a global view of their region’s duty to help feed a burgeoning world population, according to a government advisor. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

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In an ideal world, many of us would enjoy eating nothing but organic foods, all lovingly tended by home-grown producers and bought from local suppliers.

But the exponential acceleration of human population growth – hurtling towards nine billion by the middle of this century – means those lucky enough to inhabit the earth’s most fertile lands must be prepared to sacrifice that wholesome dream.

So says Prof Tim Benton, a senior agricultural advisor to the government, who was invited by the East of England Co-operative Society to give a public lecture at the Forum in Norwich this week.

The UK’s champion for Global Food Security said the earth’s bread baskets need to take a global view of their responsibilities to feed millions more mouths from a finite supply of land.

And, for arable heartlands like East Anglia, that means intensifying the specialist production for which the area is best suited – but done in a way which minimises damage to a cherished environment.

Prof Benton outlined the vast scale of the challenge, with the global population expected to increase 35pc by 2050 and the demand for food expected to rise by 70pc – but with no more unused land available for cultivation.

The difficulty of feeding these people – and, crucially, doing it sustainably – is amplified by the impact of climate change threatening crop yields, regulatory pressures and increasing competition for land and water use.

Prof Benton said an abundance of cheap food cannot be generated without ecological impacts somewhere in the world, and that tough choices needed to be made in agricultural areas like Norfolk and Suffolk. Here, he argued that areas of intensively-farmed land could be managed alongside non-cropped plots to allow maximum food production while maintaining the environment for wildlife and biodiversity.

But he said the admirable ideals of self-sufficiency and organic growing would only reduce yields from productive land, and “export” the inevitable ecological impact to poorer countries.

“There is no more available land and we already use 70pc of the world’s water for agriculture,” said Prof Benton.

“In so many dimensions, we are heading for a breakdown in global systems and the costs, particularly in the developing world, will be too much to bear.

“For most people, it is not a question of buying locally-sourced food, because most things that people eat are sourced globally, so the idea of becoming self-sufficient as a local society is not a viable end-point. We must recognise that we cannot have everything we want.

“The EU would love to increase organic agriculture because we all want to live in a nice environment. But we are not self-sufficient in Europe so if we increase organic production our yields will go down and we will need to import more food and we will be asking someone else to produce our food for us. That could be in sub-Saharan Africa where production is less regulated and comes at a cost to the environment. We would be exporting the environmental cost, and someone else pays it. Organic farming creates an unwanted effect that’s anti-sustainable because the cost will be paid somewhere else.”

Prof Benton said while it is important to reduce food wastage, stop over-consumption, farm more efficiently and rethink our “risk-aversion” regarding pesticides and genetically modified (GM) foods, the real solution of producing more from less land must mean the “sustainable intensification” of farming.

He said: “There is no silver bullet to deal with all these issues.

“Even if we deal with over-consumption and wastage, it is difficult to imagine behaviour changes sufficient to mean that no increases will be needed in food production. So how do we do that?

“There is no more land available globally and there are a whole range of constraints on resources and regulatory squeezes on nitrogen, fuel, phosphates and pesticides. By wanting to go pesticide-free we are saying we will cope with lower yields, but we have no more land for that shortfall to be made up elsewhere. So how do we square that circle?

“The risk involved in going pesticide-free is very, very small, and every time I go out on my bike there is a much greater chance I could damage myself than eating a lifetime of food with pesticides on it. Part of the solution is a much better societal way of dealing with risk.”

Prof Benton, who described himself as an academic and a conservationist, said it was vital to recognise the values of the landscape beyond agriculture, including biodiversity and “natural capital”.

But he said we must not be over-swayed by local environmental concerns, when faced with the wider responsibility of feeding the world.

“To sustain food production in the long-term we need to be sustainable,” he said.

“That doubles the challenge.

“It has been found that areas of intensive farming, plus a network of non-cropped land, can be better than extensive farming throughout

“If you farm one area hard and get your product out of that, you can be softer on another area and it can be better for the landscape overall. If you farm the arable land in Norfolk hard then maybe you can draw a boundary around Thetford Forest or the Broads.

“Looking at a country scale, we know that if we are farming East Anglia hard for the benefit that land can give, maybe we can leave parts of Cornwall or the Lake District.

“If you look at a global scale we must recognise that we in Europe are living in the bread basket of the world.

“So what should we do? Should we drive our land hard for the benefit of the world or should we draw a big boundary around the EU and say we will do what we want with our land because it is ours? Or should we produce food for the world and give it away?

“These are difficult choices, and if we choose not to do it because we are protecting our environment then we will cause pressure and wars in other places.

“I am a conservationist, but I have to weight my value of seeing birds like skylarks in a field in Norfolk with losing big chunks of sub-Saharan Africa.

“I recognise that if skylarks are lost from this area, they will still exist in a global sense.

“But if we reduce our yields to conserve them in a particular area, there will be an impact in other parts of the world.”

Prof Benton outlined a raft of partial solutions including reducing waste, managing soil better to increase fertility, introducing precision farming and exploring chemical innovations, new crops and varieties – including a role for GM food technologies.

After being questioned on the perceived dangers of GM foods, he said: “It has the potential to be a solution. If we banned the technology because it had the potential to be risky we would also have banned computers and mobile phones.

“We have lived in a world with GM for 30 years and no environmental catastrophe has happened. We do have to be aware of risks but we need to balance those risks.”

As champion of the UK’s Global Food Security programme, Prof Benton helps coordinate research across government departments and in the EU, and plays a role in feeding knowledge into policy decision-making.

“There are huge choices ahead around how we make agriculture more sustainable; how we change our diets and how we weight local concerns versus international impacts,” he said.

“We can all do something about this and part of the change in society must come from us. It is only when society starts to change that policy will start to latch on to it.

“But we also have to acknowledge that we cannot have it all and we need to decide what to fight for.

“I would love to live in a pristine world where we had organic food and slow-grown animals who live a happy life.

“But we cannot have everything we want.”

25 comments

  • Prof Twot maybe, what a plonker. Doesn't even mention population sizes are the issue, we can't carry on breeding as we do indefinitely, 2050 could see 10 billion people, that’s the problem, we don’t need GM foods or pesticides, he seems happy to wipe everything else out to feed us, but even if we did sacrifice all other life and habitats, we would still reach the point where there are too many people for this planet. Looking to other planets, that will only be for the lucky few, some scientists believe human populations will plateau at 10 billion, we aren’t that clever, all other life controls it’s own numbers putting us to shame, the right to bare children, no right at all on a planet saturated with the same species, humans hate rats, but we are only second to them in our proliferation so pot calling kettle, we breed as if the human species is under threat and in turn decimate all other life, eat that prof! We will wipe ourselves out in our quest to breed without being able to subdue it at all with all our ‘superior’ intelligence, if we did have superior intelligence we would naturally using that now have 0 or maybe 1 child between a couple. The problem is huge, you could vaporise people all day long for decades and not even scratch the surface of getting numbers down, Hitler murdered Jews by the million, but that didn’t wipe them out, we breed even when there is no food, no water, you can’t stop it, and we are condemned to hunger and death by our own hand, or loins should I say.

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    Jason Bunn

    Saturday, November 3, 2012

  • We must grow more pumpkins. The uneatable grown for the unspeakable. All ends up in land-fills after the Irish-American Fatfest. Gourd help us all.

    Report this comment

    Mad Brewer

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • Prof Charlatan.

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    Mad Brewer

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • norman hall: supermarkets and Tories? heaven forfend. No, here are the facts: Professor Benton's career to date has been in academia, funded largely by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - both members of GFS ... Professor Benton recently completed a research project, funded by RELU investigating the relative costs and benefits of organic and conventional farming. This is a matter of public record so-called 'independent' expert Prof Benton is actually humungously anti-organic agriculture: after his stint on RELU, he published an article in a journal (without consulting other RELU partners) roundly trashing organic agriculture: that's just not 'the done thing' in academic circles GFS? "Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments. Through Global Food Security the partners are working together to support research to meet the challenge of providing the world's growing population with a sustainable, and secure supply of safe, nutritious and affordable high quality food from less land and with lower inputs. Partner and sponsor organisations are: •Research Councils UK - comprising: •Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council •Economic and Social Research Council •Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council •Medical Research Council •Natural Environment Research Council •Department for Business, Innovation and Skills •Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs •Department for International Development •Food Standards Agency •Government Office for Science •Scottish Government •Technology Strategy Board •Welsh Governmen" he's a life-sciences industry insider - their point man "independent"? you join the dots endorsed by DfID? on an anecdotal level, the former Head of Natural Resources at ODA (DfID forerunner, Min of Overseas develeopment if you like) retired at a comparatively young age... to take up the post of head of European operations, Monsanto you join the dots, norman

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Thursday, November 1, 2012

  • On a serious note, it is scary that this person is advising the govt, ....

    Report this comment

    Dave01

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • windup: how many more times...? this is NOT about maize and biofuels. It is about a speech given by Prof Benton which is littered with factual errors, predicated upon groundless assumptions, and therefore prone ipso facto to duff prognosis and policy prescriptions! It is a matter of public record that Prof Benton's research is heavily funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council). His claim to be an "independent" expert is therefore questionable, to say the least

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    martin wallis

    Thursday, November 1, 2012

  • Prof Benton has made a speech that seems to have been written by a chairman of a large supermarket chain and a Tory minister. It is nothing but scare mongering and to state that GM foods after only thirty years are safe is ridiculous. History has shown that products thought safe for generations have proven otherwise.Even the EU gets a plug as a caring federation. Feeding the world ? I remember when there were warehouses stuffed with food due to the EU agricultural policy. Could still be there. And he dismisses the welfare of animals without a thought. Sky larks disappearing here to save chunks of desert. He even manages to hint that Thetford Forest is threatened. And we are using 70 % of our water for agriculture purposes ? Take a look at the world globe. It is about 70% water. Prof Benton is the senior agricultural adviser for this government and that is scary. Prof Benton has become a mouthpiece for the Tory party and the NU Tories, LibDems, remember them, and it is a disgrace that such an unbalanced speech full of propaganda should come from a supposedly independent source.

    Report this comment

    norman hall

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012

  • I did not say lickspittle. Or charlatan. Or 'scary'. I'm merely raising perfectly legitimate EVIDENCE-based reservations about Benton's putative 'independent' status

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Sunday, November 4, 2012

  • latest peer-reviewed research (byGilles-Eric Séralini and his research team based at Caen University in Normandy) indicates 'serious long-term health effects on rats fed with GM maize andor water with low doses of Roundup weedkiller' : is this 'sustainable intensification'( à la Benton)? or just storing up 'hitherto unexpected' human health problems in future? whatever became of the Precautionary Principle

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Sunday, November 4, 2012

  • Lickspittle indeed.

    Report this comment

    Mad Brewer

    Sunday, November 4, 2012

  • Christopher: this topic is not about an eco-town. The article in question, Prof Benton's, is riddled with material inaccuracies and wrongheaded asumptions... which leads the author to erroneous conclusions. The topic is global food (in)security.. not eco-towns, solar farms or green energy! and the two comments which were removed have not been reinstated...

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • aka "I`m not bent". It`s all about perception. Or delusion. Or selling out.

    Report this comment

    Mad Brewer

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • there were two comments posted prior to the above, both roundly critical of Prof Benton's wrongheaded approach and both have been 'disappeared'

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • Shortage of food feeds a festival of experts. Half the World is starving, the ones who caused it have more than they can eat. I fear they profess too much.

    Report this comment

    Mad Brewer

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • but when I try, and I have several times, to post EVIDENCE-based reservations - peer-reviewed empirical scientific research findings - raising doubts about GMOs in food and farming worldwide, those comments do not appear on this web site (or is it a 'digital platform'?). Why not?

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Sunday, November 4, 2012

  • As I have already said in the article re maize being grown for bio-fuel, we should not be using even marginal land for bio-fuel. If maize suitable for bio fuel can be grown,then it seems likely to me that, perhaps with some extra chemicals, then maize for food can be grown too. It is also immoral to use arable land for solar farms, though I am a considerbale fan of this form of renewable energy, there is plenty non-food prodcuing land for those. Food is much more needed globally than fuel. There is no shortage of fuel, another green myth.

    Report this comment

    windup

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • windup: how many more times...? this is NOT about maize and biofuels. It is about a speech given by Prof Benton which is littered with factual errors, predicated upon groundless assumptions, and therefore prone ipso facto to duff prognosis and policy prescriptions! Prof Benton's research is heavily funded by the BBSRC (http:en.wikipedia.orgwikiBiotechnology_and_Biological_Sciences_Research_Council). His claim to be an "independent" expert is therefore questionable, to say the least

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

  • Dear Sir, Why was my comment on Tim Benton's article (posted yesterday ) removed ? Dr David Gibbon

    Report this comment

    Sustagric

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012

  • I have just finished sitting through the video of Benton's lecture: it is truly shambolic: he opens by saying that he is "not flying the flag for GM" while he stands in front of a screen bearing a large BBSRC logo... his presentation is a scattergun approach to a hugely complex set of issues: I feel sorry for his (non-specialist) audience: I've spent 30 years working in this field, and I found his line of reasoning impossible to grasp... except that he is a] viscerally opposed to organiclow-external-input agriculture, and b] complacent about GM "just shoving a few genes around". Fortunately, he will disappear as rapidly as he hove into view...

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, November 5, 2012

  • Windup. what are you on? Please pay attention. I am not saying 'grow maize on marginal land' (marginal land is NOT field margins, or conservation headlands. I am saying grow bio-fuel crops (Jatropha, for example) on land which will NOT support food crops no matter how much fossil-fuel derived chemical rubbish you throw at it. There IS a shortage of fossil-based fuel: it is a finite resource, to wit it will run out before present-day forests drop dead and decompose to make some more! Solar panels should not be sited on potentially productive cropland. Stick 'em on the 'marginal' land, next to the Jatropha. You're not a landsman, are you, Windup? Just a wind-up.

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • Don't build the eco town at Rackheath. It is good arable land and can produce a lot of food. We need all the arable land available so let's not build on any.

    Report this comment

    Christopher Neave

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • I hope the planners were at this presentation!

    Report this comment

    jennifer jane

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • The obvious answer to a global food crisis is to act now, politically and globally to reduce the rate of global population increase. It is not 'planet friendly' to use intensive farming anywhere; too many chemicals and industrial processes are involved to create an artificially supported so called 'sustainable' global food security. It's a shame this article has such a defeatist attitude in not being to have what we want, I think we can manage this towards a 'pristine world' if we have the right 'can do' approach and not apparently abandon hope before we start.

    Report this comment

    Dave01

    Monday, October 29, 2012

  • Either way, using arable land to grow Bio-Fuel is just wrong. If the world was well fed, then fine, but growing some wierd Maize to power the Range Rover is immoral. Land is for food production, there is no shortage of fuel.

    Report this comment

    windup

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012

  • latest peer-reviewed research (byGilles-Eric Séralini and his research team based at Caen University in Normandy) indicates 'serious long-term health effects on rats fed with GM maize andor water with low doses of Roundup weedkiller' : is this 'sustainable intensification'( à la Benton)? or just storing up 'hitherto unexpected' human health problems in future? whatever became of the Precautionary Principle?

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, November 5, 2012

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