Food Chain and Crops for Industry

The Government-led Foresight Program brings people, knowledge and ideas together to look ahead and to prepare for the future. One of their latest consultation documents, published in May, is about the future of farming and food. A series of short papers have been produced by a panel tasked to map out the future trends. The consultation seeks views on six key areas that the panel believes are critical to the future competitiveness of the UK food chain and its industrial crops sector (see the FCCI section at The areas are:

  • Spreading Best Practice

  • Communication in the Food Chain

  • Unlocking the Potential of Industrial Crops

  • The Future Skills Need of the UK's Food Chain

  • Debate on the use of Technology in the Food Chain

  • Foods Contribution to Health in the Future

The papers are challenging. They face up to the potential future reality of the food chain and industrial crops, rather than dwell on unrealisable options. Their technique is factual in observing current problems (i.e. the poor level of qualification in food workers, the lack of communication skills in primary producers) as well as speculative (reaction to realisable novel foods, models for business and education, future scenarios) and provocative (the desirability of wholeheartedly embracing science and technology, the inevitability of biotechnology, the identification of organic food with a factionalised, self-centred society).

I found a number of interesting points:

Spreading Best Practice

The coupling of farm assurance schemes for meat and horticulture with the spreading of best practice seems to confuse a marketing tool (for that is what farm assurance schemes are) with attempts to improve efficiency and quality. Perhaps the two can be linked, but it is important to understand what an assurance scheme achieves. Mainstream farm assurance schemes lay out minimum standards of production and care, but there is at least some measure of aspiration for quality since it is a declared object. Contrast this with the common misconceptions about organic food. Organic certification is, like farm assurance, a marketing tool for a geographically sparse production (in fact a national scarcity since 80% is imported). Quality isn't even a feature of organic certification since it is the means of production that are inspected, not the product itself. While MAFF has a program of random testing for pesticide residues in all food, there is no testing of organic food for any particular characteristic by organic certification bodies. Distrubingly, incidences where MAFF have detected sometimes gross contamination in organic food have rarely seen the public light of day.

Communication in the Food Chain

Trust in food production is increasingly volatile with competing voices maintaining their rightness against a general public cynicism. An analysis in the second paper of the amount of communication that takes place in the food chain and the effectiveness of that communication revealed what we may expect, that primary producers are very poor at recognising the information needs of the market. With extensive choice has come a lack of consumer interest in origins or methods, other than those with special interests. The media sensationalises food issues leading to pressure groups targeting their efforts at the media (or at legislators) rather than communicating generally or by working with the food chain.

Unlocking the Potential of Industrial Crops

Crops for industry are an imperative in light of the world's declining resource of fossil fuels, and not just in their use for energy production. Plant oils will need to displace their mineral counterparts, as will new natural polymers in replacing those produced from petrochemicals. Industrial crops are a key feature of future sustainability as we transform our reliance away from non-renewables.

Future Skills, Technology & Food and Health

The papers on skills and technology deal with the increasing reality of a knowledge based society driven by scientific and technological innovation. Those preferring a more simple life might wonder what all the fuss is about, choosing to opt out of this mainstream. However, they would be wary of this course if they contemplated the scenarios put forward in the last paper, on food and health. In there, four future worlds are hypothesised to test the applicability of the 12 actions that are proposed. The worlds are based on whether or not technology is accepted or rejected and whether there is effective or ineffective communication. These categories and their scenarios are a touch of genius, as are their epithets of STONE WORLD for where there is ineffective communication and technology rejected, and BRAVE WORLD for where there is effective communication and where technology is adopted.

The contrast between these two worlds could not be greater, but it is the other two options that cause the most thought. LOST WORLD would seem the nearest to our present day - science has been applied to food production and processing, giving a plentiful variety and supply, but people lack information and eat unbalanced diets, and nutrition-related mortality is high. In NEW WORLD, science and technology has been rejected and consumers prefer organic food. Commercial opportunities have arisen to produce more organic food, but organic systems that worked in temperate and Mediterranean climates have failed less developed countries, leaving thousands with dietary deficiencies. Cancer and cardiovascular disease are still prevalent everywhere. There is a strong sense of subjectivity and self-centredness, with democracy impaled on political correctness.

It is this latter world - NEW WORLD - that I find so scary. BRAVE WORLD, with its highly organised and efficient society (combining good health with good food) may have reduced individual freedoms (due to greater collective effort) but it is to be preferred to the domination of anarchy. This also curtails freedoms, as it becomes proscriptive through the prejudices of aggressive minorities. Last year, I very much felt that NEW WORLD was being forced on us as our future. I certainly faced a dilemma about what I saw was happening - the promotion of organic food at any price (supermarket-isation and convenience) going hand in hand with the propagation of fear and ignorance about biotechnology. Trying to cope with that was very hard for someone who took public responsibility within the organic world, but who was also educated in the biosciences.

In trying to communicate this dilemma, I resorted to writing fiction in what now seems a parallel to the scenarios in this foresight program. I foresaw a world dominated by eco-anarchists who used their prejudices to outlaw science and scientists, but even worse to proscribe how food was grown such that it failed for lack of flexibility and the use of local knowledge (see What did you do in the great genetic engineering wars?). The incomprehension with which the organic world met this scenario convinced me that I no longer had a place within it. The paucity of thought given to the consequences of actions at that time seems at odds with the genuine endeavour that comes through in these consultation documents. I think it challenges us not to stand side by side with those who use prejudice in place of argument.

Mark Fisher, 22 June 2000