Urgent progress is needed to bring plant breeding programmes up to speed so they can tackle the challenges of global warming
I spent the early part of this week with Europe's plant breeders. The sense of urgency was palpable. Science, industry and government speakers emanated a sense of impending doom. Plants take a long time to develop. Agriculture is slow to shift.
Working backwards from the points where agronomists say the food system hits big buffers, we've actually not started the plant breeding that will be needed. OK there are various GM strains, but mostly locked into commercial agrichemical use.
They meant the serious stuff: breeding rice that has a gene enabling it to grow not rot if flooded, potatoes to withstand blight. Scaling them up to market. That sort of stuff.
There was an emotional split between pessimists and 'we could just do something' people. Everyone was sober - even gung-ho GMers.
I think there is good news, actually. Firstly, there's a flurry of activity among the political classes. Post-war capitalism grew on the back of declining food prices and feeding consumer expectations that material wealth brings happiness. Elected politicians know they'll get judged; aspirants know they'll carry the can when things go wrong.
I know of at least four major processes on food security in or close to Whitehall at present. Will these be coherent and shift the real world of food supply chains and agriculture? Or be distorted by powerful lobbies? Let's see.
Secondly, serious but marginalised analyses can now come forward. Plant breeders have a powerful case. The UK people bred big sellers like Maris Piper (spuds) at the Cambridge Plant Breeding Institute. It was all privatised, skills dissipated, and now plant science is locked into big company perspectives.
GM rows from the 1980s left them bruised. But the time is ripe to rebuild public plant breeding. We need to breed fruit and vegetables for an era of climate change, not wheat to feed to animals, where 40% of UK wheat currently goes.
Thirdly, as The Grocer's readers could tell them, the consumer world has changed. People are edging out of value-for-money towards values-for-money. There is edginess in consumer markets. What do I choose? Do price signals include all these future costs? Of course not. But they will in the future unless we act now.
I am optimistic but sober, not pessimistic. Everything depends on good people talking, not to themselves but each other. Currently they're not.n
Tim Lang, professor of food policy, City University