Are genetically modified organic community-owned farms the future?

Microdosing crops with fertiliser using a bottle cap

Microdosing crops with fertiliser using a bottle cap. Copyright Gordon Conway

It was a perfectly nice day out in the Suffolk countryside but the organisers of Aldeburgh Food Festival decided to liven things up with a ‘Frankenstein’. As Sir Gordon Conway pointed out to the audience at Snape Maltings he was part human, part pig.

The Professor of International Development at Imperial College London has recently had a heart bypass using pig tissue to repair the valve.

“I am a Frankenstein,” he boasted to the audience, touching his heart. “That’s pig tissue in there, listen, boom, boom, boom.”

The former Government advisor was showing off his condition to illustrate a point on the use of genetically modified or “Frankenstein foods”. He makes the point that people are happy for “unnatural” modification to happen in medicine but not in agriculture. Yet in his opinion, the “unnatural” modification of plants could help to feed some of the 200 million children in the world likely to die early from malnutrition.

“GM is not going to feed the world, at least not in the next 20 to 30 years, but it is important in some places, particularly in Africa where there are terrible diseases.”

It was a bold statement to make at a festival that attracts people interested in organic local food. Most of the 80 plus exhibitors at the festival are certainly using ingredients grown in Suffolk using the minimum amount of chemicals. But this was the whole point.

The indomitable Lady Caroline Cranbrook, on fighting form after defeating her latest supermarket with designs on the area, had decided to bring together the opposing sides “to try and get some common sense into it all”.

The farmer and friend of Prince Charles set up the festival eight years ago and decided to throw in a conference on the most pressing issues in agriculture and food three years ago. This year she chose to invite scientists from the nearby John Innes Centre, that is leading the world on GM research, to debate ‘The Future of Food’ with the local community-owned ‘Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm’. Her point is that GM may just be the best chance that such farms have in the future. As a champion of small rural businesses and wildlife conservation, she believes they could well benefit from technology to help farmers grow more food on less land.

“Local food production is not going to solve the world’s problems. We cannot feed Shanghai and Mumbai on allotments alone. In order to satisfy modern demands for food, we have to have science,” she said.

Sir Gordon admitted that organic is certainly the best way to improve the soil structure and diversity, which is key to growing anything over a long period of time.

“If you really care about the land one way or the other, you will get good yields.”

The former President of the Royal Geographical Society also explained many non-GM tools that are already leading the way in improving yields in both the developing and developed world. For example the use of GPS on tractors in the UK to ensure fertiliser is only injected into soil that needs it. In a more basic way, in Africa farmers use Pepsi cola lids to put only a small amount of fertiliser in each seed hole rather than wasting the product and risking leaching into the environment.

What Sir Gordon objects to is missing out any technology because it is “unnatural”.

“I think that rigidity that says you cannot use any inorganic fertiliser or any pesticides even if you use it selectively and sparingly – that is what we need to think about.”

Sir Gordon described the possibilities for sustainable intensification in his book One Billion Hungry. Ultimately, he thinks GM should be part of the mix – and that means in the UK too. He admits that the first generation of GM, often created by big multinational companies to make farming with intensive use of chemicals easier, were “clunky” in terms of benefits to farmers and consumers. He said the next generation are being developed by Governments and philanthropic organisations to benefit everyone by producing more food with less chemicals on less land.

“Maybe we don’t need GM – but I think we will.”

Prof Gordon Jamieson from the John Innes Centre in Norwich explained to the conference all the work going on using existing breeding techniques to help to create Beneforte broccoli that helps fight cancer. But his real hope is for wheat that can take nitrogen from the air.

This research into “nitrogen fixing” crops, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, could be ground breaking in cutting the use of nitrogen fertiliser that causes pollution in water courses around the world.

“GM is one of the tools. We need a rigorous debate about how we are going to feed 9bn people.”

But everything has its cost. The scientists admit that the plants may well have to sacrifice another important property in order to develop this new “skill”.

The Soil Association and others remain unconvinced that any genetic modification that is attempting to change a plant in a way that could not happen by chance in nature is risking unstoppable consequences in the countryside such as super weeds and even impacts on human health.

Sheila Dillon, the presenter of the BBC’s Food Programme did not seem convinced. She said it was “ludicrous” to say GM could feed the world, pointing out we already have enough calories to feed 9 billion people – we just don’t distribute the food to the right people.

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Certainly the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm and others at the festival proved that food can be produced with little to no waste. As Joanne Mudhar who runs the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme says, there is very little waste once the humans, chickens and pigs have had their fill.

“If the pigs don’t eat it – and there’s not much they won’t – it goes on the compost.”

The community owned farm provides almost 40 households with meat and vegetables for just £8 per week and a couple of hours unpaid work. Not only do the families benefit from fresh organic food but connection to the farm and the environment. You just have to be willing for some unexpected offerings in the veg box.

“You get what you are given at Oak Tree Farm, it is not Tesco,” said Joanne.

Only Caroline Drummond, the Chief Executive of the charity Linking Environment and Farming or LEAF, kept a middle line on GM, insisting there were “opportunities” but it is not a silver bullet.

Lady Caroline was brave to bring such speakers together. But like all good cooks she perhaps realised mixing the strangest ingredients can often pay off. I am sure that much of the debate at Aldeburgh will be giving the participants food for thought for years to come.

4 comments

  1. sky says:

    You can’t get something for nothing ! … even IF you COULD grow more food on less land it would just be that much poorer nutritionally !

    • sky says:

      What ? .. so you agree with the proponents who say that “we need GM to be able to feed the world because it gives increased yields” ? ? ! … on your website you say “The mineral content of veg has plummeted over the past few decades” … which partly illustrates what I’m saying !

      • hi Sky – no, I don’t think we need GM to feed the world. I was just disagreeing with your statement that if you grow more on less land it would be nutritionally poorer. I don’t think we need GM to improve yields, we need to focus on soil quality to improve the quality of what we do grow, and to ensure that food production is sustainable. That needs detailed, complex farming with animal and plant based food produced on a mixed farm, with lots of labour involved. This can produce a lot of food from a small area, but it is deemed “inefficent” because of the cost of labour.

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