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So who’s really “telling porkies”?

Date Published: 22/04/2010

There seems to be some confusion over how much food we’re going to need in the future. The trouble is, instead of all the interested parties putting their heads together to solve this rather important problem (or at least come to a mutual best guess) the issue has been turned into an unseemly public row.

It all stems from the oft-quoted belief that we need to double food production by 2050 to keep everyone on the planet fed. That is, of course, a pretty tall order and becomes very contentious when you consider that some of the leading proponents of those figures are the biotech companies who claim to have the key to enabling that kind of growth (and therein lies a whole other, huge argument!).

In the past week the Soil Association (the charity, not the organic control body, Soil Association Certification Ltd – for the sake of clarity) has released its own analysis of these figures, which it believes are grossly inflated. Fair enough, you might say. Another element to the debate to consider.

We’re not sure, however, that the SA report is exactly going out of its way to foster an atmosphere of rational and considered debate. You only have to look at the title: “Telling porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production“. [Adobe PDF download]

In the introduction, the report says:

“This briefing paper reports our investigations into the sources and basis of these figures. It outlines the assumptions upon which they are based and shows that, among others, the Government’s Chief Scientist, the President of the National Farmers’ Union, Syngenta, Monsanto, Government Ministers and the Conservative Party have all got their facts wrong.”

That’s a whole long list of people who now seriously have their backs up and probably aren’t going to go out of their way to include the Soil Association (and maybe the rest of the organic sector) in the debate. Unfortunately it gives them the perfect opportunity to dismiss us all as slightly hysterical.

This all runs somewhat counter to what the SA director, Patrick Holden, said at the charity’s last conference, where he talked about the whole of the agricultural community working together, rather than antagonising each other.

There are some undeniable realities to this report. The figures do appear to require further scrutiny. And of course, as with anything, there are going to be many ways toward addressing the problems, not just intensive farming or GM.

But what we have said, time and again for almost the last 20 years, is that we are all part of UK agriculture, with a role to play. Effectively branding others who are part of the debate as liars doesn’t seem, well… productive.

There’s no denying the Soil Association should be a strong voice in this debate. It represents a committed and caring membership who believe in food production that supports and enhances the land while producing high quality food. That’s why OF&G is a member of the charity too. You stand up for what you believe in.

But have you ever heard the phrase “you’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar”? It was repeated to me many years ago by a colleague who had just heard it from a battle-weary police inspector. It rang true then and it rings true now.

If the figures are wrong (and there are reasons to suspect they might be) we need to know. We also need to promote the role organic farming can play in meeting our needs for the future without going entirely down an ever more intensive and chemical or biotech-reliant route.

To do that we need to be heard, not met by the rest of the interested parties effectively sticking their fingers in their ears and humming ‘la, la, la, can’t hear you” when we say what needs to be said, just because they think what we’re saying has no value.

So come on Soil Association. You have the loudest voice in the organic sector. It’s not just about getting the headlines, it’s about getting the job done. We continue to support you. We continue to work with you. But sometimes we feel the need to whisper in your ear that perhaps it would be more productive to calm down a bit.