Dreaded Science: Solutions to Food and Energy Security

I am a Trustee of Rothamsted Research, an organisation which through world class research is helping tackle some of the biggest issues facing us – including Food Security (ie making sure that as a nation and eventually – as soon as possible – as a world, we have enough to eat) and Energy Security (making sure that we have the energy to sustain our lifestyle, Rothamsted’s input being around biofuels).  I’m not a trustee because of my science knowledge, and I’m not an expert in these areas, but it does mean that I get the chance to think about some of these issues and talk to some brilliant folk.  This posting is entirely in a personal capacity.

Two technologies which are “dreaded” potentially provide solutions to world food and energy issues – specifically genetic modification of crops (GM), and the use of nuclear power.

The nature of the dread seems similar – “an invisible thing that may affect my body”.  Or is there something (literally!) more visceral about food?

I am struck that, as a nation, we seem to now have accepted a need for greater Nuclear Power (certainly our government has), yet we seem still to fear GM.  What is it that makes nuclear power borderline acceptable while GM is not?  Nuclear power has had Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and produces waste which needs to be managed for centuries.  GM food has had “300 billion GM meals eaten worldwide” with no adverse effect.

I wonder if it’s simply that the energy nearly ran out.  Last winter the spot price of gas got very high, and we got concerned about national stocks, and dependency on Russia.  We have a folk memory, certainly for my generation or older, of power cuts.  It is, fortunately, much less likely that we will have a comparable food crisis in this country, although much of the rest of the world certainly experienced the grain price spikes of last year.  But without a comparable experience to “the lights going off” what will it take before we adopt GM in this country?

There are those who feel we don’t need to adopt GM and from the perspective of this country alone perhaps we don’t, but provided the technology can be at least as safe as nuclear power  – a level of risk we are prepared to accept – I wonder whether it is ethical in a world of hunger for us to be less than maximally efficient in our own use of agricultural land.  I hope it doesn’t take a domestic food crisis to cause action.  Caroline Spelman’s recent interview may be a sign that we will face down the dread.

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