I recently went to a meeting at the Royal Society in London. It was my first visit to this 350 year old institution and it has left me with mixed feelings. As I entered the building, I recalled how Jonathan Swift satirised the Royal Society in Gulliver’s Travels, as an island in the sky where scientists beaver away at hare brained schemes hoping to make the world a better place. How much has changed, I wonder?

Sustainable intensification

The meeting was to discuss ‘sustainable intensification,’ a controversial concept which the Royal Society claims to have originated a couple of years ago, though it has actually been around since the 1990s. What do they mean by it? To be honest, I’m still wondering. Several of the speakers stressed that the first word is the more important – food production must become more sustainable, and the Royal Society want us to think of the second word ‘intensification’ in a new way, extricating it from its associations with agricultural pollution and environmental destruction. David Baulcombe, the Royal Society’s research professor, gives us a definition. It’s reasonably comprehensive, but it doesn’t include a few really important aspects so I’m left with an uneasy feeling. However, he and others pay tribute to organic farming. We have something to learn from the way it looks after the soil, one scientist says. Another suggests there is a case for reconsidering mixed farming. We are shown a diagram, where legumes are planted between rows of maize to fix atmospheric nitrogen; and companion cropping is used to control pests naturally. This all seems hopeful, but how much is token-gesture and how genuine are their references to these concepts? That’s not yet clear.

They tell us the only reason they are not enthusiastic about organic farming itself, is that despite all its benefits, yields are lower and they argue that we have to increase yields to feed the growing global population. During the question and answer session I wanted to ask if they have seen the report which found organic methods produced higher, not lower, yields in Africa? But many hands have been up and the debate has moved on.

As the five speakers respond to questions, it finally becomes clear what’s behind all this. They all share the same view that the utopian future they have presented to us can only be achieved in one way – by embracing genetically modified crops. In their minds, only GM has the potential to solve all the world’s food problems and be kinder to the environment and wildlife at the same time. The clever tricks that will make all this possible don’t quite work yet, but they are under development. They dangle examples of this brave new world before us. David Baulcombe’s favourite is using GM to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, to turn more of the sun’s rays into plant material.

Now the cat is out of the bag, they take turns insisting that the UK has to start growing GM crops commercially. The Defra speaker agrees, but adds under his breath, ‘That’s easier said than done,’ – an involuntary tribute to the common sense of the British public.

So where does that leave me? I still feel heartened that they believe many of the techniques used by organic farmers should be incorporated into all farming systems. That’s one of the key objectives of the Sustainable Food Trust, and one of the quickest ways we could help make all farming more sustainable. But I’m seriously concerned by the starry-eyed nature of their aspirations and their failure to recognise any of the negative aspects of the GM crops already being grown in other countries – the super-weeds, for example, which have caused farmers to use more, not less pesticides.

Scientists today have a far better knowledge of the natural world than they did in Swift’s day, and science and technology have brought enormous benefits for mankind. But considering the step-change involved with the manipulation of the genetic code, is scientific knowledge of this issue today actually more complete than the knowledge of astronomy and the natural sciences in Swift’s day? If we try to improve on thousands of years of natural selection, can we be sure that the very thing that allowed the human race to emerge and flourish won’t bring about our own undoing?

When I get home I dig out my copy of Gulliver’s Travels and reread part three where Swift gives his famous take on the Royal Society. Despite his satire and obvious exaggeration, he does appear to recognise the importance of science, as I do too. Yet, he is clearly sounding a warning that scientists can get carried away; that their big ideas don’t always work out as expected; and that their enthusiasm can blind them to the downsides.

And then I come across Swift’s example of the scientist Gulliver meets, who has been working for eight years on a project to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and feels sure that within eight more years, he will be successful – providing he receives sufficient funding. I think of Professor Baulcombe’s plans for sunbeams and I am left wondering if anything has changed at all.

So what do I feel about ‘sustainable intensification’, now I’ve given it some thought? Well, I recognise that food production will have to increase if the population grows as expected, but I have two serious concerns. First, what they mean by ‘sustainable’ is not really sustainable; it will still rely on fertilisers and pesticides and other unnatural inputs. They may find ways to reduce the use of these slightly but that’s just tinkering at the edges, it’s not a genuine alternative; it will still use up non-renewable resources too extravagantly and leave little for future generations. Second, I’m afraid this is only a clever new marketing ploy to foist GM crops on us, long before we can be sure that is a safe and sensible thing to do. Some non-GM crops are currently yielding significantly more than GM varieties and we need to put much more of our effort into improving agriculture in ways we can be sure won’t actually make food less sustainable; something I really fear could happen, if we are not all on our guard.

Photograph: IFPRI South Asia

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