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Global hunger; we don’t need GM Mr. Paterson. We need to stop profligate waste

June 21, 2013

It is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching a human stomach.

Source: Global Food. Waste not, want not, IMECHE, Jan 2013  (PDF)

Environment secretary Owen Paterson is currently doing PR for the GM (Genetic Modification) industry, claiming it would be immoral for rich countries like Britain to not help developing countries adopt GM technology.

I was not terribly popular yesterday for suggesting in another Guardian discussion thread that a man who clearly had so little grip on one part of his brief (climate change and his meltdown on Question Time) did not necessarily inspire confidence in his advocacy of GM – not when, during an interview on BBC radio 4, he sounded in turn equally vague, like he was bluffing, or just reading from a Monsanto crib sheet.

His appointment belies the lack of suitability to the task, and if Paterson is filling his seat on the back of expedient cronyism – which it appears to be, given his lack of expertise in anything other than towing the party line – it’s also reasonable to suppose his GM views may be similarly influenced.

This government (like the one before it) admires big business at the expense of the job they were elected to do, and the people they were elected to serve – which isn’t Monsanto. Quoting an article by John Vidal in the Guardian today, the concentration of power would be shocking  if we hadn’t become inured to it by now:

Just five companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and Dow – now control nearly all GM research, and nearly 60% of all the crops are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, a product patented by Monsanto. In what may be a sign of what is to come elsewhere, the price of seeds has spiralled in the past five years as the market concentration of the companies has grown.

And let us not forget the context of this problem, because as Vidal points out, there is much hypocrisy surrounding the issue. To start with, the way malnutrition is calculated is much disputed:

A key criticism of the UN hunger indicator is that it sets the threshold too low, using the minimum calories needed for a “sedentary lifestyle”. The number of hungry people today could be as high as 1.5 billion (or more than 25% of the world’s total), if the threshold was instead set as the minimum needed for “normal activity”, or nearly 2.6 billion (nearly 45%) for “intense activity”.

Source: Guardian, January 2013

I mention this dispute because the ‘official’ UN figure for those suffering malnutrition is 850 million, but that’s measured against the ‘sedentary lifestyle’ mentioned in the quote – not that 850 million is a number anywhere near low enough for us to be complacent about.

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To my mind, there is another, entirely different way of addressing the problem, and that is to consider food waste. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (who are involved at every stage of food production) produced a report in January this year which contains some stunning information. Here’s a summary paragraph:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

Source: IMECHE web site

Sure, we can look to technology to produce more food – and more profit for those who are manoeuvring to control agriculture world-wide. Alternatively, we could just stop wasting the food we grow, and all the resources employed in the whole process (not to mention the CO2 produced, 50% of which may also be entirely unnecessary in the current scheme of things).

The UK alone wastes food every year worth £2 billion, according to recent reports. Before we hand the rights to our food supply to the five companies seeking to control it all, we might consider that we already grow quite enough food, but the problem is what we do with it once it is harvested. We don’t need GM, we need decent management, on a global scale.

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