The Prince of Wales visited a pig farm yesterday, and took the opportunity to advocate one of his long-standing passions, organic farming. In his eyes, consumers would fall in love with organics if only they understood more about the environmental impacts of ‘conventional’ farming techniques.
Personally, I doubt it – they might take the opposite view when they learn about the global implications of turning our backs on fertilisers, pesticides and genetic modification. But he is absolutely right to highlight one point: as a rule, people are staggeringly ignorant about farming and farming practices. And a little knowledge about this fundamental part of all of our lives would help us all make better decisions as consumers, investors and voters.
Let’s take a simple example. There is a famine in the Horn of Africa, with millions of lives at risk. Yet this weekend people in this country will go along to the supermarket and buy out of season fruits, many of them grown only a short distance away from where people are starving. I am not saying this is bad – perhaps the fact that Kenyan farmers can in this way access hard currency, and build businesses and capital, drives economic development and helps everyone. But what worries me is that the average supermarket shopper just doesn’t think about it for a second. They are not concerned that what they do here affects directly what happens there. And that is, to me at least, troubling.
Let’s look at another issue. There are GM technologies out there that can help crops combat drought and disease, hugely increasing yields. Where they are grown they can take farmers from subsistence to the marketplace, pulling them and their families out of poverty. They can help us cope with the fact that we have too many people and not enough land and water. They can deal with the conundrum of affluence, that richer people like meat – and ideally red meat – and producing meat is about the most inefficient way to use agricultural land. So I support GM, but I know plenty of others don’t. The issue is that that we, the western public, as consumers and voters, don’t bother to debate or address the issues.
Food is something that is literally in front of us all, every day. We make decisions about it, every day. But we don’t think about it. And that is a shame.