Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
it hardly seems possible that it is four years since I was with you in Turin, but I still remember that remarkable day when you gave me the warmest of welcomes. It made me feel immediately among friends with a shared passion for good food, for family farming and rural communities. Needless to say, I am particularly sorry I can’t be with you again today and I hope dear Carlo Petrini will forgive me, but I am delighted to be able to send you this distant message.
The whole question of food production and food shortages is, of course, very much in the news at the moment, and there are plenty of people arguing that the only way to feed the world’s growing population will be through ever greater intensification of agriculture and with the widespread adoption of GM crops. However, I do not believe the arguments stack up, particularly when climate change is added to the equation. Intensive agriculture turns oil into food, which is not something we can afford to go on doing, and most current GM crops are actually yielding less, not more, than their conventional equivalents.
Rather than pushing ever harder to overcome nature’s limits and introducing wholly new sources of potential environmental damage, I think we need to be aware that transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. I happen to think that we should be concentrating our efforts on improving the sustainable techniques that work in harmony with nature.
We should also, dare I say it, be looking harder at the projections of the number of people the world will need to feed in the future, and asking ourselves whether they are as inevitable as they seem.
Population growth is, I know, a fraught and difficult subject, but surely one that must be addressed.
The hard fact is that in one African country, for instance, around £480 million will be spent this year on HIV AIDS, whereas expenditure on family planning and reproductive health will be just £7.7 million. The expenditure on HIV AIDS is crucial and so desperately needed, but how much human suffering could be alleviated by increasing awareness of family planning issues?
We surely have to ask: when will our world’s population stabilize and what are the consequences … and at what level … and what are the consequences for our planet’s ability to sustain it?
As the imperative of addressing climate change becomes ever more pressing, it may provide a further reason to re-examine the whole issue of population growth. Of course, every individual in the developed world needs to find ways to reduce their carbon footprint, which is many times greater than those in the developing world. But every human being contributes to climate change, not least through agriculture. In exploring the links between rapid population growth and accelerating climate change, it must surely be important not to ignore, for instance, the issue of the huge increase in water consumption, water which is in increasingly short supply as a result of deforestation and the decline in arable land. We also need to find new ways to obtain more from sustainable agricultural systems. This was a conclusion from the recent United Nations Report on Agriculture, Knowledge, Science and Technology. The report identifies many of the problems with global agriculture and talks sensibly about what is needed. This includes systems, and I quote, ‘… that enhance sustainability, while maintaining productivity in ways that protect the natural resource base and ecological provisioning of agricultural systems’.
There is also a reference to another issue close to my heart, and I suspect to many of yours, where the report declares that, ‘traditional and local knowledge constitutes an extensive realm of accumulated practical knowledge and knowledge-generating capacity that is needed if sustainability and development goals are to be reached’. These are some of the wisest words I have heard in recent years and each and every one of you, if I may say so, ladies and gentlemen, is a testament to their truth.
All this may, of course, seem far removed from the everyday concerns of small-scale food producers, farmers, cooks and academics, but it is crucial, if I may say so, for your voices to be heard in these global debates.
The solution to global food shortages rests largely with the truly sustainable farmer and I am enormously encouraged that so many more people are now recognising the benefits of working with nature and harnessing positive forces through healthy soil, healthy crops and healthy animals in order to provide healthy food.
I have so many fond memories of my last visit to Terra Madre. I only wish I could be there to tour the marketplace and join your discussions as you learn from each other about how better to produce, market and cook sustainable food. That is certainly what I am trying hard to do through some of my own ventures, both in the United Kingdom and, for instance, India. However, I fear this will have to wait for another time.
Let me just end by paying a warm and affectionate tribute to one of my great heroes, Carlo Petrini, and to salute each and every one of you who, with Carlo in the lead, are doing so much to challenge the massed forces of the industrialisation of agriculture and the homogenisation of food.
I can only conclude by expressing nothing but my greatest admiration for all you stand for. You are the guarantors of our long-term food security, based upon your dedicated care of the natural environment.
I send you many blessings.
Recorded at St James’s Palace, London
On 9th September 2008-10-14
For Terra Madre