By Andrew Kuyk, Director of the Sustainability Division at the Food and Drink Federation.
Heston Blumenthal apart, putting science and food in the same sentence makes many people feel a bit uncomfortable. But we see nothing scary about the innovation and technology in instant coffee, or tomato ketchup, or any of the hundreds of familiar processed food products the safety, convenience, quality, consistency and shelf-life of which we take for granted every day. We have even come to assume that it is ‘natural’ to have fresh fruit and vegetables all year round, without any thought about delayed ripening, artificial atmospheres and extended growing seasons. We are simply used to buying what we want, when we want it, without any real idea how it gets to the shelves – or whether it will be there tomorrow.
In part, these assumptions are a result of the growing disconnect in modern urban societies between what we eat and where it comes from. Some children don’t know that milk comes from cows, let alone what pasteurisation is. Some adults would be at a loss to say what does or doesn’t grow on trees or come out of the ground. Another factor is the success of the food industry in providing us with effortless choice and abundance, come wind or weather. But what if the weather is repeated drought, and the wind a hurricane? What if climate change helps spread new animal and plant diseases with the potential to devastate yields – the food equivalent of ash die-back? What would we give then for resistant crop strains and effective animal vaccines – or for varieties that can be grown with less water and in poorer soils? Or for food technologies that extract every ounce of goodness from what can be grown, and help make products last even longer – so that we can eat them all up, without throwing half away when they spoil…
A sustainable supply of food isn’t our only concern. We also want our food to be healthier, tasting good with less salt, fat or sugar – and ideally giving us additional nutrients as well.
How do we think all this can be achieved if we leave science out of the equation? And why should food be the one area of human activity where we turn our backs on how to achieve our aims more efficiently? Where would we be in transport, medicine or communications if we had stopped investing in research and development? In a world where we need to produce more from less, and with less environmental impact, we cannot afford not to be open to what new technologies may have to offer, or to imagine that business as usual will do.
For countries under severe pressure to produce more food, getting smarter with science to meet future demand is simply common sense, not vested interest on the part of big business. China, for instance, has around 20% of the world’s population, but only 9% of global arable land and 6% of water resources.
We need to build trust before empty shelves start dictating our choices
Of course, safety has to come first, for people and for the planet. There should be rigorous assessment, and decisions must be founded on evidence. If we are to make progress before empty shelves or empty pockets start dictating our choices, we need to build trust and engage in rational public debate. That is a task for government and the whole food chain. And for scientists and consumers, too.