Opinion: The UN has calculated there are 276 million food-insecure people in the world and warns that 'if we do not feed people, we feed conflict'. We need to consider genetically edited food to combat this crisis, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
Inflation in the UK has jumped to 9 per cent - the highest it has been for 40 years, according to the Office for National Statistics, and driven by price increases in food and energy.
Adding to pressures is the hike in interest rates by the Bank of England, trying to rein in runaway inflation without stomping out economic growth.
The cost of borrowing has increased from the historic pandemic-era low of 0.1 per cent to a 13-year high of 1 per cent.
It is a familiar story, with New Zealand's chapter reporting inflation reaching 6.9 per cent for the year to March and the Reserve Bank adjusting the OCR to 2 per cent at the end of May.
The price of food is dominating the news in the UK and New Zealand. When asked why the prices have escalated, UK farmers have been quick to respond.
Paraphrasing their statements: "You value set-aside land for every reason you can think of more highly than our product; you put every environmental hurdle in our way. And now you wonder about price. You should be wondering if there will be enough food in the future."
New Zealand's story is similar.
The bigger picture is that the world is struggling. The United Nations (UN) has calculated that the number of severely food insecure people had doubled in just two years.
There are now 276 million food-insecure people, with more than half a million experiencing famine. This is an increase of more than 500 per cent since 2016.
In mid-May, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said "These frightening figures are inextricably linked with conflict as cause and effect," he said.
"If we do not feed people, we feed conflict."
It was a call to action.
He urged nations to "act together, urgently and with solidarity" to end the crisis of food insecurity.
Countries are responding to the call by reconsidering approaches, but domestic security is dominating decisions.
Some have banned exports (Indonesia and palm oil, India and wheat) others are examining how to increase productivity to increase food availability, again with domestic supply in mind.
The UK Government has introduced a bill that will allow genetically edited (GE) plants and animals to be grown and raised for food.
The proposed new legislation relaxes regulations for gene-edited (genes deleted not inserted) products and, at first, will apply only to plants.
The relaxation aligns with the goal of increasing domestic food supply - currently 60 per cent - which is expected to be part of the new Food Strategy.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the concerns in society about food security and prices have increased the pressure on the need for change.
Last year the result of a public consultation on GE acceptability indicated limited support in favour.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Non-governmental organisations were evenly split (50 per cent).
A slightly higher proportion of public sector bodies (55 per cent) and academic institutions (58 per cent) did not support continuing to regulate such organisms as GMOs.
Support increased to up to 70 per cent in favour for some environmentally beneficial applications, such as reduced use of pesticides and herbicides.
A lot has happened since the survey was done and the consensus is that there is now sufficient support to introduce gene-editing methods for plant breeding.
The concept is being termed "precision breeding" and adds another tool to the precision agriculture box.
Calls to re-evaluate New Zealand's stance on GE have also increased over recent years, with what some scientists hope is a game-changing report from the Productivity Commission appearing this year.
New Zealand firms: Reaching for the frontier, stated that a periodic review of regulatory regimes was good practice, "to ensure they remained fit for purpose, accommodated new technologies and did not stifle innovation".
The Climate Change Commission made a similar recommendation in advice to government, and a new paper by fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Dr John Caradus reviews the literature on science and perception, concluding that New Zealand should be "regulating the benefit-risk issues associated with the end-product of genetic modification rather than the processes used in their development".
For some people the whole notion of abandoning GE-free NZ will be abhorrent, just as it is for some in the UK.
But in a food limited world, productivity will be key, and productivity means increasing food supply per unit of resource, which includes land, labour, water and agrichemical inputs.
Also at stake is the potential to reduce the environmental impact of food production, through reduction in agrichemical use and output of greenhouse gases, and a reduction in the cost of production before the farm and market garden gate, and then price in the supermarket - or wherever food is purchased.
The bottom line must be the words from the UN – if we do not feed people, we feed conflict.
Scientists are doing everything they can to assist with improving food security and need all the tools available to assist.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. email@example.com