15 ‘key notes’ around food & biodiversity from the Zoological Society conference

Rural commentator Rob Yorke reports from the recent Zoological Society of London conference

13th November 2015
A ZSL conference focused on the global impact of UK food production

It was never going to easy setting up a symposium (a conference designed to discuss a particular subject) around ‘The Future of Food – the future of biodiversity? – the global impact of UK food production’ when the matter is ripe to be hijacked by the huge range of inextricable subjects.

There were plenty of keynote speakers – so let us try and take 15 ‘key notes’ from the event. Sir John Beddington set the scene - he was the one that coined the phrase ‘perfect storm’ out of rising food demands conflicting with dwindling resources. No wonder the UK’s food security champion wants us to curtail our consumption and look after the soil.

A tough subject in face of the ever increasing urbanisation of developing countries along with the creation of long convoluted food supply systems. You could sense that some of the audience wanting to chastise the three supermarket speakers but, we the consumer, are complicit in influencing how supermarkets service our demands - especially our continued ignorance of labels and any notion of ‘sustainability’. We lambast the huge $3.2 billion marketing budgets of multinationals such as Coca-Colas but forget how we might engage with them to harness forces to change how we consume.

Perhaps we knew it already, but ‘we cannot talk about biodiversity without mention of food production’, which is tricky as young people want to protect wildlife but don’t understand farming - needless to say, there were precious few farmers there.

The matter of ‘waste not’ popped up continuously as did the overused phrase ‘sustainability’; hiking food prices might sustain more wildlife but beware affecting the sustainability of low earner budgets or the financially sustainability of smaller farms affected by more regulations. If we understand minds of what goes into our mouths, change the narrative around how we discuss matters, we might change our wasteful ways. An inspiring talk from a Fair Trade chocolate maker; farming a wider variety of fish might reduce stress on resources; while in the meantime, we try to pay more towards the full price of food and half price on leisure goods.

Is it a full revolution we seek in food production or are we wishing to just ‘edit’ the existing food system? The use of technology has its place – from genome editing of wheat plants to ‘switching off’ virus transmitting aphids. There was much about engaging with supermarkets and farmers (we can’t manage biodiversity without the latter) as on communicating realistic ‘good news’ stories to help inspire us along the way.

Some at the event sought to solve problems before customers become aware of them (supermarkets), whereas there were some forging ahead with ambitious ideals without thought of sharing ideas (conservationists). These conferences are now two a penny. Futures ones could be more about what we need to talk about to help solve issues that share common ground in both tempering our consumption with enhancing biodiversity, rather than just what we want to talk about.

Words: Rob Yorke

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