Food prices are increasing at an alarming rate, with an average family's shopping now costing an extra £750 a year. At the same time, a global food shortage looms on the horizon.

Sarah Lewis talks to two experts and asks if organic really can feed the world, or whether genetically-modified crops are the only answer.


Karl Barton, farm manager, Goodwood Organic Farm

"To my mind, there's one big advantage of organic: it's sustainable.

That just about sums up the whole system. With fossil fuels running out, the price of oil rising so quickly and all the other problems we have, we have to start looking at a sustainable way to manage our food. And by sustainable I mean allowing the soil to keep producing crops over and over again.

People have been using chemicals in farming for 70 years now and the damage is phenomenal. In the 1930s and 1940s chemicals were going to save the world and produce huge crops, but in the 1990s we realised it was poisoning the soil, the atmosphere and causing cancers.

In 2001, when I first came to Goodwood it had been chemically farmed for 30 years and it was barren. Now, we are completely self-sustaining. If you cut my farm off from the rest of the country, if you put a fence around it, I can continue as I am, bar the fuel for my tractor. But I could even grow that and carry on.

When you talk about GM, you can't do that. You are doing what nature never intended, splitting genes and so on - and for what? So you can harvest strawberries in December? Or people talk about feeding the world with crop increases, but no one has actually shown that working. GM crops haven't out-yielded traditional crops in any way. So even if people are saying they can, they don't have the scientific evidence to back it up.

Also, are we looking at repeating the same cycle with GM as we saw with chemicals? What are we going to be saying about GM in 50 years?

You are also looking at the seeds to feed the world being supplied by a few companies who control everything - and that becomes very dangerous. At the moment, we can get our seeds from anywhere but when you start going down the road of specialist seeds, where do you source them from?

The most powerful thing any one company can have is control of our food supply and GM technology gives companies exactly that control.

It isn't a question of "Can organic be the solution?" It is the only solution. Fertilisers and pesticides are going to double in price and then where do we go for our food source? So we turn to GM - but that is just another man-made item to try to feed people when we already know nature can work with us and feed us.

To feed the nations, we need to look at feeding small areas. At the moment, everything is produced everywhere and that costs fuel, time and transport. We need to look at having 80% of everything produced within the county and the other 20%, the specialist items we can't grow here, we can import. This way we can save fuel and time and protect the atmosphere.

And at the same time it is helping developing countries. They can grow the crops they need and eat them, instead of exporting them, and they are still exporting those specialist items - which should carry a true premium, rather than being screwed down to the last penny.

If we are talking about really making use of science we should talk about how to control ourselves, not nature and nature's plants. Look at how many people we have to feed and look at how we waste the food - up to 70% of a harvest is wasted before it even gets to the shops.

So should we really be talking about food shortages and GM?

  • Find out more about organic farming and the food we eat at Open Farm Sunday at Goodwood,

Susan Hartley, professor of ecology, University of Sussex

In my opinion, as a scientist who carries out a lot of risk assessments, I think the dangers of GM may have been somewhat exaggerated.

I understand the concerns people have about this technology but I don't think we should let these blind us to the potential advantages it can offer.

People have recognised the benefits some other genetic techniques, such as gene therapy, can bring and GM crops could also offer solutions to difficult problems, such as making crops more resistant to drought.

The risk assessment process for GM food and crops is very intense and prolonged. It's done by the European Union's Food Safety Authority and they take immense care to go through each application and assess it very thoroughly. If they find any potential risk, that application is refused and the growers don't get a licence.

So the public can be reassured there is a tremendous amount of scientific study which determines whether a GM crop is safe. We know a lot more about the safety of GM crops than most other agricultural methods, which are never assessed in this way.

In fact, GM crops have been grown around the world for many years, it's not actually a new technology any more. For some crops, such as soya, about 80% of the world's production is GM and people have been eating GM food for ten years.

We also have to think about any potential risks in a bigger context. I would have said the biggest threat to our countryside just now is climate change. Similarly, we have had lots of food safety scares, such as BSE, but I wouldn't put GM in the same ball park at all. There are far bigger risks - the biggest health risk associated with food in this country is actually obesity.

We have a real problem with food supply at the moment and no one technology will solve it. Food prices are rising steeply because we are not producing enough wheat and rice. It will be hard to solve this problem with organic farming alone because the yields are so much lower than in conventional farming. Organic food is more expensive, too.

Also, the challenges are going to get worse. Food production is threatened by loss of land to biofuel production.

Climate change is leading to more droughts, floods, pests and diseases. GM means we can respond to these threats very quickly and create drought-tolerant or pest-resistant varieties. We can also use GM technology to reduce some of the environmental impacts of farming. For example, fungicides used to kill plant diseases are very toxic, but we can increase plants' own resistance to the fungi using GM.

The GM debate has been somewhat spoiled by a polarised "either/or" approach. It's how you apply technology that matters, not the technology per se. We need to think about how a crop is managed and what we want to achieve when we plant it, rather than just say organic is always perfect and GM is the devil's work.

Sometimes organic is the best approach but sometimes GM is.

The bottom line is the world needs to produce more food from less land, preserve some areas for wildlife and cope with climate change - we will need to use all the technologies at our disposal to achieve this difficult balancing act.

  • Find out more about GM from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council at