On Tuesday I was at Portcullis House as the Labour party outlined its new vision for post-2015 development. The event was titled ‘Tackling inequality and promoting sustainable development’. These were indeed the main overriding themes, but this is not the place to examine Labour’s actual vision.

But of particular interest to me were the references to the sustainable intensification of agriculture, which appeared throughout. This is a term which descends directly from our Reaping the Benefits report, and also a subject of our successful and lively Policy Lab meeting last week.

Mary Creagh MP was on the post-2015 ‘panel’ representing the shadow view of Defra’s development policies. Martin Nesbit represented Defra at our PolicyLab event, and reassuringly, the themes were similar. Mary encouraged a stark look at our own food supply chains with reference to the horsemeat scandal. “We are a bit blasé about food in the developed world, we trust, almost without question, that we have food systems to deliver us the nutrition that we want and need, exactly when we want and need it, but this is not failsafe”

When we look at the broader picture of food supply in a global development context (a theme which was addressed in our People and the Planet report), we have an emerging food conundrum related to the emerging middle classes. As countries increase in wealth, their residents will want a nutrient high, meat rich diet (which as UK citizens we all have the opportunity to enjoy). Why shouldn’t others have this too?!

The problem is that meat production is wasteful and bad for the planet (huge generalisation). This is well known among policymakers, scientists and vegetarians. I had a very interesting discussion on this and laboratory produced meat with Dr Matt Reed, the Chair of our PolicyLab event, last Thursday. Can synthetic biology provide the answers through laboratory created meat? Surely this is the ultimate example of sustainable intensification – how science and technology can combine to feed the world?

Regardless of your opinion on synthetic biology, feeding grain which could be fed to humans, to animals, is indeed energetically wasteful, and this leads me onto Mary Creagh’s comment from yesterday’s event. She likened using crops for bio-fuel to feeding grain to cows. “Use waste products for bio-fuel and feed grass to cows instead! It is more sustainable and economically cheaper.”

If we assume that lab meat is not going to happen (or more crucially, be accepted for the mainstream market) anytime soon, and that the growing middle classes will still want a nutritious diet containing meat; inevitably the consumer demand for meat as a valued resource will increase above supply, and even with my amateur knowledge of economics, I’m guessing the price goes up?  Will this lead to food rationing to ensure fairness? Woe betides the politician who has to inform the British public that they may only be able to eat meat three days a week.  I imagine most people in the UK would not look upon this suggestion favourably!

With regards to sustainable intensification, Mary had another interesting point, which is strongly linked to the post-2015 development agenda (and justifies a strong, cross-cutting, and joined up approach to the new goals). She suggests that the real key is in supporting subsistence farming in developing countries, and crucially, the role of women. Road networks are also vital. By allowing isolated farmers access to new technologies and education, sustainable intensification can be achieved in all corners of the earth. And not only that. If women are able to grow excess crops to sell, they are therefore able to save for the future, they can educate their children, and thus improve the lives of future generations.

There you go. Emancipation of women – sustainable intensification – education- economic growth, sustainable development, all in one.



The post-2015 development goals have many cross-cutting themes, which will incorporate a large number of Royal Society interests. But what role can science play in informing this policy? Our next PolicyLab event on 6 June will aim to address this.

Our People and the Planet report published in April 2012 covers the issues of population and consumption in detail; And our Reaping the Benefits report, published in October 2009, explores the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. Synthetic biology is one of our ongoing research themes.

  • Fiona Kao

    Eating meat only three times a week would probably have major health benefits, however unpopular! Surely this is an issue for massive public re-education……………………