Tuesday, 7 December 2010

How the personal is still political: Why food security is about biofuels is about land rights

Blog post by Dr Christine Knight, Genomics Forum (on Session 5A - Food Security and Sustainable Diets)

Professor Steve Hughes from Egenis opened this penultimate session of the conference by congratulating the audience on our endurance – with the end of proceedings in sight, many people’s attention has been diverted by travel anxieties as snow falls outside. With the loss of a mystery speaker from Brazil for this session, Professor Paul Richards has been added to the programme as a respondent to speakers Professor Simon Bright and Dr Benard Muok. This is a session I’ve been looking forward to as I recently organised, but wasn’t able to attend, a similar event on the “politics of plants” at the Green Party Annual Conference 2010, at which Professor Bright also spoke.

Here in Paris Professor Bright speaks about the “politicisation of plants” in the 1980s and 1990s, with the disciplinary shift from botany to plant science, and the emergence of molecular biology, plant genetics and genomics. With this shift and the controversy around GM, politicians and the public intrude into the research process – no longer can scientific experts set the agenda, at least not in isolation. Dr Benard Muok then provides an overview of the need, opportunities and challenges for biofuels in Africa, highlighting issues such as indoor air pollution and environmental degradation from the use of traditional fuels such as firewood and kerosene.

Each of the speakers focuses on a major project in which he has been involved – the Plants for the Future and PISCES projects respectively. But with respondent Professor Paul Richards, the discussion turns – somewhat unexpectedly for me – to the pressing need for land reform in Africa. Professor Richards stresses that “you can’t evade the issue of land” – that is, who owns land and under what conditions land is used. These are crucial points to consider in relation to biofuels given the land required for biofuel crops. Professor Richards argues that African governments have accepted the biofuels agenda without putting in place the necessary policy framework to support it, which would include recognising informal land tenure arrangements for poor farmers, though there will be different requirements for small-scale, local biofuel production versus large-scale corporate production.

All in all, Steve Hughes congratulates us in closing on a session that started with policy, continued with policy and ended with policy – surely the goal of this conference!

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