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Michael Gove: When will there be a harvest for the world?

Michael Gove: When will there be a harvest for the world?

Michael Gove, MP and Environment Secretary, on environmental justice, stewardship and the moral purpose of government at Theos’ annual lecture 2018.

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WHEN WILL THERE BE A HARVEST FOR THE WORLD?
 
A Resonant Voice in the Public Square
 
It’s a pleasure to be here at Theos this evening. Since its establishment, Theos has done invaluable work in enriching our political debate by asking us to consider public policy dilemmas with the help of the wisdom embedded in religious tradition.
 
Of course, any discussion about the role religion or faith should play in politics always raises difficult questions. Are those who profess a personal faith attempting to claim a superior authority for their political views denied to others?
 
I certainly don’t believe so. Indeed, as a Christian I recognise that we are all flawed individuals in a fallen world, prone to error and arrogance, and any attempt to arrogate to ourselves the mandate of heaven for our actions would be the height of hubris and brittle folly.
 
More than that, I believe we are fortunate to live in a pluralist society and the clash of contending views, uninhibited by censorship, is vital to ensuring our democracy remains strong. Dissent, scepticism, challenge, even whenoffensive to some, are essential to keeping our politics healthy.
 
And in the political debates we conduct we should always advance policy on the basis of logic and evidence, seeking to persuade people of all faiths and none that a particular course is justified by appealing to their judgement and reason.
 
But in making our arguments there are rich resources we can all draw on in the history and philosophy of different faiths. 
 
The example of British politicians, from Shaftesbury to Gordon Brown and Wilberforce to Frank Field, who have been inspired by religious tradition to make progressive arguments commands respect across partisan and ideological divides.
 
The contributions of Chief Rabbis from Lords Jakobivits and Sacks to Ephraim Mirvis, and of Archbishops of Canterbury from Rowan Williams to Justin Welby,have enriched our political debate. 
 
Muslim public intellectuals such as Mona Siddiqui, Taj Hargey, and Ed Husain have all contributed to a more thoughtful consideration of public policy issues in Britain.
 
Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist faith leaders play an invaluable role in widening the perspectives of policymakers on questions from educational opportunity to social care.
 
And it is not just individual leaders and thinkers but also philosophical systems inspired by religious traditions which contribute to deepening our contemporary politics.
 
The idea of the common good embodied in Christian thinking and, especially in Catholic social theory, has inspired some of the most original and interesting political thinkers of our time, from Alasdair Macintyre to Maurice Glasman, Jon Cruddas to Michael Walzer.
 
The principle of subsidiarity in the exercise of political power; the idea of a covenant between generations; indeed, as Professor Larry Siedentop reminds us, even the idea of the individual – all derive from religious philosophy.
 
So, while we should never claim that arguments drawn from faith provide a warrant for political action, neither should we ever apologise for drawing, and reflecting, on the insights and wisdom found in the words, actions and thoughts of religious leaders.
 
And therefore, in reflecting on what we might learn from our faith traditions when considering the fate of our environment and the future of food, I hope no–one will misinterpret my motives when I turn to one of the most resonant lines in scripture.
 
Lives more abundant?
 
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus declares, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
 
Jesus casts himself as he speaks as a good shepherd – caring for his flock through all vicissitudes, and bringing them to a life more abundant through a time of trial.
 
Abundance, in the literal sense of plenty and richness, is one of the features of our times.  There is poverty – certainly – scarring the lives of many – even in our own relatively wealthy nation.  And the narrowed horizons of so many of our neighbours is a reproach to the conscience.
But overall, we live now in a time of unprecedented bounty.
 
 
Whereas, in 1820, the vast majority of people lived in extreme poverty, and only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living, economic growth since then has completely transformed our world. Poverty has fallen continuously, even as the global population has increased seven–fold. Economic growth – powered by markets, innovation in technology and medicine, human creativity and co–operation – has, even in my lifetime, lifted billions out of destitution and subsistence living and given the wealthiest among us unparalleled comforts.
 
Every day in this country, the market performs a million daily miracles to bring safe, nutritious, delicious food to our tables and those most fortunate of us live in warmth and safety, energy supplies harnessed from the earth heating our homes, powering our commerce, allowing us to communicate, and learn from each other, more freely than ever.
 
But, again, this abundance has come from our harnessing of the earth’s resources in a manner which raises profound questions about our future trajectory – and existence.
 
There are more than seven billion people on this planet – and current expectations suggest that this number will rise to at least ten billion well before my teenage children become my age.
Population growth on this scale – and everything that goes with it – poses particular challenges – not least for our earth.
 
I am not, I should say, a bleakly pessimistic Malthusian who believes that there is a precise mathematical limit to how much population can grow. Indeed I believe not just that every life is precious and every soul unique but many of those who will be born in the years ahead will prove capable of developing the breakthroughs which change our expectations of what is possible.
 
But at the same time, I am profoundly conscious that the way in which we have been growing, in population terms, and economically, has imposed costs and strains on our planet that require us also to have more than just a blithe faith that we can carry on as before and all will be well. Because I fear we are near a tipping point.
 
And in recognising the scale of the change we face I hope you won’t mind me quoting from another writer I love.
 
Gradually, then suddenly….
 
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, two characters are discussing their misfortunes.
 
Bill asks his friend Mike, so “How did you go bankrupt?”
 
In two ways, Mike replies, “Gradually. Then suddenly.”
 
Gradually. Then suddenly.
 
That is so often how change occurs.
 
Gradually societies become reliant on debt. Then suddenly a financial crash occurs.
 
Gradually discontent with rulers mounts. Then suddenly a revolution sweeps the established order entirely away.
 
And that is how change has been occurring on our planet. Gradually. Then suddenly.
 
In the millennia we have been on this earth our impact on it has been – very gradually – growing.
 
Originally our species hunted and gathered – omnivorous and sometimes rapacious – but not fundamentally altering nature’s balance.
 
Then we discovered how to harness energy from nature – first through fire,generating heat by burning peat, wood and surface coal. While our access to those resources was limited, we then learned to mine the vast reserves of coal, oil and gas deep underground.  As we have warmed our homes over millennia, so we have warmed our planet.
 
The impact over many centuries has been gradual. But in my adult lifetime we have seen a sudden acceleration in global warming, to the point where scientists warn that we may be reaching a point of no return.
 
Similarly, our impact on the landscape around us began gradually, as we chopped down trees and brought fields under cultivation, built cities and connected them with a network of transport links.
 
But, again, in the past century, that process of agricultural intensification, deforestation, urbanisation and globalisation has led to dramatic changes in the balance of nature.
 
Suddenly, the natural world our parents knew has been transformed.
 
Over the last ten years we have seen a 21% reduction in the number of African elephants and in the last 100 years a 97% decrease in the number of wildflower meadows in our country.
 
In the last forty years 60% of the mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds with whom we share the planet have gone.
 
In our own nation almost all the indices of nature’s resilience – and abundance – have declined. The population of farmland birds – a reliable indicator of farmland biodiversity – is down by 57% since 1970. Mammals from hedgehogs to water voles have seen numbers drop precipitately, salmon rivers have been denuded, pollinator habitats have been eroded and our coastlines choked by plastic.
 
This accelerating pace of environmental change – global warming, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss – raises profound questions about our relationship with the planet which is our only home. And in considering how we resolve these questions I believe there is a deep reservoir of wisdom and guidance which we policymakers can draw on from our religious traditions and faith leaders.
 
What we owe to nature
 
I speak as a Christian, convinced that the moral teachings of the Christian Church, the example of Christ’s life and Christian theology all help us in reflecting on the responsibilities we all have to others.
 
But I also think we can all learn, and benefit, from engaging with the ethical teachings of other faiths – and on the question of our responsibility towards creation, they speak with strikingunanimity.
 
At the heart of the Jewish faith is the doctrine of bal tashchit, which means “do not destroy”— rooted in the Book of Deuteronomy. Bal tashchit encourages us all to refrain from the destruction of the fruitful and beautiful in this world.
 
And in his wonderful work The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, outlines how religious thinking can help us better understand our duties to nature.
 
 
 
 
 
As Lord Sacks writes,
 
‘Constructing an environmental ethic in strictly secular terms has proved unexpectedly difficult. On what basis do we owe “duties to nature”, given that nature does not recognise duties to itself or to us, and thus lies outside the domain of contracts and reciprocity? In what sense do we owe duties to generations as yet unborn, who are clearly not moral agents since they do not yet exist? On what rational basis are we to factor future loss of biodiversity against present gain?
 
‘The power of religious imagination is not that it has easy answers to difficult questions but that it provides a framework of thought for such large and intractable issues. It is easier to understand the moral constraints on action when we believe that there is someone to whom we owe responsibility – that we are not owners of the planet and that we are linked covenantally to those who will come after us. The simplest image, and surely the most sensible one, in thinking about our ecological responsibilities, is to see the earth as belonging to the source being, and us as its trustees, charged with conserving and if possible beautifying it for the sake of our grandchildren not yet born.” 
 
Muslims also see themselves as having a responsibility towards the world and the environment, all of which are the creations of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad understood the value of nature, and that the mindful use of its bounty, by humans, represents a form of charity— almost a sacred duty—on behalf of both God’s creation (the ecosystem) and other human beings.
 
For Sikhs, Waheguru [War–HEG–uroo], or God, created the world as a place where every type of plant and animal could live in balance. In Sikh hymns, God is often the provider for all life which God loves, guaranteeing equality to man and woman in faith, and compassion towards all beings and nature. There is no difference between the world of humans and the world of nature. Both are equally important and must be treated with respect. 
 
The value of the natural world is equallyprized in Hinduism: its teaching holds that each of our actions affects – for better or worse – the created world, to which we are inescapably bound. For Buddhists, too, respect for nature is integral to faith. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly called for strong action to combat climate change. And the senior Buddhist monk and environmental campaigner, Thic Nhat Hanh [Tik N’yat Harn], neatly sums up this striking unanimity we see in the attitude of major religions – and also many non–believers – to the environment.
 
‘Whatever nationality or culture we belong to,’ he told the UN, ahead of the Paris Climate Summit of 2015, ‘whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, we can all see that the Earth is not inert matter. She is a great being, who has herself given birth to many other great beings… nurturing and protecting all peoples and all species without discrimination.
‘When you realise the Earth is so much more than simply your environment, you’ll be moved to protect her in the same way as you would yourself. This is the kind of awareness… that we need, and the future of the planet depends on whether we’re able to cultivate this insight or not.’
 
The Good Shepherd 
 
For Christians, the ethical responsibility we have towards the environment is encapsulated in the concept ofstewardship. Christians are called to remember their rightful place within Creation – and the vast web of life it created – and their responsibility to protect and defend it.
 
In the Catholic catechism, there are long–standing arguments that environmental degradation is a violation of the seventh commandment – Thou Shalt Not Steal – because it is to thieve prosperity from future generations and the poor if we leave the world despoiled and defiled.
 
‘What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?’
 
It’s a question that runs through our 25 Year Environment Plan, which will help us deliver on our ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it for the next generation. It’s also a theme of one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful expositions of Christian thinking on the environment – ‘Laudato si’ , the papal encyclical issued by Pope Francis in 2015, also before the Paris climate talks.
 
Laudato si analysed climate change in the context of spiritual and religious values, in keeping with Catholic thinking which places emphasis on the cultivation of virtue – rather than unfettered liberty or the accumulation of material wealth – as mankind’s principal goal.
 
 
In my view, the encyclical is remarkable for the depth of thought which goes into addressing the twin challenges of climate and social justice, for considering in depth both the science and theology of climate change, and for exploring the spiritual, ethical and religious dimensions of one of the greatest challenges facing the world.
 
The title Laudato Si, or ‘Praise be to you, my Lord‘’ was inspired by the words of the 13th century saint, social campaigner and lover of nature, Francis of Assisi – after whom the Pope took his name. Born Giovanni Bernardone, the son of a wealthy merchant, he was expected to follow his father into the family business. Instead, when still a young man, a vision persuaded him to renounce a life of comfort, and lead a humble existence in poverty and service to God and his fellow man.
 
It was in the Sistine Chapel – as the Papal Conclave of 2013 was coming to an end, beneath Michelangelo’s vision of Creation depicted as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father – that the new Pope decided he would be called after St Francis. A close friend among the Cardinals, seeing which way the votes were going, had embraced him with the words: ‘Don’t forget the poor.’ As the Pope later explained, his thoughts went to St Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, whom he regarded as, ‘The man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation’. The same created world, the Pope added, ‘with which we don’t have such a good relationship.’
 
Laudato Si was how St Francis sought to honour God in his famous religious song, the Canticle of the Creatures, also known as the Canticle of the Sun. In this, he expresses the desire that man and nature should be one – sharing a love of the earth and all God’s creatures in it. Written near the end of his life, around 1225, it is familiar to Anglican congregations as the source of the words to the joyful hymn, All Creatures of our God and King.
 
Significantly, the creatures in question are not just the animals of which St Francis was famously fond but earthly elements and the essentials of all life. In the hymn, these appear as the ‘burning sun with golden beam’. The ‘silver moon with softer gleam’ and the ‘fire so masterful and bright’. The rushing wind, the clouds that sail in Heaven and ‘Thou flowing water, pure and clear’. All owed their existence to God, and should therefore raise their voices in thanks to Him. 
 
Tradition meets the modern 
 
Pope Francis develops this centuries–old theme. The Earth, our common home, is – he writes – ‘like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.’ People have forgotten that ‘we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.’
 
All life depends on clean air and water, and a stable and reliable climate, he says. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. And he is troubled by the resources we squander, and the waste we create, as we try in vain to buy, own and consume our way to happiness.
 
The arguments of Laudato Si – as one would expect from any papal encyclical – are sophisticated and rich, and worthy of greater exploration here this evening. At its heart are, I believe, critical lessons.Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for abundant life. But the Harvest for the World must be a sustainable one – we have a duty to protect the planet and ensure its fruitful abundance for coming generations.
 
The guiding principle which the Pope took from the 2013 Conclave was the need to look after our poor. And the Earth, burdened and laid waste, is – he believes – among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor. It is beginning to look more and more like an immense rubbish heap. Never have we treated our common home as badly as we have in the last 200 years. Instead of a legacy of a better environment for future generations, we threaten to leave them only rubble, deserts and refuse. 
 
Too many countries are putting their national interests above the global common good, he wrote. And as individuals too, we should be painfully aware of what is happening to the world, regard this as our personal suffering, and learn what each of us can do to bring about change. 
 
Lastly, a true ecological approach must always become a social approach. It must integrate questions of social justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Pope Francis makes the point that we are not faced with two separate crises afflicting the environment and society. Rather, the world is facing a single complex crisis. The solution, he believes, must be to combat poverty and restore dignity to the underprivileged at the same time as protecting nature.
That insight is – I believe – fundamental.
 
We must ensure we are not just careful stewards of creation but also warriors for justice too – we need to both protect our natural inheritance and bring a richer life to more. In the Pope’s vision of an ‘integral ecology’ which respects the needs of humans, society and the environment, Christians’ role as protectors of God’s handiwork is a vocation, one essential to a life of virtue.
 
 At one with the world 
 
In importance, an encyclical – a circular letter concerning Catholic doctrine – is only one step down from a papal bull. The decision by Pope Francis to tackle climate change and the environment so early in his papacy – just two years after his election – reflected the urgency he felt about entering a ‘dialogue with all people about our common home.’
 
The Vatican was also aware that international leaders would be meeting atthe end of 2015 for landmark deliberations, on an unprecedented scale,about the need to tackle climate change and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century. The Pope saw the chance to initiate open debate at each level of social, economic and political life. 
Doubtless, he was motivated also by the knowledge that while climate change cannot be blamed for growing wealth inequality, the poorest people who are least responsible for climate change are certainly most affected by it. Global warming hits poor and marginalised communities hardest. In coming years, they will look to receive what Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for human rights, calls ‘climate justice’ – the responsibility on us all to share out the burdens of climate change; a principle built into UK climate change targets.
 
During their papacies, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke of the Christian requirement to honour the Creation and protect the least fortunate in society. Benedict, who held office from 2005 until he retired in 2013, talked about how important it was to make better use of natural resources, and how the deterioration of nature was connected with human culture.
 
What is striking about Laudato Si is how, as Pope Francis explores the relationship between global poverty and social inequality, he puts environmental protection to the fore. And as you would expect of a man with a qualification in chemistry, the work is founded on science: setting out the status quo based on the best available scientific findings.
 
Reformation now?
 
His analysis is that we are learning too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. That in pursuing ever–more production, scant regard has been paid to the toll it was taking on resources or the health of the environment. That businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs entailed in increasing desertification, the harm done to biodiversity or increased pollution. And that, if present trends continueunchecked, the century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for humanity.
 
He seeks to encourage a ‘culture of care’ which permeates society – linking individuals, families, local communities, national governments and other countries – and borrows a phrase from John Paul II when he urges each element to undergo an ‘ecological conversion’. And he correctly identifies that the pressure to tread more lightly on the planet is coming from the young. Inter–generational solidarity is not a nice to have – it’s a basic question of justice because the world in which we live belongs also to those will follow us. 
 
 
The Pope’s solutions in Laudato si are clear and sensible, and ones on which I think we can all agree.
 
He endorses wise environmental policies like those now being pursued around the world, not least in the UK, and which are increasingly adopted by individuals as well as governments. Measures that move us to a lower–carbon economy, reduce greenhouse gas and other highly polluting emissions, for example by substituting fossil fuels for renewable energy.
 
On an individual level, he suggests we should all consider cutting our use of plastic and paper, reducing our water consumption, separating out our waste for recycling, cooking only what we can reasonably consume and making sure anything left over is shared with those who need it most, showing care for other living beings – all because there is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.
 
At a national level, he argues that countries should show enhanced statecraft and think of the long–term good of all – particularly those countries which are more powerful, and pollute the most, and whose actions affect less fortunate societies on the other side of the globe.
 
And he makes plain that it is not too late – the same conclusion reached in the wide–ranging report issued last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Humanity can still work together to heal our common home. ‘Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good and making a new start.’
 
What’s crucial, is that every ecological approach incorporates a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. ‘Unless we struggle with these deeper issues,’ cautions Pope Francis, ‘I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results’.
 
I think the Holy Father is absolutely right to unite the causes of environmental protection and social justice. And in doing so, we need also to bring together two traditions which have, in the past, sometimes seemed to be in tension, even contradiction.
 
A path through 
 
The brilliant American writer Charles Mann published a remarkable book earlier this year which told the stories of two of the most influential – but perhaps least celebrated – great thinkers of the twentieth century.
 
The Wizard and the Prophet introduces the reader to the achievements of two American scientists, William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.
 
Vogt is the father of modern environmentalism – he made the case for a world of both limits and awe – he saw in growing material affluence the seeds of future disintegration but also believed that there was an intrinsic worth and wonder in a planet in balance. He is the prophet of Mann’s title – warning of the impact of industrialisation and urbanisation on earth’s resilience and beauty.
 
And Borlaug is the wizard. He was the father of the 1960s “Green Revolution” which deployed new agricultural technology and genetic breakthroughs to massively increase crop yields and improve food production, not least in the developing world.
 
As Mann explains, the two thinkers were not just at odds themselves over the dangers and promise of economic growth, they also inspired two, generally contending schools of thought about how to shape our future.
 
In essentials, the Vogtian view was a conservative philosophy of care, a belief that nature’s precious resources needed protection from man’s rapacity and hubris. It was all about valuing the creation of which we are part.
 
The Borlaugian outlook was a liberal philosophy of potential, a belief that man could use his reasoning intellect to find solutions to the problems of life on this planet. It was all about valuing the creativity with which we are endowed.
 
Both views have, in the way they have become articulated, become polarised in some of our contemporary debates. 
 
Those who argue for lower growth in the name of sustainability versus those who argue for higher growth to generate the resources we need to meet and master environmental changes.
 
Those who argue for an approach to life which is slower, more rooted, more organic and more humble, with man acknowledging his dependence on nature rather than seeking to assert mastery.
 
Versus those who argue for accelerating innovation, building on the power of science to reshape our expectations of the possible, declining to retreat in the face of great challenges.
 
It is my belief that faced with these two, powerful and contending, visions, the wisest way forward rests in harnessing the best of both. But the via media I think we should follow is not a splitting down the middle of these arguments, but a radical fusion.
 
It is the case, as I argued earlier, that we have caused environmental damage and deterioration on a dramatic scale in the last century, with pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, habitat erosion, soil depletion and deforestation.
 
That requires us to think more carefully than ever about how we use resources, how we protect what is precious and irreplaceable, how we manage our way out of methods of production and patterns of consumption which are wasteful and profligate.
 
But I also believe that the best way to ensure we use limited resources more wisely is to increase the productivity of those resources, through restraint, re–use and recycling, all of which are made easier by technological advance. The most effective way of sparing land for wildlife is by making sure that we sustainably increase the yield from the land we use for food production. The sustainable productivity of that land, and the overall health of the environment on which we rely, is maximised if we develop techniques that reduce the need for excessive inputs – whether of energy or chemicals – and instead concentrate on thoughtful cultivation of better outputs.
 
It is also the case that as societies get wealthier, much of our consumer appetite and extra spending is directed at services, rather than objects, and those objects we do buy tend to be of better quality. Spending more on quality is usually ‘good’ – a bespoke suit is very expensive, but the impact of its production on the environment is little more than it would be from buying one off–the–peg. This is the principal reason why, as we grow richer, it is possible to double resource productivity and yet leave our environmental footprint roughly unaltered.  
 
What does this all mean in practical terms?
 
Well I think the approach the UK government is taking – through our 25 Year Environment Plan, our new Agriculture and Fisheries Bills, our proposed Environment Bill and our related policies, shows the way.
 
We have put a special emphasis on careful use of existing natural resources and greater resource productivity. 
 
Taxes designed to reduce demand for virgin plastics will encourage recycling, investment in research and innovation will unlock the potential of greater resource efficiency, initiatives to reduce food waste, and a plan to redistribute nutritious food which goes unsold to those most in need are all evidence of a commitment to treading more lightly on the planet and uniting environmental concerns with a commitment to social justice.
 
In our 25 year plan we also set ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bring down the level of harmful pollutants in the air we breathe and the water we drink, make more space for nature and restore to health the habitats on which our wildlife depend. All underpinned by new structures to keep Government honest and accountable for delivery of these goals.
Alongside these commitments to protect what we have inherited, use our endowment of natural capital wisely and honour our covenant with future generations by enhancing our environment we are also determined to utilise the gains of science and the fruits of innovation to make growth both more fruitful and sustainable.
 
If, as Christians, we believe creation is a gift we must preserve, then we also believe creativity is a gift we must use to the full.
 
So when it comes to the agriculture of the future, we must develop new technologies which improve productivity while also respecting nature’s limits. 
 
That means precision farming, with chemicals applied sparingly and with care to minimise costs and externalities and maximise productivity in a balanced way.
 
It also requires us to use big data, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyse, adult and refine how we grow food best and where to target resources to greatest effect.
 
It will also mean learning from other nations – and indeed from the most skilled farmers in our country – about applying the best husbandry and rearing techniques to ensure high quality food is grown with minimal environmental impact and maximum nutritional value.
 
In addition, we will have to be open to how gene technology can develop in the future. There are huge questions, ethical and scientific, about where such technology can lead. But the ability of gene editing to accelerate advances we have already secured through selective breeding in a way which is both safe and fair to all is potentially huge.
 
We will, I think, also have to contemplate how we can make the most constructive use of vertical farming – whether through hydroponics or other techniques. Growing salad and other vegetables in controlled indoor surroundings – where the amount of water, nutrients and light can be precisely controlled – has the potential to massively increase yields while dramatically reducing the environmental footprint of production and also releasing land for nature. Plants nurtured indoors in optimal conditions, in multi–storey units under heaters and lights, can grow 24/7 – not only when the sun shines and the weather is warm. 
 
There are other, as yet embryonic, scientific techniques which could help us feed the world more sustainably, from the development of synthetic proteins to more thoughtfully designed aquaculture which should be explored, albeit with great care.
 
All of these innovations will depend on unleashing the Borlaugian creativity of our finest scientific minds, but the breakthroughs they might generate also need to be weighed with Vogtian caution as we consider what the long–lasting impact on our world might be.
 
If we can balance both respect for nature with a resolution to push the boundaries of science, restraint in how we exploit the resources available to us today with a rigorous focus on generating greater abundance in the future then I believe we can both protect our planet and provide the world’s poor with a promise of plenty. 
 
The wonderful charity, WWF, has argued that this generation is the first to fully understand the damage we are doing to our world. And it therefore falls to our generation to be the one to do something about it – to take the kind of critical decisions I have spoken about this evening. The chance is still ours to forge a new relationship with the planet. As religious leaders down the ages have urged, we can be better stewards of our earth and plant a harvest for the world. And that is surely a mission which can unite us all.

Michael Gove

Michael Gove

Michael Gove is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP for Surrey Heath. After Oxford University, Michael began a career in journalism, culminating in his role as a columnist on The Times newspaper. Before taking on his current role, Michael served as Secretary of State for Education, Chief Whip, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.


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