Ensuring the world’s population is able to eat healthily and sustainably is one of the ongoing dilemmas facing national governments and global organisations, with the events of the past two years meaning food security has become headline news.
Changes in the nature of the world’s food production and supply have, in part, led to Britain’s first comprehensive review of food security and sustainability since the Second World War.
After decades of relatively inexpensive and readily available food – until the surge in oil and commodity prices in 2007–08, food prices (relative to general inflation) fell for over 25 years – there are now tough choices to be made if the UK’s population is to continue enjoying healthy and affordable food without degrading the natural resources on which food production depends.
It was in light of these future challenges in food production and supply that Defra Secretary of State Hilary Benn presented the first assessment of the UK’s food security in August. This will be followed by a full food strategy to be published later in 2009.
Mr Benn said: “Last year we had a wake-up call with the sudden oil and food price rises. While we know the price of our food, the full environmental costs and the costs to our health are significant and hidden.
“Our food strategy will need to cover all aspects of our food – production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption and disposal. That includes impacts on our health, on the environment and future productivity, and on how we deal with food waste.”
Together with the security assessment, Defra also published:
* Food 2030 – an opportunity for people to voice their views on the future of the food system
* Food Matters: One Year On – an update on the 2008 Cabinet Office report.
What this means for the UK’s farmers
The food security assessment shows the UK does well in areas such as the diversity of our food supply and the strength of the food distribution system, but the sustainability of the UK’s food supply is a major challenge.
The hugely important role that the food production and processing sector can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is well documented on these pages, and farmers are already starting to adapt to changes in what can be grown and when.
The role of science in helping to meet the challenges of food security was highlighted. New research has shown that, with some fine-tuning of current watering and feeding methods, fruit and vegetables will be able to be produced with less water. Research carried out by East Malling Research has found ways of producing strawberries with up to 85% less water. Scientists at East Malling are now extending this research to potatoes to see what water reduction is possible.
Hilary Benn made clear that we will need to consider using all the tools at our disposal to meet the challenges before us, including GM technologies: “If GM can make a contribution, then we have a choice as a society and as a world about whether to make use of that technology – and an increasing number of countries are growing GM products.”
Food 2030 is an online discussion, launched in partnership with the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, that gives people at all stages of the food chain – farmers, retailers, food producers, health care professionals, schools and consumers – the chance to have their say on how they want the UK’s food system to look in two decades time.
Food Matters: One Year On reports on the significant increase in food-related activity over the past 12 months. This includes:
* Defra’s contribution of £10 million to the Anaerobic Digestion Demonstration Programme
* April’s roundtable discussion on skills in the farming industry
* Leading efforts with international partners to tackle global hunger through the Global Partnership for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition
* The Change4Life campaign, launched in January 2009, which encourages us to ‘eat well, move more, live longer’.
The food strategy for the future will be published later in the year, and will draw on responses to this discussion.
UK production – Fruit and vegetable roundtable, East Malling Research, Kent
Convened by Hilary Benn in July, this meeting looked at barriers to increasing consumption and production of fruit and vegetables in the UK, and what solutions there might be to help get over these barriers.
Over 50 people attended, including representatives from the NFU, NHS Supply Chain, Lantra, Warwick HRI, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Morrisons. Topics discussed included research and development, skills issues, labour supply issues, the availability of fruit and vegetables in schools and relationships between the food production sector and retailers.
Regional foods – Protected Food Name status
Hosting a celebration of foods with Protected Food Name status, Food and Farming Minister Jim Fitzpatrick, said in August: “We produce excellent food in this country, but we’re not always great about speaking up about it.
“Local produce that is traditionally made, unique and authentic attracts people from all over the world for its taste and its quality – it’s good for local businesses and local communities. And that’s something that deserves protection.
“I’m calling on more British producers to get their food protected and for their communities to get behind them. It’s not something that can be done overnight, but it’s worth it, in terms of the protection it gives the producer and the opportunities it creates for their renowned products.
“Ultimately, I want to us to be up alongside France and Italy who among them boast more than 300 protected foods. Our food is just as good as any other European country’s. I want to see the UK’s regional foods on the world map.”
Encouraging debate – East of England’s 2020 Vision
As global demands on agriculture continue to change, the East of England is looking to encourage debate about the type of food and farming sector the region will have in the coming decade. The region’s food and farming output is estimated to double in real terms by 2020, with the sector representing 11% of the regional economy. 2020 Vision for the East of England Food and Farming Sector predicts the region’s increased agricultural productivity will be based on:
* Growth in consumer demand for vegetables, salad and fruit
* Intensive livestock through large modern intensive units, which recycle all their waste products
* Large-scale supply chain developments in the grain sector.
Export market growth will focus on meeting the world’s rapidly growing middle classes as the number of affluent consumers in the developing world continues to increase.
The report also states that the food sector will become a major producer of products for the energy sector, with processes such as anaerobic digestion meaning that commercial food waste is completely eliminated from landfill before 2020. This will mean that the food sector will increasingly use on-site combined heat and power generation to produce power, with ‘waste’ heat being recovered for use as process heat or for cooling purposes.