EXTREME WEATHER events and increased demand for foodstuffs from emerging economies such as China need DEFRA leadership to guarantee the UK’s long-term food security, say MPs.
Launching a report on the food production and supply dimensions of food security, Anne McIntosh, Chair of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said: “Complacency is a genuine risk to future UK food security. If we want our food production and supply systems to be secure,Government and food producers must plan to meet the impacts of climate change, population growth and increasing global demand for food.”
Anne McIntosh called for clearer lines of UK governmental responsibility: “At least three Departments are now responsible for food security—Defra, BIS and DECC. To ensure coherent planning and action, overall strategy must be led by Defra, who must ensure a robust approach right across Whitehall.”
The Food Security report supports the idea of “sustainable intensification” - producing more food with fewer resources - and calls on Defra to stem decline in UK self-sufficiency and to deliver more resilience in the UK food system. It notes that for key cereal crops, for example wheat, yield levels have not increased for over 15 years.
The UK is currently 68% self-sufficient in foods which can be produced at home, but this key indicator has declined steadily over the past 20 years,from 87%. The report says the biggest long-term challenge to food production systems is the impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change.
The report calls for:
- Supermarkets to shorten supply chains to reduce threats of Disruption.
- UK farmers to extend seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in coordination with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, local and central Government.
- Government to reduce dependence on imported soybean for animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines.
- Government to produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agricultural sector.
Anne McIntosh adds: “If we are to curb emissions and adjust to climate change, we need a significant shift in how the UK produces food. For instance, livestock production contributes 49% of farm-related emissions, so we need more research to identify ways to curb this. Farmers also need better longer-term weather forecasts and more resilient production systems to be able to cope with severe weather events such as the floods that devastated the Somerset levels last winter.”
The Committee welcomes the Government’s new £160 million AgriTech Strategy to translate technological ideas into farm practice but warns that current funding levels are insufficient. It cites precision farming technologies as an example of good research, but one that needs commercial partners to make it viable.
The Committee says the Government must lead a public debate to counter food safety fears among consumers about GM foods. The Government must also ensure a more evidence-based approach to EU licensing of GM crops.
The Government must also intensify its efforts to get new farmers into the sector, to ensure that farming has a future in the UK.
Responding to the report, Duncan Williamson, Food Policy Manager at WWF-UK, says: “We welcome the Committee’s report on the important issue of food security. WWF has argued for many years that food security isn’t just an issue to be packed away in one Government Department, so we’re pleased that the Committee recognises that the Departments for Business and for Energy and Climate Change, as well as Defra, have important responsibilities. The same applies to the Department of Health and the International Development Department, so if Defra is to lead the Government’s overall approach to food security, it will need to be a truly cross-government effort.”
“The Committee supports ‘sustainable intensification’, but we need to be cautious about arguing that the food security debate is all about producing more with less. Food security must be genuinely sustainable, with social and environmental considerations at its heart. We also need to think and talk honestly about what we eat. We should be moving to diets that are less meat and more plant-based – this would place less pressure on the planet’s systems, and be better for our health and well-being.”
Melanie Leech, Director General at FDF, said: “We are pleased to see the Committee's strong support for UK food and farming, and for the role we can play in helping to ensure future food security by addressing the issues raised by climate change and increased demand from global population growth. We agree with the Committee that we have potential to increase exports further as well as substitute for imports in areas where we can develop the capacity to do so.
“We particularly welcome the recognition that we are well placed to harness our innovation to increase the efficiency of production while reducing its impacts. We agree with the need for a more joined-up approach to policy making in these areas, both in the UK and in Europe, and with the importance of informed, evidence-based, consumer choice in relation to issues like new technologies and the health and resource implications of what we eat. Addressing these challenges is a shared responsibility for Government, industry and other stakeholders within a clear strategic framework."