Proposals for national food strategy calls for UK farming ‘revolution’ in response to climate change and food security (2010)
Britain must grow more food, while using less water and reducing emission of greenhouse gases, to respond to the challenge of climate change and growing world populations, the environment secretary, Hilary Benn, said yesterday.
“Food security is as important to this country’s future wellbeing, and the world’s, as energy security. We need to produce more food. We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said.
Launching the government’s food strategy for the next 20 years with a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, he proposed a consumer-led, technological revolution to transform UK farming.
“We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves,” he said. “We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.”
He said consumers, rather than retailers, should lead by buying “greener” food, wasting less and growing more of their own: “People power can help bring about a revolution in the way food is produced and sold.”
Food businesses, supermarkets and manufacturers would follow consumer demand for food that was local, healthy and had a smaller environmental footprint – just as consumers had pushed the rapid expansion of Fairtrade products and free range eggs in the last decade, Benn said.
The government aims to develop a “meanwhile” lease for landowners and voluntary groups wishing to set up temporary allotments on land awaiting development. One in three people in the UK grows fruit and vegetables, according to a survey commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Ministers believe the move could foster community spirit and skills as well as physical and mental health. The cross-departmental strategy report, Food 2030, also supports farmers’ markets to raise consumption of local produce.
But by comparison with the government’s own adviser, the Sustainable Development Commission, the report is cautious about changing agriculture, by, for example, reducing the reliance on intensive meat and dairy production.
It acknowledges livestock production is a big contributor to greenhouse emissions but says there is no clear evidence on the carbon footprint of such foods which consumers can use to change their diet. “Not all types of meat have the same impacts, neither do all systems of production,” it states; livestock farming could be the only economically productive activity possible in some hilly areas.
Emma Hockridge of the Soil Association said: “Consumers are feeling increasingly confused by the proliferation of diet-related advice doled out by government departments. While it is right we need to eat less meat overall to achieve sustainable food production, red meat, as long as it is from grass-fed livestock, has a critical role to play in minimising carbon emissions. This is because grasslands for grazing represent vitally important carbon stores.”
Benn promised £50m for research over the next five years. Much will go to find ways to reduce carbon emissions from soils and rotting waste food, as well as finding ways to grow food with less fertiliser, pesticides and fuel. He did not mention GM foods, even though the government is known to be in favour of making it easier for farmers to grow such crops.
The campaign group Sustain said the report avoided tough issues, such as reducing children’s consumption of junk food: “The government’s food vision is hardly worthy of the name. The document proposes a series of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system.”
Nick Herbert, the shadow environment secretary, told the conference he welcomed “belated” recognition of the importance of increasing food production in Britain. He proposed an ombudsman to rule on disputes between supermarkets and their suppliers. Farmers complain that chains, which control up to 80% of the grocery market, abuse their power.
Ports of call
A review of Britain’s ports is to tackle government fears that our vast food imports are too concentrated in a few ports, risking disruption. Although 93% of imported food and drink arrives by sea through nearly 50 ports, much of it comes through just six: London, Dover, Liverpool, Felixstowe, Grimsby and Immingham. Ports are “potentially vulnerable” to storm damage and coastal surges, says the Food 2030 report, and switching in emergencies may not possible if the alternatives do not have the equipment or depth to handle large ships, or are too specialist. Tilbury handles most of our sugar, Liverpool almost all soya, Portsmouth 33% of bananas, and Southampton is the sole port for fresh produce from the Canary Islands.