A major study into how Britain’s entire food system must change to keep food affordable without destroying nature, at a time of soaring world population growth, was unveiled by Farming Minister Jim Paice today.
The government has brought together representatives of farmers, manufacturers, retailers, caterers, environmentalists and scientists to work out how to reconcile the competing demands of producing more food and improving the environment.
"If we are to meet the predicted increase in the demand for food with diminishing areas of land available for production and increasing strain on natural resources, we need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past that created higher yields by sacrificing the environment" said Campaign to Protect Rural England campaigner Ian Woodhurst.
The initial report of the Green Food Project sets out the first steps on the road to: using less energy and water
in food production; increasing crop yields; introducing more innovative technology; improving conservation management; and boosting numbers of talented, entrepreneurial young people making careers in the food industry.
“With our increasingly hungry world every country must play its part to produce more food and improve the environment. Britain already punches above its weight, but we’re a small island with limited space, so we’ve got to show leadership and play to our strengths more efficiently" said Jim Paice.
“We’re not talking about setting Soviet-style targets but an overall approach in which the whole food chain pulls together. Whether it means embracing new farming technology or people wasting less, we’ve got to become more sustainable.”
The project follows predictions that a sharp rise in population, obesity, and western diets over coming decades will bring unprecedented demand for food and pressure on land and water.
But the report was criticised for not attempting to fix the 'broken' food system.
The WWF said trying to ramp up food production was a 'fool's errand' as it was not the UK's role to feed the world but to address problems in its own food system such as waste, access and diets.
“We support the collaborative approach taken by the Green Food Project as a - very small - first step. However, what’s really important is the need to take action so we move towards a more equitable and sustainable food system which addresses the twin global challenges of sustainability and hunger" said Mark Driscoll, head of WWF-UK's food programme.
The government’s Foresight report into food security, published in January 2011, estimated that by 2050 the world’s population will increase to nine billion – up from seven billion today – and food production will need to increase by 70 per cent. It also estimated that between 30 to 50 per cent of all food grown worldwide may be wasted.
The Green Food Project examined how production and consumption could change in the future in five different sectors – wheat, dairy, bread, curry, and geographical areas. On bread, for example, experts suggested that significant amounts of energy could be saved if new more energy efficient toasters are invented. Or on curry, experts suggested that Britain’s farmers could grow more herbs and spices as the UK’s climate changes, or chickpeas for roti-bread flour.
Leading project members include the National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association, National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF-UK, Linking Environment and Farming, British Retail Consortium, Food and Drink Federation, Business Services Association, British Hospitality Association, and Defra.
In line with the Government’s new approach to develop policy jointly with industry and civil society at a much earlier stage, the steering group will now meet regularly to bring about change.
NFU President Peter Kendall who sat on the Steering Group, said "last year we made a call at our annual conference for a national Food Plan – a strategy across government and industry that moves us beyond the clichés and starts to map out who needs to do what, where and when. The Green Food Project is certainly a major step forward to achieving this. It’s not quite the end of the journey but it is a significant body of work that identifies the key issues that will need to be addressed by government, industry and other stakeholders.
“We now have some clear actions to move forward with. In particular, the report identifies some of the steps that need to be taken by the science community, government and farmers in delivering more user-inspired, applied research. It pushes us to think smarter about knowledge exchange. Stimulating investment is critical if Defra is to consider how it can better support a more competitive, resilient industry. A step that government could take quickly is to overhaul the capital allowances to create more generous incentives for farmers to invest in new buildings, water
lagoons and slurry stores."
But European farmers' access to plant science advances, including cutting-edge crop protection and biotechnology tools, will lag behind other parts of the world unless EU policy-makers adopt a more pragmatic, science-based approach towards the regulation of new agricultural technologies.
That was the stark warning issued by the UK Crop Protection Association (CPA) as the Green Food Project report was published.
CPA Chairman Stephen Henning welcomed the report as a significant step forward in defining the 'sustainable intensification' objectives set out in the UK Government's Foresight report on Global Food and Farming Futures.
But he warned that EU policy on key issues such as farm support and access to agricultural technology was blocking innovation and stifling investment within the plant science sector, despite the pressing global need to produce more food.
"The Green Food Project report sends a clear signal that continued application of agricultural research and innovation will be essential to improve crop yields and production efficiency, to reduce environmental impacts and to maintain the competitiveness of our farming industry.
"But our European counterparts seem intent on restricting access to new crop-based technologies while exporting our food requirements and associated environmental impacts elsewhere."
Jim Pace said there are many examples of cutting edge innovations in all sectors, but they were the exception and not the rule.
"We are talking about the need for a culture change across the entire food chain and this is the first step in a long-term plan to make that happen" he said.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board gave its backing to the government project. The AHDB said rising world food demand, price volatility and environmental pressures warranted efficient use of land and water.
"It will also be vital that, as an industry, we have a clear idea of where our research priorities lie and that we create the knowledge and awareness that will best serve farm businesses" said AHDB Chair John Godfrey.
Mid-Norfolk MP and Government Life Sciences Advisor George Freeman celebrates the recognition of the need for greater attention to applied agricultural science to support our agriculture industry. The Defra Green Food Project high lights
the need to increase yields while using fewer inputs, improving conservation management and introducing more innovative technology. Key to achieving these goals is the Government’s plan to establish a ‘Leadership Council’ chaired by Defra and BIS, with a focus on research and development and knowledge exchange.
George Freeman said: “The Green Food Project is the latest in a raft of reports rightly identifying the UK’s strength in agricultural science and research at a time when the world is crying out for innovation in this key sector. In order to capitalise on this we need to attract investment and increase applied research, and to do this we need a UK strategy for agricultural science.”