The world faces what one of our witnesses described as "an unprecedented double challenge": it needs to produce more food, but in a way that does not degrade the natural resources on which agricultural depends, and which decreases the food chain's reliance on fossil fuels and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Meeting this challenge will require a fundamental shift in thinking about food, on the part of Governments and consumers.
Two projections voiced at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's "World Food Security" conference in June 2008 attracted particular attention. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, announced that food production would need to increase by 50% by 2030 to meet rising demand and the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Jacques Diouf, stated that food production would need to double by 2050 to feed a world population of 9 billion. It is important to bear in mind that these are projections rather than targets. They are a useful way of focusing attention on food production. However, they should also be used to draw attention to population growth, diet and waste at all stages of the food chain, and the need for policy responses in these areas. More information is needed about future patterns of consumption: what will be required is not simply an increase in production across the world, but an increase in the production of particular commodities to meet demand in particular parts of the world.
The UK has a choice about how to respond, both to secure its own food supplies and to increase the security of global supplies. We have considered the options and believe that the UK has a moral duty to make the most of its position in the globe and its natural advantages for producing certain types of food. The UK should not attempt to be totally self-sufficient, but it should aim to increase its production of those fruit, vegetables and cereals that are suited to being grown here. It is essential that this increase in production is carried out sustainably.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a responsibility to provide strong leadership on food policy to co-ordinate the response from other departments and to enable people to invest and plan. Defra has neglected food policy in the past. Following the loss of most of its climate change responsibilities to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Defra has the chance to refocus its attention on food. We are encouraged by Defra's increasing interest in this part of its brief, but there is a great deal still to do. Defra must produce a vision and strategy for food that provides a long term framework for the UK food and farming sectors, stretching beyond the short-term nature of the political cycle. The strategy should pull together the work of the various Government groups that are currently involved in food policy. The strategy cannot be expected to supply all the answers, but it should provide clear direction and indicate what further work is needed and the deadlines for its completion.
Defra must also provide leadership in Europe, to shape emerging European Union policy on the security of food supplies. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is an opportunity to ensure that European agriculture is in a position to produce as much food as it can, sustainably, and in response to market signals. The CAP should provide incentives and mechanisms to encourage farming that uses less water and fossil fuels, produces less greenhouse gas emissions and does not degrade soils.
As well as providing clear leadership, Defra must tackle the existing weaknesses in the UK food system that will otherwise prevent it from achieving its long-term objective of securing food supplies. UK public-sector research into food and farming is still world-class in some respects. However, there is an urgent need to: increase the budget for public-sector food and farming research; ensure that research priorities reflect the importance of securing food supplies; and increase translational services and research so that research does not "sit on the shelf" once it has been completed. Defra must also act to address the potential skills gap in farming and in applied research. Defra has a role to play in fostering long-term, stable relationships in the food supply chain.
Consumers will play a vital part in enabling Defra to achieve its vision for the UK food system. They will need to be encouraged to think more about the environmental consequences of where and how their food is produced, and to be provided with sufficient information to enable them to make responsible choices. Increasing interest in local and home production on the part of some consumers is particularly encouraging in this context, because it is a way of reconnecting people with the process of producing the food that they eat. The role of local and home production, and of educating children about food, should be included in Defra's vision and strategy for food.