Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


Background to the inquiry

1. Every day the shelves of UK supermarkets are full of a remarkable array of foods from around the world. Restaurants in the UK offer every type of cuisine. The availability of great food brands such as Heinz, Cadbury, and Kellogg is taken as read. It is therefore hardly surprising that the thought of food shortages or supply chain disruptions hardly enters into people's minds. The notion of any threat to the security of the UK's food supplies is, to the majority of its citizens, not so much alien as unthinkable. However, food supplies have been restricted in the UK within living memory—the rationing introduced during the Second World War continued in limited form until 1954. There were also widespread shortages of sugar in the early 1970s.

2. Until very recently, the UK Government seemed to take the availability of food largely for granted, too. Despite having the word "food" in its title, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) regarded climate change as its principal priority. Melanie Leech, the Director-General of the Food and Drink Federation commented: "I think Defra would recognise that in recent years it has not felt the need to prioritise and focus on food issues."[1] She noted that the food industry "has been rather good at delivering cheap, safe and nutritious food […] to households" and "DEFRA has let it get on with it".[2]

3. There have always been risks to the secure supply of food, but now these risks and the world's awareness of them are changing. In the past year, the political profile of food has soared. In November 2008, we asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, about Defra's priorities following the loss of the majority of its climate change responsibilities to the new Department for Energy and Climate Change. After a momentary hesitation, he replied: "We have got a particular priority now for food."[3] His answer reflects not simply a perceived need to refocus on the main areas for which Defra retains responsibility, but a growing awareness among Governments in developed countries that a food system that has appeared to work well since the end of the Second World War may not continue to do so unless it, and the issues associated with it, receive urgent political attention.

4. In the light of the new interest in food policy, our inquiry focused on the challenges involved in securing food supplies up to 2050 and how Defra should respond to them. We concentrated on the political aspects of securing food supplies. During 2008, we held several informal meetings with experts to help us to refine the inquiry's terms of reference. These terms of reference are set out in Appendix 1. We launched the inquiry on 11 December 2008 with an open discussion at Borough Market in London. The security of food supplies affects everyone and we were keen to hear from not only the key players in the food and farming industries, but members of the public who might not otherwise think of contributing to a Select Committee inquiry. We received 79 written submissions. We held eight oral evidence sessions, between January and May 2009, during which we heard from some of these contributors in more detail. The Chairman attended the conference on "World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy", held by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome in June 2008. The Committee visited Rothamsted Research, the John Innes Centre, the Centre for Food Policy, and Syngenta's Jealott's Hill International Research Centre. We also travelled to Brasilia and Sao Paulo in Brazil. We are most grateful to all who took part in, and assisted with, our inquiry.

5. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, we are responsible for overseeing the work of Defra. This means that our primary focus is the UK food system. However, given that the UK food system operates within the global system, there will be times when our comments touch on the responsibilities of the Department for International Development (Dfid).

6. We deliberately avoided the term "food security" in the title of our inquiry, because it has different meanings for different people. The nearest to a standard definition is that given by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in its 1996 World Food Summit Plan of Action: "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."[4] However, for some, food security is a term primarily associated with developing countries and for others it is synonymous with self-sufficiency. In 2001, a glossary of terms issued to journalists by the World Trade Organisation defined food security, somewhat prejudicially, as a: "Concept which discourages opening the domestic market to foreign agricultural products on the principle that a country must be as self-sufficient as possible for its basic dietary needs."[5] Defra's written evidence states that the Government's definition of food security is "for people to have access at all times to sufficient, safe, sustainable and nutritious food, at affordable prices, so as to help ensure an active and healthy life."[6] We are broadly satisfied with this definition, although "fair prices" as opposed to "affordable prices" would encompass the idea that, not only should the consumer be able to afford the food, but those who produced it should be able to make a profit. Professor Robert Watson, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, described the need to make food both affordable to consumers and profitable to farmers as a "twin challenge" that warranted further attention.[7]

7. The subtitle of our inquiry is "the challenges for the UK". Food and farming are devolved matters and thus Defra's responsibility for food policy extends only to England. However, we decided that to restrict our inquiry to England would be to create a false distinction. The devolved Administrations and Defra need to act in unison on food policy and provide a coherent strategy for the UK as a whole, not least so that the UK can act as a powerful example in Europe and on the wider world stage. Although our recommendations are aimed principally at Defra, we intend them to be relevant to policymakers in the devolved Administrations, as well.

Food prices

8. The reason for the sudden interest in food on the part of Governments across the world is clear: global food prices have increased substantially in recent years. According to the World Bank, global wheat prices increased by 181% over the three years up to February 2008, and overall global food prices increased by 83% over the same period.[8] A report by Chatham House, Rising Food Prices: Drivers and Implications for Development, published in April 2008, stated that, although high prices were not uncommon in agricultural markets, "the unusual feature of the current situation is that the price spike applies to almost all major food and feed commodities, rather than just a few of them".[9] It noted that the price of corn was at its highest level in 11 years, rice and soya their highest level in 34 years, and wheat its highest level ever. All of this followed on from a period between 1974 and 2005 when food prices fell in real terms.

9. Escalating food prices were blamed for violent protests in Egypt, Haiti, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon, and demonstrations in Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia and Indonesia.[10] Some countries, including Argentina, imposed export restrictions. Rising food prices also affected people in the UK, albeit less dramatically. A report for the Soil Association by the Centre for Food Policy at City University noted that consumer prices index data published in August 2008 showed food inflation to be running at an annual rate of 13.7%. Prices for oils and fats rose by 29% in the year to July 2008, meat by 16.3%, bread and cereals by 15.9%, vegetables by 11.1% and fruit by 10.7%.[11]

10. Professor Watson, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, outlined six factors that contributed to the increase in food prices:

  • poor harvests, especially in the US and Australia;
  • the use of food crops for biofuels, especially maize in the US, where one-third of last year's crop was used for biofuels;
  • rising energy prices, which resulted in high prices for fertilisers and fuel;
  • changes in the amount and type of demand (for example, demand from China for more meat);
  • export bans; and
  • speculation.[12]

Chatham House's Rising Food Prices concluded that "the jury is still out on whether recent food price rises will be sustained or not."[13] More than a year later, it is still unclear how the situation will develop in the long term. In May 2009, the BBC noted that there was evidence of falling food prices in international commodity markets, but that prices were still high compared with their pre-2007 levels.[14] The FAO food commodity price indices show that, with the exception of sugar, the prices for all the main commodities it monitors—oils and fats, dairy, cereals, and meat—were lower in May 2009 than in May 2008. The FAO food price indices also show that, overall, food prices have been lower in the first four months of 2009 than they were the previous year. However, they also show that prices are still considerably higher than in 2005 and 2006.[15]

11. In late October 2008, Sion Roberts, the Chief Executive of English Farming and Food Partnerships, commented: "Food price inflation is going to fall very fast, but higher and more volatile food prices are here to stay and managing risk within the food chain is going to remain a key priority."[16] Another report by Chatham House, The Feeding of the Nine Billion: Global Food Security for the 21st Century, published in January 2009, stated that "the potential impact of long-term resource scarcity trends, notably climate change, energy security, and falling water availability" meant that in the medium and longer term food prices were "poised to rise again"[17] and in sub-Saharan Africa, local food prices have increased even as global commodities prices have fallen.[18] Predicting future trends in food prices is not within the scope of our inquiry. What is clear, however, is that falling prices must not be regarded as a sign that Governments can withdraw their attention from food again. Addressing the consequences of the increase in food prices over 2007 and 2008 is a challenge, but it is by no means the whole challenge. The increases were symptomatic of a much greater underlying problem.

The projections made at the FAO food security conference

12. At the height of the price increases, in June 2008, the FAO held a conference in Rome on "World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy". At the conference, representatives from 181 countries agreed a declaration on world food security. As well as including immediate measures to assist the developing countries that had been most severely affected by high food prices, the declaration pledged the signatories to "embrace food security as a matter of permanent national policy" and set out a number of medium and longer-term measures that were intended to address concerns about future food supplies.[19]

13. Two projections that were voiced at the conference attracted particular attention and have become, as Hilary Benn put it, "the accepted figures that everybody repeats".[20] First, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, announced that food production needed to increase by 50% by 2030 to meet rising demand. Then, the Director-General of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, stated that food production needed to double by 2050 to feed a world population of 9 billion.[21] These are startling figures and it is easy to see why they have quickly been adopted as the context for debates about the global food system in the decades ahead. We used the figures as a framework when developing the terms of reference for our inquiry. However, as the inquiry progressed, we became more curious about the basis for the projections and the extent to which they were a useful reference for shaping policy.

14. Ban Ki-moon and Jacques Diouf clearly did not pluck the figures out of thin air. The projections seem to have been drawn principally from two reports: the International Food Policy Research Institute's Future Scenarios for Agriculture: Plausible Futures to 2030 and Key Trends in Agricultural Growth (the source for the 50% by 2030 projection) and the FAO's World Agriculture: Towards 2030/2050 (the source for the doubling by 2050 projection).[22] Both reports were published in 2006. Future Scenarios for Agriculture fed into the World Bank's World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development.

15. What is immediately apparent from the reports, but easily forgotten when focusing on the sound bites, is the number of assumptions and uncertainties involved in the projections. In Agriculture for Development, the World Bank prefaced its discussion of the figures by sounding a cautionary note: "Projections of global future food supply and demand are always subject to wide margins of error". It commented that the projections made by both the FAO and the International Food Policy Research Institute assumed no major changes in policies and added: "Projections of the impact of climate change and energy prices are especially difficult given current uncertainties".[23]

16. When we asked the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) whether they accepted the two projections as valid estimates of the sort of increases in food production that would be needed, they were cautiously supportive. Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, the President of the CLA, said:

    I suppose we have not had any information to the contrary. The Government's own Chief Scientist and Professor Bob Watson, the Chief Scientific Adviser to Defra, are both saying the same thing and the evidence from other sources and what you read in the papers does seem to be fairly unanimous […].[24]

17. Natural England was more sceptical about the projections. Echoing the World Bank's reservations, it commented that the future is inherently uncertain, so the projections are "only of some value".[25] It did acknowledge that "in the long-term global food production is likely to need to increase", but when pressed on this somewhat vague statement, Andrew Wood, Natural England's Executive Director for Evidence and Policy, cited a number of reasons why there were "some doubts" about the extent of the increase. He commented: first that population growth projections were themselves only projections, secondly that there was no way of proving whether people in India and China would switch to increasingly western patterns of food consumption, and thirdly that if the substantial number of overweight and obese people in the world followed the World Health Organisation's healthy eating guidelines, their food consumption would fall.[26]

18. Andrew Wood's qualifications are interesting because they indicate that there is more than one way to respond to the projections made at the FAO World Food Security conference. The Soil Association, which described the conclusion that the world needs to double food production by 2050 as "too narrowly focused", made a similar point about diet: "Globally more than sufficient calories are produced—whilst nearly 1 billion people are malnourished in the South; 2 billion are clinically overweight in the North."[27] In a sense, the link is misleading: there is no simple connection between reducing obesity in the northern hemisphere and addressing the problem of malnourishment in the southern hemisphere, as Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, agreed.[28] However, encouraging people to eat a balanced diet has a part to play in ensuring that the world makes the best use of its resources.

19. Population growth is also capable of being influenced. People tend to talk of doubling food production by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion as if a population of 9 billion were inevitable. However, the UN—the source for the 9 billion figure—makes it clear that this figure reflects assumptions about increased life expectancy and "is contingent on ensuring that fertility continues to decline in developing countries", which itself is dependent on expanding access to family planning. The UN notes that, if fertility were to remain constant at the levels estimated for 2000 to 2005, the population of the less developed regions of the world would increase by an additional 2.7 billion, taking the world's population to 11.7 billion by 2050.[29] It is therefore important that attention remains focused on limiting population growth, as much as on increasing food production. A population of 9 billion by 2050 is certainly not inevitable: without action, the figure could be much greater; with it, it could even be lower.

20. Andrew Wood's comments touch on another drawback of the projections: when talking about doubling food production by 2050, it is easy to start thinking in terms of a doubling of demand across the world, whereas, as his remarks about India and China emphasise, what is actually being projected is a large increase in demand for particular commodities, in certain places in the world, and very little increase in demand in other places. The UN's population projections further underline this point: the population of less developed countries is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050, whereas the population of more developed countries is expected to remain largely constant at 1.2 billion.[30] What is required, in other words, is not simply a doubling of production across the world, but an increase in the production of particular commodities to meet demand in particular parts of the world.

21. Defra's written submission took the 2030 and 2050 projections at face value, unlike several other submissions, such as that from the farming organisation FARM, which reminded us of the "inherent dangers" of simply accepting these figures.[31] However, in oral evidence, Hilary Benn was more sceptical. He described the projections as "a guide to what we are seeking to do," but added "I do not think we should get hung up on the precise figures". He commented that the projections made "certain assumptions" and that "there are other things that you could do to help deal with the problem", although he gave the example of reducing post-harvest losses, rather than influencing population growth or diet.[32] Post-harvest losses can be due to poor infrastructure, such as transport systems, or to poor food storage. Reducing food waste is also vital in this context. Defra noted that, in the UK, "consumers throw away an estimated 30% of the food they buy, half of which is edible."[33] In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has already begun the "Love Food, Hate Waste" campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste. The issue is also about reducing waste in the food chain, for example by making as much use of the carcase of an animal as possible—a point that we made in our report on The English Pig Industry.[34]

22. At the World Food Security Conference in Rome, it was announced that there was a need to increase food production by 50% by 2030 and double it by 2050. These figures are based on assumptions about population growth and patterns of consumption. It is important to bear in mind that they 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 stage of the food chain, and the need for policy responses in these areas.

23. Even the most sceptical of our witnesses acknowledged that food production would have to increase over the next 40 years and we agree. However, more work is needed on future patterns of consumption. Doubling production by 2050 may focus the minds of policymakers, but, by itself, it is too broad a projection on which to base a response. We recommend that the Foresight Project on Global Food and Farming Futures, which is due to report in October 2010, provide a clear and accessible breakdown of this projection, encompassing where and at what rate the population increases are likely to take place, and how demand is likely to change. It should indicate the implications of these factors for world production of different food commodities. Defra should determine how it will monitor global food production and demand trends in order further to refine the projections in the future.


24. Concerns about whether food production will be able to keep pace with population growth are not new. The World Bank commented that, at the time of its previous World Development Report on agriculture, in 1982, "a big question […] was whether agriculture would be able to provide enough food for the world's growing population".[35] However, from the perspective of 2007, it went on to state that agriculture's performance since 1982 had been "impressive": from 1980 to 2004, the GDP of agriculture expanded globally by an average of 2% a year, whereas the world's population expanded at a rate of 1.6% a year.[36] This does not, of course, mean that everyone in the world had enough to eat, but this was because of a lack of access and affordability, not a lack of production.

25. Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, commented that global agricultural production had climbed well above the rate of population growth in the past four decades. He stated: "Global production has more than doubled in the past 40 years, despite only an 8% increase in the use of land for agriculture since the 1960s. Dramatic improvements have been achieved in both developed and developing countries."[37] He illustrated his point with the following graph:

Chart 1

26. Since the availability of food has kept pace with the growth in the world's population over the past 40 years, it seems reasonable to ask what is different this time. Anastassios Haniotis, the Head of Unit for Agricultural Policy Analysis and Perspectives at the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, at the European Commission, commented:

    Roughly whether we increase by 50% by 2030 or 100% by 2050 it implies an annual rate of growth in production in the range of 1.5 to 1.6%. This is more or less what we have done in the last 50 years but that does not imply that we have to do it in the same way as happened in the past.[38]

Growing awareness of the risks posed by climate change and increasingly scarce resources mean that production cannot continue to increase using the same approach as in the past. The CLA commented: "the world faces an unprecedented double challenge of meeting a huge growth in food demand whilst respecting far higher environmental standards than in the 20th Century."[39] A report by the Centre for Food Policy at City University, Towards a National Sustainable Food Security Policy, noted that the "production increases of the last half century have been achieved at considerable ecological cost and only with heavy use of energy and oil inputs".[40] Such methods of production are not sustainable.

27. Rothamsted Research commented that "a better and more widely accepted definition of what is meant by sustainability when it comes to food production" could be helpful.[41] Dr Wayne Martindale referred to the Brundtland definition of sustainability, which he characterised as "leaving resources to our next generations in a fit state".[42] In 1987, the Brundtland Commission, otherwise known as the World Commission on Environment and Development, produced what is still one of the most widely accepted definitions of sustainable development, describing it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".[43] Using the Brundtland definition makes it clear that any method of food production that does have a negative impact on the ability of future generations to secure their own food supplies is merely creating the short-term illusion of security. Genuine food security cannot exist without sustainability.

28. Producing food sustainably involves addressing a number of environmental and resource challenges, which Chatham House summarised as follows:

  • the need radically to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the food system;
  • the need to reduce the end-to-end dependency of the food chain on fossil fuels (given climate change and expectations of higher energy costs in the decades ahead), and
  • the need to address the depletion of the natural resources and ecosystem services on which food production depends (for example, soil and water).[44]

We will explore these challenges in more detail later, but it is worth noting at this point that climate change means that it will be necessary to address them in a world that is incrementally changing—in terms of average temperatures and the frequency of extreme weather events. This adds another layer of complexity to what is already a huge task.

29. Some of the submissions equated sustainability with what Leicestershire Food Links described as "a more traditional […] way of farming".[45] The John Innes Centre, however, favoured a range of approaches: "An approach based on greater integration of standard, organic and alternative types of farming should result in more sustainable practices."[46] The Soil Association argued strongly for the sustainability of organic farming, but Monty Don, the Soil Association's President, readily acknowledged that other farming methods might also have something to offer:

    Quite frankly, in times of crisis you do what is best and if there are some people doing superb things that are not organic, then let them get on with it. All we can do is to try and inform and encourage people to use organics to its maximum potential; that is key.[47]

We agree that sustainability is not the preserve of any one method of farming.

30. The Soil Association commented that a "healthier, low-carbon diet […] could be delivered through a wholesale shift to organic farming and in sufficient quantities to feed the UK population according to independent research by the University of Reading".[48] The research in question is a report by the Centre for Agricultural Strategy at the University of Reading, entitled England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced?. This report is described as "a first step at looking at what food we would produce if England and Wales switched to organic farming".[49] The scenario it envisages involves chicken, egg and pork production falling to roughly a quarter of current levels, and more wheat and barley being used for human consumption.[50] There is little discussion of how an all-organic system would respond to a serious pest or disease outbreak. When we put this point to the Soil Association, they told us that an organic system would involve less risk of crop failure because it is "a healthier system".[51] We do not believe that there should be a wholesale shift to organic farming, not least because, as the Soil Association acknowledged, non-organic techniques also have something to offer when addressing the challenge of securing food supplies sustainably. However, organic farming clearly has a role to play, particularly, as Defra noted, in reducing reliance on inputs and making good use of natural resources.[52] The UK's organic expertise could also be useful in securing food supplies in developing countries.

31. Producing sufficient food is only part of the challenge the world faces, the implications of the way in which it is produced are equally important. The only acceptable form of food production is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Applying this principle to food production requires a fundamental shift in thinking and an open-minded approach to embracing solutions from across the spectrum of production methods.

1   Q 244 [Ms Leech] Back

2   As above. Back

3   Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 5 November 2008, HC (2007-08) 1178-I, Q 1 Back

4 Back

5 Back

6   Ev 210 Back

7   Q 534 Back

8   World Bank press release, "Rising Food Prices Threaten Poverty Reduction", 9 April 2008. Back

9   Alex Evans for Chatham House, Rising Food Prices: Drivers and Implications for Development, April 2008, p 2 Back

10   "Food price rises threaten global security-UN", The Guardian, 9 April 2008  Back

11   David Barling, Rosalind Sharpe, Tim Lang, Rethinking Britain's Food Security: a research report for the Soil Association, November 2008, p 6 Back

12   Q 534 Back

13   Rising Food Prices, p 4 Back

14   "Food prices vary but crisis remains", BBC News Online, 15 May 2009, Back

15 Back

16   "Food price inflation predicted to fall dramatically over next two years", Farmers Weekly Interactive, 29 October 2008, Back

17   Alex Evans, The Feeding of the Nine Billion: Global Food Security for the 21st Century, January 2009, p 6 Back

18   "Poor still hit by high food prices, say UN", Financial Times , 19 March 2009 Back

19   For a list of the measures and the text of the declaration, please see Back

20   Q 524 Back

21   The text of both these speeches is available on the FAO's website. Back

22   These were cited as the principal sources in e-mail correspondence between the Committee and the Department for International Development.  Back

23   The World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture and Development, 2007, p 61 Back

24   Q 299 [Mr Aubrey-Fletcher] Back

25   Ev 144 Back

26   Q 344 Back

27   Ev 169 Back

28   Q 422 Back

29   United Nations Press Release, "World population will increase by 2.5 billion by 2050", Back

30   United Nations Press Release, "World population will increase by 2.5 billion by 2050", Back

31   Ev 374 Back

32   Qq 524-25 Back

33   Ev 211 Back

34   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's First Report of Session 2008-09, The English Pig Industry, HC 96 Back

35   Agriculture for Development, p 50 Back

36   Agriculture for Development, p 50 Back

37   Ev 21 Back

38   Q 478 Back

39   Ev 119 Back

40   David Barling, Rosalind Sharpe and Tim Lang, Towards a National Sustainable Food Security Policy, November 2008, p 8 Back

41   Ev 61 Back

42   Ev 401 Back

43   Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, March 1987. Available online at  Back

44   Ev 44 Back

45   Ev 372 Back

46   Ev 355 Back

47   Q 433 Back

48   Ev 169 Back

49   University of Reading, England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced?, October 2008, p 2 Back

50   England and Wales under organic agriculture, p 3 Back

51   Q 435 ff. Back

52   Ev 235 Back

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