3 DEFRA'S VISION FOR FOOD
The role of Defra
75. A number of the submissions, particularly from
the retailing and manufacturing sectors, made it clear that it
was the role of Defra to articulate the UK's approach to securing
food supplies in the long term. Waitrose stated that the challenges
for the Government and for Defra began with "the need to
provide better strategic clarity." It commented: "While
the tone of the government's rhetoric has certainly become more
focused on the challenge of food production in the last year [
it is yet to translate into crystal clear leadership in key areas."
Other food retailers also called for greater leadership from Defra.
They focused in particular on Defra's co-ordinating role within
and beyond Government. Sainsbury's stated: "DEFRA needs to
show greater leadership on food and centralise policy within Government."
The Co-operative Group, which in addition to operating food stores
is the largest commercial farmer in the UK, urged Defra to "adopt
a leadership role in closer working with both the Food Standards
Agency, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and external
organisations such as trade bodies, consumer organisations and
the manufacturing sector, the Food and Drink Federation commented
that Defra should provide "strategic leadership and clear
prioritization of sometimes competing policy priorities".
76. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA)
expressed a slightly different point of view. It commented that
there was "still a gross under-estimation in Government about
the scope and role of policy [
] to address this area."
However, it also stated that "all the major policy levers
affecting food security in this country are decided at EU level".
We refer to the Common Agricultural Policy, the
EU Common External Tariff (i.e. trade policy) and the fact that
nearly all environmental policy affecting land use is based on
EU directives. In addition the, admirably named, budget heading
2 of the EU Budget, entitled the 'Protection and Management of
Natural Resources', provides the principal public financial support
for the policies which shape our food and environmental security.
We discuss the Common Agricultural Policy in chapter
4, but the CLA's comments raise the question of whether the UK
should have its own policy on securing food supplies at all, or
whether it should simply contribute to an EU strategy.
77. There are signs of the EU's increasing interest
in the security of food supplies. In January 2009, the European
Parliament adopted a resolution on The Common Agricultural
Policy and Global Food Security, which described "global
food security" as "a question of the utmost urgency
for the European Union" and called for "immediate and
continual action to ensure food security for EU citizens and at
In May 2009, Franz Fischler, the former EU Agriculture Commissioner,
declared that the EU must increase its food production, because
even a big improvement in agriculture in developing countries
would not be enough to feed the future world population.
However, the growing interest in the security of food supplies
certainly does not mean that everyone in Europe is agreed on a
way forward. Anastassios Haniotis, from the European Commission,
told us: "We [the European Union] have a very diversified
mix of agricultural products and we do not have any issues of
food security in terms of lack of food; we do not have it today
and we do not expect to have it in the future."
It was clear from the rest of his evidence that the Commission
had been examining the issue of the security of food supplies
very carefully, but his remark suggests that the Commission and
the European Parliament may have rather different perspectives
on the urgency of the situation and the extent to which food security
affects Europe directly.
78. While agreeing that some aspects of food policy
were decided at an EU level, Anastassios Hanitotis saw a role
for member states in developing their own food policies:
How exactly the food sector in each Member State
evolves and develops is mainly an issue of national policies or
mixed competence, but when it comes to food safety and when it
comes to trade we do have the framework of a common policy.
As we have already discussed, the majority of the
UK's imports come from EU countries and the Common Agricultural
Policy and EU directives influence the shape of the UK food system.
Defra's approach to the security of food supplies must take
place in the context of the European Union. However, we believe
that there is still scope for Defra to develop its own food policy
and that the clearer this policy and the stronger Defra's leadership,
the more chance the UK has of shaping the direction of any emerging
EU policy on this issue.
79. A recent example of the UK's failure to take
European policy in the direction it wanted is the new EU legislation
on the use of pesticides. The new rules introduce hazard-based,
rather than risk-based, criteria for assessing the safety of pesticides.
According to an impact assessment by the UK Pesticide Safety Directorate,
up to 23% of all sprays could be banned.
The European Commission stated that the new criteria might lead
to the withdrawal of "a limited number of active substances",
but "would not impose serious restrictions on food production
Professor Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser,
commented that banning or reducing the use of pesticides because
they are hazards, rather than doing a proper risk assessment,
was not an evidence-based policy and was an abrogation of scientific
responsibility. He also said that he had found it difficult to
engage in a discussion of the subject with other member states:
"When the pesticide regulation [
] was starting to be
discussed, Defra were obviously engaged, but there was no equivalent
that I could talk to in member countries to say, 'This looks very
It is beyond the scope of this inquiry to assess the impact
of the new EU pesticides legislation on the security of food supplies.
However, we note with concern that the Government's Chief Scientific
Adviser does not believe that it is an evidence-based policy.
Defra should press for the EU to agree that future changes of
this nature must not be approved by the Council of Ministers or
the European Parliament until a full evidence-based evaluation
of the proposals has been undertaken.
Defra's progress so far
80. It would be easy to assume that Defra has not
done a very good job of providing clarity and leadership on food
policy so far. This is a fair conclusion up to a point. Defra's
2006 report, Food Security and the UK: An Evidence and Analysis
Paper, which we discussed in chapter 2, was followed in July
2008 by a "discussion paper" entitled Ensuring the
UK's Food Security in a Changing World. The world had already
changed quite a lot between 2006 and 2008, and Defra's discussion
paper is different in tone from its earlier report. Published
at the height of the rise in food prices, the paper is less dismissive
of the need to consider UK production than the 2006 report. However,
it gives little sense of an overall change in approach to securing
food supplies. Defra comments that Ensuring the UK's Food Security
is a consultation document and "so it does not have all the
We accept this, but before long Defra will have to start supplying
at least some of the answers.
81. At the same time as Defra published Ensuring
the UK's Food Security, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit published
Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century.
In September 2007, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, commissioned
the Strategy Unit to examine the Government's approach to food
policy. Food Matters summarised the project's conclusions.
It ended with an action plan, which set out which Departments
were responsible for putting its recommendations into practice
and the expected timescale for delivery. Among other responsibilities,
Defra is given the lead for delivering a vision and strategy for
food, with a target completion date of October 2009.
82. Since July 2008, there have been several opportunities
to get some sense of what might be in Defra's vision and strategy
for food. One of these was Hilary Benn's speech at the Oxford
farming conference, in January 2009. He commented:
The best way for the UK to ensure its food security
in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable
British agriculture, and trading freely with other nations. And
just so there is no doubt about this at all, let me say the following.
I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible.
No ifs. No buts. And the only requirements should be, first, that
consumers want what is produced and, second, that the way our
food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our
The emphasis of this statement is subtly but significantly
different from a similar statement in Defra's July 2008 discussion
One of the most important contributions the UK
can make to global, and our own, food security is having a thriving
and productive agriculture sector in the UK, operating in a global
market and responding to what consumers want.
Hilary Benn's comments, with their focus on British
agriculture producing as much food as possible, and on sustainability,
seem to be moving closer to the approach to securing food supplies
that we advocated in chapter 2. However, Professor Lang commented
that, although Hilary Benn's speech was to be welcomed to some
extent, "it was merely a speech; it was not co-ordinated
policy driven by Defra to encourage the big corporate powerhouses,
the supermarkets, the buyers to take the long-term investment
to encourage farmers and growers to plan".
83. The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit's Food Matters
report set out what it considered should be the Government's
future strategic policy objectives for food: "to secure:
fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through
open and competitive markets; continuous improvement in the safety
of food; a further transition to healthier diets; and a more environmentally
sustainable food chain".
Domestic production is not mentioned at all in these policy objectives.
If Defra is going to adopt as policy the approach outlined in
the quote from Hilary Benn's Oxford farming conference speech,
as we believe it should, it must consider modifying these strategic
policy objectives to reflect the importance of UK food production.
84. Defra's task in providing a vision and strategy
for food is complicated by the fact that it needs to act fast,
but also to offer a long-term vision that reaches beyond the short-term
political cycle. Governments, of all political persuasions, want
to be re-elected. The interval between general elections is a
maximum of five years. Securing food supplies is not about implementing
a policy that will last for five years: it is about providing
clear direction for the next 40 or 50 years, and some of the decisions
that have to be taken may not be popular in the short term. As
Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, the President of the CLA, put it: "there
are no votes in long-term work on food and environmental security".
When we put this point to Hilary Benn, he replied: "The more
that we can build a consensus, frankly, about what needs to be
done, the better chance the ebb and flow of the political cycle
will not get in the way of carrying on with it afterwards".
We agree that there needs to be cross-party consensus on the approach
to securing food supplies. Climate change policy provides an example
of what can be achieved in this context. We were pleased to hear
Hilary Benn's assurance that Defra was working with the devolved
Administrations to achieve a "shared view of what a sustainable
and secure food system is going to look like".
85. The vision and strategy for food, for which
Defra was assigned responsibility in the Cabinet Office's Food
Matters report, must provide a long-term framework for the
UK food and farming industries. It should commit the UK to increasing
production of those commodities which are best suited to being
produced here, provided that this can be done in a sustainable
way. Defra must recognise that calling for more domestic food
production is one thing, but it cannot order that this be done.
It must, however, lay out clearly what role it has in helping
the UK food and farming industries to achieve this objective.
The vision and strategy cannot be expected to supply all the answers,
but it must supply clear direction and indicate what further work
is needed and the deadline for its completion. Cross-party consensus
on the vision and strategy is essential.
ASSESSING THE RISKS
86. Melanie Leech, the President of the Food and
Drink Federation, commented:
We are very good as an industry and as a food
chain at managing known risk and short-term interruptions in supply
as they occur. That is because we have invested a lot in being
able to do that. I guess that what keeps a lot of my members awake
at night and is much harder to plan for is the unknown risk. For
some things we just do not know what the scenario will be.
Chatham House stated that one of the roles Defra
could play to help secure a thriving UK food system would be to
"provide a coherent risk management framework through which
the short, medium and long term risks to food security can be
monitored and managed".
Hilary Benn told us that Defra is already undertaking "a
very detailed piece of work looking at all of the potential threats
to food security here in the UK, understanding their nature and
what we can do about them".
He made it clear that this work covered all aspects of the food
supply chain and all sorts of risk, including climate change,
as well as short-term disruptions to the logistics of the supply
chain, such as problems with fuel supply or the closure of ports.
We were told that the results of this work were likely to be published
"around the same time" as the vision and strategy for
foodin autumn 2009.
We welcome the fact that Defra is undertaking a comprehensive
assessment of the risks to the security of the UK's food supplies.
This work should be used as the basis for monitoring and managing
risks, and should be regularly updated. Together with the vision
and strategy for food, it should inform food policy decisions
across all departments. It should also be used as a basis for
contingency planning. The European Commission should undertake
its own assessment of the risks to the security of food supplies
in the EU.
The structure for delivering
87. The past year has seen the creation of several
new groups for developing and delivering food policy. In July
2008, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit's Food Matters report announced
the creation of a Food Strategy Task Force to bring together senior
officials from Defra, the then Department for Business, Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform, the Treasury, the Department of Health,
the Department for International Development, the Department for
Children, Schools and Families, and the Food Standards Agency.
The Task Force is intended to oversee and co-ordinate work on
food issues across Government.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) commented that, although
the Task Force was still in its infancy, the BRC had "yet
to see any positive outcomes" from it.
88. The BRC also mentioned the Cabinet Sub-Committee
on Food. The Sub-Committee, which was established in autumn 2008,
is chaired by Hilary Benn and is composed of the Secretaries of
State from all the main departments whose work touches on food
policy, including Communities and Local Government; Transport;
and Children, Schools and Families. The Secretaries of State for
Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are also members. The Sub-Committee's
terms of reference are: "To consider issues relating to food
and to report as necessary to the Committee on Domestic Affairs".
89. The BRC said of the Task Force and the Sub-Committee:
"We feel these two groups should be capable of improving
the co-ordination and prioritisation of food policy but they would
benefit from input from the sector to identify problems and suggest
how the Government could lend practical support."
When we asked Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Executive Director at Tesco,
to what extent Tescothe world's third largest food retailerfelt
involved in the new groups the Government had set up to consider
food policy, she repeated several times that it was "early
response does not suggest that the food sector feels particularly
engaged so far. We believe that both the Food Strategy Task
Force and the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Food could benefit from
input from the food sector. They should set out how they intend
to involve members of the sector in their deliberations.
90. There is little publicly available information
about the work of either the Task Force or the Cabinet Sub-Committee.
In the case of the Sub-Committee this not surprising. Aside from
the membership and terms of reference, information about Cabinet
Committees is not routinely published and papers relating to Cabinet
Committees are often classified as restricted.
However, the lack of information makes it difficult to assess
the effectiveness of these groups.
91. In October 2008, the Government announced that
it was establishing a Council of Food Policy Advisers, to exist
for two years in the first instance, and to provide advice directly
to Hilary Benn. The Council has 16 members and so far has met
every month throughout 2009. Its priorities are: to identify what
a healthy sustainable diet is and how accessible and affordable
it is, and to establish how to communicate the benefits of a healthy
diet that has a low environmental impact.
92. Information about the work of the Council of
Food Policy Advisers is freely available. The Council has a page
on Defra's website, with comprehensive details of its monthly
discussions. Input from the food sector is not a problem in the
same way either, because several of the Council's members are
directly involved in the industry. However, this creates difficulties
of its own. Sainsbury's expressed some concerns about the Council
of Food Policy Advisers, commenting:
[G]iven that one of our main competitors is on
the Council, we will have to evaluate how we interact with the
group. DEFRA therefore needs to work out how it can encourage
stakeholder participation in overall strategic policy, while recognising
the competitive nature of the sector.
When we asked Defra about its engagement with stakeholders
more generally, it told us: "Officials are currently conducting
a review of relationships Defra has with its food sector stakeholders
and the channels through which we engage. We will revise our approach
in the light of this review."
Defra should use its review of its relationships with the food
sector to consider how it can encourage the wider food sector
to interact with the Council of Food Policy Advisers.
93. We extend a cautious welcome
to the new groups working on food policy. The composition of the
Food Strategy Task Force and the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Food
means that they have the potential to improve co-ordination across
Government. However, the Task Force and the Sub-Committee must
be used as a way of facilitating action, rather than a substitute
for it. To this end, as much information as possible about the
groups' decisions and the work resulting from them should be published
on the internet. The Government should make use of modern, IT-based
solutions as a way of engaging with consumers and the food and
farming industries. The Council of Food Policy Advisers is already
setting a good example. The Task Force should aim to publish more
information about its work and the Sub-Committee should consider
whether it can disclose any, even very basic, informationif
not about its work, then at least about any work set in train
as a result of its deliberations.
94. Defra's vision for the
UK food and farming industries is still being formulated. We are
encouraged by the signs that Defra has begun to recognise the
importance of UK production, as well as trade, in securing food
supplies. It is essential that it develops and articulates this
vision. Clear leadership from Defra is crucial to the security
of the UK's food supplies because it will encourage the food and
farming industries, and consumers, to respond in a co-ordinated
way to the challenges posed by a growing global population, climate
change, and increasingly scarce resources.
118 Ev 436 Back
Ev 428 Back
Ev 451 Back
Ev 99 Back
Ev 119 Back
As above. Back
European Parliament resolution, The Common Agricultural Policy
and Global Food Security, December 2008, para 1 Back
"Fischler urges EU to raise food output", Agra Europe,
20 March 2009 Back
Q 475 Back
Q 486 Back
"MEPs vote to ban key pesticides", Farm Brief,
15 January 2009 Back
Ev 208 Back
Q 80 Back
Defra, Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, July
2008, p 1 Back
Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, p 28 Back
Q 9 Back
Food Matters, p iii Back
Q 301 Back
Q 534 Back
Q 535 Back
Q 250 Back
Ev 45 Back
Q 530 Back
Q 531 Back
Q 530 Back
Food Matters, p 112 Back
Ev 379 Back
Ev 379 Back
Q 235 Back
Ev 251 Back
Ev 431 Back
Ev 238 Back