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


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."[118] 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."[119] 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 NGOs."[120] Representing the manufacturing sector, the Food and Drink Federation commented that Defra should provide "strategic leadership and clear prioritization of sometimes competing policy priorities".[121]

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".[122] It commented:

    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.[123]

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 global level".[124] 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.[125] 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."[126] 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.[127]

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.[128] 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 in Europe".[129] 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 strange.'"[130] 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 answers".[131] 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 landscape. [132]

The emphasis of this statement is subtly but significantly different from a similar statement in Defra's July 2008 discussion paper:

    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.[133]

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".[134]

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".[135] 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".[136] 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".[137] 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".[138]

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.


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.[139]

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".[140] 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".[141] 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.[142] We were told that the results of this work were likely to be published "around the same time" as the vision and strategy for food—in autumn 2009.[143] 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 food policy

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.[144] 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.[145]

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".[146]

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."[147] When we asked Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Executive Director at Tesco, to what extent Tesco—the world's third largest food retailer—felt involved in the new groups the Government had set up to consider food policy, she repeated several times that it was "early days".[148] This 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.[149] 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.[150]

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."[151] 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, information—if 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

119   Ev 428  Back

120   Ev 451 Back

121   Ev 99 Back

122   Ev 119 Back

123   As above. Back

124   European Parliament resolution, The Common Agricultural Policy and Global Food Security, December 2008, para 1 Back

125   "Fischler urges EU to raise food output", Agra Europe, 20 March 2009 Back

126   Q 475 Back

127   Q 486 Back

128   "MEPs vote to ban key pesticides", Farm Brief, 15 January 2009 Back

129   Ev 208 Back

130   Q 80 Back

131   Defra, Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, July 2008, p 1 Back

132 Back

133   Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, p 28 Back

134   Q 9 Back

135   Food Matters, p iii Back

136   Q 301 Back

137   Q 534 Back

138   Q 535 Back

139   Q 250 Back

140   Ev 45 Back

141   Q 530 Back

142   Q 531 Back

143   Q 530 Back

144   Food Matters, p 112 Back

145   Ev 379 Back

146 Back

147   Ev 379 Back

148   Q 235 Back

149   Ev 251 Back

150   Ev 431 Back

151   Ev 238 Back

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