Memorandum submitted by The Soil Association
How robust is the current UK food system?
Superficiallyin reality, not "fit"
for future shocks & challenges.
Achieving agreed 80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions
and contending with depleting oil requires radical transformation
of UK farming and food systems.
Government has excessive, unfounded faith in "global
Dominant methods of food production, distribution
and retailing in the UK, and in countries from which UK imports
food: "not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained
UK and European soils are under stress
Healthy soil is the foundation of any Nation's true
food security. Humanity has forgotten this simple fact. Soil erosion
and degradation affect some 157 million hectares, 16% of
Lack of labour
Lower-carbon farming systems will require more people
working in food production.
Inconsistencies re: agriculture, health and climate
Public urged to eat more fruit and vegetables, yet
UK production declinedover 90% of fruit eaten here imported.
Public R&D misdirected
Government is failing to provide R&D funding
for the "agroecological approaches" and "the improved
techniques for organic and low-input systems" identified
by scientific consensus.
Foundations of a more resilient food and farming
system remain in place (just)
More localised food systems are key to enhancing
the resilience of the UK's food security, regenerating rural economies
and providing new routes to market for farmers.
Help consumers choose climate-friendly food
With 30% of individual's carbon foot-print coming
from their food, being able to choose "climate-friendly"
foodjust as they can fridges, washing machines, cars and
light-bulbsoffers an easy, everyday action for consumers.
A Food Plan for Britain needed
Lack of official strategic direction as to best mix
of food types and farming systems for delivering sustainable UK
1.0 The Soil Association congratulates the
Committee on choosing such a pertinent issue. The security and
sustainability of UK and global food production and farming have
been primary concerns of the Soil Association since its foundation
63 years ago.
1.1 We examined the current situation in our
report, An inconvenient truth about foodneither secure,
nor resilient, published November 2008 and already made
available to Committee members.
1.2 We are pleased to provide an updated
summary of our concerns, indicating possible policy measures and
practical solutions as appropriate.
How robust is the current UK food system?
2.0 Superficially: Supermarket shelves are
stacked high with a wide variety of foodstuffs and few people
go hungry. Quite the oppositewith 40% of Britons predicted
to be obese by 2025; 70% of girls and 55% of boys overweight or
obese by 2050.
2.1 Whilst global rises in food prices, with
consequent "food riots" over cost and scarcities, have
occurred in 14 countries, Defra does not appear concerned
that any of the underlying causes affect the long-term security
and sustainability of UK food supplies. The language is less dismissive
than a few years ago, but the Government's view remains broadly
because the UK is a developed
economy, we are able to access the food we need on the global
In the brief period since that statement was
published, the world has changed dramatically as global financial
markets have collapsed. There are strong indications that the
global food market, on which Government places so much reliance,
is no more stable.
2.2 The Soil Association shares the conclusions
drawn in the first version of the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit
analysis of food issues:
existing patterns of food production
are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future".
existing patterns of food consumption
will result in our society being loaded with a heavy burden of
obesity and diet-related ill health."
Those unequivocal statements were air-brushed
out of the final report. The Strategy Unit's original more critical
analysis of UK food security has not been a key policy influence.
2.3 The Department of Health urges the public
to eat more fruit and vegetablesyet indigenous fruit and
veg production has declinedwith over 90% of fruit eaten
here being imported. Enabling farmers to grow more of the food
types highlighted in national and WHO dietary guidelines would
improve people's health (see obesity stats above) and encourage
production of lower carbon food less, better-quality meat
from grass-fed beef and sheep; wider range of cereals for direct
human consumption; more root crops, fresh fruit and veg.
What are the current UK food system's main strengths
3.0 Most methods of food production, distribution
and retailing in the UK, and in countries upon which the UK relies
for imports of human food and feed for livestock production are
inherently unsustainableas the Strategy Unit concluded,
"not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future."
3.1 The Inquiry's terms of reference emphasise
sustainability as a key factor in food security, but do not sufficiently
set this in the overarching context of climate change and the
longer-term inevitability of scarcer, costlier oil. The Government
target of 80% cuts in UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, on
the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change, includes
nitrous oxide and methanefor which agriculture is the main
Nitrous oxide being the biggest portion:
The Scottish Executive calculated that artificial nitrogen fertilisers
made up 57% of Scotland's total nitrous oxide emissions, contributing
6.5-7% of the country's overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Manufacturing and delivering 1 tonne
of nitrogen fertiliser uses 1 tonne of oil, 108 tonnes
of water, giving off 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process.
Overall food and farming (excluding
soil carbon loss) make up c.18% of the UK's total greenhouse gas
European agriculture no different
3.2 Defra dismisses concerns over the UK's
dependence on imports for 40-50% of our food needs, on the basis
that 68% of these come from "low-risk, stable trading partners"
within the EU.
Yet food production across the developed world is predominantly
dependent on vast amounts of finite, fossil-fuel derived inputs:
Industrial food production uses 10 calories
of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food energy.
Food and drink make up 31% of the global
warming potential generated across all goods & product categories
in the EU.
3.3 "Decarbonising" agriculture
is key to our long-term food security. That requires reducing
reliance on fossil-fuel based, greenhouse-gas generating artificial
fertilisers and moving rapidly to modern rotational and mixed-farming
supported by the best science.
3.4 With one-third of each European citizen's
carbon footprint coming from what they choose to eat and drink,
helping consumers make easy, low-carbon food choices is crucialand
enabling farmers to produce such foodstuffs.
3.5 A life-cycle analysis in 2003 of
the Swedish food-chain from farm inputs through to home preparation
showed the best way to reduce the energy inputs and greenhouse
gas emissions embedded in people's food was to shift to a diet
of less meat and cheese, more in-season vegetables, locally produced
and fresh foods.
Loss of Labour, Lack of Skills
3.6 Lower-carbon farming systems will require
more rather than fewer people working in food production. An indication
of how many is offered by Cuba's experience. Following the collapse
of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it imports of Soviet
oil, fertilisers and pesticides, Cuba had to deploy some 15-24%
of its population into growing food.
3.7 The number of people working on the land
has been in decline since the Agricultural Revolutionalthough
40% of the population were still employed in farming in 1900;
falling to 15% by the start of World War Two. Today less than
2% work in agriculture.
3.8 Despite this exodus, the foundations
of a more resilient, stable food and farming system remain in
place (just)with some encouraging "green shoots of
Around 10,000 mixed-farms (organic
and non-organic) remain, providing the basis for more sustainable,
lower-carbon forms of farming relying on crop and livestock rotations
to build fertility, rather than oil and chemicals.
As the number of farms and farm labour
has declined, so has the infrastructure needed for more resilient,
localised food and farming economies. 1000 independent butchers,
greengrocers, bakers etc. closed every year during the 1990s and
the number of UK abattoirs fell from 3,000 at the end of
the Second World War to under 300 today. But the last decade
has seen some resurgence: over 550 farmers' markets provide
fresh, local, seasonal produce to consumers and enable farmers
to get more of the "Food £".
3.9 Employment figures for organic farming
offer a model for the likely labour requirements of a lower-carbon
farming system: Based on actual comparative, farm data, the University
of Essex found that organic farms provided 32% more jobs per farm
than equivalent non-organic farms. If all UK farming went organic
93,000 new jobs would be created, ten times the number of
jobs lost from the closure of rural post offices over the past
3.10 Against the trend of an aging farming
sector (average age of British farmer = 56), organic farmers are
seven years younger; a higher proportion are new-entrants, and
three-times as many are involved in direct or local marketing
than their non-organic counterparts.
How well placed is the UK to make the most of
its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing
global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by
2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?
4.0 The conclusion that we need to "double
food production by 2050" is too narrowly focused. The
world produces enough food to feed everyone on the planetWHO
states that 2200-2500 calories are needed per day to sustain
an individual in productive health. Globally more than sufficient
calories are producedwhilst nearly 1 billion people
are malnourished in the South; 2 billion are clinically overweight
in the North. The issue, the UN and the UK should address is not
simply the volume of food grown, but what types of food, destined
for what end uses?
One-third of the UK and global grain
harvest goes to feed animalsmainly as concentrates for
intensive livestock units. These are inefficient converters of
plant energy to meat for human consumption, taking 10 kilograms
of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef; 4-4.5 kilograms
for each kilo of pork.
70% of all EU livestock feed is imported,
underlining the inherent unsustainability of intensive meat productionand
its vulnerability should developing countries decide to grow food
to feed their own people rather than our livestock.
More morally questionable is the
diversion of grains to feed not humans, however indirectly, but
cars. In 2006, the US turned 20% of its corn harvest into biofuel,
taking millions of tons of maize (and wheat) off the world market.
4.1 On climate change, human health and
food security grounds, the UK would be better off if we reduced
our overall consumption of meat, relying more on extensively-grazed
livestock than those raised in intensive units, dependent on imported
4.2 The healthier, low-carbon diet as outlined
in paragraph 2.3 above 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
In particular, what are the challenges the UK
faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side
of the food system:
5.0 The UK and EU countries are not suffering
from soil degradation and erosion to the degree suffered in more
arid regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa or from salinity caused
by inappropriate farming techniques as in parts of China, the
former Soviet Union and Australia. The UN's Environment Programme
estimates half of the world's arable land will be "unusable"
by 2050 (reason to prioritise care of our own farmland).
But UK and European soils are under stress: erosion and degradation
affect 157 million hectares, 16% of Europe. The Environment
Agency estimated that 2.3 million tonnes of UK soil were
lost over 1995-8, mainly due to intensive farming practices.
5.1 A key indicator of soil quality is organic
matter levels. Over 30 years ago the "Strutt report"
concluded that, "some soils are now suffering from dangerously
low organic matter levels and could not be expected to sustain
the farming systems which have been imposed on them."
"Organic matter" means crop residues like straw, the
root masses of previous crops, naturally deposited and mechanically-spread
manures, as well as the myriad organisms from microbes to earthworms
that inhabit a healthy soilthe building blocks of healthy,
resilient soil structure and fertility. The most recent data from
the National Soil Inventory shows that organic matter levels have
continued to fall: in 1981 22% of our soils contained more
than 7% organic matter, by 1995 only 13% did.
5.2 Less organic matter means less carbon
storage. According to the National Soil Resources Institute, UK
soils are losing carbon "on an enormous scale",
around 13 million tonnes annuallyalmost as much as
from all other agricultural sources (14 million tons).
5.3 Healthy soil is the foundation of any
Nation's true food security. Soil husbandry needs to be made a
paramount priority, with farmers given incentives to increase
organic matter and the soil's capacity to store carbon. Good soil
management should be rewarded through the Single Farm Payment
6.0 Agriculture is the greatest user of
water globally, accounting for 70% of water use. Under climate
change, the UK is predicted to experience hotter, drier summers
with rainfall declining by up to 50% in the south and east of
the country by the 2080s; along with warmer, wetter winters, characterised
by sudden, heavy downpours. Parched, poorly structured soils are
less able to absorb and store water.
6.1 Countries suffering greater water-stress
than the UK will increasingly limit the quantity of "embedded"
water they are exporting along with cash crops. Around 12% of
the UK's fruit and vegetable imports come from Africa. Annual
imports of green beans alone bring in 189 million cubic metres
of virtual watereach bean stem taking four litres.
The marine environment
7.0 The UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation
estimate 75% of the world's fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited
or depleted. For the UK, it was estimated that half of the fish
landed in 2004 came from sources that were unsustainable
7.1 In response, fish-farming has become the
fastest growing animal-food producing sector, making up 30% of
fish consumed. Mainstream fish-farming relies on fishmeal made
from small, wild fishnot eaten by humans, but the food
source for myriad marine species. Apart from impacts on wildlife,
fishmeal conversion rates to human-edible fish protein are poorgenerally
3-5kg of wild fish to each kilogram of farmed fish produced. Scotland's
farmed salmon harvest of 130,000 tonnes in 2001 was
produced from 400,000 tonnes of wild-sourced fishmeal.
7.2 Healthy eating guidelines recommend
one portion of oily fish weeklybut eating fish in moderation,
closer to a serving of oily fish every three weeks would be more
sustainable. There is good evidence that milk from organically-raised,
grass and clover grazed cows produces significant levels of the
key nutrients found in oily fish (omega-3 fatty acids).
More research is needed to verify and develop such land-based
substitutes, as well as increasing the amount of fishmeal produced
from crop plants.
The science base
8.0 Government is failing to provide sufficient
research funding for the "agroecological approaches"
and "the improved techniques for organic and low-input systems"
that the consensus of international scientists say are needed
to curb climate change and deliver food security globally.
8.1 Defra's overall spending on R&D related
to organic farming was a mere £1.6 million between 2006 and
2007. Available evidence shows public spending on straight organic
farming research has been about £2.2 million per year
over 1997 to 2006. In contrast, public spending by the Government
on agricultural biotechnology research was at least £49 million
between 2006 and 2007 and £50 million between
2005 and 2006. This doesn't include spending via individual
grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research
Council), for which data is not available.
8.2 This bias in the direction of publicly
funded research contradicts public preferences as to the food
they want to eat. In 2004, when the Government officially asked
the public, 86 % said they would not be happy to eat GM foods.
By contrast, sales of organic produce rose by 22 % last year.
Unlike organic crops, no GM crops are grown commercially in the
8.3 Public research funding should be redirected
Developing modern, mixed-farming
Decarbonising the food system.
Delivering and increasing fertility
Improving understanding of and productivity
from the use of rotations.
Placing soil science, management
of soils for fertility and carbon sequestration at the top of
agricultural scientific endeavour.
The provision of training
9.0 "Shedding labour" has been
seen as an inevitable and conventional agronomic "efficiency".
But to achieve secure, sustainable food supplies over the next
50 years, we will need more people in agricultureyet
there is a serious shortage of available labour and skills.
9.1 The UK has historically failed to take advantage
of EU schemes providing grants to enable young people to set up
in farming. As of 2002, across EU Member States the average annual
take-up of such schemes stood at 24-31,000 people, with France
alone accounting for 40% of the scheme. UK take-up was 0%.
9.2 County Council tenancies traditionally
provided a key "first rung on the farming ladder", but
successive Governments have encouraged or forced Councils to dispose
of their farming estate. The acreage of council tenancies declined
by 7,558 acres, with 202 farms no longer available to
tenants over a three-year period between 1999-2002.
9.3 Government should introduce measures
to encourage young people to take up a career in food production
and support farm labour, as has been done with the teaching profession.
The Soil Association runs a modest "Organic Apprenticeship"
training scheme providing on-farm work placements and training
for young people and new entrants. Funded by the Soil Association
and apprentice contributions, this merits support and extension
The way in which land is farmed and managed
10.0 The statistics cited above show that
our current food production system in the main is not sustainable,
nor guaranteeing our long-term food security. An accepted definition
of food security in the past has been that provided by the United
Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation:
"Food security exists when all people,
at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food
to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active
and healthy life."
That 10-year old definition doesn't adequately
reflect the need for food security to be founded above all on
sustainable production, given current understanding of the scale
and urgency of the challenges brought by climate change.
10.1 UK and global food security must be
considered in that context, as has the International Agricultural
Assessment of Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD), a
global colloquium of over 400 scientists, signed-up to by
over 60 governments, including the UK. IAASTD concluded that:
despite significant scientific and
technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural
productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended
social and environmental consequences of our achievements.
Business as usual is no longer an option
that promote sustainable agricultural practices (
more technology innovation, such as agroecological approaches
and organic farming to alleviate poverty and improve food security."
10.2 The "agroecological approaches
and organic farming" that IAASTD calls for have been
starved of research and development funding (see para 8.1 above).
Consequently, sustainable farming systems are in a comparable
situation to the renewable energy sector, where the lion's share
of funding was swallowed up by the fossil-fuel and nuclear energy
industries, setting renewables back a decade or more. Only when
fiscal measures were introduced to stimulate non-fossil fuel energy
generation was the necessary investment, innovation and progress
made. Similar incentives are needed to drive sustainable and secure
food and farming systems.
What trends are likely to emerge on the demand
side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer taste
and habits, and what will be their main effect?
11.0 As awareness of climate change and
evidence of its impacts increases, more consumers are going to
seek ways of reducing their carbon-footprint. With 30% coming
from their food, being able to choose "climate-friendly"
foodjust as they can fridges, washing machines, cars and
light-bulbsoffers an easy, everyday action.
What use could be made of local food networks?
12.0 More localised food systems are key to enhancing
the resilience of the UK's food security, as well as regenerating
rural economies and providing new routes to market for farmers.
12.1 The Soil Association is the lead partner
in the Food for Life Partnership which is working with a core
of 180 flagship schools across England to deliver healthier,
more sustainable school food and connect children more closely
to where their food comes from. Food for Life targets for school
food are 75% unprocessed, 50% local and 30% organic. Apart from
enabling children to understand and make better food choices,
Food for Life schools are dramatically cutting their food miles:
Hurlford Primary School in East Ayrshire reduced its food miles
by 75%, with average distance traveled per menu food item dropping
from 330 to 99 miles.
What role should Defra play both in ensuring that
the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing
the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and
assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?
13.0 Produce a "Food Security Plan
for Britain": providing strategic thinking as to the
best mix of food types and farming systems to deliver national
food security whilst meeting the challenges of climate change
and longer-term, depleting oil.
13.1 Lead by example: as the Dutch Ministry
of Agriculture, Defra and all government departments and food
procurement contracts which they oversee should specify seasonal,
fresh and low-carbon foodencouraging local producers and
suppliers to tender as permitted under European law.
How well does Defra engage with other relevant
departments across Government, and with European and international
bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food
supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?
14.0 Insufficient links between food production,
public health, and climate change mitigation policies.
What criteria should Defra use to monitor how
well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling
global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production
15.0 Simply doubling food production is a crude,
inaccurate measure that could drive a return to crude maximised
production with minimal human health and environmental restraints.
Criteria would include:
Reverse damage to UK soils targets
for increasing soil organic matter content.
Develop accurate measurement for
individual farm's soil carbon storage/losses set annual
targets for sustaining/increasing soil carbon storage per farm.
Annual target cuts in greenhouse
gas emissions from agriculture and throughout food-chain (some
supermarkets have already calculated and set targets for individual
food items carbon budgets).
Increase proportion of "healthy
eating" guidelines foodstuffs grown in UK i.e. currently
90% of fruit consumed in the UK is imported.
Biodiversity is not an "either/or"
when it comes to food security, but a key indicator of the sustainability
of the system. We can have "sky-lark friendly daily bread".
Increases in employment in farming
as a positive indicator of lower-carbon farming.
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