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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 407 - 419)



  Q407  Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Apologies for the slightly late start to our evidence session of the Committee's inquiry "Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK". I welcome our witnesses this afternoon from the Soil Association in the shape of Monty Don, their President. Mr Don, you are obviously a familiar face to us because of your excellent appearances on the television. We have had great difficulty in restraining the Committee from focusing entirely on our own allotment and gardening questions, but we might want to see you afterwards. Mr Maynard is their campaigns director and Mr Peter Melchett, policy director, who is an old friend of the Committee. In fact, Peter, you were mentioned in despatches last week because the Committee went to Jealott's Hill and they commented that your father had opened the site.

  Mr Melchett: It was my grandfather.

  Q408  Chairman: You have honourable credentials in the world of agricultural research and they still talk in fond terms about your family. Moving on, this is a very important subject, the question of food supply to security and how we are going to meet that against a background where some resources like fossil fuels are getting ever more scarce and expensive and you bring your own special perspectives on these matters before the Committee. In your evidence—I thank you for the written update of it—you describe the UK's food system as "superficially robust". It would be interesting to know what you meant by that phrase?[19]

  Mr Don: The whole food supply structure depends upon certain circumstances and situations which we regard as fragile at best and exposed to a domino effect, not dissimilar to the financial situation that we witness crumbling around. Whether you call that the perfect storm, the domino effect or whatever, we have got oil prices; we have got climate change which obviously is probably the most pressing of all those things; we have literal situations where you have countries controlling supplies of phosphate fertiliser, for example, which are prone to control and supply, not just of price, but of absolute supply, and you have the effect of climate itself. Put all that together and we feel that the infrastructure is very delicate. We saw it with the lorry drivers' strike, we see it with weather, and put all that in one place and our food supply, which most consumers regard as limitless—an endless supply of whatever they want whenever they want—is, at best, fragile and, at worst, unsustainable. It is the sustainability that obviously we are most concerned with; sustainable in supply and in quality.

  Q409  Chairman: Let's look at the reverse of that. In paragraph 3 of your evidence you reflect on that and you say: "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 are inherently unsustainable..."[20] I suppose the reverse of the previous quote and that is can you put the argument forward that a system based on the organic philosophy would effectively be more stable and more sustainable?

  Mr Don: I would not be here if I could not say yes to that.

  Q410  Chairman: I would like you to make the case out as to why you think that is the situation.

  Mr Melchett: The fundamental argument and, as Monty says, the key pressure we face is climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gases by something approaching 80%, if not 80% or more, between now and 2050 for the greenhouse gas emissions from food and farming. Organic farming starts with one key advantage that it uses renewable energy—solar energy—to provide the fertility to grow the crops. Organic farming systems use legumes, principally red clover in this country, to fix nitrogen to grow subsequent crops. At my own farm we have two years of red clover which will grow four years of crops before we go back to red clover. We do not need any oil or natural gas to extract nitrogen from the air to allow us to grow the crop, so that is a key element of it. There are lots of other bits of organic farming where we improve the soil organic matter which means that we capture more carbon into the soil , which sequesters the carbon. We have plants which do not require the same input of things like phosphate, as Monty says, the supply of which is certainly not secure and not long term. We build soil, the ultimate resource from which we grow things, so there are many advantages inherent in the system of that sort of farming which make it at least have the potential to be much more sustainable. We do not claim that we have got it right or perfect by a long way.

  Q411  Chairman: What would your advice be when looking at other non UK major producers who are dependent on a mainstream agricultural approach to production? The criticism you have made about the UK's stability in its supply must, by definition, apply to them as well. Therefore does that suggest a change in approach in the UK in terms of the proportion of food that we produce from within our own resources? In other words, if we follow your philosophy does that QED mean that we ought to try and produce a greater proportion of that which we consume here of all types of food?

  Mr Don: The simple answer is yes. I do not think there is any attempt or benefit in trying to be 100% self-sufficient. We are a trading nation and we should trade and we want to trade, ideally fair-trade and organic, but we should be producing more of what we can using a sustainable organic system, which by definition means not forcing that production but going with what is possible and that is dictated by climate, geology and so on. I know the Government figures are that we are producing something like 49% of all the food we consume here.

  Mr Maynard: The figures vary. They say we are about 60% self-sufficient in foodstuffs consumed here but the official figures vary and for the most are based on monetary value rather than on nutrition or calorific value. You see some figures down at 49%. Defra will point out and say that is fine because we import the majority of food from the EU. Your point, Chairman, was that we would suggest that those other countries exporting to the UK are also vulnerable because of the issues of climate change and the reliance on fossil fuels, particularly on fertilisers, as Monty mentioned, both artificial nitrogen with its very heavy greenhouse gas burden and oil use, and also phosphate, which not many people are talking about but it is mostly sourced from North Africa. The pessimistic view is there is 30 years' worth left and the optimist is 60 to 90 years, so there are some vulnerabilities of that global trading system and reliance on it.

  Mr Don: It is not a question of simply providing an alternative way of doing what we are already doing. What we see as food security and the food future for this country and for the world is reshaping the way we go about it, a different paradigm, if you look at the financial model. It is no good just piecing together what is going wrong and hoping that it will not go wrong again. I really do believe that we have to rethink this in terms of health, in terms of climate change and in terms of production. At the moment they are not being linked. The consumer is not linking it; I do not believe the Government is linking it and I do not think producers, with the best will in the world, and I speak as one and there are a lot of very good farmers, organic and non organic, necessarily linking what they are doing to health and to climate. This must be set in terms of what we need to do in the future rather than how we can just simply change the way we are going to make it a bit more organic. That is not the point. The point is to adapt and change and it is the change that is important.

  Q412  Chairman: Who, in your opinion, should do the linking together? The food supply chain has been pretty well subcontracted to the private sector—supermarkets, food service companies and food manufacturing companies—they do food and there is nobody sitting in Smith Square in Defra command and control saying send food to here and food to there. That was the old days of the Ministry of Food Production in the Second World War. We are light years away from that. Defra, on the other hand, has re-engaged in food. It has put out consultation documents on this subject. What would your thoughts be as to who is going to hold the ring to achieve the objectives you have just described?

  Mr Don: I do not have much faith in government doing it because I do not think they have the equipment, neither mental nor material. Maybe they should; maybe they have got to change as well. I think bodies like the Soil Association have a role to play. Personally the way I see it working is to devolve down as near to consumption as possible rather than seeing it as a central government controlling food, as you say, in the wartime way and supplying it. If you can devolve production and consumption so that they are as close together as possible, and the obvious example of that are farmers' markets or farm gate sales, that is a healthy, very flexible way of supply and demand.

  Q413  Chairman: I do not disagree with what you have said. I can understand where you are coming from but if you look at where we are at the moment, 75%, possibly even up to 80% of the domestic food that is consumed comes via supermarkets and to get to the model that you have just described would be a colossal change in the consumption of buying habits. What I am interested in is not so much the statement of where is the endgame, which is a smaller localised model that you have just described, but it is the process of transition from where we are to what is practically achievable at a smaller level. In other words, how if you were going to see Mr Tesco or Mr Sainsbury would you convince them that there was a new way of doing business to be engineered, because they are not going to say we are going out of business next week and we are going strictly local.

  Mr Don: I agree. Part of the problem with creating any new model is that the existing one is not going to welcome it and a lot of it is not going to adapt. There are two things: Peter can answer in terms of production but in terms of the consumer, all my experience of the consumer is that they have no relationship to production at all. Most of them have absolutely no idea of where their food comes from; the level of ignorance is staggering. At government level that should be rectified today. It is of vital importance to educate and inform people. The Soil Association has a project with schools to do precisely that but it needs much more. The process of growing a pot of chives on a windowsill is actually a huge leap in connecting people to the food that they eat because any connection to production is going to link to consumption of what you eat. I would say, for example, that every new house should have a garden or an allotment. We should be encouraging people to produce on a very local level, not to stop them going to Tesco, to connect.

  Q414  Chairman: It is very easy to take off on a flight of fancy.

  Mr Don: No, that is practical, not fancy.

  Q415  Chairman: So often people who come before the Committee, for example, if we are talking about energy efficiency, immediately start talking about new houses, but they forget all the ones that are already there and those are the more difficult ones to deal with. Coming back to my question, we are where we are. What is the model to get from where we are to where you want to be? The question I posed about the role of Defra and you said no, we do not want to do that; we want to get down to a much more local level where the food consumer can have a relationship with the food producer and that is a perfectly respectable position to want to get to. How do you get there? What are the policy levers? What do you have to do to get there?

  Mr Melchett: To give you an example, Monty mentioned the work we are doing with schools which is funded by the Big Lottery. We are working with a partnership of other NGOs and what we are aiming to do in primary and secondary schools which we are working with and we hope to enrol thousands—we already have hundreds involved around the country in all areas—is to get the schools to move towards a school meals service which is 75% unprocessed foods, but one of the first changes, as Monty said, like growing the chives on the windowsill, you get back to people cooking fresh ingredients which reduces cost and reconnects you with farming, the seasons and so on. 50% of it has to be sourced locally in this Food for Life Partnership programme and 30% is organic. This is a first step. Children in the Food for Life schools visit farms, not just to go and see the farm once a year, but so the school has a relationship with the farm, ideally the farm supplies food to the school. They learn about food, nutrition and all the rest of it as part of a whole range of lessons in their curriculum in all sorts of ways, and of course learn to cook. All of that and the school should have a garden where they are growing some vegetables which then end up in the school meals that they are eating. What we are talking about there is a change in culture. You said this is a massive change but of course to take 80% of greenhouse gas emissions out of food and farming implies more than massive, a really drastic change in what we are doing there. We would see the Food for Life model as a way of starting on that process, and it is not just about changing where the food comes from but learning about farming, cooking, growing, and the Food for Life standards are applying in restaurants, hospitals, nurseries and even in food served in football clubs. It provides a model where we can start to get the whole of society engaged in this process.

  Q416  David Taylor: An observation and a question to Monty. You mentioned the interesting idea of requiring new houses to have an associated allotment. A typical house plot size is probably 300 square metres, not untypical are allotment sizes of approximately 300 square metres. That seems to me to be doubling up twice the amount of land within or close to estates than is currently used at the moment. That is my observation. The question is we are talking about reconnecting with consumers to the origin of the food that they eat. Do you think that TV, on which you are a very distinguished proponent of such things, could be doing much more to re-establish those links? The reality is that consumers are likely to be much more influenced by watching TV than ever they are from government pamphlets pouring through the letterbox.

  Mr Don: Yes. Interestingly I am starting filming in a couple of weeks time a Channel 4 series about farming which Channel 4 see as a revolutionary thing to do, for god's sake, which shows how parlous and how limited that connection is. I think we have all got to take a role but parliament and government can and should play an active role. The whole disassociation is not just one when you go out to the shop, but it is a social thing. One of the things that is not talked about in connection with food is the social effect whereby you have a disenfranchisement in the relationship between food and production. That is something which government and parliament needs to regard almost as importantly as the means of production or the method of consumption. I have done a little bit of work in that area with social behaviour and drugs and what have you, and food is right at the core of it. It is absolutely at the heart of it and we do not make that link between production and health, which of course is a key part of organic growth.

  Q417  David Lepper: You have talked about the Food for Life project in schools. I think you said there are other institutions and organisations that have taken it up as well. Has it been going long enough to be able to trace whether the kinds of habits that obviously you hope people will be imbued with whilst they are at school carry over once they leave school? Have you been able to attempt any research?

  Mr Melchett: The Food for Life Partnership has five-year Lottery funding and is being evaluated by independent academic evaluators and researchers. We do not have the results of that. What we have are a number of interesting anecdotes which I suspect will be confirmed because they are so universal. The first is that teachers who have experienced children in school with poor standard school meals which are then changed universally say the thing they notice is the change in behaviour of the children and the children's willingness to learn. Most head teachers will also talk about rates of attendance improving, truancy going down and timeliness of attendance at school going up. In hospitals, for example, we do know that patients' satisfaction, which is a measured regularly by the NHS, goes up when food is good. The Royal Cornwall Hospital Trusts have done this and registered a significant increase in patient satisfaction. The other thing we know is that when you change the food in a primary school so that it is freshly prepared and cooked at the school, healthier and so on, that when the children first of all go home they start pestering their parents, not for a McDonalds, but for a baked potato or for a pasta with a vegetable sauce. When they get to secondary school, the secondary school cooks complain to the primary school that the kids will not eat their deep fried "wotsits" anymore. The evidence we have is not solid yet but we will be gathering evidence, but that is what we expect.

  Q418  David Lepper: The School Caterers Association last week seemed to have a rather different view. They were not necessarily talking about organic products but about Jamie Oliver and things.

  Mr Melchett: We had representatives at the meeting who were putting a contrary point of view. I am afraid the media agenda is a bit "Jamie got it wrong" and it is hard to get any stories which show that actually Jamie got it completely right into the press. I think Jamie did get it right and schools which have changed their meals have seen an increase in take-up, the ones we are working with often 10%, 20% or even more, up to 100% in school meals increased take-up, but you have to change the whole thing. You cannot just fiddle with nutrients; you have to change the culture.

  Mr Maynard: It is not just about changing the culture in school but you actually change the farms that supply the school because they have to produce a wider range of crops so they shift to a more mixed farming system by default because they have a secure market through the school and so you are starting to rebuild that resilient mixed farming system which served us very well during the last war. You talked about you do not want to go back to the days of the War Act, but we have some fairly hefty challenges, probably as threatening to food security as a U-boat's torpedoes, in the form of climate change. Even if oil is $50 a barrel now, it is probably going to go up in the not too distant future again.

  Q419  Chairman: Peter, you mentioned in your opening observations about the importance of soil. I would concur entirely on that point but you developed the idea in your evidence that in some way good soil management should be rewarded by the single farm payment scheme. I was slightly at a loss to understand how that would actually work in practice. How would you set the parameters, and whether, if you could not do it through a single farm payment scheme, how would you get an improvement in soil quality?

  Mr Melchett: It is a very interesting area and we have been talking to a number of experts. We have some leading soil scientists and global leaders in soil science in the UK and it is an area which I think the Government has really shamefully neglected; the research and what they could learn from the research. Soil carbon is a very significant contributor historically to the carbon we put into the atmosphere.

  Mr Maynard: In terms of carbon store, soils hold double the atmosphere and three times the world's forests.

  Mr Melchett: It is huge. We have depleted the carbon stored in the soil significantly, not just in peat soils like the fens where we know it is oxidising, but in all our soils. The potential for carbon sequestration in soil is significant. It is very difficult to measure on a field by field or farm by farm, year by year basis because the changes are quite small. In that respect it is quite like farm wildlife where it is quite difficult to measure the number of skylarks on a particular farm year by year and reward the farmer per skylark, as it were. We thought, and we are exploring these issues with others in this area, first of all, that under Pillar 1 the good agricultural and environmental condition could encourage farmers to do the sorts of things they need to do to maintain soil, and maybe more significantly we are suggesting that under Pillar 2, under the entry level scheme and the organic entry level scheme, there should be prescriptions and recognition for the fact that organic farming will increase soil organic matter and therefore increase soil carbon significantly in many cases. Just as we have rewarded organic farmers for delivering more farm and wildlife—£60 per hectare as opposed to £30 for the non organic entry level scheme—we think there is strong evidence for bringing climate change into Pillar 2. That would, we think, help secure the CAP payments as we move from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 for British farming generally.

19   Ev 167 Back

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