Examination of Witnesses (Questions 407
MONDAY 30 MARCH 2009
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.
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 evidenceI thank you
for the written update of ityou describe the UK's food
system as "superficially robust". It would be interesting
to know what you meant by that phrase?
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 limitlessan endless supply of whatever they want
whenever they wantis, at best, fragile and, at worst, unsustainable.
It is the sustainability that obviously we are most concerned
with; sustainable in supply and in quality.
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..."
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.
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 energysolar energyto
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.
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
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.
Who, in your opinion, should do the linking together? The food
supply chain has been pretty well subcontracted to the private
sectorsupermarkets, food service companies and food manufacturing
companiesthey 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
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.
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.
It is very easy to take off on a flight of fancy.
Mr Don: No, that is practical,
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 thousandswe
already have hundreds involved around the country in all areasis
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
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
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
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.
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
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
schemewe 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
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