Supplementary memorandum submitted by Chatham House (SFS 66a)

 

"Do you think the political cycle is compatible with the nature of the long-term work which will have to be undertaken if collectively the United Kingdom and its partners in the world are actually to ultimately achieve the objectives set by those two benchmark targets?"

 

The political challenges ahead lie less in supporting the technical work on boosting yields hinted at by the question than in the wider transformation of the food system that is needed over the same period, and in particular the impact of that on consumers, their diets and the price of food.

 

The patterns of demand for food, and the associated environmental, health and other impacts are determined ultimately by individuals' consumption choices. As diets shift there are consequential impacts on overall demand for grain, for land, on output of greenhouse gases, etc. Some foods seem to lead to consistently higher impacts than others. Price, access and affordability matter and will shape consumption trends, but so too will aspirations and food culture. For example, is excess consumption and overt wastage of food associated with higher, or lower, social status?

 

The array of cultural attitudes, behavioural norms and personal values associated with food are less easily mediated, and are far more difficult political territory, than the techno-centric innovation systems that we may look to for the next generation of higher yield, lower impact foods. What and who will catalyse a global shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets? Under what conditions will consumers accept application of novel technologies to their food in the future? By what processes are these social choices made?

 

To the extent that the domestic political cycle can introduce discontinuities in the way that governments engage with other partners in the governance of the food system, it may be a hindrance. A shared understanding of 'the problem' across the political spectrum would clearly help. But there will inevitably be differences of view in how far government should be directly intervening or acting to catalyse change, whether in agriculture or in matters of individual consumer choice.

 

That said, it is the complexity of the governance arrangements in the food system - the distribution of powers across many layers (from local to global) and across different types of actors (private sector, public sector, NGOs, consumers) - that is the real challenge. The danger is that the division of roles and responsibilities impedes change and even leads to paralysis as each party - consumer, retailer, national government, EU, etc. - looks to another to take a lead, to decide the trade-offs and make the difficult choices.

 

 

Food Security Definition

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines food security as being "when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".[1]

 

This definition is generally accepted and widely used. It focuses, appropriately, on the outcomes for consumers. These outcomes require a set of (implicit) demand side conditions (such as income, mobility) and supply side conditions (such as food production capacity or functioning supply chains) to be met.

 

The EFRA inquiry is focused on food supply so we concentrate our discussion here on the supply side aspects of food security, though when considering aspects such as 'affordability' the status of the consumer cannot be ignored.

 

Food security is compromised if any of the following are missing or deficient:

 

availability - the provision of a sufficient volume of safe and nutritious food;

 

accessibility - the physical supply mechanisms needed to facilitate the delivery of food to market;

 

affordability - to which the food supply chain contributes through the competitive pricing of food; and

 

resilience - the robustness of the system to shocks and longer run systemic risks and uncertainties.

 

As highlighted above, food security outcomes are also conditioned by the prevailing demand side conditions. So changes that reduce consumers' economic access (e.g. joblessness) reduce household food security. In the UK the welfare system buffers these impacts; in much of the developing world no such safety-net exists. Low income food-importing countries can experience equivalent pressures on national budgets and their ability to pay. The UK runs a sizeable trade deficit in food products but is better able to finance it.

 

Managing for food security

As discussed in the original Chatham House written evidence to EFRA, development of a comprehensive, forward-looking approach to UK food security requires:

an analysis of each of the above components;

an appraisal of the associated risks - contingent and systemic; short, medium and long term;

determination of relevant indicators;

targeted risk management and mitigation strategies.

 

This activity will need to engage with the main food supply chains in their own right as the risks and challenges vary across cereals, horticulture, poultry, etc. But it will also need to examine the wider system, its resilience to shocks and stresses, and its long term sustainability. The inputs and drivers of change need to be mapped to identify how exposure to risk could be influenced by, for instance, changes in diet, water scarcity, climate change mitigation policies and changes in sourcing that might affect food safety.

 

If we are to build the resilience of the food system in the longer run, we need to improve our ability to recognize and respond to broader uncertainties inherent in the new operating environment. Wider questions such as the availability of basic resources - land, water, energy and skills - as well as increased competition for raw materials will create a different sense of what constitutes 'risk'.

 

 

Diversification is a core risk management strategy. In a food system context this means retaining access to genetic diversity - in crops, animals and supporting ecosystems. It means having a diversified research portfolio on new techniques and food production systems. It means retaining trading access to markets outside the UK - in the EU and beyond. And it means being alert to concentration within the supply chain that could compromise consumer interest. There is a key role for government in all these areas to secure, by setting appropriate frameworks, the public goods that markets alone will not deliver.

 

The appropriate level of management and policy response will range from the local to the global. The UK sources most of its food imports from within the 'single European food market' and is subject to the Common Fisheries Policy and Common Agricultural Policy. Policies set in Brussels are therefore at least as important as those determined domestically.

 

Chatham House

March 2009

 



[1] FAO. Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action. World Food Summit 13-17 November 1996, Rome