Memorandum submitted by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) (SFS 20)

 

INTRODUCTION

 

1. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) is the national representative body for the veterinary profession in the United Kingdom and represents circa 11,000 members. Our chief interest is to protect and promote the interests of the veterinary profession in this country and we therefore take a keen interest in all issues affecting the veterinary profession be they animal health, animal welfare, public health or employment concerns. Issues associated with food security are very much on BVA's agenda. The BVA Congress in September 2008 had as its theme 'Veterinary surgeons in a Changing Environment'.

 

2. We welcome the opportunity to present our view to EFRACOM on its inquiry into 'Securing Food Supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK'. The consultation has been considered within the BVA and the response which follows is primarily based upon comments received from our Veterinary Policy Group and the BVA's response to Defra's recent consultation on 'Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World'.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

3. The BVA welcomes the consideration being given to food security by Defra and others and the identification of the range of major issues impacting on food security at local, European and global levels is generally good. However, we believe that there is not enough consideration given to disease control and biosecurity, both of great relevance to the efficiency and sustainability of the livestock industry. We are also concerned by some of the assumptions made by Defra regarding the level of food security the UK currently enjoys.

 

4. This response calls for:

Greater investment in the UK's long term agricultural infrastructure so that more people seek to become farmers and rural veterinary surgeons than seek to give up.

More targeted veterinary research into disease control and other aspects of livestock health and welfare.

More investment in research into sustainable food production in the UK. The emphasis should be on local and regional cycles of production, reducing the transportation of food and waste.

Improvements to the stringency of border biosecurity.

Food associated industries and the broader economy to develop policies and procedures to mitigate climate change to minimise disruptions to crop and livestock production.

Greater emphasis to be given to increasing UK food production and the benefits of local and regional food production by reducing regulation and bureaucracy. Small businesses intent on producing, processing and marketing food locally to be encouraged.

Redoubling of efforts to educate the public about the value of food, good nutrition, food preparation skills and reducing food waste.

Food security to be acknowledged as a public health issue to ensure the UK population has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at an affordable price. BVA has a valuable source of expertise in the Veterinary Public Health Association (VPHA).

Additional indicators are needed focussing on animal disease risks and UK's self sufficiency.

 

RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS RAISED

 

How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

 

5. BVA believes that Defra's view in its consultation paper overstated the current level of food security enjoyed in the UK given current global instability, volatile oil prices, the current economic crisis, and the forecast growth of the world's population by 2050. One has only too remember the rapid and huge surge in wheat prices, for example, when oil rose to $140 last summer or the recent dispute between Ukraine and Russia over gas. Oil may not return there for some time but any surge in oil or shipping costs will rapidly impact on imported food prices. While there is international political instability the aim of global food security is unlikely to be achieved and so emphasises the importance of home-grown supplies.

 

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?

 

6. There should be greater investment in the UK's long term agricultural infrastructure. At present, while the Government supports the FAO global food production targets, it has not adopted them for the UK. The UK has the potential to contribute to the FAO targets, but research is needed to identify which types of food production, given our climate and soil types, can be increased sustainably. Those increases can only be achieved by market forces but we need to think of ways to promote them.

 

In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

 

(a) The science base

 

7. A major part of securing and increasing UK food production is protecting it from disease. There should be more targeted veterinary research into disease control and other aspects of livestock health and welfare. Funding for veterinary research, including research into the control of disease, has remained static, and in some cases decreased. Even areas in which funding has been maintained at existing levels have in effect been cut back in real terms as the operational costs of research and development grow. Increasing pressure on budgets will mean only core research and development responsibilities would be upheld and increasingly stringent criteria would have to be met. This contrasts with some of our European partners like Germany who are committed to funding research into animal health.

 

8. Surveillance by veterinarians and through bodies such as the Veterinary Laboratories Agency provides early warnings about possible disease threats to the food chain, and also makes controlling those threats successfully far more likely. As well as ensuring there is a sufficient veterinary presence in rural areas, thought must be given to how best to insure information from veterinary surgeons and farmers is incorporated into ongoing food strategy planning.

 

9. There should be more investment in research into sustainable food production in the UK. The emphasis should be on local and regional cycles of production, reducing the transportation of food and waste. 1 spent locally returns far more locally than 1 spent in supermarkets but a good compromise is local sourcing in supermarkets.

 

b) The provision of training

 

10. Modern veterinary science focuses on health and production planning. The veterinary profession is ideally placed to deliver training to producers in the science of sustainable farming. On a broader front, the degree of debt that graduates have influences their choice of employment to the detriment of the rural food production sector. Incentives such as offsetting or "buying off" debt if new graduates work in certain areas should be considered.

 

(c) Trade barriers

 

11. Increased trade with an increasing number of countries presents a challenge on the disease control front. Trade liberalisation has many benefits and, certainly, a diversified food supply is a factor in ensuring food security. However; increased trade in livestock and unprocessed foodstuffs increases the UK's vulnerability to disease and pest infestation. Therefore, biosecurity protocols governing the entrance of freight into the UK must be sufficiently stringent to ensure risks are minimised.

 

12. While trade in animals and animal products presents the greatest risk, veterinary colleagues who visit the UK from abroad comment frequently on the lack of visible border controls at airports. One suggested approach to improve those controls is to introduce more stringent airport biosecurity protocols, with signage warning visitors of the impact of bringing in exotic foodstuffs, amnesty bins for their disposal, and legislation allowing for spot fines for those who ignore the warnings and do not utilise the amnesty option.

 

(d) The way in which land is farmed and managed

 

13. Mitigating climate change is vital. As well as the disruptions to crop and livestock production that would result from any significant increase in global warming, increased average temperatures would also make the south of England in particular more habitable for mosquitoes, midges and other disease spreading insects. As such, it is important that every effort be made within food associated industries and the broader economy to minimise global warming. In many cases, veterinary surgeons and veterinary research can assist farmers in developing techniques to limit the environmental impacts of livestock farming. The increased risk of novel insect life bringing new diseases into the country also further emphasises the necessity of proactive veterinary surveillance.

 

14. Disease control and biosecurity are essential components of a food security policy. Foot and Mouth disease is a prime example of a disease that can exert a huge impact on animal health and welfare, animal movement, our ability to feed ourselves and to export meat and foodstuffs as well as environmental impacts from high culling rates and wastage. Bovine tuberculosis also exerts a huge drain on farming productivity and profitability and BSE is an example of a disease process that resulted in a marked loss of confidence in food safety and security. Minimising the likelihood of such diseases being introduced by way of effective biosecurity protocols and minimising their impact by way of effective veterinary surveillance and treatment is essential.

 

15. The decline in rural veterinary presence is a problem, as veterinary surgeons play a major role in almost every aspect of food security, from fighting disease, to advising on efficient production techniques and minimising the environmental impact of farming practices. They also play a vital role in educating farmers about scientific and regulatory developments in the industry and as a source of corporate knowledge in the British agriculture sector. Long term sustainability for food production is reliant on the knowledge and expertise not just of farmers but also veterinarians.

 

16. Falling farm incomes and significant reductions in the value of livestock have resulted in farmers being increasingly reluctant to call upon the services of their veterinary surgeon. This sustained downward pressure on the demand for large animal veterinary services is having two significant consequences.

 

a) Many veterinary practices are increasingly finding that the provision of veterinary services to farmed livestock is no longer financially viable, making it difficult for farmers in some regions to secure veterinary cover.

 

b) Farm animal practice and mixed practice is increasingly becoming less attractive to veterinary graduates. This is aggravated by the increasingly large debt with which graduates are encumbered, making them seek employment with high remuneration.

 

17. More consideration for increasing UK food production is key. We are currently significantly reliant on imports. With a growing population and shrinking workforce, simply maintaining current production will present considerable challenges. Given that local and regional production make disease control easier and contribute to better animal welfare and environmental and economic benefits, working to increase farm efficiency and production is seen as vital. Some supermarkets are already starting to source, display and label locally and regionally sourced goods produced to high welfare standards. This trend should be encouraged.

 

18. While access to foreign foodstuffs is important for ensuring a diversified food chain in the face of production or supply disruption, the environmental impact of transportation of food from other countries must be measured against production within the UK. Importation of food and livestock has many risks including:

 

a) introduction of exotic disease,

 

b) increased costs of policing imported foods,

 

c) increased surveillance for food safety and disease,

 

d) reduced economic viability of UK agriculture; and

 

e) wider effects on rural communities and the environment.

 

19. Veterinary surgeons play a major part in efforts to maximise production both by advising farmers on new husbandry and care techniques and by monitoring on-farm disease issues and advising on best disease control. Lost production days in all sectors of livestock production effect farm outputs and, as a result, food supply.

 

20. In increasing food production, animal welfare standards must continue to be pursued and improved. They must not be sacrificed to improve 'efficiency'.

 

21. The issue of cost-sharing is also of ongoing concern. Given both the current economic environment, and the desire to enhance the UK's food security, the imposition of costs upon farmers should be considered very carefully against the benefits. Any unjustified added financial burdens could result in costs being passed on to consumers or, in combination with other rises in the cost of doing business, a move away from livestock farming. Neither scenario is a satisfactory outcome from a food security perspective.

 

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? What use could be made of local food networks?

 

22. The premium paid by many shoppers for 'free-range', 'organic' and other similar products suggests that issues of environmentally sustainable farming practices and animal welfare are now incorporated into their perception of a food's quality. Balancing these drivers against the need for increased production will present a significant challenge to the agricultural sector. Pressure from organic producers to allow relaxation of their standards in a recession should be resisted. A standard is a standard.

 

23. Efforts to educate the public about the value of food, good nutrition, food preparation skills and reducing food waste must be redoubled.

 

24. Small businesses intent on producing, processing and marketing food locally should be encouraged.

 

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?

 

25. Food security is also a public health issue. Priority should therefore be to ensure that the UK population has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at an affordable price. This would include a range of initiatives, from education about the importance of nutrition and how to prepare affordable, nutritious meals to the establishment of systems to trace food from origin to shelf.

 

26. As a key part of the agricultural sector, veterinary surgeons have an integral and evolving role to play in food security. BVA has a valuable source of expertise in the Veterinary Public Health Association (VPHA) and other Divisions.

 

27. Veterinary surgeons filter and report surveillance data, and interpret the implications of surveillance output for their clients. They also play a vital role in:

 

a) providing an information and education service to farmers on behalf of Government;

b) advising on improvements to husbandry and biosecurity procedures;

c) safeguarding farm animal welfare

d) reducing the impact of animal production systems on the environment;

e) advising on the responsible use of veterinary medicines; and

f) providing a public health service by advising on risks to people from animal pathogens.

 

28. However, it is important to note that veterinary surgeons in practice, as well as farmers, food wholesalers and retailers, operate as part of private businesses and it is not ultimately their role to ensure national food security. It is for the Government to engineer market conditions that make ensuring UK food security a by-product of a prosperous business environment for these relevant sectors.

 

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?

 

29. Defra's recent consultation and the policy processes that will follow are seen as an indicator that the Government is making a commitment to addressing the issues associated with food security. However, the areas identified by the BVA in this paper should be more fully addressed.

 

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 is sustainable?

 

30. Defra's proposed food security indicators cover many of the core issues at the heart of food security, but they are not as comprehensive as they might be. As already suggested, issues of biosecurity, surveillance and disease control could be more prominently placed.

 

 

31. Additional indicators could include:

 

a) tracking and identification of illegal imports or exports of foods (e.g. bush meat);

b) tracing and advance warning of disease risk;

c) active surveillance for zoonotic diseases and potentially damaging production animal diseases in particular; and

d) consideration of the "grey" economy of illegal food trade.

 

32. It is also suggested that more emphasis be given to the degree of the UK's self-sufficiency as an indicator of food security.

 

Concluding remarks

 

33. The issues of disease control, public health, production levels, farm efficiency and the minimisation of farming's environmental impact make up an important part of food security. They are all also areas in which the veterinary profession can and does play an important role, emphasising the importance of targeted research, surveillance, and retention of rural veterinary numbers. BVA will continue to work through its specialist divisions and with other industry bodies and Government in contributing to the future security of the UK's food supply.

 

 

Nicky Paull

BVA

 

January 2009