Memorandum submitted by the Food Ethics Council (SFS 24)


1. The Food Ethics Council is an independent research and advocacy group that aims to make the food system fairer and healthier from farm to fork. The Council is chaired by a farmer and its members include consumer advocates and leading academic researchers.

2. The Council welcomes the Committee's inquiry and this opportunity to comment. We have limited our submission to four brief points that may be useful to the Committee at this stage in their inquiry, but would be glad to provide further evidence on request.

3. Strengths or weaknesses? Ensuring security of supply entails proofing food supply chains against possible threats. Since these are at best uncertain and at worst unknown, resilience depends on diversity. As Defra has emphasised, the UK's supply chains are diverse inasmuch as our food comes from many countries. However, they are anything but diverse inasmuch as they depend heavily on oil and other non-renewable resources, rely on a narrow range of plant and animal breeds, use the same bulk ingredients to produce an array of different products, and rely on consolidated purchase and distribution systems. Our May 2005 submission to the Committee[1] discussed some of these challenges in greater detail and we have since produced publications on specific challenges including water scarcity, livestock production and consumption, and food distribution.

4. UK or global? Whether food security is framed primarily as a global challenge or as an issue for the UK has a profound bearing on how policy should support it. The starting point for any global approach must be that our food systems are catastrophically insecure right now - we do not need to look forward to 2050 - in that close to a billion people live in hunger. We believe it is morally incumbent on the UK government, and consistent with its commitment to a 'one planet' approach to sustainable development, to see food security primarily as a global challenge. Taking such an approach requires the UK to get its own house in order, but also means that any credible commitment to improving food security must be backed by a step increase in international development support and by commit-ing the UK to an international development-led stance in international trade negotiations.

5. Scarcity or injustice? Decades of research and intervention to address food insecurity globally have underlined that it is more fundamentally a problem of injustice than of absolute scarcity. This implies that although pressures on supply will increase and government has a pivotal role to play in helping to meet those demands sustainably, the front line in promoting food security is actually to help manage demand. This is as true in the UK as it is internationally - the difference internationally is that many of the poorest 'consumers' derive their economic entitlements from agricultural production. For the UK this implies a policy focus on: managing demand by improving welfare provision and public health intervention to tackle food poverty; and managing supply by introducing fiscal and regulatory measures to protect the workers, the environment and natural resources, and investing in innovation to cater sustainably for changes in demand. These points are elaborated in our publication on the Food Crisis.[2]

6. Science or innovation? Just as concentrating on a 'supply push' for food might increase production with improving security, so a 'supply push' on science is unlikely to deliver the innovation to underpin sustainable and secure food systems. This is the message from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), directed by Prof Bob Watson, now Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra. As the largest, most rigorous and most inclusive assessment of its kind ever, dwarfing any process past or planned in the UK, it deserves to be taken very seriously. The UK government must invest more to support sustainable innovation in agriculture and supporting the science base is a crucial part of that; however, unless it radically overhauls that science base such investment would be squandered from the point of view of ensuring food security. One part of the challenge is to make basic science more independent, cushioning public interest research from the pressures of intellectual property markets. The other part is to invest more heavily in problem-driven research - in a sense less independent - driven by the needs of target beneficiaries such as farmers pioneering sustainable production and management systems, and consumers experiencing food poverty. These points are discussed further in the IAASTD report (, in 'Just Knowledge?' report and in submission to the Royal Society.


January 2009

[1] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, The UK Government's "Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy", HC 546-II, Ev 176

[2] Not printed