Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Food Research (SFS 25)

 

Summary

Environment and Rural Affairs Committee - 2009.

 

This document represents the Institute of Food Research's view on the issues affecting the security of food supply from the point of view of the consumer and the food industry rather than the issues affecting primary production. The key challenges are

Maintaining consumer choice and expectation for low-cost food.

Ethical food production with minimal environmental impact.

Maintaining the safety of the food chain and consumer confidence in it.

Understanding and influencing consumer attitude and behaviour.

Ensuring the industry is equipped to deliver.

It is our view that food security is a complex interaction between basic production, food processing, the consumer, energy and global warming and that these issues cross the current departmental and research council boundaries. An integrated approach is required between the potential funding bodies to ensure the integration of research required to understand and address the issues which cannot be considered totally in isolation.


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

1. The UK's current food system is around 60% self-sufficient, with the balance dependent upon the importation of a wide range of foods from across the world to provide the UK consumer with cheap and plentiful food supplies, reduced seasonality and tremendous diversity. This is both its strength and its weakness. There is a wide range of choice but supply is highly dependent on importation and transportation costs and environmental impact is high.

2. The supply system is highly dependent on supermarkets and 'just in time' distribution vulnerable to any internal or external perturbation of the transportation network or supply system.

3. Although potentially the UK could become self sufficient in food from the calorie point of view, it is unlikely that this policy would be able to maintain the consumer expectation for price and choice. However, consumers will become increasingly aware of the impact of this policy in particularly third world countries as well as the carbon footprint associated with the distribution network. An increasing proportion of consumers are likely to demand a reduction in this footprint and expect food to be locally sourced, however, a significant proportion of people will not be prepared to pay a premium for this local production. A considerable change in social habits would be required if this policy of increased reliance on local sources was to be implemented.


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?

4. The UK has some of the world's leading centres in climate change, crop development and research throughout the food chain. The Norwich Research Park in particular has international expertise in crops (JIC), environmental sciences (UEA) and food, including consumer sciences and waste reduction (IFR).

5. The NRP is particularly well placed to lead on the development of new crops for increased productivity and drought resistance. However, since 30-50% of food production is lost post-harvest part of the challenge should be met by setting targets for industrial waste elimination. Consumers are becoming aware of this wastage and will be expecting measures to be taken to reduce it and clearly there are benefits to be had in terms of overall sustainability and security if wastage can be substantially reduced. Again this will require not only a change of attitude from consumers but also improved processes in the food industry which will be required to produce the healthy convenience foods, with reduced waste production and with lower energy inputs. The issues affecting processing in terms of minimal processing plus the continued sourcing of foods from across the world will require considerable investment in research into emerging pathogens in order to ensure continued security and confidence in the food chain.

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

- - soil quality
- water availability
- the marine environment
- the science base
- the provision of training
- trade barriers
- the way in which land is farmed and managed

6. Soils and water quality will clearly affect productivity but the quality of soil and its mineral balance will also impact on micronutrient availability. Should there be substantial changes in where crops are produced there may be unexpected impacts on nutritional values and even processing characteristics. This may require the development of new varieties or changes to farming practices.

7. There has been a decline in Defra's funding of research related to agriculture, food and fisheries over many years, with negative impacts on the research base and infrastructure including Research Council institutes, such as IFR. This in turn impacts on the food industry's ability to plan forward for change. The 'delivery pipeline' - from basic and strategic research through more applied work and into practical application by industry - needs to be strengthened.

8. A continued supply of skilled natural and social scientists will be essential to meet future challenges, both to sustain the research base and for the benefit of the economy more widely. IFR is an important contributor, hosting significant numbers of research students in relevant topics in underpinning sciences. Additional support for this role would be welcome.

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?

9. There will be an increasing demand for healthier foods, those lower in fat, salt, sugar, for foods with added benefits from, phytochemicals and natural products. A proportion of consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for these. It is also likely that consumers will increasingly accept genetic modified foods if they are perceived to deliver health benefits or are thought to help alleviate the world food problem. In relation to these areas, considerable consumer and social research is required to understand the motivations of the consumer and to help drive social change that may be necessary if world food supplies become restricted. Because of the concerns for animal welfare and impact on local populations of world trade as well as the need for locally grown produce, there is likely to be increased consumer interest in traceability and labelling and the provenance of food although there has been some funding, particularly from FSA in support of traceability methodology, there will be a continuing need to invest in this area.

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?

10. Defra originally underpinned the development of what has now become the IFR's 'Food and Health Network'. This is a national free-to-join network which hears about best practice and networks to horizon scan on food issues. The 'offspring' of FHN is FHN Direct (working confidentially 1:1 with companies including company visits and discussions) and, most recently following industry requests, the establishment of IFR Extra means that the food industry can now access leading-edge science to tackle its short-term, urgent problems.

Funding from Defra to assist in developing the relationships and the service delivery would be a sensible use of low level resources to help ensure the food industry is fit-for-purpose.

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?

11. We welcome the establishment by Defra of the Council of Food Policy Advisors, although in our view it would be strengthened if its membership included additional scientific expertise.

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?

12. No comment.

January 2009