Memorandum submitted by the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) (SFS 32)

 

AIC Submission:

EFRA Committee Inquiry - Securing Food Supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK

 

Summary

AIC represents the UK agricultural supply industry, companies involved in the supply of inputs to producers and the purchase of combinable crops from farms.

 

AIC holds the view that the UK food system is robust and in the primary chain has worked hard together in recent years to develop independently audited and accredited assurance schemes which have supported a robust system but which have also added transparency. AIC believes therefore that the industry is well placed to respond to the challenges which will arise in the next 40 years.

 

AIC would place the industry's access to technology at the heart of future strategy. Whilst certain technologies will be dependent on consumer acceptance there is a wider issue regarding access to technology and a functioning and properly funded agricultural science base. Allied to this government needs to recognise the role played in transferring science knowledge into practical on-farm applications

 

Resource protection will play a critical part in securing future food supplies but this has to build on mapping and understanding resources such as soil before interpretation and advice can be generated.

 

Indicators suggest Northern Europe will be one of those areas most looked to in order to deliver the increased production demands and Defra will be looked to for leadership and in galvanising government departments to balance the food, feed and non-food needs of the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Submission

 

1. AIC is the UK's leading representational body for the agricultural supply industry. Representing companies involved in the manufacture and supply of fertilisers and animal feeds, the purchase and marketing of combinable crops and the supply of seeds, agrochemicals and feed materials to UK farmers. AIC represents both private and farmer controlled businesses. The annual turnover of member businesses is approximately 7.8 billion.

 

2. AIC would begin by questioning the factors contributing to the rise in food prices in 2007/08. Studying the data for maize and wheat, two of the most traded commodities, globally, it can be seen that during the period 2000/01 to 2007/08 overall demand for wheat and maize rose by 5.4% and 27% respectively. During that same period stock levels fell by 42% and 27% respectively whilst production levels remained relatively static. The absence of any increased production over the period is a natural reaction to a prolonged period of relatively low prices and therefore, we would argue, as important a factor and would help to explain the price reaction to the weather affected harvests in 2007 & '08.

 

3. Within the primary chain and through to first processing we would argue the UK has a robust food chain with a high level of transparency being one of its strengths. Transparency is one feature which has allowed the UK industry to lend itself so readily to the development of assurance schemes with their independence of audit operating to internationally recognised standards. It is one of the strengths of the UK system that the development of assurance is now being adopted by a number of other countries, both in the EU and beyond.

 

4. In common with most other countries in the developed world, the UK has a highly developed agricultural sector which places a strong reliance on the use of science and technology for its advancement. We will return to the importance of the science base later in the submission however there is a considerable concern within the whole of the food industry that the UK Government has not hitherto placed sufficient importance on the maintenance of a strategic science resource and this will have a negative impact on the UK's ability to meet the demands likely to be placed on it with regard to future food security.

 

5. Sustainable food production is a driver which we believe all UK industry will readily sign up to. A definition of sustainable production must reflect the financial sustainability of those within the industry but we believe this is a concept now fully recognised by policy makers. True sustainability does however also need to recognise the need for the industry to be sustainable against its business competitors. The challenges on improving agricultural output over the next 40 years are clear, as are the expectations being placed on the UK, other parts of northern Europe and North America. Such challenges will only be met successfully through a mature debate on delivering sustainability and an acceptance that environmental evolution rather than preservation is a key part of that process.

 

6. The challenges from now to 2050 are perhaps put into context by the ISAAA Chairman, Clive James who is quoted as saying "In the next 50 years, mankind will consume as much food as we have consumed since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago."

 

7. AIC would readily recognise the role which soil quality and soil management have to play going forward. One of the main issues to be addressed in this area, which is perhaps also relevant, although to a lesser extent, for water quality, is the inherent variability within farms. Through bodies such as the Environment Agency there have been considerable steps taken on soil mapping which we believe will be of major benefit in the years to come. This work must however be supported by the resource and expertise to interpret the mapping data and convert that information into tangible advice for farmers and growers. We believe this is a positive message and would look to Defra to ensure that the structures remain in place for this work to be concluded and its full benefit delivered. The successful understanding and management of soil will be a major factor in the period to 2050 as predictions suggested the loss of around half of all currently cultivated land, globally, through management issues such as over-grazing, excessive irrigation and resultant problems of salinity.

 

8. Globally it is estimated as much as 70% of food production is dependent on irrigation and current aquifer depletion is running at twice the recharge rate. It is difficult to see how an increasing population, can be fed from roughly the same area of land without even greater pressure being put on the usage of water. Water availability is therefore an issue and we believe governments must explore the whole range of options, technical and others, to determine how we meet this challenge.

 

9. As one of the organisations behind the creation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture, AIC is a strong believer in the need for a more robust and better funded structure to enable both the transfer of 'blue sky' research into applied, commercial situations and greater transfer of R&D outcomes to farm level. The position of agricultural R&D was well highlighted in the House of Lords debate on 20th January, initiated by Lord Selborne, as was the demise of a number of bodies which have had a role to play in the areas previously mentioned. Whilst the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) can play a role in ensuring effective delivery of new knowledge into practical on-farm application, and indeed some of its sector bodies have a long history in doing just that, it is important to look beyond this to the R&D pipeline for UK agriculture. If the UK is serious about maintaining its position as a food producer but also wishes to see agriculture deliver solutions to some of society's wider issues such as renewable energy, then it must recognise the pivotal role that science plays and support it accordingly.

 

10. One of the potential weaknesses we would see to the UK food system going forward is that of personnel. The increasing average age of producers has oft been documented but this is a position common across many other parts of the primary agricultural food and feed chain. Our own previous assessments foresee approximately 75% of middle and senior managers retiring within the next decade and there are significant concerns on the availability of successors. With increasing market opportunities going forward, coupled with a continual demand on knowledge and technology transfer, the provision of an appropriate training structure is crucial.

 

11. AIC welcomes the recent statements by the Secretary of State on the importance of food production in the UK and we have welcomed the pro-science stance taken by the UK in areas such as biotechnology and the recent review of pesticides legislation. We do however share with the rest of the agricultural sector a sense of frustration that these positive messages are seemingly undermined by Defra's actions to unilaterally impose on English growers production restrictions and constraints. Whilst it is not appropriate to explore this in detail in this submission, it is a suitable example of the confused signals Defra needs to avoid sending out.

 

12. If the UK is serious about rising to meet the future production challenges, whether that be food, feed or non-food, Defra must play its part in delivering other relevant departments. From an industry perspective we would expect to see Defra giving clear leadership. The UK has a sound productive base which utilises technology in modern production and processing practices. There is a high degree of transparency with assurance offering an independently verifiable check on practice. We would expect to see Defra play its part in extolling the virtues of the UK production system to other EU member states (many of whom are following the UK lead in areas such as assurance). The UK agricultural industry has, perhaps more so than any other part of the EU, turned its face fully to the market in reaction to CAP review and developed a structure to deliver the needs of that market, today and tomorrow. In doing so however the industry and Defra need to be alive to the potential for short term protectionism which may exist elsewhere and which was seen in a number of third countries over the past two years.

 

January 2009