Memorandum submitted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (SFS 33)

 

Summary of the Submission

 

 

1 The UK and five European countries together account for over 70% of the UK food supply. The UK food supply is vulnerable to both short and long term changes in climate.

 

2 There is considerable concern about the 'skills gap' as it threatens the productivity of the UK food and drinks manufacturing industries.

 

3 The UK will be better placed to deal with the challenges of increasing global food production - and the UK's own food security in the future - if it ensures that the science underpinning food production, food sustainability and food security is identified and that the scientific research necessary in these areas is pursued.

 

4 Research should be undertaken to improve understanding of the chemistry of recycling carbon and nitrogen in soil in order to help maintain sustainable agriculture and reduce emissions of nitrous oxide.

 

5 Sustaining the UK's water supply is vital to sustaining its food supplies.

 

6 There is little chance of increasing the global catch of fish in the oceans without further damaging marine ecosystems. The future shortfall in the supply of fish protein must therefore be met by aquaculture (i.e. farmed fish).

 

7 An understanding of all aspects of the science that underpins the supply of safe and high quality food depends on the maintenance of coordinated research. Food innovation and food safety is crucially dependent on the role and work of scientists and technologists in the food industry.

 

8 Major barriers to trade and innovation occur when regulations are based on hazard rather than risk assessment. Risk accounts for both hazard and exposure. Substances should not be banned on the basis of intrinsic alone but on the likelihood that they will cause actual harm when used.

 

9 Minimising inputs (e.g. energy, water) and maximising outputs (e.g. crop yields) can be achieved by the application of technologies such as in situ biosensor systems.

 

10 Public opinion is influenced by the media, education, and advertising and this can produce a preference for one technology over another. Ultimately, consumers are driven by the price of food. Any new technologies utilised to increase food security or reduce pieces must be accompanied by early and effective public engagement.

 

11 Defra should champion scientific literacy amongst policy makers and at the highest levels of the food industry. Defra and the Council of Food Policy Advisers should draw on the learned societies, professional bodies and the wider scientific community for leadership.

 

12 A coherent cross-Government food strategy would be welcomed.

 

13 Armed with excellent data Defra would be in a strong position to advise the UK farming community on best practice and the whole food supply chain should be monitored to ensure that waste is minimised.

 

 

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

 

1. Sourcing unprocessed food both domestically and from a diverse range of countries enhances food security. In 2006, 26 countries together accounted for 90% of UK food supply, up from 22 countries in 1996. Just under half of this was supplied domestically from within the UK (49%). After the UK, the leading suppliers were the Netherlands (6.7%), Spain (5.8%), France (3.9%), Ireland (2.6%) and Germany (2.5%), all of whom are members of the EU and close trading partners.[1] With the UK and these five European countries (all in the same temperate zone) accounting for 70.5% of the UK food supply, the food system is vulnerable to both short and long term changes in climate. Global warming will have significant effects on weather patterns, distribution and pattern of rainfall, and consequently crop production (for food and animal feed).

 

2. The robustness of the UK food system further down the food supply chain is heavily dependent upon the supply of appropriately trained individuals working in the food processing and manufacturing. In the UK, food and drink manufacturing has a turnover of almost 74 billion and value added of 21.5 billion. Exports of unprocessed primary products, at 700 million, are very low, implying that virtually all of agriculture's 14.8 billion output and its 534,000 workforce depend on the UK market. UK food retailers and caterers together employ an additional 2.5 million people.[2]

 

3. There is considerable concern about the skills gap that threatens the productivity of the UK food and drink manufacturing industries. Over a fifth (22%) of all employers contacted in a survey of 1,200 UK food and drink manufacturers believe that the skill needs within their establishment will change over the next 2-3 years. Half of employers who think their establishment's skill needs will change in this time frame identify technical, practical or job-specific skills as those that will need improving.[3]

 

4. In addition, a minimum of 56,000 workers are expected to retire from the sector over the next eight years while there are fewer 16-29 year olds available to replace this older cohort. Overall replacement demand for the sector is expected to be a total of 118,000 by 2014.[4]

 

5. Any analysis of the robustness of the UK food system must also take into account the robustness of supply of water and energy; both are inextricably linked to food supply.

 

 

 

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. The UK will be better placed to deal with the challenges of increasing global food production - and the UK's own food security in the future - if it ensures that the science underpinning food production, food sustainability and food security is identified and the scientific research necessary in these areas is pursued. The Government needs to develop a comprehensive UK food strategy, which should include identifying any gaps in the scientific research that will be needed in the coming decades.

 

7. In East Anglia, we have some of the most efficient farmers in Europe. A number of these farmers have been expanding by buying land in Poland, where they have the opportunity of quadrupling yields through the introduction of modern farming practices. EU policies have tended to focus on environmental management rather than food production, but the recent response to the increase in food prices gives an indication of what UK farmers could do with the right incentives. The on-going ban of GM crops in Europe damages the productivity and profitability of our farmers, e.g. GM animal feed is generally cheaper than non-GM animal feed.[5] In addition the recent decision to move to hazard based regulation of pesticides in Europe will have the potential for substantive yield losses.[6]

 

 

 

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

 

8. Maintaining good soil structure is important to ensure high productivity. The yield of crop production is often directly related to the amount of nitrogen and other nutrients available either from natural sources such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria working in symbiotic relationship with legumes or the addition of organic matter (primarily manure) to the soil and applied nitrogen fertiliser.

 

9. Various approaches have been developed in the past few decades to minimise the environmentally detrimental effects of agricultural production on soil quality. Technologies such as low-till or no-till and the use of cover crops are important. These techniques reduce the demand for energy and water by reducing evaporation, raising the carbon content of soil, improving soil structure, increasing earthworm populations and combating wind and water erosion.

 

10. Research should be undertaken to improve understanding of the chemistry of recycling carbon and nitrogen in soil in order to help maintain sustainable agriculture and reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. However, lack of information on agro-ecology and the high demand for management skills are major barriers to the adoption of sustainable agriculture in the UK and worldwide.


- Water availability

 

11. To appreciate the impact of water availability on food production it is necessary to consider the total amount of water used. For instance, it takes 1,300 cubic meters of water on average to produce one metric tonne of wheat. This concept, known as virtual water has been defined as 'the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced.'[7] It refers to the sum of the water used in the various steps of the production chain.

 

12. Figures from UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, demonstrate the average amounts of virtual water in food:[8]

 

o the production of 1 kg wheat costs 1,300 L water

o the production of 1 kg broken rice costs 3,400 L water

o the production of 1 kg beef costs 15,000 L water

 

13. The challenges faced in sustaining the UK water supply are therefore clearly directly related to those relating to food supplies. This subject is discussed in detail in an RSC report on Sustainable Water (http://www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/Policy/Documents/water.asp). In recent years, water shortages have become a problem in the South East. Whilst the rest of the UK is currently unaffected, climate change would be expected to exacerbate this problem because of possible changing patterns of rainfall.


- The marine environment

 

14. The most recent global assessment of wild marine fish stock found that, out of the nearly 600 species monitored by FAO, 25% are over-exploited and 52% are fully exploited. 20% are moderately exploited and just 3% are ranked as underexploited. Most wild fisheries are at or near their maximum sustainable exploitation level, and further increases could cause lasting damage to fisheries and marine ecosystems.[9]

 

15. There is little chance of increasing the global catch of fish without further damaging marine ecosystems. Just as we have National Parks we need to think about protecting significant areas of the seas from fishing to enable them to recover. Furthermore, there is the potential for ocean acidification to have a significant impact on aquatic life; the RSC contributed oral and written evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's consultation Investigating the Oceans which dealt with this subject in more detail (http://www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/Policy/Documents/InvestigatingtheOceans.asp).

 

16. The future shortfall in the supply of fish protein must therefore be met by aquaculture. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food-producing sector and its growth over the past 25 years has averaged 9% per annum over the past decade. In 2004, 43% of the global fish supply came from farmed sources, with the greatest proportion located in Asia, representing almost 90% of all farmed fish.[10]

 

17. The growth of aquaculture over the next two decades will involve intensification, improvements in productivity through breeding programmes, modifications of the cultivated organism and feed research to reduce the dependence on fish oil and meal. Water recirculation and aeration technology, coupled with the controlled use of antibiotics, can ease the stress caused by intensive farming; but, unlike treating human or other animal diseases, few drugs are available for treating diseases in fish because of environmental concerns and a relative lack of knowledge about many fish diseases.


- The science base & the provision of training

 

18. An understanding of all aspects of the science that underpins the supply of safe and high quality food depends on the maintenance of coordinated research and expertise in this area. Importantly, research must be both inter- and multi-disciplinary.

 

19. Research in the biological sciences is increasingly dependent upon inputs from chemistry and the physical sciences. Accordingly, the RSC commissioned a report, 'Face to Face: UK Chemistry-Biology Interface' (www.rsc.org/facetoface) to provide information on the chemistry community's participation in bioscience research. The report sets out key recommendations for academia, research institutions and funding bodies in the UK for facilitating interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research in this area and also highlights issues that will be of interest for policy-makers up to the national level.

 

20. This RSC-IChemE report on sustainable food (www.rsc.org/thevitalingredient) shows that progress towards tackling key issues in the food supply chain are dependant on a number of underlying science and technology disciplines including chemistry, physics, biology and chemical engineering. Food innovation and particularly food safety is crucially dependent on the role and work of scientists and technologists in the food industries, in academia and research, in government departments and agencies, in food law enforcement, in local authorities, and in consultancies.

 

21. Technical skills are essential to maintain safety in the food supply chain and to increase competitiveness. However recruitment into technical, engineering and operational roles is a problem. A skilled workforce must be supplied by forging closer links between food sector industries and universities. Graduates must be made aware of the breadth of opportunities available and possess the skills mix to deliver sustainable solutions. It is necessary to improve the training of careers advisers and the information resources available for secondary school students, specifically regarding the possible career paths open in modern food production. Career opportunities in the food supply chain sector must be promoted through work experience placements, teaching placements, careers events and media engagement.

 

- Trade barriers

 

22. Major barriers to trade and innovation occur when regulations are based on hazard rather than risk assessment. Risk accounts for both hazard and exposure. Substances should not be banned on the basis of intrinsic hazard alone but on the likelihood that they will cause actual harm when used.

 

23. For example, following the recent decision by the European Parliament (January 2009) to approve new EU pesticides legislation, the Pesticides Directive (91/414) is likely to take effect from 2011, despite the opposition of the UK Government. This Directive moves away from decisions based on scientific risk assessment to hazard based nonapproval ("cut-off") criteria. If these political, rather than science-based proposals do eventually prevail, then there will be further product losses. According to European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) this could lead to the loss of up to 80% of insecticides and 70% of fungicides in the EU, severely impairing sustainable crop protection in Europe.[11] As the UK Government itself acknowledges, this is likely to hit agricultural yields by limiting the crops that can successfully be grown in the UK.

 

- The way in which land is farmed and managed

 

24. Minimising inputs (e.g. energy, water) and maximising outputs (e.g. crop yields) through agronomic practice is essential for effective farming. This can be achieved by the application of technologies such as in situ biosensor systems that can monitor soil quality and nutrients, crop ripening, crop diseases and water availability to pinpoint nutrient deficiencies, target applications and improve the quality and yield of crops.

 

25. The additional challenge now being faced is the drive to utilise this arable land for the production of crops for biofuels. However, concerns have been raised about the true contribution of so-called first generation biofuels in reducing global warming and about the fact that food crops, grown on the same land, are being used in their production.[12] Many see the way forward as the conversion of cellulosic material to ethanol, known as second generation biofuel. This allows use of the whole plant and more hardy varieties, able to grow on lower grade land with fewer inputs. Major opportunities exist for the chemical sciences in addressing the challenge of sustainable crop production in order to reduce competition for agricultural land.

 

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?

 

26. The consumer can have a profound influence on technologies that are adopted for animal and plant breeding, cultivation of crops and processing and packaging of food. Public opinion is influenced by the media, education, and advertising and this can produce a preference for one technology over another.

 

27. A survey in 2006 identified that by far the most important thing for British consumers is the quality of food, with nearly 75% saying it is very important. For just over half of consumers, price is very important. For a third of consumers, a cluster of health, social and environmental issues were very important. These include: appropriate consumption of fats, sugars, and salts; health and environmental impacts of pesticides and other chemicals; fair treatment of workers; and, animal welfare. Interestingly, big environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity in relation to food production and consumption were only seen as very important by about a quarter of respondents.[13]

 

28. Some studies have indicated that there is a significant gap between what consumers say they will purchase in hypothetical situations and what they actually buy.[14] In a recent Financial Times survey, 30% of people questioned claimed to take fair trade, animal welfare and environmental issues into account when making purchases, however the market share indicates that only 3% act on these concerns. Ultimately, consumers are driven by the price of food.

 

29. Any new technologies utilised to increase food security or reduce prices must be accompanied by early and effective public engagement. There must be effective communication of the benefits as well as risks to the consumer and/or the environment, an alternative approach to that adopted with GM in the 1990s. Consumers want high quality, nutritious food at an affordable price in convenient packaging that does not have adverse effects on the environment. They are often bombarded with large amounts of often conflicting information about climate change, the environment, and new technologies in food production and waste disposal; and it is very difficult for them to make balanced judgements.

 

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?

 

30. The RSC strongly supports the recent creation by the Government of the Council of Food Policy Advisers and believes that this Council should play a major role in the developing the UK's food strategy. It is important that this Council draws on a diverse range of sources to help formulate food policy recommendations, including the scientific expertise available. The RSC hopes that the Council will function in an open and transparent manner and that its reports to Government are made publicly available. As food is rising up the global political agenda, the RSC would like to see regular opportunities for Parliament to debate reports published by the Council, including any annual report.

 

31. Defra should champion scientific literacy amongst policy makers and at the highest levels of the food industry. This will be necessary for promising technical solutions to be recognised by those with the power to initiate change.

 

32. Defra and the Council of Food Policy Advisers should draw on the learned societies, professional bodies and the wider scientific community for leadership on science and technology for sustainable and secure food supplies. These groups can work together to provide common guidance, encouraging interdisciplinary research through facilitating dialogue, and promoting informed and balanced debate.

 

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?

 

33. A coherent cross-Government food strategy would be welcomed. The Cabinet Office strategy unit report (Food Matters 2008) set out strategic policy objectives for Government, however it is still unclear whether or not this has had a positive impact on policy across Government departments. The Cabinet Office announced it would chair a cross-Whitehall Food Strategy Task Force that would coordinate work across government on food issues. This Task Force would report annually to the Prime Minister and the reports published. No reports have yet been published; it is therefore too early to determine the impact of this on cross-Government food strategy.

 

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?

 

34. The establishment of the much talked about Technology Strategy Board (TSB) 'agri-food platform' would be useful in helping Defra to monitor food production in the UK. This platform could be used to set up a series of demonstration farms which would provide some real comparative data i.e. comparing, for example organic agriculture with conventional agriculture, with very high tech agriculture (including GM) - with or without fertilisers and crop rotation etc. A range of parameters could then be measured, e.g. productivity, profitability, carbon footprint, greenhouse gas emissions, fertiliser use, water requirements and on farm biodiversity.

 

35. Armed with excellent data, Defra would then be in a strong position to advise the UK farming community on best practice to ensure that farmers could increase production of our raw ingredients sustainably.

 

36. Furthermore, the whole supply chain should be monitored to ensure that waste is minimised - it is said that we currently waste about 50% of what we produce between farm and fork.

 

 

January 2009

 

 



[1] Defra Food Statistics Pocketbook 2008

[2] Working for the UK - Our Contribution to the Economy, Food and Drink Federation (2007)

[3] Food and Drink Manufacturing: Skills Needs in the English Regions, Improve Food & Drink Sector Skills Council (2007)

[4] Profit through skills: Sector Skills Agreement for the Food and Drink Manufacturing Sector, Improve Food & Drink Sector Skills Council (2006)

 

[5] Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. (2006), Global impact of biotech crops: Socio-economic and environmental effects in the first ten years of commercial use AgBioForum, 9(3), 139-151

[6] Pesticides Safety Directorate Impact Assessment, December 2008

[7] Hoekstra A.Y., and Chapagain A.K., Water footprints of nations: water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern, Water Resources Management, 21, 35 (2007)

[8] Chapagain, A. K., and Hoekstra, A. Y., Water footprints of nations, Value of Water Research Report Series, No.6 (2004)

[9] Barange M., Science for Sustainable Marine Bioresources, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth (2005).

[10] State of World Aquaculture 2006. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 500., Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Rome (2006).

[11] ECPA urges Agriculture Council to leave farmers the tools they need to protect their crops, European Crop Protection Agency (2007).

[12] Johnson E., and Heinen R., The race is on., Chemistry & Industry, 22 (2007)

[13] Gribben, C. a. G., M., Food Labelling: Understanding Consumer Attitudes and Behaviour., (2007)

[14] Noussair, C. N., Do consumers really refuse to buy genetically modified food?, Economic Journal, 114, 102 (2004)