submitted by Warwick
HRI (SFS 53)
Food supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK.
Warwick HRI is the University of Warwick's
Department of Plant and Environmental sciences; it was rated as the top
agricultural research department for quality in the RAE 2008. It provides expertise in the optimisation of
production, yield and quality of crops. The emphasis is on utilising genetic
and genomic approaches to establish the developmental and mechanistic basis of
key plant attributes and on understanding processes at the whole plant and crop
system level. Contributors to the document are Prof Brian Thomas, Plant
Science, Prof Dave Pink, Crop Genetics and Breeding, Dr Rosemary Collier Crop
Protection and Dr Sharon Hall, Isafruit project. Phillip Effingham, Technical
and Development Director of Marshalls, a leading supplier of prepared
vegetables, has also been consulted.
Prof Wyn Grant of the Politics and
International Studies Department at the University of Warwick,
has also contributed to this report. His general area of interest is
comparative public policy with particular reference to the EU and the US.
The UK food system is fairly robust,
however it is sensitive to a range of potential factors. There is a potential
'conflict' between intensifying food production and environmental benefits. In
order to respond to the global food production challenge UK agriculture
needs to be a knowledge-based industry.
Climate change will affect food production
via extreme weather events both in the UK and elsewhere. A key research
priority should be to optimise the efficiency and sustainability of UK food
production by providing varieties adapted to future growing conditions,
including reduced water availability.
Significant wastage occurs in the food supply
chain both pre- and post-harvest; much of this is driven by aesthetic quality
standards, but significant losses also occur due to pests, diseases and weeds.
New EU legislation will reduce the number of available pesticides and will
threaten our ability to produce certain crops.
Increased energy prices will have a direct
impact via fuel for farming operations and food distribution and an indirect
impact via the embedded energy of inputs particularly nitrogen fertilizer.
There is significant scope for large-scale automation but there is a lack of
available investment to drive this forward.
The leading UK farmers and growers are
innovative, entrepreneurial, well-educated, keen to engage with researchers and
are ready to exploit new opportunities. However, the UK has an ageing farming
population. There is an insufficient supply of knowledgeable and skilled
labour, with few new entrants to the UK food industry. In recent years,
the 'skills gap' has been filled by migrant workers, however, this cannot be
relied upon in future.
Several areas of expertise are in short
supply, notably agronomy, plant pathology and weed science. Expertise is often
'one-deep'. But succession planning is universally weak or non-existent,
because of reduced and uncertain funding. There is a need for continuity in
research funding to maintain expertise and capability. Recruitment of young
career scientists is a significant challenge. Plant and Crop Sciences are not
attractive to students in comparison with other areas.
Predicting future consumer habits and
behaviour is never easy. However, it is likely that consumer demand for fresh
produce will increase in relation to health aspirations. Currently, the UK has the
largest trade deficit for fruit and vegetables and there is scope for import
Government needs to adopt a coordinated
strategy across departments to meet the challenge of increasing global food
production. The role for government will be determined by a choice between a
sustainable food policy or a cheap food policy.
robust is the current UK
food system? What are its main strengths
consider the UK
food system is fairly robust. Currently UK
farmers produce approx 60% of all food consumed within the UK and approx 74% of foods that can be grown in
the UK. The UK has the largest trade deficit
for fruit and vegetables. Predicted trends in climate change under
current UKCIP scenarios may allow the UK to produce a wider range of
crops than we currently grow but may also reduce the suitability of varieties
of current crops for their current locations. There is therefore a continuing
need for new varieties adapted to changing UK conditions. This in turn
requires research into the underlying genetics of adaptive traits (e.g. water
use efficiency) to provide the knowledge and tools to breed new varieties.
Food production is sensitive to extreme weather events. In the UK, examples
from recent years include floods in 2007 and 2008 and hot dry periods in 2003
and 2006. It is predicted that such episodes will become more frequent. The
food industry has considerable experience in contingency planning for such
events. Producers and retailers often cope with extreme events by switching to
a source from a different region/country, however, this assumes that an
alternative supply is available. Some
extreme weather events that affect the UK
also affect other European countries e.g. heatwaves, while sometimes, different
extreme events occur at the same time in different food production areas e.g.
flooding in Spain and
adverse temperatures in the UK.
Disruption of production in more than one production area can have a significant
impact on supply.
Total energy use by the UK
food chain is estimated at 43 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 20062. 2008 demonstrated the UK food systems
sensitivity to energy prices. UK
farming's use of energy has become more intensive with increased
mechanisation. Increased energy prices
have a direct impact via fuel for farming operations, food distribution and
cool chain marketing and an indirect impact via the embedded energy of inputs
particularly nitrogen fertilizer which for some crops represents 70% of the
energy input of growing.
It is our view that the UK
food system has a lack of contingency in the face of crop failures or fuel
crisis. There is little storage capacity in the system, and although 'just in time' logistics systems
adopted by the UK
retail sector bring benefits in terms of efficiency, they are potentially
vulnerable to direct or indirect disruption. There is a potential vulnerability to various forms of 'direct
action'. The effects of this could be
accentuated by the 'panic buying' that often sets in when consumers perceive a
threat to security of supply.
are major weaknesses in the UK
food supply chain associated with human resources. It is our view that there is likely to be a
shortage of knowledge and expertise in the medium term in relation to skills
associated with crop production and land management (the average age of UK
farmers is estimated to be well over 50)
and also in crop research and development (particularly in more applied areas
such as soil science and agronomy). An
insufficient supply of knowledgeable and skilled labour is also a major
weakness. The demands made by retailers, tighter environmental standards and
the use of non-chemical methods of pest, disease and weed
control require greater technical input, particularly in horticulture, but the
thin margins in the sector often do not permit sufficiently attractive pay and
benefits to be offered. Stricter
immigration polices restrict the availability of migrant labour, although this
has had a greater impact on the horticultural sector non UK labour is
now being increasingly used in arable farming.
We feel that wastage is a weakness throughout the UK food supply chain. This occurs
both pre- and post- harvest. The quality requirements of retailers are often
aesthetic and lead to excessive waste due to grade out of supposedly inferior
(but perfectly edible) produce. Vegetable growers often grow 'excess' crops to
ensure continuity of supply of high quality produce. However, retailers can and
do react to supply and demand and when faced with short supply will relax
quality requirements. In-field waste due to weeds, pests and diseases can also
lead to loss of crop quality (particularly for high value horticultural
produce) but infestations also lead to significant yield losses in arable
crops. Loss of yield causes reduced productivity per unit area of land and
wastes resources such as fertilizers, pesticides and water.
threat from pests and diseases may increase as a result of increased
globalisation of the food supply chain.
Climate change may result in increased damage caused by both endemic and
exotic pests. UK
farming relies on the responsible and appropriate use of pesticides in order to
produce crops as efficiently as possible. New EU legislation will reduce the
number of available pesticides and threatens our ability to produce certain
crops. A consequence of this may be increased food imports from countries where
these 'withdrawn' pesticides are still used.
Replacing synthetic pesticides with alternatives requires investment in R &
D to provide alternatives, including biological control agents. The EU (including the UK) has a
poorer record in making biological control agents available than other states
(e.g. US). One problem has been the
difficulty of registration in a system designed for synthetic pesticides. The
Pesticides Safety Direcorate's Biopesticides Scheme has sought to overcome
this. However, take up has not been as
great as was hoped; one reason for this may be the existence of the 'grey
market' in which products are marketed without making a control claim.
2. 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?
In order to respond to the challenge of increasing global food production there
is a need to increase production per unit area as most UK land
suitable for growing crops is being utilised and the need for land for other
uses is increasing e.g. pressure to release peri-urban land for housing. There is a potential 'conflict' between
intensifying food production and environmental benefits and a key research
priority should be to optimise the efficiency and sustainability of UK food
production. In order to increase sustainability of production, UK farmers will
need to increase yield per unit of energy input, the use of alternative energy
has potential to contribute to sustainability but may also be a threat in terms
of demand for land (e.g. bioenergy crops).
In general, advances due to scientific research are incremental building on
existing knowledge; this requires continuity in the research base to maintain
expertise and capability. In practice, a
reduction in UK funding for
agricultural research has resulted in a serious loss of capacity, knowledge and
expertise threatening the UK's
ability to respond to the global challenge. This was compounded by the
privatisation of the Agricultural Advisory Service (ADAS) and UK farmers are
at a distinct disadvantage compared to competitors elsewhere (e.g. US) in not
having the support of a national extension service.
It is our view that UK
farmers will be better able to increase production by growing crops that are
best suited to the UK
climate. This is expected to change in response to global warming and farmers
will need to respond by reviewing the varieties they grow; they will need to be
supported in this by research. However,
farmers are of necessity looking at short time-scale returns and do not invest
in long-term R & D. Also, government funds much of its research in short
timescales (3-4 yrs) with no guarantee of continuity. This has led to a loss of
expertise and capacity in some areas of research, undermining the UK's own ability
to respond to the challenge of increasing global food production and also to
aid others to do so.
Taking account of the sustainability of long term storage of UK produce we
feel that there are opportunities to contribute to meeting the global challenge
through import substitution. E.g. home production of dessert apples has
decreased by about 40% over the last 10 years
with a similar trend for other orchard fruit.
Currently home production of apples is about 30% of total supply and of
pears and plums about 15% of total supply4.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) does not provide the optimal framework
within which to develop UK
policy. The Treaty objectives for the
policy have not changed since the Treaty of Rome. The emphasis of the CAP has changed, but
'Pillar 2' spending which is more relevant to sustainability has not grown as
fast as was hoped. It is evident that
some member states hope that undifferentiated subsidies will continue beyond
2013 rather than developing payments that are more clearly linked to specific
particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the
following aspects of the supply side of the food system:
agree with the findings of the report by the Royal Agricultural Society of
that "there is a much depleted body of specialists to address the research,
advisory and training issues required to support the farming community." This
undermines the UK 's ability
to maintain the quality of UK
soils in the face of the considerable challenge of increasing food production.
Availability. Water is the most important factor limiting
crop production on a global scale. The UK is dependent on imported food
products which contain embedded, "virtual water". These may become more at risk
in the future. In the UK,
water resources are increasingly under pressure due to competition from diverse
users and the desire to protect the environment. Overall, UKCIP projections are
for geographical and temporal changes in rainfall distribution with wetter
winters, particularly in the North and drier summers, particularly in the
South. The challenges are two fold, to ensure maximum efficiency in the use of
water on farm (for irrigation, drinking or cleaning of machinery) and to
develop crops with higher water use efficiency to reduce irrigation
requirements and for robust performance in conditions of variable water supply.
Science Base.The Panel report on Agriculture from the
University Research Assessment Exercise stated that the sector was responding
well to key challenges relating to sustainability, climate change, mitigation
and adaptation, and alternative land use. The report pointed out the importance
of combining strength in the scientific disciplines with effective
interdisciplinary working. Plant and Microbial Sciences form the core
disciplines underpinning crop production and these are being driven forward
through major advances in areas such as genome sequencing and systems biology.
Much of this takes place in "model" plant species such as Arabidopsis. The
challenge is to translate the fundamental information into application in crops
and to develop models for traits not represented in Arabidopsis. Such
'translational' research is not well catered for (other than in Research
Institutes) in the current UK
funding model. The recent NHF survey
confirms that several areas of expertise are in short supply, notably agronomy,
plant pathology and weed science. Expertise is often 'one-deep'. But succession
planning is universally weak or non-existent, because of reduced and uncertain
Recruitment of young career scientists is a
significant challenge. Plant and Crop Sciences are not attractive to students
in comparison with other areas such as biomedical subjects. This is not helped
by the negative representation of scientific advances in crop sciences such as
GM. However, innovation, scientific understanding and application of new
technologies will be essential to support UK agriculture meet future
challenges. These are likely to be manifested as predictive biology using
bioinformatic tools and the need to extend models from lab to field
environments to create plants capable of producing robust yields in the face of
changing environmental conditions.
Provision of Training. An important element in
knowledge-based crop production is the availability of an appropriately skilled
workforce. According to a recent Lantra
survey the current workforce is ageing.
There are few new entrants to the UK food industry, which will face
an increasing skills shortage going forward. In recent years, the 'skills gap'
has been taken up by migrant workers, however, this cannot be relied on in
The lack of students wanting to study crop
and animal production has resulted in closure of many of the UK's
agricultural colleges which offered applied training and many of those that do
still exist have specialised in non food areas (e.g. equine studies). Similarly
the reduction in student numbers for University level education has resulted in
reduction in the numbers of agriculture departments; however, those that still
exist provide a high standard of training. As has already been stated Plant and
Crop Sciences are not attractive to students, which results in a limited number
of students with the appropriate background to carry out the underpinning
research for crop production.
3.5 The way
in which land is farmed and managed. With the
dwindling numbers of industry participants, the scope for large scale
automation is immense but the pace through lack of available investment is
slow. To achieve the levels of growth aspired to it will be necessary to
develop large scale operations that have the infrastructure to cope with
transport logistics, legal compliance and modern agronomic management
techniques. Environmental management will still play a major role in the
As previously stated (2.1) there is a
potential 'conflict' between increasing food production and environmental
benefits and there is a challenge to balance the aspirations of different
stakeholders for UK
countryside. This requires a co-ordinated strategy for UK land use within which to develop appropriate
policy, balancing the value of different 'ecosytems services' derived from the UK countryside.
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
There is a prevailing view that customer demand for fresh produce will increase
as the aspirations for health and the fight against obesity gathers momentum.
This is likely to take two routes which are already evident in the marketplace,
either basic produce for cooking from scratch or convenience forms, e.g.
pre-prepared or partially cooked for time-poor families. The split will be much
clearer than current confused offers with packaging and labelling reduced and
much clearer and simpler. We are unsure whether broad scale organics will
survive or become niche again. This may be exacerbated by increasing focus on
pesticides and their substitution.
It remains to be seen how much environmental concerns will have an impact on
consumer food habits e.g. will there be a reverse of the trend from vegetables
to meat associated with development and affluence? Will consumers as a whole,
rather than a minority, show a preference for locally produced food, either
through local markets or the existing food network and sold by multiples? Will
the relaxation of EU rules on appearance and uniformity be echoed in consumer
choices leading to reduced waste and more efficient land use?
5. 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?
If Government wants a sustainable food policy, it needs to ensure there is a
viable production process with operators able to generate sufficient reward to
continue and reinvest in its future. Under those circumstances there would not
be a central role for Defra. However if Governments continue to pursue a cheap
food policy then the industry (and consumers) will be fully reliant on Defra
for a range of R&D support driven by strong leadership and focus. A
transparent system should be in place for decisions led by evidence rather than
by pressure from special interest groups.
If sustainable production is to be valued by consumers they will need a reliable
way to make decisions; Government should take the lead in devising a
consistent, transparent and independent form of accreditation of the
sustainability of different production systems to allow consumers to make real
comparisons and informed choices.
Continuity of investment in R & D is necessary to maintain the UK's research
capacity in the sciences underpinning food production. Defra is an important
funder of research underpinning sustainable food production and should continue
to do so. An area where Defra can provide a lead in research funding is GM
where it is an appropriate approach.
In order to ensure efficient production and supply there needs to be
coordination between agencies and industries throughout the food supply chain.
The Government should drive these interactions. Research into modelling the
complexity of production, supply and distribution chain would be useful. Models
could be used to monitor and adapt a system if any indicator shows there is a
6. 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?
We don't believe there is coherent Cross-Government food strategy. If there is
it is lost in translation. The involvement of the Cabinet Office in the food
security issue has produced a more strategic overview of the challenges and
where they might be tackled. However,
the composition of the Food Strategy Task Force established by the Cabinet
Office shows just how many departments and agencies are involved in food
related issues (eight including the Cabinet Office). Each of these departments has their own
particular driver, e.g. obesity (Department of Health), safety (Food Standards
Agency), competitiveness (BERR). There
still needs to be a clearer understanding of what the priorities are and who
should be delivering them.
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?
Defra collects a range of statistics on food
production, economics and land use. Key statistics should be abstracted and
benchmarked against European competitors. Categories could include:
Health and viability of the food production process.
of producers in each sector.
· Increase in National yield for key
· Key R&D milestones and R& D
· Environmental Balance Sheets.
· Food quality performance.
numbers age and qualifications.
Defra Summary of farming
& food in the UK, 2008
 Defra Food Statistics Pocketbook, 2008
RuSource, Spedding, 2008
Basic Horticultural Statistics, 2008
Royal Agricultural Society of England,
Practice With Science Group: The current status of soil and water management in
Forum: A review of the provision of UK horticultural R & D, 2008
Lantra's Business Telephone Survey, 2005 (Analysis
of Current and Future Skills Needs)