Memorandum submitted by Warwick HRI (SFS 53)

 

Securing 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.

Executive Summary

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 substitution.

 

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.

 

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

 

1.1 We 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[1]. The UK has the largest trade deficit for fruit and vegetables[2]. 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.

 

1.2 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.

 

1.3 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.

 

1.4 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.

 

1.5 There 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[3]) 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.

 

1.6 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.

 

1.7 The 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.

 

1.8 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?

 

2.1 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).

 

2.2 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.

 

2.3 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.

 

2.4 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[4] 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.

 

2.5 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 policy objectives.

 

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

 

3.1 Soil quality. We agree with the findings of the report by the Royal Agricultural Society of England[5] 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.

 

3.2 Water 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.

 

3.3 The 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[6] 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 funding.

 

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.

 

3.4 The 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[7]. 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 future.

 

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 process.

 

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.

 

4. 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?

 

4.1 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.

 

4.2 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?

 

5.1 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.

 

5.2 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.

 

5.3 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.

 

5.4 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 problem.

 

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?

 

6.1 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.

 

7. 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?

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:

Financial Health and viability of the food production process.

Numbers of producers in each sector.

Increase in National yield for key crops.

Key R&D milestones and R& D spend.

Environmental Balance Sheets.

Food quality performance.

Workforce numbers age and qualifications.

 

 

January 2009



[1] Defra Summary of farming & food in the UK, 2008

[2] Defra Food Statistics Pocketbook, 2008

 

[3] RuSource, Spedding, 2008

[4] Defra Basic Horticultural Statistics, 2008

[5] Royal Agricultural Society of England, Practice With Science Group: The current status of soil and water management in England, 2008

[6] National Horticultural Forum: A review of the provision of UK horticultural R & D, 2008

[7] Lantra's Business Telephone Survey, 2005 (Analysis of Current and Future Skills Needs)