Memorandum submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (SFS 57)

 

1. Following the invitation of 11 December 2008 from the House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee to submit written evidence for its inquiry entitled Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK, this memorandum focuses on the steps Defra is taking to ensure we remain food secure in the UK now and in the future, and in light of the challenge to feed the globe's rapidly growing population sustainably.

Introduction

 

2. Defra's response to the Committee's terms of reference attempts to provide an overview of the department's, and Government's work to ensure a sustainable and secure food supply.

 

3. The Government's definition of UK food security is: for people to have access at all times to sufficient, safe, sustainable and nutritious food, at affordable prices, so as to help ensure an active and healthy life. Our work on food security is built on analysis carried out over some years, most recently in Defra's analytical study Food Security and the UK (December 2006)[1], and followed by our discussion paper Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, issued last July.

 

4. The Cabinet Office/Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report Food Matters set out four strategic policy objectives, which the Government has endorsed[2]. Our approach to food policy is to join up the health, social, environmental and economic aspects. This will be driven forward by a new Cabinet sub-committee and co-ordinated by a Food Strategy Task Force. It will include work that Defra, the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency, and a number of other departments are taking forward in partnership. Defra's new co-ordinating role on food policy means working with other departments on wider issues than before such as the social impacts of food policy. The newly created Council of Food Policy Advisers will assist with this.

 

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

The UK food system

 

5. The UK food system is a significant part of the UK economy. Consumer expenditure on food totalled 172bn in 2007 - split between expenditure on catering services (82bn) and food and drink for the home (90bn). The UK exported 11.4bn worth of food and drink, the majority of which was highly processed (58% highly processed; 35% lightly processed; 7% unprocessed). The agri-food sector as a whole contributed 79.4bn (8.6%) to national market sector GVA in 2006, and employed 3.2 million people. In 2007 the UK imported 26.6bn worth of food and drink imports, of which 5.4bn consisted of unprocessed agricultural products.

6. The diversity of the supply of our food products in the UK, including domestically, helps to spread risks from potential disruptions such as terrorism or floods. It also enables us to choose from a rich selection of nutritious foods. In 2006, 26 countries, including the UK, accounted for 90% of our food supply, up from 22 countries in 1996. Currently, 34 countries supply the UK with at least 0.5% of our food imports, with no single country accounting for more than 13% (Netherlands having this share), and the vast majority of our food (69% in value) coming from our stable trading partners in the European Union.[3]

 

7. The food sector has demonstrated its ability and flexibility in dealing effectively with emergencies, for example, the flooding in Gloucester and the southwest in 2007. During the floods the supermarkets remained open and able to provide food to the affected populations and, with the dairy and alcoholic drinks industry, supported the provision and distribution of water.

 

Strengths and weaknesses

 

8. UK farming continues to show its strength and resilience in the face of challenges. The biggest wheat harvest in UK history in the last year is testimony to this, as is the 9% increase in real terms in total farming income. As stewards of the land, our farmers know that UK food production has both positive and negative impacts on the environment. There are examples of good environmental practice, but also challenges for us in meeting our objective of a more environmentally sustainable food chain. Positively, agriculture has shaped the landscape that we know and value and, through appropriate management, can bring significant benefits to the UK's environment. However, the sector is also heavily dependent on oil, energy and water, all of which are increasingly scarce. Agriculture also contributes to climate change: direct emissions from animals accounted for 3% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. Globally, livestock farming accounts for an estimated 18% of greenhouse gas emissions if associated land-use changes are taken into account. Waste is an issue across the food chain - the main sources of waste being food and packaging. 10% of all UK industrial and commercial waste comes from the food industry and consumers throw away an estimated 30% of the food they buy, half of which is edible.

 

9. The effects on health of what we eat in the UK are also significant. While consumers are increasingly interested in healthy eating, at current levels 40% of us will be obese by 2025, and 60% by 2050. Current dietary habits also increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. 70,000 premature deaths a year could be avoided if, nationally, our diets matched nutritional guidelines. We also need to consider the accessibility and affordability of healthy food to those on the lowest incomes, particularly at a time of rising food prices.

 

10. As well as its dependency on energy, oil and water, our food system also depends on telecommunications and transport. Reliability and diversity of supply in these areas remains essential.

 

11. Our food system benefits from the number and diversity of its supply chains, manufacturing and retailers, and the variety of foods that can be used and substituted. By any objective measure and despite recent price increases, the UK currently enjoys a high level of food security. An initial assessment of the five main elements of food security set out in July's Defra discussion paper[4] indicates that food safety, access to and availability of safe and nutritious food, and the resilience of the food chain are the strong points of the UK food system. Making our food system more sustainable, more secure, and delivering the objectives set out in Food Matters remains central to our work.

 

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?

 

12. As last July's Defra discussion paper on food security made clear, UK food security needs to be put in a global context. The Government is committed to ensuring that the UK is a leader internationally in helping to increase global food production in a sustainable way. Agricultural research and development has been shown to deliver a relatively high rate of return, and will help to deliver sustainable increases in production. The UK has announced its intention to invest 400m in international agricultural research over the next five years.

 

13. Domestically, the Government wants to see UK producers competing for and winning markets at home and abroad, now and in the future. Our agriculture is strong and resilient with total farming income rising. As well as producing record amounts of wheat in 2008, levels of beef and veal exports nearly trebled. UK agriculture makes a significant contribution to our food security as part of a network of global partners able to trade freely with ourselves and other nations. British agriculture should produce as much food as possible. The only requirements should be that consumers want what is produced and that the way our food is grown sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.

 

14. The UK is at the forefront of proposals for a Global Partnership on Agriculture and Food Security (GPAFS) - an idea first launched at the FAO's High Level Conference in June of last year. GPAFS aims to complement the UN's Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA), and act as a mechanism for the mobilisation of resources for agriculture and food for both the short and longer-term. Central to our efforts is the need to ensure that the global production increases required in future are sustainably achieved and take account of climate impacts.

 

15. Jane Kennedy, Minister for Farming and the Environment, is co-sponsoring (with Mike Foster at DfID) Professor John Beddington's Foresight study on the future of food and farming. The Chief Scientist's study will examine the global food system, and its implications for developments both here and abroad, asking how we can meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050.

 

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

 

16. In some parts of the UK we already have low levels of soil cover. However, there is little evidence to suggest that production will be affected significantly by soil degradation such as erosion, compaction and organic matter decline in the near future. These remain on-going issues though, and recent studies suggest organic matter levels are declining in some areas.

 

17. Precautionary measures aiming to address soil degradation are already in place under CAP cross-compliance and agri-environment measures. The Government plans to improve soil monitoring to ensure it has a good understanding of trends and risks. CAP cross-compliance and agri-environment measures are also being kept under review.

 

18. There is a danger that the impacts of climate change may add to rates of erosion, increase the amount of waterlogged soil, and increase levels of compacted soils. In addition, temperature rises, and changes in rainfall patterns are likely to affect soil moisture levels which will affect productivity and require increased irrigation. There will also be risks of salinisation from irrigation. Soils act as important carbon stores and research has been commissioned to understand the likely impacts of climate change on key soil threats, and the actions that will be needed once these likely impacts are understood.

 

Water availability

19. Abstracting water unsustainably can have serious environmental impacts, negatively affecting habitats and biodiversity and any flood protection they provide. It can also have a negative effect on water quality, reducing the ability of rivers to dilute pollutants.

20. By importing food and other products, the UK is also importing 'virtual' or 'embedded' water - the water used to produce a product in another country. As a heavy importer of virtual water, the UK has a substantial "external water footprint" (recent estimates by the WWF suggest this to be 62%), and hence the potential to be putting pressure on water resources outside of the UK. The impact of the UK's external water footprint can be positive or negative - and will depend on conditions in the country of origin. Defra is currently discussing potential further work on embedded water, including future policy and research requirements with stakeholders.

The marine environment

 

21. Defra published Fisheries 2007, its long-term vision for sustainable fisheries in October of that year to guide future fisheries policy. Focussed on activities in England and within British limits adjacent to England, it strives for a balance between the Government's economic, social and environmental priorities for sustainable marine fisheries.

 

22. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) provides the policy framework governing the exploitation of marine fish resources in EU waters. In its negotiations on fishing opportunities in EU and other international waters, the UK's aim is to achieve a balanced and fair settlement which promotes the long-term sustainability of fish stocks, the economic sustainability of the UK fishing industry, and the protection of vulnerable species.

 

23. Sustainable fisheries must also be a global priority. Fish make up half the dietary protein for 400 million people in the world's poorest countries, and a fifth of protein nutrition in developing countries as a whole. Additionally, fish exports from developing countries are a significant element of national income.

 

24. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing remains a major threat not just to the world's fish stocks, but to its marine biodiversity, and the livelihoods and security of coastal communities. This problem is particularly critical for developing countries, now that many western fisheries are already heavily fished and well controlled. With strong UK support, the EU has introduced a new Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate the import of IUU fishery products into the Community.

 

The science base

 

25. Support to encourage thriving and sustainable farming and food industries in the UK, and in reducing the negative impacts of farming on the environment, must be supported by research and development programmes. These include sustainable farming systems and biodiversity, agriculture and climate change, agriculture and sustainable water management, resource efficient and resilient food chains, and plant health. Underpinning many of the research capability needs are expertise and facilities in plant, animal and soil science, a significant proportion of which are provided by research institutes and organisations. There are also several UK university departments with specific expertise. Collectively, these research providers constitute a fairly comprehensive research base for agricultural science and associated environmental considerations.

 

26. Defra provides 68M a year in research funding for farming and food including 39M on animal health and welfare. The BBSRC invests 185M a year, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board 20M, and industry and NGO contributions to LINK research are about 6M. Defra has also announced a new national research centre for food and the environment which will strengthen Defra's research capability. The Food and Environment Research Agency will bring together a wide-range of expertise. It will strengthen our work in plant and crop protection and in environmental risk assessment, help us respond to crises speedily, and assist in cutting delays for businesses trading in the UK or overseas. Research also needs to respond to new problems as they arise; Defra's recent announcement of additional funding for bee health and research is an example of this.

 

27. We have some concerns that expertise in agricultural sciences, and in specific technical areas (for example, soil science, weed science, "whole organism" biology, agricultural engineering), are not being replaced; universities are no longer teaching relevant courses, and long-term career prospects are limited. Additionally, future requirements are likely to be for interdisciplinary, socio-economic science, modelling and systems-based approaches alongside these more traditional disciplines. An example might be integrating expertise in effects of climate change and other pressures on farming systems with socio-economics, to feed into overall policy development.

 

The provision of training

 

28. As well as good farming skills, farmers need business and environmental skills in order to succeed. The Government is working with the industry to help it meet its challenges and ensure the right skills are developed.

 

29. Defra is supporting Fresh Start, an industry-led initiative which provides training and mentoring for new or recent recruits to the industry, and also a matchmaking service identifying potential opportunities for participants.

 

30. In addition, the Agri-skills Forum has been formed to help establish a Skills Agenda, owned by the industry, to re-skill and raise professional standards. A skills group has been established, consisting of Lantra, the National Farmers' Union, Landex (an association of further and higher education colleges), and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board. Its role is to encourage farmers and growers to value and participate in skills and knowledge development, and to influence educators and the Government to meet industry needs.

 

Trade barriers

 

31. As July's Defra discussion paper on food security made clear, we believe that the global marketplace for food needs to be freed from the distorting effects that subsidies and import tariffs have on producers worldwide. The World Bank has shown that greater liberalisation of trade would result in increased farm output in most of the world, including 5-6% a year in Africa. The tariff and subsidy regime under the EU's CAP keeps prices for consumers artificially high in the EU and in 2007 the cost of EU agricultural policy to EU consumers was 34bn.

 

32. The UK still considers that agreeing a balanced Doha deal via the WTO offers us the best opportunity to make the global trading system fairer, and we will continue to work within the EU for reform of the CAP to make it less trade distorting and more sustainable.

 

The way in which land is farmed and managed

 

33. Farmers have an important role not only in food production but as custodians and guardians of the countryside and the environment. UK agricultural holdings represent 77% of our total land area, and the challenges presented by climate change to the industry are large.

34. Since the CAP reform of 2003, farmers are required to comply with a set of Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) and keep their land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) in order to qualify for the full single payment and other direct payments. The SMRs relate to the areas of public, animal and plant health, environment and animal welfare. The standards of GAEC relate to the issues of soil erosion, soil organic matter, soil structure and ensuring a minimum level of maintenance, and avoiding the deterioration of habitats. Maintaining the quality of the soil means that the soil will continue to sustain production.

 

35. Farmers can also voluntarily opt to join Environmental Stewardship (ES) schemes. ES provides funding to farmers and land managers in England who deliver effective environmental management on their land, and has the following primary objectives: wildlife conservation, maintaining and enhancing landscapes, protecting the historic environment and natural resources, and promoting public access and understanding of the countryside.

 

36. Climate change is having an increasing impact on farming and land management, but options exist for farmers to help them cope with, and take advantage of, the changes. However, more work remains to be done to meet these challenges. Farmers and land managers need to be aware of and manage risks climate change presents to their businesses. Farmers have a responsibility to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by, for example, providing animals with diets that specifically match their nutritional requirements, and by being as energy efficient as possible. There is a need for further research and policy analysis, and Defra is undertaking a specific programme of research on agriculture and climate change (around 5m in 2007/8), comprising projects in the following areas: measuring emissions from agriculture; mitigating agricultural nitrous oxide and methane emissions; climate change impacts and adaptation; energy in agriculture and food; bio-energy; and renewable materials.

 

37. Globally, the UK has been leading the call to reaffirm the Millennium Development Goal commitments, including MDG 7 on ensuring environmental sustainability. This covers a range of subjects - CO2 emissions, water, biodiversity, sanitation, forests and fisheries among them. It is crucial, therefore, in protecting the natural resources on which the poor depend most, and to achieving the other MDGs including that on hunger.

 

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?

 

38. Evidence even up to last year indicated that UK consumers are retaining their growing interest in food, in particular the health, quality, origins and ethical aspects.[5] Defra's latest expenditure and food survey[6] indicates:

A continuation in the downward trend of purchases of less healthy foods; purchases of whole milk, white bread, some meat products[7] and soft drinks have dropped.

Average energy intake per person has dropped, along with intake of saturated fatty acids, sodium, and a big drop in the intake of added sugars (i.e., sugars not found naturally in, for example, fruit).

Fruit and vegetable purchases are rising slowly.

 

39. A report from market analyst Mintel in September 2008 suggests that locally sourced food is among the most buoyant food categories in terms of growth, following a steady upward trajectory from 2003 to 2008. In October Mintel said that manufacturers offering quality premium goods are likely to be resilient in any market turbulence. The success of direct selling by farmers, suggests that the interest in local food networks will continue and grow for the foreseeable future.

 

40. We also expect to see the following consumer trends emerge in 2009:

Less food waste through greater awareness of the amount of food we waste in the UK and its cost in both personal financial and environmental terms.

A move away from premium to standard and basic supermarket product lines.

More flexibility and willingness to compare products, brands and retailers on price - there is evidence this is already happening with the rise in purchases of own-brand products.

A preference when dining out for consumers to choose less expensive places.

 

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?

 

41. Defra is focused on working with the sector to achieve a sustainable, secure and healthy food supply, and a thriving food and farming sector. The Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS), published in 2006, highlighted the way in which Government and the food industry must work together to improve sustainability. Building on earlier industry input, the Food and Drink Federation launched its successful and ongoing Five-Fold Environmental Ambition in October 2007 with commitments on CO2, waste, water, and transport. Defra has also established a Food Industry Better Regulation group - a forum for discussing regulatory issues affecting the food and drink supply chain.

 

42. Defra's role in an emergency, having collected and disseminated information, is to enable Ministers to take policy decisions to support industry's response; to relax drivers' hours, for example. In the case of a very severe emergency, the Secretary of State could use Section 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act to direct the actions of the food industry as required.

 

43. The Government also works with industry and the public sector to promote business continuity planning so as to improve resilience. Defra leads the relationship with the food sector, although the Food Standards Agency leads on food safety. Defra has set up and chairs the Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group, a forum at which other Government departments, industry, and the relevant trade associations can share information and jointly consider developing policy.

 

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?

44. The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, Food Matters, published in July 2008, signalled a fresh approach to food policy across Government. The report highlighted the need to join up food policy to address the health, environmental and economic challenges in the food system in an integrated way. It set out four strategic policy objectives:

Fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through open and competitive markets;

Continuous improvement in the safety of food;

The changes needed to deliver a further transition to healthier diets; and

A more environmentally sustainable food chain.

 

45. Along with specific policy recommendations, the report also established a Food Strategy Task Force, to bring together departments with a stake in food policy, in order to better coordinate work on food across Government. Subsequently, the Machinery of Government changes on 3 October 2008 gave Defra an enhanced role on food. Now, with the lead for co-ordinating efforts on food across Government, Defra is working with other Departments on wider issues, such as the social impact of food policy. This is in addition to its lead responsibilities on farming, the food industry and their environmental impacts. To support this new role, a new Ministerial Sub-committee has been established (Domestic Affairs - Food), and the Food Strategy Task Force (which was already in place) convenes senior officials from the relevant departments to support the Sub-Committee.

46. Defra has already forged good working relationships with departments and others in taking forward its work on food:

With the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health in delivering actions set out in the PMSU Food Matters report and in joining up the health and environmental impacts of food;

With DfID on food security, sustainable agriculture, and environmental sustainability. Defra is a delivery partner for the DfID-led PSA 29 Reduce poverty in poorer countries through quicker progress towards the Millennium Development Goals;

With BERR and the OFT on competition issues;

With the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure and a range of Government departments (in particular the FSA, BERR (now DECC), Transport and Health) on resilience;

With Foresight on its Global Food and Farming Futures project;

With DECC on climate change deliverables;

With international partners on CFA and GPAFS, through multilateral and bilateral commitments such as those developed with China and India through the sustainable development dialogues (SDDs) which involve sharing expertise, skills and knowledge with the places that need it most; and

With our European partners including FAO on the range of issues affecting food and agriculture.

 

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?

 

47. As Food Matters said last July, the 'UK makes a small but meaningful contribution to overall global food supply...but the UK seems likely to have a greater impact via its influence on international policy, diplomatic initiatives, development programmes and research efforts'. The Government believes we should maximise our UK productive capacity where this can be done sustainably and is driven by consumer demand. We have also set out above how the Government is contributing to initiatives internationally and in terms of research.

 

48. Defra is working increasingly closely with DfID on global food security. One measure of UK success in responding to the global production challenge is the delivery of the DfID-led PSA 29, Reduce poverty in poorer countries through quicker progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Defra's contribution towards PSA 29 centres on the seventh of these goals (MDG7), which aims to 'ensure environmental sustainability' and underpins achieving the other MDGs including MDG1, on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. DfID and Defra's co-operative effort is essential for helping deliver increased global food production in a way that is environmentally, as well as economically and socially, sustainable.

 

49. Professor Beddington's Foresight study referred to above, and co-sponsored by Defra and DfID Ministers, also aims to produce practical, action-oriented recommendations to achieve just this objective.



[1] Food Security and the UK - an evidence and analysis paper (December 2006) at http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/reports/foodsecurity/foodsecurity.pdf

 

[2] These are: fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through open and competitive markets; continuous improvement in the safety of food; the changes needed to deliver a further transition to healthier diets; and, a more environmentally sustainable food chain.

[3] https://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/publications/pocketstats/foodpocketstats/default.asp, p. 38, 39.

 

[4] The five main elements are global availability and resource stability; UK availability and access; food chain resilience; household access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food; and, food safety and confidence in our food.

[5] Full details in Chapter 2 of Food: an analysis of the issues, Cabinet Office, January 2007, revision D, August 2008.

[6] Defra/ONS (December 2008) Family Food: A report on the 2007 Expenditure and Food Survey

[7] Including offal, bacon, ham, chicken, turkey, canned meat, pies, burgers, and sausages.