Memorandum submitted by Northern Foods plc (SFS 09)

 

Executive Summary:

 

The responses from Northern Foods plc assume that the UK, a population dense country, will remain to 2030 and 2050 an importing country for certain food commodities long accepted in an established trading nation as part of a mixed, balanced, general UK diet. The additional challenges perceived as arising are largely the result of climate change, including but not limited to:

 

New crop hazards and pests prompting change in agricultural practice

The adoption of crops to changing, less predictable weather conditions

Population environmental migration, predominantly from Africa.

 

The potential solutions are perceived in the development and application of science; in the development of infrastructure responsive to changing requirements; and in the extension of training and education.

 

Responses:

 

Specific responses to the questions posed are under-noted.

 

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

 

The UK food system has been characterised for many years by improving yields for primary produce, by advanced food manufacturing and logistics practices minimising waste and by a sophisticated supply chain meeting consumer expectations for quality, safety and convenience. Various studies conducted for different reasons have demonstrated both the robustness and the responsiveness of the system.

 

The UK is a long established trading nation for many food commodities and is likely to continue to fulfil some of its needs via importation of food until 2050 and beyond. The increasingly unpredictable effects of weather, coupled with the expected growing demand for food, will impact on availability, thus cost, and may if unchecked promote protectionist practices.

 

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?

 

The UK is potentially in an advantageous position, in an increasingly global economy, with the knowledge and expertise long deployed to help other countries improve both production and preservation practices. For example, India is the leading producer of fruit and vegetables yet 40% of produce currently grown fails to reach the consumer because of a lack of preservation and distribution infrastructure. UK expertise can be employed far beyond national boundaries to help develop local solutions to global problems.

 

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: Without intervention, soil erosion and nitrification may be expected. Care should be exercised to ensure the work of other agencies does not encourage the un-composted return of materials to the soil, with further unintended environmental and food chain consequences.

 

3.2 Water availability: Even at present, in one third of England and Wales, water cannot be abstracted throughout the year. There is a need to address the challenges of water harvest technologies and distribution within the UK.

 

3.3 The marine environment: Best available wild species conservation techniques should be employed to protect the marine environment, in conjunction with a drive, wherever possible, to replace hunted species with farmed, sustainable, aquaculture alternatives.

 

3.4 The science base: There is a key challenge in encouraging generally the study of the sciences and in improving specifically the attractiveness of the range of agriculture and food related sciences to new generations of potential students.

 

3.5 The provision of training: Problem solving requires the deployment of knowledge, skills and talent. Increases in incentives to improve training can only be welcomed.

 

3.6 Trade barriers: Recognising the sensitivities in consumer health risk assessment, care should be exercised to avoid the precautionary principle allowing the building of unnecessary technical and commercial barriers to trade. The removal of inappropriate standards should be encouraged, wherever possible, to free trade.

 

3.7 The way in which land is farmed and managed: Challenges arise in understanding true agricultural best, sustainable, practice; in communicating with a disengaged, often mistrustful consumer base; in re-determining land availability for crops use; and in adaptability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

 

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?

 

The UK consumer has become accustomed to convenience, wide variety, wide choice and 24/7 availability in their selection of foods; fundamental demand expectations are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Increasing understanding of a requirement for environmental resource efficiency may affect food selections made but the continuing uncertainties as to the relative values of local food sourcing and fossil carbon efficient food sourcing strategies render in effect prediction uncertainties.

 

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?

 

The key role is in the delivery, support and application of sound science to aid sustainable decision making throughout the food supply chain. Means of addressing consumer mistrust of scientific solutions should be actively considered.

 

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 current cross-Government food strategy?

 

Value judgements can be difficult to make in absolute terms. It may be beneficial to question whether cross-Government food strategy is understood in the sector and by the end consumer.

 

7. What criteria should DEFRA use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

Primary agricultural and finished food outputs, expressed as some form of tonnage to fossil carbon ratios, may be appropriate criteria for monitoring purposes. This will require the development of appropriate, practicable, carbon calculation tools.

 

 

 

Carole Stewart

Group Technical Director

Northern Foods plc

 

January 2009