Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Rural Economy and Land Use Programme


· An ecosystems services approach will enable land to fulfil multiple functions.

· Sustainable food production will require innovation and government support is needed for this.

· Consumers need access to clear and accurate information.

· Eating local food in season is usually the most sustainable option.

· Government policies need to be joined up and be open and flexible to allow for uncertainty and new evidence emerging.

1 How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed? How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

1.1 We need to harvest increasingly diverse benefits from our land: food, clean water supplies, timber, biofuels, wildlife, flood management, carbon storage, leisure activities and more houses and infrastructure for a growing population. Demands shift and grow in an uncertain economic, as well as meteorological, climate. But there are lessons that can be drawn from research carried out by the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

1.2 Multiple demands upon such a finite resource can only be resolved by ensuring that each area of land fulfils multiple functions. The ecosystem services approach, which recognises the integration of different functions, seems to lend itself to this but it does also require more holistic policymaking.

1.3 How we exploit some of our unique habitats for food production could actually enable their preservation:

o The level of grazing on sensitive ecosystems is often key to their survival and there may be problems with over or under grazing in different areas. The timing and mix of stock may also be important. We should pay more attention to maintaining this balance. As food and fuel prices rise in line with global demand, the financial support from environmental stewardship schemes may become less important to farmers. In that case, finding ways in which biodiversity can actually enhance farmer’s profits may be vital to maintaining the ecological balance.

o The products themselves could be healthy and extremely marketable. Relu research shows that lamb raised on biodiverse rich grassland displays higher levels of Vitamin E, its fat has lower skatole levels and it has higher levels of healthy fatty acids. There could be more support for producers in marketing UK "terroir" products such as salt marsh lamb, that emphasises the natural variation and seasonality of these, and more research on consumer willingness to pay a premium for such foods.

1.4 Support for marketing locally grown "green" and welfare-friendly products such as small scale production of the tropical fish tilapia, could be good for health and for the environment. Relu research has shown that this could be a useful diversification strategy for farmers and there is a potential market for this type of farmed fish.

2 How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

2.1 The challenge is to make healthy, environmentally friendly, affordable food available for everyone. We need innovation to ensure thriving rural businesses and sustainable food production. Several Relu projects touch upon this:

2.2 Local and regional food initiatives could help producers to gain detailed market information. Support to help them in placing their products, accessing the right markets and understanding the expectations of customers would help to overcome some of the uncertainties that potential "green" entrepreneurs face.

2.3 Supermarkets and other retailers have a role to play in encouraging and assisting small producers to differentiate and gain market advantage for greener/healthier products.

3 How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

3.1Consumers face increasing amounts of information and a variety of labelling concerned with organic, animal welfare, fair trade and environmental standards. The challenge is to make information available in a form that is accessible, not over-complicated and relevant.

3.2 We need five portions of fruit and vegetables a day in order to sustain our health but perhaps we need to be encouraged to make those UK products in season. Local may not always be best for the environment, or even in terms of freshness, but in season, it usually wins.

3.3 Health authorities could work with retailers to highlight the benefits of a seasonal approach to food and of variety over the year.

3.4 More information about environmentally beneficial production systems needs to be available and consumers need to be more aware of the links between production systems, their health and the environment.

3.5 Carbon labelling that doesn’t take into account the actual life cycle of individual products will not achieve the desired result. Actually measuring performance, rather than averaging it out, could provide the basis for rewarding and motivating improvement but would be very complex. However, better access to information would help. A single, easily accessible database, which publishes all the information needed for carbon footprinting agricultural products would make the information available to individuals and organisations who wanted that level of detail. Publication of all calculations of carbon footprints being used in labelling schemes would also make the process more transparent.

4 Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

4.1 The food system is so complex that uncertainty often persists in spite of further research. Policies that are frank about uncertainty are better placed to earn public trust. We need to aim for "precautionary policy" – based on evidence but explicitly alert to its limits.

5 How might the changing powers of local authorities and the localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable production and supply of food?

5.1 As local development agencies disappear, at a time of austerity, local authorities may not have sufficient resources to support or promote schemes such as the "terroir" initiatives mentioned in 1.3. Specific support for this kind of approach could, however, create a win-win–win for the rural economy, environmental protection and consumer health.

5.2 It is also unclear where support for novel initiatives (eg environmentally friendly fish farming) might come from and whether there will be resources for local authorities to fulfil this role.

6 How could Government procurement practices be improved to promote better practice across the food sector?

6.1 More emphasis on local food and seasonality in purchasing could enable the public sector to reduce its carbon footprint. But the aim should be to buy "local food when it is in season" rather than a blanket approach. For example: eating local lettuce is an environmentally friendly choice in summer, but in winter, growing lettuces locally under glass may be more harmful than importing lettuces from Spain. More local autonomy, and incentives for purchasing authorities to take the full picture into account, could help.

11 March 2011