Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Dr Ulrich Loening


There are times, in a wide ranging consultation like this one, when it becomes useful to go "back to basics". Food production and the satisfaction of the nutritional needs of the population are both social and biological matters. Therefore I preface my particular comments with the following general considerations, to provide a background.

Farming is now a major industry that from its very beginnings 10 thousand years ago has created a separation between humans and the rest of nature – the biosphere. That after all, was the purpose, to provide food security even for those who did not farm. Yet this revolution followed a million or more years of human evolution during which the diet was dependant on and closely integrated with availabilities in natural ecosystems. It is not surprising that a separation from, and dramatic changing of, natural ecosystems has led to trouble as well as success. One simple example would be the evolution of taste, which guides acceptance of potential foods, but which now is out of balance with easy availability: too much salt and sweet food are no longer good for health.

My comments are based on the premise that society is ill-adapted to modern industrial ways of sustenance. There must be some biological and psychological value in a closer connection between people and their sources of nutrition, and when this connection is distanced, problems may ensue, both human and environmental problems. This may sound extreme to some, but it is not emotional or wishful thinking. Rather, it is a conclusion based on scientific judgement about how ecological interactions between species work, even if that scientific judgement lacks firm and specific examples. One can at least cite cases of ignorance that leave scope for diverse conclusions: for example, the Government’s much promoted 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables is based on long experience (stretching back at least to Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus) that these promote health; yet the known constituents of vitamins, anti-oxidants, anthocyanins, etc., do not add up to the total perceived benefits; likewise the continued debates about the value of broccoli in reducing the incidence of colon cancers suggest more ignorance than understanding. (see for a recent review, S. Deweerdt, (2011) Nature, 471, S22.)

Given that global food security and the environmental impacts of its production have reached a stage close to crisis, new decisions about the future have to be taken; yet taken on the basis of scientific evidence that is not quite up to the task. One can be certain only that the evolved system worked in a world of much smaller populations and that experience shows that the quality of nutrition is strongly related to a closeness to natural systems. Over-riding these, which has been the success of modern agriculture and at least temporarily delayed Malthus’s prognosis, has resulted at the same time in the near crisis. Therefore new ways must be sought for agricultural innovation, as has been expressed by the IAASTD Report (2009) and this innovation must bring a re-integration between the human population and the rest of the biosphere. The question is how and even whether, this can be achieved.

I select two relevant books which have addressed the issues of this consultation; both at titled "From the Ground Up". The first is by Jorian Jenks (1950, Hollis and Carter); the second by Helena Norberg-Hodge and others, (revised edition 2001, Zed Books). Both deal with the interplay between the economy and provision of sustainable healthy food. There is of course a huge literature on the subjects overall. I use the bullet points as in the original notice of the consultation:

· 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?

The first and major issue is of course the fuel energy used to produce food. Globally, the situation seems absurd: large amounts of energy are needed to fix atmospheric nitrogen for fertilisers, yet this has resulted in doubling the amount of soluble nitrogen that flows through the biosphere and greatly increased the quantities of nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas) that is released. The cyclic processes of the biosphere have been successfully converted into the linear process of food production, the ultimate product of which is humans and their waste and atmospheric pollutants. Along with this, has been the serious depletion of soil mycorrhiza, which are inhibited by soluble nutrients. The direct scientific answer to the problem therefore has to be the re-cycling of sewage for fertiliser and soil humus. Obviously this would be a huge global change of technique, easily dismissed as crazy. Yet all the required technologies exist. In the industrialised world it would mean separating urban sewage waste from industrial, to the benefit of being able to re-cycle both more easily. In the developing world, it may mean introducing some novel but essentially simple techniques, many of which have been in use in China for thousands of years.

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

There has been much promotion of local food production, and most would consider this essential to achieve these aims. There are at least two other major considerations: one is that the supply of many foods will need to be more seasonal, at a time when most public do not need to have any idea about the season of the year when they are shopping. The other is that food is not, and cannot be, cheap. At present food production is in effect subsidised by environmental pollution. The costs of production are external as much as direct, (as researched years ago by Prof Jules Pretty, among others) At present the costs of food are less than 20% of income, often much less, in this country. In France they are routinely more than 20%. This is a reflection of perceived value; in the UK people spend more of their income on other things they value, not food. "Affordable" is thus a relative measure. In addition, it appears that people are less inclined to cook imaginatively. Primary ingredients are at present remarkably affordable, but much food purchasing is of processed products. Encouragement of changing habits towards using the raw materials more, would allow more local production, be better for health and involve the population in its own well-being.

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

This has been partly addressed above. It is asking too much of people not to buy tomatoes way out of season and from distant countries, when they are presented in supermarkets, as the success story of supermarket. What is needed is "super markets" in place of supermarkets; places where local produce is readily available and where shopping could be coordinated such that one check-out point serves all stalls. The success of farmers markets throughout the UK, suggests that such a move would be popular but is as yet on too small a scale.

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

I guess, but have no direct evidence, that the biggest single matter here is waste of food. This happens at all stages, from supply to consumption. Probably waste in storage is not as serious in UK as in many poorer countries, but waste in supermarkets is worse, as any still perfectly nutritious food that is nearing its shelf life is turned out. The interests of safety against degraded food is possibly negated by the common "collection" of such rejected supermarket foods by local residents. The waste in most households, seems also to be extraordinarily high, like 30%. This is partly a matter for better education, partly a matter of price: higher prices might lead to less waste. In addition, the single biggest waste is the dumping of fish in excess of quotas, perhaps 50% or more.

· 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?

Where local authorities have promoted markets, these have been appreciated and successful. Yet in my local district, perhaps in all, the bureaucratic requirements are inhibitory, as is the cost of a stall and the restrictions on sizes of packaging etc. One wonders whether the powers of administration of markets could be devolved to local organisations, to provide a freer and simpler system. The markets also need to be frequent enough to make a significant contribution to the sustainable supply of food.

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

I am not in a position to comment much here. However, the provision of hospital meals is relevant here, and requires gross overhaul. It is crazy for one supplier in Wales to send frozen meals all over the country, as I am informed is the case. This has become so bad, that one retired medical consultant commented, after a spell as a patient in hospital in Edinburgh, that the food alone is capable of making him ill. If ever there was a cost efficient way to improve the National Health Service, it would be to provide healthy food for the ill.


30 March 2011