Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Shepton Farms Ltd

Executive summary.

Society on a global level is at a crossroads. Owing to the density of population in this country, we are at an exaggerated level, only escapable because of our relatively wealthy status within the world.

However, that provides us with both an opportunity to be in the vanguard of change, and simultaneously to educate and lead through education.

This country is like all others, within the West, requiring itself to curtail consumption and to live within the ecological means provided by this planet, and which we cannot afford to squander nor treat recklessly.

These key ecological supplies include soil, clear, clean and sufficient fresh water, oil and very much more besides.

A brief introduction to Oliver Dowding.

I have been farming in Shepton Montague since 1976. Over that time I have farmed up to 1,400 acres. Conversion to organic status was undertaken in 1989, and has been maintained ever since.

I have held a number of public and representational positions. These include chairing the organic working group for the NFU 1999-2002, and organic committee chairman 2002 until dissolution in 2003. I was on the NFU Council 1990-1993 and 2002-2003. I was also on DEFRA’s Organic Advisory Committee, and their Advisory Committee on Organic Standards, 2003-2007. I represented the South West of England on the Home Grown Cereals Authority’s Research and Development committee for 7 years until 1997.

Recommendations for action.

1. Accept that UK society is living unsustainably and beyond our means, in terms of ecological demands and agricultural capability to continue producing under current methods of production and volumes of output.

2. Government to lead by example.

3. Government to regulate and control excess, wanton waste, and squandering of resources at all points in the food chain. This to include imported food.

4. Individuals to accept their individual responsibility to be part of the solution, just as much as they are currently part of the problem.

5. Major public consumers to accept they have a responsibility to consume sustainably, and through so doing to educate others to follow their lead. These include the NHS, educational establishments and others.

6. All levels of society need to accept that the change isn't just about government needing to make changes, but accepting that we cannot continue to consume and waste as we currently do.

7. Agriculture has to accept that it must produce with a different agenda in mind, and therefore what it produces, what it consumes, and how it operates will all fundamentally need variation or wholesale change, and in some instances, rapidly.

The full submission.

1. This enquiry is extremely timely. It comes in the wake of the Government's Foresight report, and at the same time as global commodity markets in many cases are setting all-time high levels, and food supply certainty being continuously scrutinised.

"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?

2. I'm pleased to see that the reference is to "climate change" and not to "climate warming".

3. The impact of climate change is immeasurable, but appears to be accelerating, and of increasing ferocity. The impact is being felt in a growing numbers of countries, and can no longer be passed off as an "once in a generation" occurrence.

4. The enquiry makes no reference to the increasing pressure on food supply brought about by continual growth in global populations. The impact of growing numbers of people is relevant to this country, as we currently import large quantities of the food that we require, and the resources to produce the food we grow, and these are going to become both less available, and more expensive as the years pass. Furthermore, by continuing to consume these resources at current levels we are likely to further exacerbate conflict in areas of the world where they are currently found. We therefore have a moral responsibility to curtail our own demand.

5. To minimise the impact of our food choices on the environment, and concurrently upon climate change, there are a number of relatively straightforward policy options available. I readily accept that they are not policies that will be popularly welcomed, but I suggest that we are not in an era where we can afford to bow to "want", when the overriding priority is "need". Urgency is the name of the game. The longer we delay the start, the more painful the changes will become, in the heart of the society to coherently accept them and successfully transition.

6. To understand where change can be made, we need to address what we are currently producing and how this production happens. We need to also consider what we do with what we produce.

7. Figures available to demonstrate the proportion of food which is produced, and which we consequently waste, vary. There is clearly a difference between that food which is wasted and which was edible, and that which is discarded through such processing. The proportion of food waste within society has broadly stayed the same for the last 70 to 80 years. At the beginning of this period the waste occurred through inefficiency in harvesting, storage and transport. The waste now occurs largely voluntarily, with increasingly tight standards set throughout the food processing and retailing chains, which prevent large quantities of food produced from reaching the human food market. Furthermore, processing mechanisms also remove significant quantities of perfectly edible food.

Food is also wasted at several other points in the food chain.

· Grading out losses before reaching processing.

· Losses in the processing factories.

· Wastage in store, where food is not sold before statutory datelines dictate.

· Wastage in the domestic or other user locations, with more food being purchased than can be consumed before is passing best before dates etc.

· Wastage on the plate: people help themselves to more than they can consume, together with being fussy eaters.

· Regulations which control and forbid once accepted methods for recycling food waste.

The governments own WRAP estimates that we waste 8.3 million tonnes of food per year. Full details are available at

8. There is one other area of food waste which we cannot ignore, but which raises potential to offend. In the West, we waste prodigious amounts of food through over-consumption. This in turn has led to grotesque levels of obesity, with many consequential negative impacts upon society, food production demands, and much more. We cannot forget the impact on human health, and the consequences for the NHS which come with obesity, many of which are undoubtedly avoidable. Addressing this problem risks offending people, many of whom would consider it to be a "right" to consume what they like. Changing this pattern of behaviour will require prodigious amounts of educational and regulatory action.

9. I further suggest that, and this is particularly true on a global scale, we should be addressing how much agricultural grain and protein production is generated to feed livestock.

10. If we curtailed the amount of grain and protein fed to livestock, ideally to virtually none, the beneficial impacts would be enormous. I fully accept that they would cause upset to many established businesses, and to what we currently consider the established food production systems. By reducing the quantities of grain and protein fed to livestock, the enormous advantages would include

· Huge reductions in the area of land required to be intensively farmed.

· Alternative uses for the land would become available, and broadly split into three areas.

- Large areas could be reverted to grassland. This would have the beneficial advantage of reducing the land area annually tilled, and therefore dramatically cutting back the quantity of soil lost to erosion every year. Losing our topsoil is a crime against humanity, as it jeopardises the agricultural potential for future generations.

- Significant areas should be afforested. This would have long-term benefits in stabilising global weather patterns, carbon sequestration, soil protection and preservation and much more. It would also act as an important source of future fuel, and other harvestable commodities.

- The third important opportunity available through reducing the land used to grow crops to feed livestock would be through making this land available to grow crops to provide energy and other non-agricultural purposes. One would need to be sure that such crops had a positive energy balance, accounting for energy consumed and produced in the complete cycle of production and consumption.

· Changing agriculture in this way would cut back on demand for vast quantities of finite supplies of

- Phosphate fertilisers: currently these are predominantly sourced from a very limited number of countries, none of whom could be considered to be reliable long-term business prospects, and which principally include China, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

- Oil, gas etc.

a) We currently use hydrocarbons within agriculture to produce all the nitrogenous fertilisers, and nearly all the agrochemicals. We also consume prodigious quantities of these fertilisers and chemicals to produce the large quantities of arable crops simply to feed livestock.

b) Agriculture and the entire food production chain currently also consume huge quantities of oil, through things produced from oil, for transport, processing, packaging and much more.

c) It is often reported that one in four heavy goods vehicles are only on the road to fulfil requirements of the food chain.

- Fresh water. Huge quantities of fresh water are currently used to irrigate crops, many of which are simply intended to feed livestock. With one of the 10 largest rivers in the world now not reaching the sea, action to preserve fresh water is increasingly critical.

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

11. By reducing the quantity of meat consumed by humans, we would radically reduce the amount of land required to grow grain and protein crops, particularly globally, and this land could be used for alternative uses, as outlined above.

12. The government should take responsibility for educating consumers of the wisdom, and by providing them with the means to understand their responsibility to make these changes.

13. By quite simply leading by example. There are huge numbers of government institutions sourcing and utilising food to feed people. By adopting best practice in all these areas, they would be setting the tone for the remainder of society to follow.

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

14. Principally through education.

15. Government will need to lean on retail and processing businesses. The most profitable lines for all these businesses are those with the most added ingredients, and often with the least connection to nutrition and health. Sadly these are often promoted as if they have exactly that connection, but rarely do.

16. Consumers need to understand the virtue of making changes for themselves, and for their fellow citizens, and that there is benefit in doing so.

17. Government should be undertaking to educate consumers that they will not suffer malnutrition if they do not eat as much meat as they currently do.

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

18. In simple terms, those utilising the most non-renewable resources in both production and processing, distribution and retailing.

19. Any area which creates waste is working against sustainability. Therefore we need to investigate waste at all levels within the food chain.

20. If we have a food system which consumes more raw materials that it returns whence they originated, i.e. the land, we have unsustainability.

21. Cropping of "organic soils", generally referring here to peat soils, is hugely exploitative. With many such soils losing up to 2-3cm in depth with every year of cropping, their lifespan is limited.

22. Cropping methods on any soil which compromises its quality or existence has to be changed. We cannot afford to squander the most basic of resources for feeding the people on this planet.

23. The processing chain currently wastes enormous amounts of food, perfectly edible, but removed whilst chasing a utopian goal in terms of presentational appearance. We cannot afford this luxury any more.

24. The individual consumer is a wasteful point in the food chain. We have to better educate them to both not waste food in the preparation stages, to not over cater and therefore create waste of perfectly edible food, and most importantly not to over consume, and therefore eat more than their "fair share" from the global larder.

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?

25. Any authority or large purchaser of food has a responsibility to act sustainably. By ensuring they lead by example, and more importantly by then publicising how they have done this, they act as an important part of the chain of inspiration.

26. We have to accept that it is highly unlikely that this country of approaching 65 million people, widely considered to be the fourth most densely populated in the world, will not be able to feed itself from its own resources. However, we do not need to import anywhere near the levels of food that we currently do to make up this shortfall.

27. Through explaining to people about personal responsibility to the wider communal and national picture, there is a better chance that the "filter down" message will be heard, and positive action consequently taken.

28. Local authorities should be better able to coordinate educational and collaborative exercises to illustrate to people within communities how they can proactively and positively enhances agenda’s targets. As with so much within this policy area, it's all about education, explanation, exhortation and exemplification. There are plenty of people who already strive to do the right thing, and if they are harnessed they could become a powerful focus for those who have yet to understand that they have a role to play as well.

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

29. Government could do so much to lead by example.

30. Through explaining to their own people, and with around 25% of people working within state funded organisations at some level or other, there are plenty of people to act as the beacons for others to follow.

31. Government should also be explaining to people why this change is necessary, and that they too have a role to play in making it successful.

24 March, 2011.