Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the NFU

The NFU represents more than 55,000 farming members in England and Wales. In addition we have 41,000 countryside members with an interest in farming and the country. The NFU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into Sustainable Food.

Introductory Comments

1. Most farmers are passionate about the environment. Living close to nature they know better than anyone that a healthy environment is essential for a sustainable farming system. They want to pass on their land in better health than when they took it on. That is why harnessing farmers’ enthusiasm and local knowledge is the key to environmental improvement. The recent Foresight Report on the future of global food and farming set out the scale of the challenge of feeding a growing global population against the backdrop of climate change and finite natural resources. The need for "sustainable intensification" in producing food will require an entirely new approach to food policy, and one that will need every part of government committed to the same outcomes. The importance of this coherence of approach, with all Government Departments and delivery bodies working with a common purpose, cannot be overemphasised. Too often positive words about the importance of sustainable production from Defra are not borne out elsewhere in Whitehall.

2. Farmers are sometimes caricatured as being profit driven at the expense of the environment – a perception which, if true, would be of real concern in times of increased food insecurity. In fact, a recent Defra survey found that 99% of farmers agreed with the statement that they place protecting the environment as their top priority, against 79% who place maximising profit as their primary task [1] . The oft quoted farming saying: ‘live as if you will die tomorrow, farm as if you’ll live forever’ has never been more apt.

3. The NFU is committed to working with government, industry and other organisations to promote the economic, social and environmental sustainability of farming in England and Wales. Farmers are actively engaging with government and a range of organisations in identifying the best way to achieve this – through changing farming practices on the ground, encouraging targeted investment in R&D that translates into tangible benefits in the field, and providing the right fiscal and regulatory environment to encourage sustainable farming without hindering the industry’s ability to compete.

4. The NFU believes that sustainable food production is best encouraged through voluntary action and best practice, not through legislation and regulation. Of course, regulation is necessary as a backstop to prevent actual damage, but regulation rarely produces enhancement.

5. The term "sustainable" as it relates to farming is notoriously difficult to define. In its broadest sense, which has been held to include issues beyond environmental protection such as animal welfare, it is liable to fall foul of internal contradictions. For example, evidence suggests intensive methods of poultry production have a smaller environmental footprint than more extensive systems advocated by some animal welfare campaigners.

6. For this reason, the NFU has championed the industry-led approach, through initiatives such as the agricultural sector’s Greenhouse Gas Action Plan, and the industry’s Beef and Sheep Roadmap. These build on the positive work being achieved through schemes such as the Red Tractor, which guarantees that accredited farms meet high standards of production relating to food safety and hygiene, animal welfare and environmental protection. These voluntary approaches can accommodate the complexities of defining sustainability, and allow a swift and flexible response to new evidence or unforeseen consequences. We prefer this approach to attempts to enshrine sustainability in legislation, which risk hindering progress through legal challenges, arguments over definitions and contradictions in objectives.

7. Furthermore, the NFU strongly believes that farming acts with its greatest purpose and impact when acting under its own momentum. Farmers are not known for their fondness for red-tape and regulation, and legislating for sustainability would be counter-productive, forcing the heavy-hand of state intervention against farmers’ freedom to go about the business of producing more while impacting less. Securing robust and meaningful evidence on which to base such legislation would also be extremely problematic, if not impossible.

8. Turning to the specific themes outlined in the committee’s invitation for written evidence, we offer the following observations. We would be very pleased to give oral evidence once the committee’s inquiry is underway.

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?

9. A range of actions and mechanisms are needed to ensure that farmers can retain the capacity to produce food whilst also continuing to safeguard the environment. These include:

· Investment in applied research and knowledge exchange. We need to better understand and better manage the interactions between the impacts of climate change, our use of natural resources, wildlife species and habitats and food production. This knowledge must be transferred to advisers and farmers promptly and practically. Demonstration, advice and information are critical and there must be a two-way flow of information between science and farming industry.

· Agri-environment schemes contribute positively to the protection of landscapes, soils, water and biodiversity. Continued universal access to agri-environment schemes is vital.

· Initiatives such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, the Voluntary Initiative, the Tried & Tested nutrient management initiative and the agriculture industry Greenhouse Gas Action Plan are excellent examples of good partnership working between government, its agencies and other key agricultural organisations. These should be supported and maintained.

· A broad range of tools, technologies and approaches must be given due weight and consideration in meeting the challenge of "sustainable intensification". This includes precision farming, genetic improvement of both crops and livestock (including GM methods), understanding soils and water, resource-use efficiency, pest, disease and weed management. Essentially, all losses of yield due to the stresses of pests and weather, etc., or sub-optimal management constitute an unnecessary and wasteful environmental impact.

· The development of new mechanisms such as environmental markets for the goods and services that farmers provide should also be investigated.

· The planning policy framework must recognise the importance and value of food production alongside protecting the environment.

10. Furthermore, agriculture can make a big contribution to mitigating climate change by storing carbon in soils and vegetation and by generating renewable energy - reducing the use of fossil fuels within the industry and across the wider economy through the growing of energy crops, the production of biogas and the use of other renewables like wind and solar, ground-source and micro-hydro. In addition, the industry’s Greenhouse Gas Action Plan demonstrates the industry’s commitment to making a realistic reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions as its contribution to the UK’s climate change target.

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

11. As set out in the introduction, the role of government in helping to deliver healthy and affordable food in a more sustainable manner must not impose burdensome and counter-productive regulation on primary producers. However, where markets are failing to provide fair returns to farmers, and therefore making farming as a business unsustainable, government should seek to intervene for the benefit of consumers and for food security. For instance, the introduction of a Groceries Code Adjudicator is a key element in ensuring a fairer functioning market in the future.

12. Elsewhere, government can create the right business environment to encourage farms businesses to be productive and competitive. This includes introducing the right fiscal framework, and other measures aimed at helping small businesses, as well as a planning framework that encourages sustainable development. Only then can farm businesses invest in the technology and expertise that will allow them to increase production sustainability. This will also require a sustained injection of agricultural research, which is actively translated into practice on the ground. All technologies must be explored on the basis of strategic considerations, not knee-jerk political or emotional reactions.

13. While we agree that food must be affordable and available to all, the industry is committed to providing quality and safe food for the market which meets high welfare and environmental standards. To continue to do, and even to improve in these areas, it may be that consumers will have to accept small rises in food prices. Food prices that are kept artificially low evidence a failure of the market, and mean producers will not get the sort of returns that allow them to invest in their businesses for the long-term – a key component of sustainability. Ultimately this leads to too much reliance on food imports, and with current concerns over global food security increasing, this can only lead to greater food price volatility in the absence of a reliable and trustworthy domestic production base.

14. With regard to healthy food, farmers and growers produce the raw materials for the whole processing and retail chain. Dietary balance, rather than individual foods, is central to good health, and achieving this must be a shared responsibility between consumers, government and industry. Defining (and encouraging people to eat) a diet that is at the same time healthy and environmentally sustainable is extremely problematic, given the number of contradictions involved at a product level. The high quality fruit, vegetables, whole grains, milk, eggs and meat that British farmers produce can certainly be the basis of a healthy, balanced and sustainable diet if consumers are sufficiently engaged and informed to make judgements about their own needs and priorities.

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

15. Again we encounter the problem of how to define sustainable choices. It is very doubtful that clear and definitive guidance and information can be provided that will produce a formula that consumers can follow, even if they wanted to. An example would be the perceived welfare benefits of extensive livestock rearing systems set against the environmental benefits of intensive systems. Similarly, the commonly expressed view that a reduction or even elimination of meat and dairy products from our diet would not only be a more efficient use of the world’s food resources but would help combat climate change is simplistic and flawed. It ignores the fact that large parts of this country are only suitable for grass production and humans cannot ingest grass directly. Ploughing up grassland to produce more crops would in fact contribute to, not mitigate, climate change. To attempt to regulate domestic supply would simply export meat and dairy production to countries where greenhouse gas emissions are typically much higher than in the UK.

16. On a more positive note, a general increased awareness of how food is produced (through TV and other media, or education in schools, for example) would give an essential starting point for discussions on sustainability, and this has started to happen in recent years. Food companies are developing sustainability-related operating systems, commitments and supplier requirements. Nevertheless, these are not always evidence-based or meaningful beyond marketing messages. Furthermore, while there seems to be growing evidence that retailers are attempting to source goods with sustainable credentials (whatever they may be), it does not seem that the catering and hospitality trade are not sourcing sustainably produce food to similar standards. There are clearly added difficulties with them doing so, but it remains an issue that needs addressing.

17. The NFU continues to work with a wide range of stakeholders across a number of forums which are trying to identify ways of giving consumers meaningful information about sustainability choices in what they eat. It is clear from discussion that this won’t be easy, but we will continue to work on this issue. As mentioned above, information is crucial – consumers must be allowed to make their own lifestyle choices based on accurate and balanced information.

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

18. Water remains an important issue in this regard. Agriculture needs a reliable supply of water to sustain livestock, and irrigation is crucial for high-value food crops. Agriculture in England and Wales only accounts for 1 per cent of water use overall. Population forecasts suggest there may be 15 million more people living in England and Wales by the 2050s and farmers and other abstractors are likely to find it tougher to secure the water they need in the future because of rising demand. The challenge of climate change will put more pressure on the environment and on existing supplies. Demand for water for irrigation is expected to increase in England over the next 10 years, and could be 25 per cent higher by 2020 [2] . Security of supply for farmers is critical. Water efficiency will need to be addressed in all sectors (not just agriculture) and we will need to find ways to store more water when supplies are more plentiful.

19. Waste also presents challenges, throughout the whole supply chain and into the home. As mentioned above, any sub-optimal yields due to inefficiencies, pests, weeds, diseases, or environmental stresses constitute waste to the system – a fact sometimes overlooked in considering the waste impacts of the food sector. Encouraging the uptake of technologies to maximise yield without increasing farming’s environmental impact is essentially an exercise in waste-reduction. Furthermore, there is still too much food wasted along the supply chain, in the hospitality industry and in the home, often for no other reason than cosmetic unseemliness. It should also be borne in mind that waste is increasingly valued as a resource. Using wastes, or materials derived from wastes (such as compost or digestate) can displace the requirement to import some raw materials, contributing to the resource efficiency central to sustainable intensification.

20. Energy use of course remains a concern in terms of sustainability – heating and fuel in particular are increasingly costly inputs for farmers, both in financial and environmental terms, but are necessary in many systems. Again, operational efficiencies driven by technological innovation and knowledge transfer (for example as seen in the adoption of precision farming techniques) are key to addressing this challenge.

21. Finally, it cannot be forgotten that sustainability encompasses social and economic considerations as well as environmental ones. While we witness a failure of some parts of the food supply chain to pass financial returns fairly onto primary producers, those sectors will remain economically unsustainable. This has long-term ramifications for the well-being of local communities, and also for the continued ability of suppliers to source produce from UK farmers. Ultimately such a state of affairs exports our production base, where food may be produced to lower environmental, health and welfare standards, increasing rather than alleviating concerns about the sustainability of the food system.

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

22. The localism agenda may encourage a greater understanding of the interconnected nature of the food chain. Rather than responding to external guidance and policy directives, local authorities will be looking at their own areas, encouraging them to examine local connections and what is important to their neighbourhoods.

23. However, the danger of emphasising "the local" is that many decisions, for instance in terms of spatial development, are better set in a wider context. This is clear in terms of the requirements for major physical infrastructure such as roads and railways. It is much less clear for food production which can be seen as something that happens purely locally. However as the recent Foresight Report stated, "The analysis of the Project has demonstrated the need for policy-makers to take a much broader perspective than hitherto when making the choices before them – they need to consider the global food system from production to plate". [3] There is a challenge, therefore, in linking the global food system functions to local decision making.

24. The Foresight Report also referred to the fact that globally, to retain biodiversity, no more land ought to be brought into food production. This is certainly true of England and Wales. The key is sustainable intensification, producing more food whilst impacting less. This inevitably means changes in food production which may be perceived to harm local interests but which nevertheless has an overall beneficial impact. Examples include more intensive forms of farming, such as livestock housed in larger buildings or more extensive use of greenhouse/polytunnels which engender local opposition.

25. Ultimately it is crucial that there is a co-ordinated approach to food policy within the UK. The current reform of the planning system must recognise strategic, national priorities such as food production and ensure that the planning system provides a fair balance between local priorities and concerns, and the need to promote sustainable production in agriculture.

5 April 2011

[1] Defra Farm Practices Survey 2008

[2] Environment Agency Water Resources Strategy 2008.

[3] Foresight Report T he Future of Food and farming