Sustainable Food - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

1  The Sustainable Food Problem

1.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to feed the global population. In January 2011, the Government's Foresight programme reported on The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. It concluded that the global food system would experience unprecedented pressures over the next 40 years.[1] On the demand side, it reported that the global population would increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050. Many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the supply side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will be imperative. The report warned that without changes in farming practice, the global food system would continue to degrade the environment and compromise the world's capacity to produce food in the future, as well as contributing to climate change and diminishing biodiversity.

2.  The Foresight report set out how the global food system was failing in two ways. First, it was using resources much faster than they were being replenished. Much agricultural activity had degraded land, and agriculture currently consumed 70% of total global water withdrawals from rivers and aquifers, many of which were over-exploited.[2] Second, the food system was failing to end hunger — there were still nearly a billion hungry people and another one billion people suffering from 'hidden hunger' or malnutrition.[3] In recent years progress on hunger had stalled and there was now little chance that we could meet the Millennium Development Goals hunger targets.

3.  The impacts of food production in the UK environment are well understood. The last Government's Food 2030 strategy, published in January 2010, noted that: [4]

  • Soil erosion in England was estimated to cost agriculture £45 million a year, and might incur further costs by reducing water quality and increasing flood risk when that soil entered our rivers.
  • Although agriculture used only 1% of our water resources, this masked significant seasonal and regional differences. And the food system overall was a major water user, taking 10% of all industrial abstractions and another 10% of total industrial water taken from the public supply.
  • Over 60% of nitrates, up to 40% of phosphorus and the majority of silt in UK waterways was due to agriculture.

The challenge of reducing these environmental impacts of food production must be undertaken in the context of a changing climate. Agriculture will have to adapt to increasingly variable and unpredictable growing conditions including increased incidence of floods and droughts, increased temperatures, and different patterns in the occurrence of weeds, pests, and diseases.[5] In addition, agriculture will have to reduce emissions as part of efforts to mitigate climate change. This might require farmers and other food producers to re-acquire lost skills, from traditional agronomy and husbandry, and to understand the environmental impact of agricultural and fisheries production on the wider market economy.[6]

4.  The greenhouse gas footprint of the UK food chain was 160mtCO2e in 2006, an estimated 22% of emissions from UK economic activity.[7] Primary food production in the UK accounts for a third of the overall UK food chain's carbon footprint.[8] Collectively, the industries which process, manufacture, distribute and sell food account for a further third. Consumers are responsible for the remaining third, including embedded emissions in imported products.[9] WWF has calculated that total food related emissions (including the impacts of land use changes and emissions embedded in imported goods) makes up 20% of the UK's greenhouse gas footprint from consumed goods and services.[10] The Committee on Climate Change published its third progress report on meeting the UK Carbon Budgets in June 2011. This reported that agricultural emissions fell by around 1% in 2009 and that this was broadly consistent with the rate of emission reductions required over the next decade.[11] However, they also concluded that new policies would be required to maintain this reduction.[12] Latest statistics suggest that the downward trend has not been maintained, and that emissions from agriculture may now be increasing.[13] The Foresight Future of Food and Farming report found that the domestic sector impacts on the environment from food consumption were larger than manufacturing and retail sector impacts combined, and that waste — whether of water, energy or food itself — remained the largest single issue across the whole supply chain.[14] The Food and Drink Federation have argued that the biggest environmental impacts occur in the home (how food is stored, prepared, and cooked and waste disposed of) and on the farm.[15]

5.  Agriculture will have an increasingly important role to play in supplying renewable energy. The Committee on Climate Change concluded that it would be difficult to meet the overall 2050 emissions target unless bioenergy (including energy from crops, forestry and agricultural residues, and waste) accounted for around 10% of total UK primary energy (compared to the current 2%).[16] They believed this was possible. However, they recognised that it might involve trade-offs against other desirable environmental and social objectives, including food production and biodiversity.[17] The Foresight report noted that while some forms of bioenergy could play an important role in the mitigation of climate change, they might lead to a reduction in land available for agriculture.[18] Increased bioenergy production contributed to a global food price spike in 2007-08.[19]

6.  In addition to the environmental challenge, we also face a health challenge. The Department of Health's Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England, published in October 2011, noted that England has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, with more than 60% of adults and a third of 10 and 11 year olds overweight or obese.[20] In 2007, the Government-commissioned Foresight report, Tackling Obesities, predicted that if no action was taken, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children would be obese by 2050.[21] Food 2030 calculated that poor diet accounted for a third of all cases of cancer, and a further third of cases of cardiovascular disease. The doubling of obesity over the previous 25 years had increased the risk of developing type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. Obesity imposes a significant burden on the NHS — the direct costs of obesity are £4.2 billion a year and are forecast to more than double by 2050 if we carry on as we are.[22] Diet-related chronic disease costs the NHS £7 billion a year, including direct treatment costs, state benefits and loss of earnings. On the other hand, the health benefits of meeting nutritional guidelines would be worth almost £20 billion a year, and prevent 70,000 premature deaths a year.[23]

7.  The Foresight Future of Food and Farming report concluded that this was a unique time in history — for the first time we can now foresee a possible end to population growth so that decisions made now and over the next few decades will disproportionately influence the future. Urgent action was needed now to provide food security for future generations, and addressing climate change and achieving sustainability in the global food system needed to be recognised as dual imperatives. The world today faced one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: how to feed 9 billion people in 2050, in the face of climate change, water shortages, burgeoning demand for energy and the growing competition for the use of natural resources. [24]

What is sustainable food?

8.  Producing and consuming the wrong type of food can make it unsustainable. We cannot indefinitely continue to produce and consume in the way that we currently do, because of the health and environmental impacts. There are also wider, social impacts of the food system that can be unsustainable. The Government's 'vision' for sustainable development, published in Defra's February 2011 Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, built on the principles underpinning the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy, for defining sustainable development in the context of Government policy.[25] As such, this recognised that the three 'pillars' of sustainable development—the economy, society and the environment—are interconnected. To incorporate these into food policy means that we need to consider environmental and social consequences, as well as the economics of matching supply and demand.

9.  In March 2011, the Sustainable Development Commission reported on UK food policy, in Looking back, Looking Forward: Sustainability and UK food policy.[26] It used research from over the previous decade to describe what a sustainable food system must cover and set out the following core elements:

  • addressing environmental impacts such as greenhouse gases and climate change, biodiversity, water use, land use and other infrastructure on which food depends;
  • contributing to human health not just by preventing food-borne diseases associated with poor safety but also non-communicable diseases due to under, as well as over, consumption;
  • delivering good quality food, fit to meet consumer and cultural aspirations;
  • embodying social values such as fairness and animal welfare;
  • providing decently rewarded employment across the supply chain, with skills and training; and
  • improving the above through good governance.

Our inquiry

10.  Against that background we undertook this inquiry into sustainable food within the UK. Our aim was to examine how the food system in the UK needs to be changed to make it more sustainable, not specifically to address the wider global food crisis, but recognising that action at home must be taken in the context of the global system. This report provides an overview of policy areas where change is required. It also provides examples of specific policies across a number of departments that should be adjusted to improve the food system.

11.  We received submissions from 51 organisations and individuals and we took oral evidence between May and December 2011, from the authors of the Foresight report, academics, environmental groups and other NGOs, representatives of local food networks, those involved in food health issues, farmers, retailers and supermarkets, and Rt Hon James Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food at Defra. We would like to thank all those who contributed evidence.

12.  Since this inquiry was launched the Government's policy on food has moved forward. In November 2011, Defra launched the 'Green Food Project' which aims to report in June 2012 on how food production can be increased while at the same time the environment can be enhanced.[27] That initiative is being driven by a Steering Group including senior representatives from the farming, food, service industry and environmental sectors. Other policies that could potentially influence the food system, including the Portas High Street Review, the transfer of public health functions to local authorities under the Health and Social Care Act and new powers for communities under the Localism Act are being developed in other departments.[28]

13.  In Part 2 we examine the knowledge base required to deliver a sustainable food system; in Part 3 measures to provide producers and customers with greater access to sustainable food; in Part 4 ways to encourage more sustainable behaviour; and in Part 5 we consider how these areas should be co-ordinated under the Green Food Project and in a subsequent food strategy.

1   Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011, p 9. Back

2   Ibid. Back

3   Ibid. Back

4   Defra, Food 2030, 2010. Back

5   Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011.  Back

6   Ibid. Back

7   Ev 106 Back

8   Defra, Food 2030, 2010. Back

9   Ev 106 Back

10   WWF, How Low Can We Go? 2009. Back

11   Committee on Climate Change, Meeting carbon budgets-3rd Progress Report to Parliament, 2011. Back

12   Ibid. Back

13   DECC, 2010, UK Greenhouse Gas Emission, February 2012.  Back

14   Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011. Back

15   Ev 122 Back

16   Committee on Climate Change, Bioenergy Review, 2011. Back

17   Committee on Climate Change, Bioenergy Review, 2011. Back

18   Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011. Back

19   Ibid. Back

20   Department of Health, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: a call to action on obesity in England, 2011. Back

21   Government Office for Science, Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, 2007. Back

22   Defra, Food 2030, 2010. Back

23   Ibid. Back

24   Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011.


25   Defra, Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, 2011. Back

26   Sustainable Development Commission, Looking back, Looking Forward: Sustainability and UK Food Policy, 2011.


27 Back

28   Mary Portas, The Portas review: an independent review into the future of our high streets, 2011. Back

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Prepared 13 May 2012