Sustainable Food - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

2  Improving Knowledge

14.  The Foresight report noted that "recent scientific and technological advances offer significant new opportunities to address major environmental challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and soil degradation".[29] However, it also found that "there needs to be a reversal of the low priority accorded to research on agriculture, fisheries and the food system in most countries" and that "the contribution of funders to research from the public, private and third sector needs better coordination". It concluded that investment in food production research needed to focus on raising yields in conjunction with improving sustainability and maintaining ecosystem services and that this shift must recognise that special measures will often be needed to incentivise research that produces a 'public good'.[30] In a similar vein the RSPB told us that agricultural R&D investment had declined in recent decades, alongside a shift from public to private sector investment, so that there was less funding for research investigating areas of potential "public good" beyond immediate economic potential.

15.  A number of organisations, including the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation, called for greater investment in research and skills to assist sustainable production methods.[31] There were also concerns about whether the current research structure would be able to deliver these benefits and pass them on to producers. Andrew Kuyk of the FDF told us:

I think we are very much in an area here of market failure, particularly when we are talking about these broader systems approaches, because no individual farm business or no individual food manufacturer will be able to make a business case for a return on their particular investment in that if you are looking at these wider benefits.[32]

The Sustainable Development Commission came to the same conclusion in its final report, noting that:

Participants in our research identified under-investment by both the public and private sectors in research into sustainable agriculture, with an overemphasis on chemical agriculture and biotechnology.[33]

16.  Research is crucial to developing more sustainable production methods, and to ensuring that the potential impacts of new systems are fully assessed. Professor Crute from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board identified a significant challenge in re-establishing the level of basic science needed to deliver new agricultural production techniques:

There is a big issue, and that is that we have had this 20 years of erosion [of] ... public money for agricultural research. ... If you look around our universities and our institutes, there are only three Russell Group universities that give a degree in agriculture now. So we would have to build back the capability and bring a new generation of people forward who are motivated not just to do good science ... but motivated to produce end-points, outcomes, that will address these questions. ... [It] is going to require a 10-year project to build back the capacity to train those people. [34]

The Campaign to Protect Rural England identified a polarisation between training in agricultural skills and in traditional land management skills, where once these would have been one and the same. They emphasised that the provision of agricultural training programmes that included both production and environmental land management skills would be vital to deliver sustainable farming in the UK.[35]

17.  The evidence we received pointed to a number of areas of research where attention needs to be focused, which we consider below:

Quantification of the environmental impacts of producing food

18.  Food production practices can have adverse, unsustainable, impacts on ecosystems for example through over-abstracting water or reducing biodiversity (paragraph 3). Food production also benefits from ecosystem services, for example Friends of the Earth estimated that insects provide a service worth £1.8 billion in pollinating crops.[36] The land used to produce food affects greenhouse gas management (particularly storage of carbon dioxide and methane) and water collection and filtration.[37] The potential for land to support different activities also changes over time as a result of changes in technology and climate, as well as the use of irrigation and fertilisation. Understanding and quantifying the cost of such damage and such benefits could help put food production on a more sustainable footing. Natural resource accounting systems could provide some indication of relative costs and benefits of impacts to the environment and provide a measure for assessing the impacts of food production. But, at present, the costs of many of the externalities of land use are simply not reflected in the price of the resulting food. The NFU, RSPB, WWF and others highlighted areas which require more dedicated research to enable us to account more fully for the environmental damage that particular agriculture activities can produce.[38]

19.  In our inquiry on embedding sustainable development across Government we noted that understanding and accounting for the cost to the environment of policy decisions in the long term is the best way to embed sustainable development principles in policy making.[39] In our report on the green economy we have examined Defra's work on this, building on the results of the National Ecosystem Assessment and described in the Natural Environment White Paper. In that inquiry, we have examined how that work on natural capital accounting will need to be dovetailed with similar international initiatives in the light of the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

Developing low carbon agriculture

20.  In 2006 WWF estimated that the carbon footprint of the UK food chain was 22% of emissions associated with all UK economic activity, with food production, distribution and sale accounting for two-thirds of that footprint (paragraph 4). As noted above, land plays an essential role in greenhouse gas management. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board commissioned a study by Cranfield University of the carbon footprint of commercial beef and sheep farms in the UK. Across both sectors, it showed a positive link between environmental performance and economic performance. This was most pronounced in the sheep sector where every 1kg reduction in greenhouse gas per 1kg of meat generated a 28p saving.[40] That research showed that there can be an economic incentive for farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but more evidence is required if better practice is to be encouraged more widely across other agricultural and food sectors. The need for a more robust evidence base is recognised by the Committee on Climate Change who have called for a more comprehensive overview of emissions from current and changing farming practice.[41]

Life-cycle analysis of foods

21.  The Food and Drink Federation calculated that, for most foods, the biggest impacts on sustainability arise either on the farm (method of production, and use of water and fossil fuel based inputs) or in the home (how food is stored, prepared and cooked, and how waste is disposed of). There may be geographical and seasonal variations in impacts for the same product, as well as changes in impacts through land-use change.[42] Andrew Kyuk of the FDF believed that the key to addressing this was a better understanding of how and where such impacts arise, and their relative importance, through better life-cycle analysis:

I think in the past people have worked very much within their own silos, whether they are looking at plant breeding, pesticides, whatever it is. But, because of the way different things interact, I think there is scope for much more to be done in looking across different fields and combining knowledge. I think, for what in terms of national budgets would be a relatively small amount of money, the potential benefits of investing in that research are quite enormous. [43]

Soil science

22.  RSPB, NFU and the Campaign for Real Farming identified a major problem of soil degradation and soil loss.[44] Foresight noted that soil sciences, neglected in recent years, offered the prospect for a better understanding of constraints on crop production and better management of soils to preserve their ecosystem functions, improve and stabilise output, reduce pollutant run-off and cut greenhouse gas emissions.[45]

Developing new production techniques

23.  There has been a significant, long-term decline in wildlife in the UK countryside. Defra's Sustainable Development Indicators show that the farmland bird population index fell by 47% between 1970 and 2008.[46] A 2009 report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology for Development, supported by 400 scientists and 60 countries and directed by the Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, concluded that agricultural knowledge, science and technology directed towards agro-ecological sciences was needed to help protect the environment while increasing food productivity. Evidence from the Rural Economies and Land Use Programme suggested that other practices, such as small scale freshwater fish farming, might provide a sustainable alternative to traditional forms of meat production. [47]


24.  Globally, many food supply problems derive from still-worsening climate change. In addition, oil prices are expected to increase significantly in the long-term, with consequences for agricultural production and also for availability of fertilisers. Biotechnology is developing crops that are more drought tolerant or need less fertiliser, but it cannot in itself solve these problems. Genetic Modification technology companies continue work in this field but, as Professor Crute of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told us, conventional crop breeding could be equally important.[48] We received some evidence arguing that GM crops could have a role in sustainable food systems, but also other evidence that food shortage problems could be addressed through other means, for example by tackling the 30% of all food grown worldwide that is lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer.[49] There are also social pillar aspects of the sustainability of food systems (paragraph 8), as Dr Wallace of Gene Watch told us:

One of the big problems with the [GM] industry is the extent to which it can undermine some of the social and economic systems that are in place at the moment. I have already mentioned the added cost to conventional and organic farmers if a neighbouring farmer started to grow GM commercially. [...] Finally, GM as part of a highly industrialised system can contribute to this feeling that most farmers and most members of the public are concerned about, about people losing touch with where their food has come from and how their food is being grown.[50]

25.  We asked the Minister to outline the Government's position on GM crops. He told us that provided regulatory requirements for food safety and environmental impact are met, this was essentially a matter of consumer choice:

We believe that genetic modification certainly does have a role to play. We do not believe it is the answer to everybody's challenges and it is the sole way of resolving the sustainability problem, but we equally don't believe you should reject the technology out of hand. Clearly we need to make sure that any individual advance of technology is properly tested for human food safety and environmental impact, but if a particular development passes those, then it becomes much more an issue for the marketplace and for consumer choice, and quite clearly we have been through a long period when consumers don't want to know. Some people are suggesting that is beginning to change, but we deem it a matter for consumer choice once Government has properly fulfilled its regulatory role to ensure that whatever is released for commercial use has passed the necessary stringent tests.[51]

Government action

26.  Across the agricultural research priorities described above, there has been a clear degradation over recent decades. The approach of successive governments has been to exert less and less influence in directing where and how this research is done. The Agriculture and Food Minister described a minimal role for Government in co-ordinating research to deliver more sustainable production practices:

I don't believe Government has all the answers, but I am sure that if Government took upon itself the responsibility of deciding where all the research should be spent, we would get it wrong. I think it is very important that Government works closely with the industry, with the ancillary sectors and the research institutes to identify what we need to do. I think the Technology Strategy Board brought in by the previous Government is proving to be very successful. I think it was a significant step forward, and the sustainable agriculture platform that we sponsor within that we have opened up for project bids and we are now on the second tranche of bids to be considered. That board then considers and brings together all the knowledge and the expertise, way beyond what Government on its own can have, in order to assess those projects. I think that is the best way to do it, by working in partnership with the industry, with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, with whom I see an increasing role in particularly the applied end of research and in knowledge transfer, but also with the research institutes and others in deciding where to go.[52]

27.  If more sustainable methods of production are to be delivered this downward trend must be reversed. We do not currently have the basic science base to deliver more sustainable food production practices. Relying on markets to identify and to direct where this research is needed, and on sufficient scale, is likely to fail. The Government must be prepared to intervene with universities, colleges and the Research Councils to develop incentives for them to train more agricultural and food scientists. It must also take a more active role in directing the Technology Strategy Board and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to focus research on sustainable food production. In developing the Green Food Project, and a subsequent food strategy (paragraph 62), the Government must explicitly recognise the need for more research into:

  • the interactions between the impacts of food production practices and the environment, so that these can be better managed to increase production in a sustainable way (paragraph 18);
  • the impacts of agriculture on climate change, to provide a basis for encouraging farmers to adopt more sustainable practices and behaviours (paragraph 20);
  • the life-cycle impacts of food, to give producers, suppliers and customers the information they need to be able to make decisions which would have less impact on the sustainability of food (paragraph 21);
  • soil science (paragraph 22); and
  • the benefits of new farming practices, such as those in fresh water fish farming (paragraph 23).

28.  We have not seen compelling evidence to suggest that the benefits of using GM technology in the UK have increased in recent years. Nor is there evidence to suggest that consumers in the UK are ready to accept GM technology. As our predecessor Committee recommended in 2004, unless and until there is both clear public and political acceptance of GM, it is proven to be both beneficial to the environment and to producers, and evidence that demand for these products is based on understanding by consumers and transparent product labelling, the Government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas. The Government must ensure that the public and Parliament is well informed on this issue. It should establish an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system. An initial focus of such research should be on the scope for, and risks of, the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming regimes.

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

30   Ibid. Back

31   Ev 122, Ev 161 Back

32   Q 62 Back

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

34   Q 303 Back

35   Ev w54 Back

36   Friends of the Earth, Press release, UK faces annual bill of £1.8 billion without bees, April 2012. Back

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

38   Ev 104, Ev 149, Ev 161 Back

39   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2010-12, Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission, HC 504. Back

40   Ev 138 Back

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

42   Ev 122 Back

43   Q 61 Back

44   Qq 48, 61 Back

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

46 Back

47   Ev 103 Back

48   Ev 296 Back

49   Ev 143, and Government Office for Science, Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, 2011. Back

50   Q 277 Back

51   Q 333 Back

52   Q 311 Back

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Prepared 13 May 2012