Sustainable Food - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

5  Food Strategy

'Sustainable intensification'

63.  The Foresight Future of Food and Farming report concluded that to feed a growing global population, the same amount of land will have to produce more food — 'sustainable intensification'. It identified a number of tools available to achieve this. Conventional plant breeding, improved agricultural practices and biotechnology could be used to increase yields from the same area of land while using the same inputs, such as fertilizer and water. The Foresight study notes a potential for increased yields of 6%-30% on the same amount of land, using these techniques. Professor Godfray, from the Government's Foresight project, described the concept to us:

We give a definition in the [Foresight] report and it clearly means producing more food from the same amount of land. Whereas in the past, simply increasing yield in terms of crops or the amount of meat produced in terms of livestock has been the be-all and end-all, we are now talking about the sustainable intensification agenda trying to optimise a far more complex set of objective functions, in particular, a marked increase in resource efficiency, so that means using less water, less nitrogen, less other inputs so that one is eating into natural capital to a lesser degree. Secondly, it means producing more but reducing the footprint of food production on the environment.[116]

64.  The Government's solution to food sustainability in the UK is also 'sustainable intensification', as presented by the Foresight report. It told us that "there are strong environmental grounds for limiting any significant expansion of agricultural land in the future".[117] The need to produce more from less is highlighted by the Government in the 'Green Food Project', in the Defra Business Plan and in the Natural Environment White Paper.[118] However, there are risks that come from following a path towards intensification. As Professor Philip Lowe of the Rural Economies and Land Use Programme explained any move towards intensification, in the sense of increasing yields for a given area set area of land, had resulted in the past in environmental decline:[119]

We want to return to economic efficiency, but that old economic efficiency of the immediate post-war period was very ecologically inefficient. It used vast amounts of natural resources; it was very oil dependent; it knackered the countryside where it could. There is a sense of how do we return to economic efficiency but not lose ecological benefits. To me now it is a pursuit of two things, economic efficiency and what I would call ecological efficiency, to make sure that the gains that we make in terms of increased food production are not at the expense of the environment. That is the critical thing. It is trying to get the food-producing focus on the dual aims of economic efficiency and ecological efficiency.

65.  A number of organisations were worried that implicit in the term 'sustainable intensification' was a push towards intensive forms of agriculture and a step away from small scale mixed agriculture that in certain situations could be equally efficient. Mark Driscoll from WWF believed that in UK uplands there were already too many livestock and that reducing their number should be part of delivering a more sustainable system. He told us that:[120]

At the end of the day, there will not be one system that will resolve all [the] issues. Small-scale farmers are a really important part of that for many reasons, but other agricultural production systems also have a role to play. [121]

66.  Andrew Kuyk from the Food and Drink Federation told us that 'intensification' was an unfortunate choice of word.[122] Mark Driscoll explained that this was because:

[...] it conjures up all sorts of connotations, depending on where you sit within the food supply chain, what type of farming systems you use. The food system provides not only food but a wide range of public goods, public services, cultural and landscape benefits. Sustainable intensification has to include that key range of public goods and services. It is not just about minimal environmental impacts or trade-offs even — it is about adding value to the natural environment, to natural capital.[123]

67.  The overarching aim behind the Government's work in improving the UK's food system is 'sustainable intensification'. The Foresight report presented sustainable intensification as the solution to the global food crisis. The challenge for the Government is to define what this term means in practice, and particularly for the UK. Sustainable intensification must be more than simply increasing yields: The emphasise should be on 'sustainable'. Policy must take account of social and environmental impacts of the food system, including retaining space for small scale production practices and local food networks (Part 3). But to put that into practice needs a clear strategy from the Government, as we discuss below.

A new food strategy

68.  The previous Government's food policy was set out in Food 2030, published in January 2010.[124] That cross-departmental strategy aimed to:

  • use global natural resources sustainably;
  • enable the continuing provision of the benefits and services that a healthy natural environment provides;
  • promote high standards of animal health and welfare;
  • protect food safety;
  • make a significant contribution to rural communities; and
  • allow us to show global leadership on food sustainability.

69.  It recognised that the UK food system is made up of interactions between organisations and individuals ranging beyond the immediate supply chain and that the system is affected by polices in a number of different departments. The current Government has no overarching strategy in place. Its 'Green Food Project' will examine only part of the food system. It aims to deliver environmental and intensification improvements, but it risks ignoring the wider social and health implications of the system. If these remain unaccounted for, food policy risks becoming fragmented and lacking co-ordination, as demonstrated by the policy to promote weekly waste collections. The breadth of the food system means that potential policy conflicts are likely to arise and not be recognised, unless formulated under a new food strategy. The absence of a clear strategy also makes it more difficult to identify policies which would bring benefits across a wide front, which support people's health, their communities and the environment.

70.  The UN Rio+20 Earth Summit in June will consider a document that will capture the agreed outcomes of the event, currently set out in a 'zero draft'. That draft includes potentially agreed text on food security:

We reaffirm the right to food and call upon all States to prioritize sustainable intensification of food production through increased investment in local food production, improved access to local and global agri-food markets, and reduced waste throughout the supply chain, with special attention to women, smallholders, youth, and indigenous farmers. We are committed to ensuring proper nutrition for our people.

We call for more transparent and open trading systems and, where appropriate, practices that contribute to the stability of food prices and domestic markets; ensure access to land, water and other resources; and support social protection programmes.

We further support initiatives at all levels that improve access to information, enhance interactions among farmers and experts through education and extension services, and increase the use of appropriate technologies for sustainable agriculture.[125]

In the absence of a food strategy that encapsulates Government policy on food, there is currently no clear view of the Government's likely approach to the Rio negotiations.

71.  The Government must use the Green Food Project to provide a foundation for developing a broader food strategy that takes into account the health, environmental, social and economic consequences of the way that the food we eat is produced, sold and disposed of. Such a strategy should explicitly shape the way policy is to be co-ordinated across departments to provide a sustainable food system. It must provide information on the trade-offs that need to be examined when considering food sustainability and give direction on the types of foods considered sustainable. It must also provide an impetus to shift food policy to deliver a more equitable food system so that healthy and sustainable food is available to all.

72.  A key theme of the Rio+20 Earth Summit will be sustainable food production. The Government should review its food policy in the light of the Summit agenda, and after the Summit it should build any commitments agreed into that strategy. That review must ensure that UK food policy is consistent with the global aspirations for delivering a sustainable food system.

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

117   Q 117 Back

118   Ev 154 Back

119; Defra, Natural Environment White Paper, 2011; and Defra, Business Plan, 2011. Back

120   Q 10 Back

121   Q 12 Back

122   Q 53 Back

123   Q 10 Back

124   Defra, Food 2030, 2010. Back

125   United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, The Future We want-Zero draft of the outcome document 2011, paras 64-66.  Back

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Prepared 13 May 2012