Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


The UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, but this situation will not last unless the Government plans now for future changes in our weather patterns and the changing global demand for food.

This report focuses on food production, supply and the systems necessary to ensure our food security in the future. It highlights some examples of good practice and how Government and food producers could plan for projected changes better to make our food production, and supply systems more secure.

Food security has many dimensions and responsibility for it rests with at least three departments—Defra, BIS, DECC. While we are sure that cross-departmental communication takes place, we recommend that the Government identify Defra as the lead Department and appoint a Food Security Coordinator within it to ensure a coherent approach to this important issue.

The UK is currently 68% self-sufficient in foods which can be produced here. There has been a steady decline in this level over the last 20 years. While there is no optimal level of self-sufficiency, and a diversity of supply is important for spreading risks, the Government should monitor this level. Levels of self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables have fallen the most, and farmers should seek to extend the seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in coordination with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

We want to see more supermarkets shorten their supply chains. It is clear that this significantly reduces the threat of disruption and risk in the system and helps ensure consumers know exactly where their food comes from.

Many of our food imports are from other EU member states. As part of the CAP, many of our farmers receive support from the EU. This is a contentious issue. We believe the objective of ensuring secure food supplies is still relevant. Nevertheless the CAP, and indeed our own food production systems must change to meet the challenge of climate change.

This requires a significant shift in how we produce our food. Agricultural output is extremely weather dependent and we know that climate change will bring more unpredictable and volatile weather. Storms last winter led to extensive flooding of agricultural land in Somerset, for example. Farmers need better longer-term weather forecasts, and resilient production systems to be able to recover from such events. The technology to assist farmers is available, but at present, it is not translated into a marketable tool which would enable farmers to predict the likely impact of adverse weather and plan for it.

We support the concept of sustainable intensification—producing more food, on a finite amount of land, in a sustainable way. What this means for each farmer, and each product will differ, but the concept of producing more with fewer inputs is important. We note that for our staple crop, wheat, yield levels have not increased for many years.

We also need to consider what type of food we produce. Our livestock and dairy produce is heavily dependent on imported soybean for animal feed. Projected increases in the demand for protein from emerging economies in India, China and other parts of Asia, Africa and South America, threaten our supply of soybean, currently imported mainly from South America. In view of the significant strategic risk and cost the UK is exposed to in relation to its animal feed imports, the Government needs to put in place a plan for alternative animal feed for the livestock and dairy sectors.

In responding to climate change the agricultural sector must reduce its emissions. Livestock production contributes more than 40% of these. There is a need for more research into how to reduce this. We saw interesting research at Rothampsted Research Institute. More is needed urgently. The Government must also produce a detailed plan for how the agricultural sector as a whole should reduce its emissions.

One of the key ways in which we can ensure our future food security is by taking advantage of available technology. We support the Government's new £160 million AgriTech Strategy whose objective is to support collaborative research and development and ensure that technological ideas are translated into practice. However, the funding may be insufficient—the first round of bids was six-fold oversubscribed. The Government must monitor this and, if necessary, identify additional funding sources.

There are many technological developments which could help to improve productivity in a sustainable manner. We were impressed with the opportunities provided by precision farming technology, for example to be able to plough water-logged fields, or to use robots and scanning technologies to detect and remove weeds in a field. At present much of this research is not reaching the field.

We also looked at GM technology and its ability to import desirable traits—such as aphid-repellence, or drought resistance into a plant. We were told that EU regulations were hampering our ability to take advantage of this technology. We also discussed consumer concerns about GM—the implications of its production for other types of crops, and concerns about consumption. The Government must address these concerns, using available science to counter food safety fears. The Government must also continue to work within the EU to encourage a more evidence-based approach to the licensing of crops.

In addition to taking advantage of available technology, our longer term food security requires research now, into the systems which will be appropriate in the future, The Government spends £410 million annually on agri-food research. However, much of this research is fragmented, and there is insufficient funding for farm-scale research which can carry out investigations in a sustained manner, replicating livestock and farming systems and bringing research closer to the farming community.

In addition to technology it is clear that we need a vibrant farming sector. Initiatives to encourage new farms are welcome. These should take place in cooperation with industry which can help with the costs associated with entry into farming,

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Prepared 1 July 2014