Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

2  The UK food system

UK food strategy

5. In 2010 Defra produced a UK Food Security Assessment which analysed the risks and challenges to UK food supplies and placed UK food security in a global context.[1] The Assessment focused on the themes of food availability, access, affordability, safety and resilience. It concluded that the UK currently enjoys a high degree of food security, based on a strong UK food production base, access to EU markets and an open, rule-based international trading system.[2] The Assessment was reviewed by the current Government in 2012 and found to be still relevant.

6. The Food Security Assessment fed into the creation of the Government's food strategy to 2030.[3] Its objectives were to ensure that:

·  consumers could make informed choices about the food that they eat;

·  there was a strong domestic agricultural and food sector with EU and global trade links; and,

·  food would be produced in an environmentally sustainable manner.

The present Government has similar objectives, including increasing food exports, removing barriers to competitiveness, pressing for reform of market-distorting EU trade and agricultural policies, and reducing food waste while providing "strategic support to ensure the long term resilience of the sector."[4]


7. Food security has been defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as:

    when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

This implicitly includes future generations, and requires food production methods, in the UK and elsewhere, to be sustainable.[5] Germains Seed Technology commented that "food security is a global challenge which affects all areas of agriculture and rural development."[6] The NFU wrote, "we have a moral obligation to do what we can both domestically and through our influence on other countries to help address the critical long term food security issue, as well as the more pressing issue of hunger in some parts of the world."[7]

8. Responsibility within Government for key elements of policy that make up the multiple dimensions of our food security are distributed across a number of Whitehall Departments. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is responsible for international trade negotiations, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) through UK Trade and Investment, for assisting businesses (including those in the agri-food sector) in developing export trade. BIS also has responsibility for ensuring we have a research capacity and capability to cope with future challenges. The Department for International Development (DFID) is mandated to ensure UK food, trade, aid, and development policies help developing countries to increase their food security.

9. Nevertheless Defra also has a role to play in helping to ensure our farmers are as efficient as possible, promoting the use of new technologies in conjunction with BIS through the Agri-Tech Strategy.[8] Furthermore, both Defra and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have responsibilities regarding reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from agriculture, and in bio-renewable energies. The question of cross-departmental policy coherence and actions as they relate to the policy and strategies for UK food security is therefore relevant.[9]

10. We were re-assured to hear that cross-departmental communication regarding specific policy areas does take place.[10] However, it is not entirely clear to us which department has the primary responsibility for leading on UK food security and its delivery, nor what priority these issues are given in other departmental strategies, and therefore how this may affect their specific contributions in relation to resourcing and delivery of the Government's food security strategy. The Food and Drink Federation pointed to the Environmental Audit Committee report of 2012 which concluded that the Government did not have a strategy which unified policy areas which impact on production, supply and demand which could drive the whole system towards greater sustainability.[11]

11. In order to clarify the resourcing, commitment and prioritisation of food security across government we request that the Government set out the financial contributions and support of each department to the goals and delivery of the Government's food security strategy. The Government should identify Defra as the lead Department for food security and appoint a Food Security Coordinator within it to ensure policy coherence across Government departments.

What we produce and what we consume

12. Professor Benton commented:

    Food security is not only about what we produce; it is about the resilience of the food we bring in, not just chocolate, cocoa and soya but all the other things that we bring in. It is also about buying sufficient food, not overbuying food and throwing it away, and buying sufficient food for a healthy diet and not overeating food and wasting it in that way. There are many ways in which we can increase our ability to cope with problems of production, and they are not all about growing more in the UK.[12]

13. The UK Food Security Assessment noted that our food security depended on being able to source food from a variety of countries and that this diversity of supply enhanced security by spreading risks, widening options and keeping prices competitive.[13]

14. In January 2014 the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, told the Oxford Farming Conference that he wanted British consumers to purchase more seasonal British produce. He said:

    By buying seasonal fruit and veg we can improve the nation's health, help the environment and boost the economy. […]As British farmers and food producers you know that we grow some of the best food in the world here - so why is 24% of the food eaten in the UK imported when it could be produced here? […]We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8bn of fruit and veg in 2012.[14]

This figure of 24% is based on the ratio of indigenous-type food produced to indigenous-type food supplied into the market, and thus a measure of the amount of food available for consumption which could be produced here. Paragraph 14, The "self sufficiency ratio" or "food production to supply ratio" for indigenous foods has declined from a peak of almost 87% in the early 1990s to 77% in 2012.[15]

Graph 1: Self sufficiency levels since 1994 for indigenous foods

Source This chart has been created using data provided by DEFRA at

15. We note the low levels of self-sufficiency in the UK fresh fruit and vegetables sectors, at 12% and 58% respectively. While most of these imports, by volume, occur in the out-of-season months of November to June, as the graph below illustrates, import levels of apples, potatoes, peppers, onions and tomatoes remain still relatively high at the height of UK seasonal production. It is likely that the majority of these imports come from other EU Member State which experience similar seasons to the UK.

Graph 2: Imports of fresh fruit and vegetables: monthly averages by tonne, January 2009 to October 2013

Source HM Revenue and Customs, trade info, UK export and import data

Even if productive capacity in the UK were to be at its maximum level, it is unlikely that the UK would be fully self-sufficient in indigenous food. This would also be a risky strategy. As the CLA commented:

    If the UK refocused solely on domestic production and ignored external trade, there could be an unforeseen catastrophic event, such as a major crop failure or disease epidemic in livestock, which would leave the UK needing to rapidly source food from global markets. Diversity of supply is the key to resilience.[16]

16. Professor Benton told us that the UK needed more diversity in what it currently produced—mainly cereals and livestock—in case of market failure.[17] He discussed Thanet Earth, a large greenhouse complex in Kent, which now produced about one third of UK cucumbers and tomatoes, as an example.[18]

17. The Government suggested that there may be sectors where the UK could increase the production-to-supply ratio through greater competitiveness. It is also looking at areas where there may be obstacles which prevent UK producers from fully exploiting their comparative advantage, as well as barriers to UK food and drink exports in foreign markets.[19] The Government is also trying to find new markets for UK food exports in those parts of the world where demand for food is increasing. The Minister told us:

    We have been particularly successful at opening markets in China to British pork, and we have opened markets in Russia to British lamb, for instance. A key element of the TTIP negotiations at the moment—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that the EU is leading is to ensure that we can open the US market to European beef. There are lots of opportunities for us in export.[20]

18. Food security is not simply about becoming more self-sufficient in food production. A diversity of supply is an important safeguard against diseases, severe weather or other domestic supply disruptions. There are opportunities to extend the seasonal production of non-tree crop fresh fruits and vegetable products. We would like to see a more coordinated and positive approach by retailers, the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board and local and central Government to examine ways to encourage greater domestic production in these sectors.

19. We should also export, where possible, those products which are surplus to demand in the UK and can be produced competitively for export, as this will help boost our production. We are pleased that the Government is seeking to do this. The Government must redouble its efforts to negotiate the export of products such as pigmeat and cheese to China and demonstrate reciprocity in trade.

20. It is right that the Government keeps track of levels of self-sufficiency in indigenous products—which will vary from time to time. While the UK may be food secure at present, it would be unwise to allow a situation to arise in which we were almost entirely dependent on food imports given future challenges to food production arising from climate change and changing global demands.

The EU context

21. The EU provides the framework for our trade, including in food and agricultural products. The bulk of our food imports apart from tropical and sub-tropical fruit and vegetables, out-of-season temperate fruit and vegetables, and products such as soya and rice, come from other EU member states.[21] It would be impossible to consider UK food security without reference to the EU context.

22. In addition the CAP is the framework under which UK farming takes place, providing payments to farmers and setting standards for environmental, food safety, phytosanitary regulation and animal welfare. We reported last year on the Implementation of the CAP in England 2014-20.[22]

23. Within the Commission, different Directorates General (DGs) are responsible for different aspects of food security. As in the UK, no single EU body has the whole food security remit. Moreover, each Member States has its own approach to food security. This makes the process of policy coherence and unity of objectives difficult to achieve at the EU level and this is evident in many of the debates around the CAP.

24. Professor Crute told us the UK was at the forefront in the EU in thinking about food security.[23] Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told us that there was a need for a cross-EU approach to food security.[24] The BRC said the EU was:

    better placed to consider the structural issues of food security as it has competence for trade agreements, the CAP and legislation on bio-technology. However, we feel more co-ordination is needed to bring these policy areas together in a coherent fashion to address food security.[25]


25. The Government believes that the CAP, combined with EU trade policy, "has a negative impact on global food security".[26] It says that direct payments through the CAP provide a cushion to farmers which dilutes the effects of changes in the market prices of their products and inputs and encourages inefficient farmers to remain in the sector. Price support and other market interventions also keep prices higher than they would otherwise be and high agricultural tariffs keep potentially more efficient producers in other parts of the world out of the EU market.[27] Professor Crute agreed with this saying:

    The CAP is a little bit behind the curve in terms of the importance of looking at the efficiency of agricultural production systems. It essentially still rewards, for all intents and purposes, inefficient farming. It is more of a social policy, in some senses, than an agricultural policy.[28]

26. Peter Kendall from the NFU said he could not agree with this analysis:

    The challenge for saying that our payments keep inefficient farmers in production is quite emotive. The reason I say that is because if it is devil take the hindmost, and let people go out of business because they are not cutting-the-mustard: that is a pretty tough message. It is tough because their competitors get that support. If we say that we are going to let the market forces operate, it is fair to say that we would reduce those support payments to farmers evenly across Europe.[29]

27. Agricultural support continues to be a subject of major contention. The CAP was designed as a measure to help ensure food security, to sustain the rural economy and ensure that farming remained a viable economic activity. The conditions which originally gave rise to the CAP have changed and the EU is in a good position in relation to food security now. However, the CAP is no longer just about the amount of food produced, but increasingly about the way we produce it. The new CAP also allows Member States a great deal of flexibility in its implementation which can be used to assist UK food security objectives.[30]

28. The CAP has changed significantly over the years, and now has many more objectives including environmental protection and conservation. Nevertheless, its original objective of helping to ensure EU consumers have access to stable food supplies at reasonable prices remains important particularly in the context of projected increased global demand for food and potential supply disruptions. The farming sector also provides public goods which, by their very nature, have no market value. Some remuneration through direct payments is warranted, as such provision may entail specific costs in order to meet environmental or strategic objectives and targets.

29. The UK Government must ensure a joined-up approach to food security within the EU across different policy areas, and particularly in relation to the CAP, to ensure policy coherence. The Government should set out how it will use the flexibility provided by the new CAP agreement to help meet the objective of food security.

The global context

30. After the global food crisis in 2008, the Government commissioned a report on the future of food and farming which was published in 2011. The Future of Food and Farming, often referred to as the Foresight Report, is widely accepted as one of most significant and wide-ranging reports on food security in recent years.

31. The Foresight Report argued that:

    The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will 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 production 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 become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.[31]

32. One of the main challenges posed by the Foresight Report was how to feed a growing global population with limited or finite resources in the context of unpredictable climate change impacts. Professor Tim Benton, from the University of Leeds, told us:

    If you look ahead towards the middle of the century, although it is quite difficult to effectively produce a weather forecast that is accurate enough to understand what production is going to be like, under some scenarios of change, where the variability may increase detrimentally, it might be difficult even to produce the same number of calories as we do at the moment, yet alone the projected increase in demand of 100%. If there is enough food, broadly speaking, for 7 billion to 9 billion, and we have 9 billion or 10 billion, and the richest people want to eat twice the global share, what will end up happening? Wars are likely to happen, for access to land and water, and food prices are going to detrimentally affect a whole range of different things, so together they are quite painful challenges.[32]

Professor Ian Crute, from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), agreed that the challenge of feeding an increasing global population, with a rising middle class, was significant. Professor Sir John Beddington, the lead author on the Foresight Report and previously the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, added that even if the fertility rate in developing countries slowed down with increasing prosperity as was expected, the impact of this on the demand for food would not be felt for some time.[33] One example of our dependence on global markets is in relation to the demand for protein and the price of animal feed.
The demand for protein and the price of animal feed

Increased incomes in emerging economies have led in those countries to an increased demand for protein (meat and dairy in particular). Most of the livestock feed relies on soybean as an ingredient, much of which is imported, increasingly from South America. Professor Benton told us:

    You can certainly see, with respect to China, the dietary transition has been huge over the last 25 years or so, and the amount of meat and dairy that is being consumed has gone up about fivefold per capita. The end result of that is they are importing, for example, huge amounts of soy from South America. We also rely on soy, primarily for putting in processed foods—about 70% of foods in the supermarket have soy in—and for most livestock food.[34]

As a result there is risk to the UK that the cost of producing animal protein in the UK, especially pigmeat and poultrymeat, which are fed on soy products, will substantially increase. Furthermore the dominance of Brazil both in global soybean trade—accounting for over 37% of world soybean exports in 2012/13[35]—and also as a supplier of soybeans to the UK—88% of UK soybean imports came from Brazil in 2012[36]—underlines the strategic risk to the UK.

Professor Benton suggested we need a "Plan B" for future protein because if China, decided that it needed more food, prices for products dependent on soybeans would increase.[37] Professor Beddington agreed:

    I do not think we are going to be in a situation of protein starvation; it is just a price mechanism that will harvest it, and we are a wealthy country compared with other parts of the world. We will not be in a situation where we will not be able to buy in the protein. The issue is round the margin. It is whether, in fact, pig production or chicken production is going to be profitable in the UK if you are importing grains or soya to feed at what is a very high price. [38]

33. We asked the Government what account it had taken of the possibility that we may be unable to rely on sourcing animal feed from South America in future, and the implications of this for the price of animal-based protein in the UK. The Minister for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, George Eustice MP, acknowledged that since animal feed is a globally traded commodity, prices do go up and down. He reiterated the Government's support for open markets and free trade, but said more could be done to produce animal feed here, for example by growing more leguminous crops for animal feed, and by sourcing more animal feed locally as was being trialled in the pig sector. He said new cropping rules under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) might also encourage diversification into using legumes as break-crops.[39] He also told us that the Government had put £18 million into research through the Technology Strategy Board to work out how the industry could reduce reliance on protein sourced overseas.[40]

34. In contrast, environmental organisations such as the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth argue that the solution to this problem is for us, in the developed world, to eat less meat. The Soil Association told us that "we could feed roughly three billion people more on the planet if feed that goes to animals—and which is capable of humans eating it, like grains and protein—went to humans."[41] They also commented on the large amount of meat which is wasted.

35. Professor Benton commented that it was important to use land appropriately—some areas of land were suited to livestock, other areas of highly productive land were suited to grow grain, and given the high price of wheat, it was unlikely that such land would be given to livestock. He did however suggest that changing our habitual diet was a possibility in the long run and would result in changed land use.[42]

36. The Minister assured us that the Government was not pursuing a policy to discourage people from eating red meat, beef or lamb. He said, "We think that is something that is a choice for consumers."[43] He also pointed out some benefits from pasture-fed animals:

    Particularly when it comes to sheep, actually having some grazing of sheep is quite important to maintaining certain landscapes and habitats for certain types of insect, which then themselves provide a feed for birds. Some of our agri-environment schemes do indeed have requirements around stocking densities and requirements for there to be some grazing to maintain some of those habitats.[44]

37. There is a significant challenge to feed a growing global population in a sustainable manner. The key question for us, is how the UK responds to that challenge—that is, what role it plays in global markets given that it is both a small part of the global food economy, and its agriculture is a relatively minor contributor to global GHG emissions.

38. Consumers should be able to make informed choices about what and how much they consume, and health and resource impacts should play a part in these choices. There is an important role for protein from a variety of sources in our diet, and some of the animals we consume—for example, cattle and sheep—also play a vital role in ensuring our hillsides and upland farms remain viable. The production of protein, whether from animals or plants, must make efficient use of land and water, and discourage waste and reduce harmful emissions.

39. We are concerned about the potential impact of projected rising trends in global demand for animal protein on the price of animal feeds and the cost of production. The Government is aware of this issue and has funded some research in this area.

40. In view of the significant strategic risk and cost the UK is exposed to in relation to its animal feed imports, we recommend that the Government give higher priority to research to enable us to source more of our animal feed from within the EU. The Government must promote the growth of more legumes which ensure greater output per hectare. Additionally, the Government should monitor the demand for soya and other animal feeds at the global level and ensure that there is a long term "Plan B" for animal proteins within the EU.

1   Defra (FSY 0044) para 7 Back

2   Defra (FSY 0044) para 6 Back

3   HM Government, Food 2030: How we get there, January 2010 Back

4   Defra (FSY 0044)  Back

5   Research Councils UK (FSY 0016) Annex 1, para 3 Back

6   Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back

7   NFU (FSY 0029) para 9 Back

8   The Strategy was launched in 2014 and is discussed in detail in chapter six Back

9   The Department of Health and the Department of Work and Pensions have responsibilities in relation to affordability and access to safe food and a healthy adequate diet. Back

10   Q269 Back

11   Food and Drink Federation (FSY 0027) para 13 Back

12   Q21 Back

13   Defra (FSY 0044) para 10 Back

14   Buy British fruit and veg to help the economy, Back

15   Defra, Agriculture in the UK 2012. Figure revised at 29 May 2014. Back

16   CLA (FSY 0043) para 3.5 Back

17   Q11 Back

18   Q14. Thanet Earth has clarified that it supplies 12% of the UK market for cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Back

19   Defra (FSY 0044) Back

20   Q281 Back

21   Q155 Back

22   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2013-14, Implementation of the CAP in England 2014-20, HC 745 Back

23   Q10 Back

24   Q155 Back

25   British Retail Consortium (FSY 0018) para 3.8 Back

26   Defra (FSY 0044) para 14 Back

27   Defra (FSY 0044) para 14 Back

28   Q10 Back

29   Q119 Back

30   Q24 Back

31   Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for global sustainability, 2011 Back

32   Q2 Back

33   Q71 Back

34   Q4 Back

35   USDA, World Agricultural Outlook: agricultural projections to 2022, February 2013 Back

36   UN, Comtrade database  Back

37   Q4 Back

38   Q89 Back

39   Q284 Back

40   Q285 Back

41   Q189 Back

42   Q24 Back

43   Q286 Back

44   Q288 Back

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Prepared 1 July 2014