Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The UK food system

1.  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. (Paragraph 11)

2.  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. (Paragraph 18)

3.  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. (Paragraph 19)

4.  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. (Paragraph 20)

5.  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. (Paragraph 28)

6.  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. (Paragraph 29)

7.  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. (Paragraph 37)

8.  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. (Paragraph 38)

9.  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. (Paragraph 39)

10.  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. (Paragraph 40)

The challenge of climate change

11.  Climate change will have significant implications for our agricultural production in the long run. While it may be that the UK climate becomes better suited to particular types of agriculture, farmers will need the know how to adapt their crops or livestock without productivity losses and in a sustainable manner. Farmers would be greatly assisted by having access to more reliable long range weather predictions so that they can be better prepared for extreme weather events and conditions. (Paragraph 50)

12.  We urge the Government to explore the cost implication for farmers of access to more long term weather forecasts as a first line of defence against extreme weather. (Paragraph 51)

13.  Building on the Climate Change Evidence Plan, the Government must produce an up-to-date action plan for reducing UK emissions. This should draw on the conclusions of the latest IPCC Report and on the methodologies for risk assessment outlined in it. (Paragraph 52)

14.  We were impressed with the range of practical research we saw at Rothamsted Research Institute. There is an important role for ruminant livestock on less intensively-farmed and environmentally valuable hills and uplands in the UK where a significant reduction in livestock numbers would have negative consequences for these environments. (Paragraph 57)

15.  The bulk of our meat and dairy however is produced on lowlands, and if this is to continue, there is a need for greater research effort and funding directed at reducing emissions from more intensive beef, sheep and dairy farming systems. Given the limited projected progress made in reducing emissions from the agricultural sector as a whole, the Government should identify, as a priority, specific actions which will ensure the sector can meet national greenhouse gas reduction targets. (Paragraph 58)

Sustainability and sustainable intensification

16.  We need to increase agriculture output without increasing the amount of land used. It is clear that in some key crops this is not happening and yield levels have stagnated. We also need to ensure our agricultural production systems preserve the soil on which these crops are grown and ensure it retains key nutrients. (Paragraph 66)

17.  Sustainable intensification in relation to key UK cereal crops has made limited progress. The plateauing of yield levels in wheat must be addressed a matter of urgency. As part of its efforts towards sustainable intensification, we recommend the Government also direct greater funding to research on maintaining and improving soil quality. (Paragraph 67)

18.  Organic production uses fewer pesticides and inorganic fertilisers and, in so doing, makes an important contribution to environmental stewardship. We believe organic production also has a place in the market in adding to consumer choice. However, organic yields—certainly for extensive crops such as cereals and also for potatoes and some fruit—are generally lower than those for conventional agriculture. (Paragraph 73)

Supply chain resilience

19.  Shorter supply chains minimise the threat of disruption and therefore help food security. As we said in our Report on Food Contamination, we are concerned about the length of supply chains, particularly for processed and frozen meat products, and we welcome the efforts made by some retailers to shorten these. As a result of horsemeat contamination in 2013 the Government commissioned a review of supply chain resilience. We look forward to the final report on this matter, and to receiving any evidence that supply chains in general are becoming shorter. (Paragraph 84)

20.  We want to ensure that the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator works for farmers and buyers, and therefore ultimately the consumer, so that the farming industry remains both sustainable and efficient. If farm incomes are squeezed unduly, farmers are unlikely to make the necessary investments in sustainable production. The creation of the role is welcome and must be properly resourced as part of a wider effort to promote food security. (Paragraph 91)

21.  We recognise that assessing "fairness" in relation to producer and consumer prices is fraught with difficulty, not least those of determining whether markets are working efficiently and transparently. However, we fully support the role of the Adjudicator in assessing whether contractual and other commercial practices may be unfair within the supply chain, or prejudicial to farmers and the longer run viability of their businesses, and whether there is evidence of abuse of market power in the supply chain. (Paragraph 92)

22.  We request an update on progress made and outcomes achieved to date from the Office of the Grocery Code Adjudicator. We suggest that it would be better if the Office had the power to initiate an investigation (Paragraph 93)

Harnessing technology

23.  We support the Agri-Tech Strategy as a bold and innovative response to the need to ensure our agricultural production methods are modern and sustainable. The Government must ensure that it creates new partnerships between academia and those involved in developing technology. It should identify alternative funding mechanisms with the Technology Strategy Board in case adequate industry co-funding is not forthcoming, particularly where technology can deliver significant public benefit. We also recommend that the Government monitor the early competitive rounds of catalyst funding to assess whether there could be justification for expanding the funding base. (Paragraph 99)

24.  We were impressed by some of the possibilities provided by precision technology to make farming easier and more efficient. There are, for example, already sensor technologies which have the potential for development in a range of engineering and other precision farming applications where quick-wins could be achieved for UK farming. (Paragraph 105)

25.  As the Government's new Agri-Tech Strategy addresses technological developments that are close to being brought to commercial reality, research funding bodies should place additional emphasis on pre-commercial and multidisciplinary applied research into precision farming technologies. (Paragraph 106)

26.  UK agriculture must embrace new technologies which are consistent with the principles of evidence and balanced risk-based assessment whilst meeting criteria of both economic and environmental sustainability, if it is to meet the challenges to food security in the future. (Paragraph 111)

27.  Given the evident concern about the way in which the EU regulatory framework operates and its potential implications for the future productivity and competitiveness of our agricultural sector, the Government should tell us what conclusions it has drawn regarding its scope for unilateral action on the EU regulatory regime for crop protection and GM crop approval as part of its wider review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and EU. (Paragraph 112)

Genetically modified food

28.  The technology involved in the production of genetically modified crops generates public concern. In particular there are concerns that there may be unknown implications of this technology. In relation to the consumption of GM foods many people in other countries, and a large percentage of our poultry and livestock, consume GM products with no known or documented ill-effects. This should offer some reassurance to the wary. In terms of concerns about the production of GM crops, the EU process for approval of such crops is, as noted, extremely rigorous, and appropriate regulations can be put in place to guard against cross-contamination. (Paragraph 131)

29.  The Government should do more to inform the public about the potential beneficial impacts of growing GM crops in the UK. It should encourage an evidence-led public debate about GM crops and also counter food safety fears about the consumption of GM. In order to give consumers the opportunity to make informed choices, GM foods should be labelled as such, in the same way as organic produce. The Government must continue to work within the EU to argue for a system which is more flexible for those member states that wish to take advantage of GM technology, while still ensuring that all EU consumers are protected, in the same way it does with non-GM technologies. Progress towards this objective must be research and science-led. The Government must also ensure that any GM products grown legitimately in any member state may be freely traded across the EU. (Paragraph 132)

Securing food for the future

30.  We recommend that the Government, through its Global Food Security Programme, undertake a themed mapping of the current scientific research programmes, projects and reports that are directed specifically towards enhancing our food security either publicly funded or co-funded, and of those which might exert a potentially important indirect impact on food security. This would provide a first line of co-ordinated communication of research to potential users, and indicate more transparently where current priorities lie. (Paragraph 136)

31.  UK research councils should encourage the research-intensive universities and institutes which they fund to explore opportunities to extend the scope for farm-level research through greater co-operation with specialist land-based sector universities and colleges, thereby bringing the scientific research closer to application and the farming community, and ensuring best use of scarce and expensive resources. The Government should recognise the contribution made by our universities and research institutes and ensure the long term security of their funding. (Paragraph 139)

32.  There are gaps in the co-ordination and flow of knowledge from research institutes to the farmers who would use and benefit from it. We recommend that the Government develop an integrated knowledge transfer strategy and action plan, which can be delivered and co-ordinated within the present funding frameworks, to ensure engagement between researchers and the relevant end users. (Paragraph 147)

33.  Our food security depends on a vibrant, innovative and professional UK farming sector. This in turn requires a regular inflow of new entrants to the sector. Farming in the UK does not have this and efforts must be made to encourage new entrants who are willing and able to take advantage of new technologies in order to ensure the sector is modern and competitive. We are pleased that the Government is examining ways to do this in conjunction with the industry which can also help with the costs associated with entry into farming. (Paragraph 152)

34.  We recommend that the Government update us on its efforts and on the likely actions that will emerge from the Future of Farming Review. It should also clarify whether any Rural Development Programme funding will be made available to support the implementation of the recommendations arising from the Future of Farming Review. (Paragraph 153)

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Prepared 1 July 2014