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Time for a rethink

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TYPE the words ‘food security’ into Google and one of the first items to appear on the list is a reference to ‘Food security and the uk: an evidence and analysis paper’.* This was a document produced by defra economists at the end of 2006 in the context of the Government's Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy. The document had been prompted by the fact that food security was increasingly being discussed as a matter of concern and it suggested that two main developments might have triggered this. The first was a decline in the ‘self-sufficiency ratio’ of domestic production to consumption in the uk and the fact that reform of the Common Agriculture Policy together with the liberalisation of trade could lead to a reduction in agricultural production in the uk and Europe. Secondly, it suggested that, in the context of climate change, international energy concerns, geopolitical tensions and international terrorism, there was ‘a growing sense of the potential for disruption to food supplies in an uncertain world’.

Food security is clearly important but, while accepting this, defra's document was at pains to point out that it does not depend on self-sufficiency in food production, arguing that discussing the issue in terms of self-sufficiency was ‘fundamentally misplaced and unbalanced’. Rather, it said, food security was a multifaceted and complex matter and, for a developed country like the uk, the answer lay in diversifying supply options and maintaining a flexible approach: ‘The unpredictable nature of potentially major risks to food supply suggests that maintaining food security involves a wide variety of approaches and cannot be reduced to a choice between domestic and imported production … Flexibility — in domestic agriculture, international markets and the domestic food industry — will always be crucial in building resilience to and dealing with short- and long-term threats.’ It placed great store on market forces as a means of dealing with the risks associated with food supply and argued that ‘As a rich country open to trade, the uk is well placed to access sufficient foodstuffs through a well-functioning world market’ (VR, January 6, 2007, vol 160, p 1).

Things have moved on in the 18 months since the document was produced and maybe it is time for the Government to revisit the issue. The world remains an uncertain place and, as recent developments concerning, say, oil supplies and the financial sector have demonstrated, world markets do not always function as well as they should. More pertinently, perhaps, the issue of meeting future world food demand has suddenly returned to the top of the international agenda, not so very long after some people seemed to have written off the idea that it might present a problem.

In March, Britain's chief scientist, Professor John Bebbington, told the bbc that, with the world's population expected to grow from 6·5 billion to 9 billion by 2050, a global food crisis could be expected in the coming decades as the world's demand for food outstripped its ability to produce it: the crisis, the bbc reported, could be as serious as climate change, and could hit sooner.

For some, the crisis has already happened, and the high-level summit on world food security convened by the un Food and Agriculture Organization (fao) in Rome earlier this month concluded with a declaration calling on the international community to take urgent and coordinated action to combat the negative impacts of soaring food prices on the world's most vulnerable countries and populations. It called for more investment in agriculture, highlighting ‘an urgent need to help developing countries and countries in transition expand agriculture and food production, and to increase investment in agriculture, agribusiness and rural development, from both public and private sources’.

The fao summit was mainly concerned with the problems of the developing world, but even developed countries are not immune to food shortages. The empty shelves seen in supermarkets in Spain earlier this month may have been the result of panic buying precipitated by a lorry drivers' strike in protest at rising fuel prices, but they certainly highlighted the fragility of supply chains.

Animals are important in food production and, as Dr Bernard Vallat, director of the World Organisation for Animal Health (oie), pointed out at the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe's general assembly this month, animal health is a key component of food security (see p 800 of this issue). Healthy animals are important not only in terms of production efficiency, but also food safety. At a time when the disease and production challenges are increasing, the oie continues to highlight the need for countries to develop and strengthen veterinary services and disease surveillance systems, which are so important not just in terms of protecting animal and human health, but also economically and for international trade. Meanwhile, there is a need to invest in research into animal diseases and better diagnostic and disease control methods to meet the challenges ahead.

Given the nature of those challenges — and as a letter points out on pp 830-831 of this issue — it seems incomprehensible that the British Government continues to seek to reduce its involvement in agriculture and animal health. It needs to rethink its policies on home production and food security, and on animal health and livestock production generally.

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