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Sense and food security

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THE turmoil in the world's financial markets over the past week or so has demonstrated just how volatile a market economy can be. The issue at stake has been financial security, but the experience also underlines the importance of food security, which is itself dependent on world markets. The unfolding scandal of melamine-contaminated milk products in China, reminiscent of the events leading to the recall of many pet foods in North America in 2007, adds another dimension to the debate.

In recent years, the British Government appears to have been fairly relaxed about food security. Its views on the subject were set out in a document entitled ‘Food security and the uk: an evidence and analysis paper’ produced by defra economists in 2006. This was at pains to point out that food security did not depend on self-sufficiency in food production and that consideration of the subject could not be reduced to a choice between domestic production and imported produce. Rather, it argued, ‘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).

The idea that markets can provide a solution to all the world's ills has taken a bit of a battering over the past couple of weeks but, even before that, there have been signs that the Government is starting to feel a little less sanguine about its approach. In July, a report from the Cabinet Office discussed food issues in the uk in a global context and highlighted the challenges of meeting future world food demands in a world in which the climate is changing and where natural resources, especially water, are becoming more scarce. Also in July, building on the recommendations of the Cabinet Office report, defra published a discussion paper entitled ‘Ensuring the uk's food security in a changing world’. Like the earlier paper, this argued that food security should not be confused with self-sufficiency. However, in presenting a bleaker, some might say more realistic, vision of the challenges ahead, it also pointed out that uk agriculture has a vital contribution to make to food security, both in Britain and internationally (see VR, July 26, 2008, vol 163, p 97). The bva has responded to defra's request for comments on its discussion paper and highlighted a number of issues in the process.

Among the points made by the bva are that defra's discussion paper overstates the level of food security enjoyed in the uk and that greater emphasis should be placed on increasing food production locally. The Association accepts that imports are needed to ensure diversity of supply and ensure security in the event of production being disrupted, but notes that, at a time when reducing carbon emissions and preventing climate change are high on the Government's agenda, this has to be measured against the environmental impact of transporting food from elsewhere. It draws attention to the disease risks associated with imported food and livestock, and the need for imports to be ‘policed’, with increased surveillance for food safety and disease. It also points out that imports can undermine the economic viability of uk agriculture, with wider effects on rural communities and the environment.

The bva believes that the challenges associated with disease control and biosecurity, both of which are vital factors in food security, receive insufficient emphasis in the discussion paper. It gives foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue as examples of diseases which can exert a huge impact on animal health and welfare, production efficiency and a nation's ability to feed itself and export meat and other foodstuffs, and bovine tb as an example of a disease that exerts a drain on productivity and profitability. It draws attention to the vital role of the veterinary profession in disease control, as well as other aspects of food security, but notes that, in practical terms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil this role at a local level because of financial pressures on veterinary practices and farmers. It also draws attention to the importance of veterinary research in meeting future challenges.

Local production makes disease control easier, helps animal welfare and brings environmental and economic benefits. However, food produced to high animal welfare and environmental standards comes at a price and it remains to be seen whether consumers will be prepared to pay for such produce if the economic downturn continues. As the bva points out, balancing these drivers against increased production requirements presents a significant challenge for uk agriculture.

It has been clear for some time that the Government needs to rethink its policy on food security and defra's discussion paper, which will feed into a more detailed policy statement later this year, indicates that it has finally embarked on this process. However, it needs to put more effort into boosting production in the uk. This is not only in the national interest; there is also a moral dimension to the debate. As Mr Jim Paice, the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, pointed out in a speech at the Dairy uk conference last week, ‘If we rely on world markets for our food supplies then we will be competing with the world's poorest people for a dwindling resource. We owe it to them, as well as our own people, to ensure that we make our contribution to these supplies.’

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