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Food matters

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IT has been clear for some time that the Government needs to rethink its policy on food security (see, for example, VR, June 21, 2008, vol 162, p 797), and it is beginning to look as if this is now happening. Earlier this month, the Cabinet Office published a report entitled ‘Food matters: towards a strategy for the 21st century’.1 Running to 124 pages, this is a substantial report, which takes a broad view of food security issues — certainly much broader than the Prime Minister's remarks, widely picked up by the media, that consumers shouldn't waste so much food, might have suggested. The result of a 10-month project by the Cabinet Office's strategy unit, it looks at food policy across government — and concludes that rising demand, climate change, and trade and productivity restrictions all need to be addressed.

In the words of the Government, the report ‘focuses on food issues in the uk and puts them in a global context. It draws together evidence about long-term trends in food production and consumption, and how food safety and nutrition impact on the health of the uk’.

Among the key findings is that world food output must rise to feed a growing, wealthier population; it draws attention to World Bank estimates that cereal production needs to increase by 50 per cent and meat production by 80 per cent between 2000 and 2030 to meet demand, but notes that this will have to be achieved in a changing climate and in a world where natural resources, especially water, are becoming more scarce. It says that the food chain creates 18 per cent of uk greenhouse gas emissions and that farming and fishing contribute around half of this total. It also notes that changes to farming practices, such as more efficient use of fertiliser and providing animals with diets that specifically match their nutrient requirements, could reduce emissions from agriculture.

Among the recommendations is that the uk ‘should take a leadership role in looking at how the world can meet the twin challenges of climate change and global food security’. It calls for ‘a more joined-up approach to food policy that pursues fair prices, safer food, healthier diets and better environmental performance’. It suggests, too, that the uk must continue to focus on fair prices, access to food and food security through competitive markets — and that it should work with other European countries to promote the role of agriculture in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

More recently, and building on the recommendations of the Cabinet Office report, defra last week published a discussion paper entitled ‘Ensuring the uk's food security in a changing world’.2 defra's discussion paper considers the factors that contribute to food security, highlighting future challenges and identifying five key indicators of food supply (‘global availability’, ‘diversity of supply’, ‘food chain resilience’, ‘affordability’ and ‘safety and confidence’). It paints a bleaker picture of the future than previous reports from defra. However, like previous reports, it argues that food security should not be confused with self-sufficiency. It points out that the situation in the uk cannot be viewed in isolation, and that uk and global food security are interlinked, particularly in relation to world food markets and international energy supplies. It notes, nevertheless, that uk agriculture has a vital contribution to make to food security, both in Britain and internationally, and outlines the importance of the sector to the uk economy as well as its role in managing Britain's landscape and biodiversity.

defra's intention is that the paper will feed into a more detailed statement on food security policy later this year and, with this in mind, it poses five key questions for the public and industry to comment on. These concern: whether defra has correctly identified the challenges facing global and uk food security; views on the action the uk Government is taking to address these challenges; what further role the agricultural, retail and food service sectors can play in ensuring uk food security; whether the indicators of food security identified in the paper are appropriate; and the steps to be taken if the indicators suggest there is a problem.

It is easy to be cynical about this kind of consultation exercise. However, food security is important and, after a period during which the importance of agriculture in food supply seems almost to have been forgotten by the Government, it is good to find farming back on the agenda in this context, even if the discussion document itself is far from reassuring. In the meantime, it is clear that the Government's concerns about food security are closely linked to concerns about the environment. In this respect, the theme of this year's bva Congress — ‘Vets in a changing environment’ — seems all the more relevant. The congress is to be held in London from September 25 to 27, and details are available on the bva website, www.bva.co.uk.

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