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Animals and food

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IT IS noticeable that the introductory summary of a report on securing future food supplies, which was published by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) this week,* does not specifically mention livestock production. The summary talks of the UK having 'a moral duty to make the most of its position in the globe and its natural advantages for producing certain types of food', and says that it 'should aim to increase its [sustainable] production of those fruit, vegetables and cereals that are suited to being grown here', but makes no reference to livestock. It could be wrong to read too much into this, as the EFRACom's inquiry was concerned with food security in general, and meat and dairy production are discussed in the body of the report. However, the omission is worrying, because livestock production is important and parts of the UK are well suited to raising food animals.

The section in the report on meat and dairy production seems somewhat ambivalent about how this sector should develop. It draws attention to calls for people to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, and to the possible impacts (both positive and negative) on the environment. It also draws attention to remarks made by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) that it is 'an oversimplified analysis to say that meat is bad and grain is good'. It concludes, 'UK consumers buying meat and dairy products should be encouraged to consider the environmental, as well as the health, impacts of their choices. To enable consumers to make informed decisions, Defra needs to do more work on what are the most sustainable methods of livestock production, and the balance to be struck between animal welfare, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the need to conserve inputs such as water.'

The committee began its inquiry last December, at the end of a year in which there had been increased recognition of some of the uncertainties associated with ensuring that enough food will be available in the future, and the challenges of feeding a growing world population. It was partly prompted by a significant shift in government policy which, during the year, had moved from a position bordering on complacency to one of outright concern (VR, January 3, 2009, vol 164, p 1). Having for some years apparently downplayed the idea, the Government seemed suddenly to wake up to the notion that British agriculture might have an important role to play in ensuring future food supplies. Its new position was succinctly set out by Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at Defra, in a speech to the NFU in February: 'The best way for us to safeguard our food security in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable British agriculture, trading freely with other nations. I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs. No buts. The only requirements are that consumers want what's produced and that the way it's produced sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.'

Mr Benn pointed out that this was not about setting targets for production or selfsufficiency; it was about productive, efficient farming. He also stressed that methods must be sustainable. 'In meeting demand today, we must ensure that we do not destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow. It's not about either environmental sustainability or production. It has to be both.' (VR, February 28, 2009, vol 164, p 251.)

In its report, the EFRACom argues that the UK needs to make the most of its temperate climate and the natural advantages this provides for producing food. Perhaps unusually, given that select committees often pick holes in government policies, it agrees with the approach being advocated by the Secretary of State. However, it points out that a speech, in itself, is not enough; it calls on Defra to demonstrate more leadership in this area and develop a vision and strategy that provides a long-term framework for the food and farming industries.

Some of the most pertinent recommendations in the report relate to research, and the committee calls on the Government to increase its investment in food and farming research as a matter of urgency. It rightly points out that the results of research need to be applied in practice, and that the skills and knowledge that are so important in research need to be retained.

The EFRACom's report is timely, but the lack of emphasis on livestock production remains worrying.


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