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More is less on food

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THERE has been a sea change in the Government's policy on food security over the past 12 months. Having for some time seemed to have been almost a peripheral concern, the subject has quickly moved towards the top of the political agenda. The first clear signs that this was happening came in July last year, when the Cabinet Office published a report entitled 'Food matters: towards a strategy for the 21st century', which discussed the need to safeguard future food supplies in the context of global climate change, increased competition for resources and a growing world population. This was soon followed by a discussion paper from Defra on 'Ensuring the UK's food security in a changing world'. In both documents, the Government took a much less relaxed view of the future than previously. As far as UK agriculture is concerned, its current position was succinctly set out by Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at Defra, in a speech to the NFU in January. He remarked: '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 emphasised that this was not about setting targets for production or selfsufficiency, but 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.'

The latest manifestation of the Government's change of direction came only this month, with the publication by Defra of what it describes as the UK's 'first food security assessment'. A substantial document in itself, this forms part of a much larger package of information setting out the challenges, describing what the Government is doing to help safeguard future supplies, discussing progress over the past 12 months and priorities for the year ahead, and seeking views from members of the public on a longterm strategy for the future (VR, August 22, 2009, vol 165, p 219). Taken as a whole, this is a fairly massive offering, and gives every indication that the Government is taking the issues seriously. And so it should. However, the size and sheer complexity of the documentation makes one wonder at what point a clear policy might emerge.

The problem partly stems from the fact that this is a large and complex subject and, in many respects, the Government is to be commended for trying to take a holistic, interdepartmental approach. At the same time, one can't help feeling that it is making the subject more complicated than it need be. One can see that issues such as environmental sustainability, efficiency in production and in the food chain, control of plant and animal diseases, food safety, distribution systems and waste will all be important in terms of ensuring that food is available in the future, but is the Government's 'five a day' healthy eating agenda really so relevant in this context? Similarly, one can sympathise with the Government's aim of engaging the public in policy development and keeping everyone informed. However, the consultation exercise accompanying the documents, which takes the form of an online discussion forum, 'Food 2030', asks so many questions, across such a wide range of topics, that it is difficult to see how anyone will be able to make sense of the answers. The variety of comments already posted on the website suggests that whoever has to collate the responses faces an almost impossible task — all the more so given that the Government has indicated that the information gathered will contribute to a food strategy and action plan which it hopes to publish later this year.

The Government's food security assessment and accompanying documentation indicates welcome recognition of a hugely important subject, and includes useful information on a variety of topics such as the future availability of imported animal feed, the 'whole food chain' approach to tackling foodborne illness, the development of systems for calculating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, food research and innovation, and a project, under the Government's Foresight programme, which is examining how the growing world population's food demands might be met in 40 years' time. However, with so many issues to consider, there is a danger of the wood being obscured by the trees. It's not a maxim that can easily be applied to food production but, unfortunately, the documentation serves to illustrate how more can sometimes mean less.

Defra's documentation on 'secure and sustainable food' is available at www.defra.gov.uk/foodrin/security

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