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Food back on the table

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LAUNCHING the Government's food strategy, 'Food 2030', at the Oxford Farming Conference this week, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State at Defra, remarked, 'Food security is as important to this country's future wellbeing - and the world's - as energy security.'

It seems so obvious it hardly needs saying. The fact that he did say it perhaps reflects how low down on the national agenda the need to ensure future food supplies has been for the past decade or so, and how dramatically it has moved back up again. As Mr Benn further remarked, 'It's only in the last few decades that we have felt able to take food supply for granted, but the truth is now apparent. We cannot take it for granted any more.'

There is much to consider in the Government's new strategy,1 not least its emphasis on healthy eating, the need to reduce waste, and the role of consumer power in effecting change. Emphasising the need to increase food production in a sustainable way, it also draws attention to the need to reduce the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions - although, thankfully, unlike some recent documents on this subject, it still seems to see a role for livestock production in helping to meet demand for food in the future. However, one aspect of this many-stranded strategy that deserves particular attention is its welcome emphasis on increasing the impact of skills, knowledge, research and technology on food production. This is the subject of a specific chapter in the strategy, and is one of a number of areas in which the veterinary profession can play an important role.

The Government's plans in relation to research and development are discussed in more detail in another strategy document published this week. 'The UK Cross-Government Strategy for Food Research and Innovation' is linked to the overall strategy and is an important document in itself.2 Produced by a group under the chairmanship of the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, this presents a starker vision of the future than may be apparent from the overall strategy document and emphasises the vital role of science in helping to meet the challenges ahead. Noting that food is an inherently complex and multifaceted subject, and that the current research and innovation landscape reflects this complexity, it rightly points out that delivering safe, affordable and nutritious food for a growing global population, while ensuring sustainability and coping with climate change, will be no small task, and will require a joined-up, multidisciplinary approach.

A core aim of the strategy is to provide a framework to facilitate a more coordinated and collaborative approach between public sector bodies involved in funding, commissioning and delivering research across the UK, linking with the private sector and consumer and other organisations wherever relevant. With this in mind, initiatives include establishing a new multipartner food security research programme, coordinated by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and delivered jointly with other relevant research councils and government departments, to strengthen collaboration and coordination across the disciplines. They also include setting up a new 'Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform'. This will be co-funded by Defra and the BBSRC with up to £90 million over five years, to fund innovative technological research and development in areas such as crop productivity, sustainable livestock production, waste reduction and management, and greenhouse gas reduction.

The research and innovation strategy provides a useful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of UK food research as things stand, identifying areas where skills are currently in short supply and where more research is needed. It also describes a number of existing initiatives and gives a clear idea of the nature of the challenges ahead. It is evident from the document that a number of good things are happening, but the question arises, given the scale of the challenge, whether the response is adequate. There is no doubt that a multidisciplinary approach is needed, that efforts need to be coordinated and that available funds need to be used to maximum effect. However, it is vital that sufficient funding is available overall. At a time when the economy is under stress, and there are many competing calls on available resources, this is clearly of concern. It is reassuring that, after a long absence, food security has found its way back on to the political table. With a general election looming, all political parties need to recognise the importance of maintaining and strengthening research in this vital field.

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