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Sustainable sustenance

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IT IS two-and-a-half years since Defra, under the previous government, set out a strategy for ‘a sustainable and secure food system’, in a document entitled ‘Food 2030’. For some time before that, food security had been low on the political agenda in the UK; the strategy reflected a resurgence of interest and an apparent realisation in government that future food supply could no longer be taken for granted (VR, January 9, 2010, vol 166, p 32).

The wisdom of that conclusion was reinforced 12 months later with the publication of a report, produced under the Government Office for Science's Foresight programme, called ‘The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for the global community’. Noting, among other things, that the world's population is projected to grow to 8 billion by 2030, and probably to more than 9 billion by 2050, the Foresight report pointed out that, worldwide, demand for food will inevitably increase, and that this demand will have to be met as competition for land, water and energy intensifies, and the effects of climate change become increasingly clear. It noted, too, that the current food system is already failing. ‘Firstly, it is unsustainable, with resources being used faster than they can be naturally replenished,’ it said. ‘Secondly, a billion people are going hungry with another billion people suffering from “hidden hunger”, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.’ The Foresight report concluded that ‘the case for urgent action in the global food chain is now compelling’, arguing that ‘nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore’ (VR, January 29, 2011, vol 168, p 88).

Since then, Defra, under the current government, has embarked on a ‘Green Food Project’, to look at England's role in helping to meet the challenges identified in the Foresight report. As part of this project, a steering group made up of representatives of the relevant sectors is currently looking at ways of improving growth and competitiveness in the farming and food industry as well as increasing UK food production while simultaneously protecting the environment. Defra has been conducting a consultation on the project and says it will be publishing the conclusions by the end of next month. In the meantime, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee – a select committee established to examine the extent to which government policies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development – has just published a report setting out its own thoughts on the issue and calling for a more coordinated, holistic approach across government.*

The select committee's report is fairly wide ranging, covering everything from, for example, the desirability or otherwise of genetically modified food production to ways in which local planning rules might be eased to make more land available for communities to grow their own food. It calls for better education of the public about how to eat healthily and in a more environmentally sustainable way – recommending, among other things, simpler and more consistent food labelling – and for stricter advertising limits on the marketing of ‘junk food’ to children. It also suggests that ‘food skills’, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum in all schools.

The select committee makes some useful recommendations on research, arguing that more agricultural and food scientists are needed and suggesting, probably rightly, that relying on markets to identify and direct where research is needed is likely to fail. A warning that the Government's focus on ‘sustainable intensification’ to help meet future food demands ‘risks damaging the environment and society’ may perhaps be justified, and the committee is right to recommend that the emphasis should be on sustainability and that ‘sustainable intensification’ needs to be better defined. There is no doubt that, both nationally and globally, much more needs to done to reduce wastage of food and to ensure the food already produced is distributed more fairly. However, it is difficult to see how future requirements can be met without some form of sustainable intensification, particularly in view of the argument presented in the Foresight report that an increase in food production cannot be achieved at the expense of increasing the amount of land devoted to agriculture.

Like many other reports on this subject, the select committee's report also refers to the environmental impact of livestock production. This is an area where the veterinary profession has much to contribute, both in research and in the field, whether in helping to increase the efficiency of production, developing new production systems or reducing the environmental impact of the systems used. It would seem important that the profession strengthens its contribution in this area and participates fully in discussions about developing appropriate strategies for the future.

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