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Environmental challenge

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IT would be wrong to read too much into this. Nevertheless, there could be something worryingly portentous about the fact that the Government chose to launch the results of its Green Food Project on sustainable food production during the Great Yorkshire Show, which, in the event, sadly had to be abandoned earlier this month because of the mud caused by unusually heavy rain. The Green Food Project was, after all, partly prompted by last year's Foresight report on the future of food and farming, which drew attention to the unprecedented challenges of meeting future world food demand as pressure on the environment intensifies and the effects of climate change become more apparent. It wasn't planned that way, and was almost certainly just a coincidence, but, ironically, the conjunction of events served to emphasise the underlying message of the project and the seriousness of the issues it is trying to address.

Meanwhile, the complexity of those issues is clearly illustrated by the current furore over milk prices. A key message of the report is that UK food production, including dairy production, must be made more sustainable. How can this happen, and the necessary investments be made, if the businesses on which production depends are not viable?

The Green Food Project was set up by Defra following publication in June last year of the Government's white paper on protecting the environment. Bringing together representatives of the food, farming, retail and catering industries, as well as representatives of government and environmental and consumer groups, the aim was to work out how to reconcile the often conflicting goals of improving the environment and producing more food. It approached its task by focusing on five ‘test cases’, including the dairy sector, illustrating different aspects of the food supply chain. As its report acknowledges, ‘the challenges facing the food system are wide in scope, embracing issues such as production, the environment and natural resources, consumption, hunger, animal welfare, public health and retail consumption among many others.’ It does not pretend to be a recipe for solving all problems, but aims to provide ‘an initial focus for dialogue and action’.

The report does a good job in highlighting the many challenges and makes some useful observations with regard to research, better land management, and the need for investment in people and infrastructure as well as for better coordination throughout the food supply chain. It also draws attention to the difficulties involved in placing a value on the environment and measuring different impacts. It makes clear that there is unlikely to be a single ‘correct’ way of dealing with the issues and that approaches will have to be tailored to specific local circumstances.

A separate report from the project's dairy production subgroup is primarily of interest in highlighting the tensions and trade-offs involved in balancing increased milk production with the aim of protecting the environment. By including a note to the effect that ‘the environmental representatives on the group do not accept the premise that growing global demand for dairy products, or food security issues, mean that an increase in production is currently necessary or desirable in the UK dairy sector’, it also serves to highlight the tensions between the various groups concerned. Discussing various production systems, it notes that neither the system nor scale of production necessarily presents a barrier to increased efficiency but makes a number of suggestions for reducing their environmental impact. It also notes that efficiencies vary considerably within each system, and that wider application of good management practice could significantly improve productivity. Attempting to identify some potential ‘win-wins’ in what it makes clear is a complex area, it identifies, among other things, ‘improving herd health and management, eradication of endemic diseases and better resource efficiency, including those relating to cow nutrition’, and these, too, are clearly areas where the veterinary profession should be involved.

Overall, the Green Food Project seems to have done more to raise questions than it has to provide answers, and in that sense, its report should be seen as the beginning of a process rather than the end. What it does do is underline the question, also raised by a recent report on sustainable food from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (VR, May 19, 2012, vol 170, p 502), of whether sustainable production can ever be achievable in a world driven by the markets alone.

▪The Green Food Project's report, as well as the reports from its subgroups, are available at www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2012/07/10/pb13794-green-food-project/

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