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Sustainable intensification

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CONCERN about future food supplies has moved up the political agenda in recent years. Up to the mid-2000s, after years of surpluses, the issue of food security was barely on the table and the priority for UK farming was not so much on producing more food as on becoming ‘greener’ and protecting the environment. However, following sharp increases in world food prices in 2007 and 2008, it started to be recognised that, with the Earth's resources being finite and the prospect of climate change, it might be necessary to do both, not least because the world's population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion over the next 35 years and competition for food and resources is likely to increase. More recently, the political emphasis in the UK has shifted towards ‘sustainable intensification’ – producing more food, using the same amount of land, with fewer resources. A recent report on food security from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) firmly backs such an approach, as well as calling for stronger leadership from government to make it happen.

In the report, which was published this week,1 the EFRACom argues that, although the UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, this situation will not last unless the Government plans for future changes in weather patterns and global demand for food. It says that extreme weather events and increased demand for foodstuffs from emerging economies such as China pose a threat to long-term food security in the UK and calls on Defra to take a lead in coordinating government efforts to ensure future supply. While accepting that diversity of supply is important to food security by helping to spread risk, it notes that UK self-sufficiency in food production has declined steadily over the past 20 years, to 68 per cent from 87 per cent, and calls on the Government to stem the decline and monitor the situation closely. It recommends that more effort needs to be devoted to increasing yields of crops such as wheat, with fewer inputs, to help reduce dependency on overseas suppliers. It draws particular attention to a need to reduce dependency on imported soybean for animal feed, on the basis that increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines.

Among the many recommendations by the EFRACom is that supermarkets should shorten supply lines to reduce the risk of disruption, and that farmers should have access to better long-term weather forecasts so they can plan their activities to minimise the impact of extreme weather events. It also recommends that the Government should produce a detailed plan for reducing the agricultural sector's greenhouse gas emissions, which, the committee reports, account for about 9 per cent of UK emissions. Referring specifically to the livestock sector, it reports that livestock account for 49 per cent of agricultural emissions, with cattle and sheep being the biggest contributors. Ways of reducing livestock emissions are, it suggests, an ‘under-researched area’, and it calls for more research effort and funding to be directed towards reducing emissions from the more intensive beef, sheep and dairy farming systems.

The report makes much of the role of technological innovation in helping to secure UK and global food supplies, describing the Government's Agri-tech Strategy, which was published last August and aims to improve the translation of research into practice (VR, August 31, 2013, vol 173, p 174), as ‘a bold and innovative response to the need to ensure our agriculture methods are modern and sustainable’. At the same time, it expresses concern that the strategy may be underfunded and notes that, while it was impressed by some of the techniques being developed to help improve productivity, ‘at present, much of the research is fragmented and not reaching the field’. Discussing genetic modification of crops, it suggests the EU's current regulatory framework is hindering the application of this technology. It argues that the Government needs to do more to inform the public about the potential benefits of growing genetically modified crops in the UK and to work within the EU towards a regulatory system that is more flexible. Referring to organic production in the context of sustainable intensification, it points out that this makes ‘an important contribution to environmental stewardship’ and ‘has a place in the market in adding to consumer choice’, but also notes that ‘organic yields – certainly for extensive crops such as cereals and also for potatoes and some fruit – are generally lower than those for conventional agriculture’.

There seems little doubt that new approaches to improving production efficiency will need to be developed and applied in the years ahead and, as far as livestock production is concerned, the veterinary profession will have an important role to play in that process. At the same time, as Jan van Dijk argued in a Viewpoint article in last week's Veterinary Record, there is a need to maintain diversity in agricultural production systems (VR, June 28, 2014, vol 174, pp 661-662), and the profession also has a role in contributing to the debate on how sustainable intensification might best be achieved. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which advises the Government on animal welfare matters, has pointed out that animal welfare must not be undermined by efforts to increase production efficiency, and is currently seeking views on this issue.2 The priorities in agriculture may be changing, but food security is a complex issue and there are many issues to address.

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