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Investing in future food supplies

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THE past 12 months have seen a significant shift in the Government's approach to food security. Prompted, perhaps, by concerns about climate change and the environment, the challenges of feeding a growing world population and the global economic crisis, it is showing renewed interest in the idea that British agriculture has an important role to play in ensuring future food supplies. Its current position was neatly summed up by Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at Defra, in a speech to the National Farmers' Union conference in Birmingham this month. 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 was at pains to point out that this was not about setting targets for production or self-sufficiency; it was about productive, efficient farming. He also pointed out that intensive production does not come without an environmental cost and 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.’

A more detailed explanation of the Government's position on food security was provided in a consultation paper entitled ‘Ensuring the UK's food supply in a changing world' published by Defra in July last year (see VR, July 26, 2008, vol 163, p 97), and the outcome of that consultation is awaited with interest. In the meantime, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EfraCom) is conducting an inquiry into food security under the heading ‘Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges for the UK’ (VR, January 17, 2009, vol 164, p 69). The BVA has recently submitted evidence to the EfraCom's inquiry and makes some important points in the process.

The BVA points out that, at present, insufficient consideration is being given to disease control and biosecurity, both of which are of great relevance to the efficiency and sustainability of the UK livestock industry. It expresses concern, too, about some of the assumptions made by Defra about the level of food security the UK currently enjoys, arguing that there is too much reliance on imports and that there should be more emphasis on home production. It accepts that access to imports is important in terms of diversity of supply and maintaining supplies in the event of domestic production being disrupted, but draws attention to the environmental impact of transporting food from other countries and to the risks of importing food and livestock. Not least among these is the risk of importing exotic diseases.

A major part of securing and increasing UK food production involves protecting livestock from disease, and the BVA's evidence calls for targeted veterinary research into disease control and other aspects of livestock health and welfare, as well as for more research into sustainable livestock production. It also draws attention to the need to strengthen veterinary surveillance and biosecurity at national borders.

Vets play a major role in almost every aspect of food security as far as food produced from animals is concerned, from fighting disease and contributing to surveillance, to advising on efficient production techniques and minimising the environmental impact of farming practices. However, the BVA points out, maintaining veterinary cover in rural areas is becoming increasingly difficult. It calls for greater investment in the UK's long-term agricultural infrastructure, to help create market conditions in which farm animal practice can thrive. It also believes that food security should be acknowledged as a public health issue, as people need to have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food at an affordable price.

It is good that Defra is again taking an interest in food production and that ministers are starting to make the right noises. However, it is unfortunate that, as Defra struggles with budgets and pursues its agenda on cost and responsibility sharing, its willingness to invest in agriculture and the infrastructure needed to support it seems to be waning. A recent example of this is the apparent withdrawal of Defra funding for redevelopment of the animal disease research facilities at Pirbright (VR, February 21, 2009, vol 164, p 221). It is not enough just to make the right noises. There is also a need to put words into action.

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