Better preparation for extreme weather key to improving food security, says report
Launching a report on the food production and supply dimensions of food security, Anne McIntosh, Chair of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said:
"Complacency is a genuine risk to future UK food security. If we want our food production and supply systems to be secure, Government and food producers must plan to meet the impacts of climate change, population growth and increasing global demand for food."
Anne McIntosh called for clearer lines of UK governmental responsibility: "At least three Departments are now responsible for food security—Defra, BIS and DECC. To ensure coherent planning and action, overall strategy must be led by Defra, who must ensure a robust approach right across Whitehall."
The Food Security report supports the idea of "sustainable intensification"—producing more food with fewer resources—and calls on Defra to stem decline in UK self-sufficiency and deliver more resilience in the UK food system. It notes that for key cereal crops, for example wheat, yield levels have not increased for over 15 years.
The UK is currently 68% self-sufficient in foods which can be produced at home, but this key indicator has declined steadily over the past 20 years, from 87%. The report says the biggest long-term challenge to food production systems is the impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change.
The report calls for:
Supermarkets to shorten supply chains to reduce threats of disruption;
UK farmers to extend seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in coordination with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, and local and central Government;
Government to reduce dependence on imported soybean for animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines; and
Government to produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agricultural sector.
McIntosh added: "If we are to curb emissions and adjust to climate change, we need a significant shift in how the UK produces food. For instance, livestock production contributes 49% of farm-related emissions, so we need more research to identify ways to curb this. Farmers also need better longer-term weather forecasts and more resilient production systems to be able to cope with severe weather events such as the floods that devastated the Somerset levels last winter."
The Committee welcomes the Government’s new £160 million AgriTech Strategy to translate technological ideas into farm practice but warns that current funding levels are insufficient. It cites precision farming technologies as an example of good research, but one that needs commercial partners to make it viable.
The Committee says the Government must lead a public debate to counter food safety fears among consumers about GM foods. The Government must also ensure a more evidence-based approach to EU licensing of GM crops.
The Government must also intensify its efforts to get new farmers into the sector, to ensure that farming has a future in the UK.
The recommendations were made in a report published today (1 July) by the House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
CLA President Henry Robinson said: “Land is a limited commodity and with climate change likely to mean a reduction in agricultural land, every hectare will need to produce more. The UK needs to produce food sustainably, and remaining open to the use of innovative technology to produce food is key. We welcome the positive stance in today’s report on innovation and technology in agriculture, in particular on GM. As the report rightly states, the decision making process at EU level for such technologies is too restrictive and unless this is addressed, the UK and the EU will be left watching the rest of the world actively harnessing them.
“The report supports our view that farmers should have access to longer term weather forecasts to enable better preparation for extreme weather. UK food production is directly threatened by changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea levels, and water security. The anticipated reduction in summer river flows could severely restrict availability of water for food production, which would have a devastating economic impact on food businesses.”
The CLA is backing the call made in the report for a more co-ordinated approach to food security within UK Government.
Mr Robinson said: “With all major policy affecting UK food security decided at EU level, not least the Common Agricultural Policy, it is critical that Defra provides strong leadership to shape EU policy. This leadership needs to be bolstered by genuine co-ordination amongst UK Government Departments, and by widespread recognition within the UK that land must be protected for food production.
“Producing sufficient food to feed our growing population is a huge challenge and it is encouraging to see the Committee identify that there is much more that can be done to achieve better yields. More sustainable farming will only be possible through a more equitable share of risk and profit along the food supply chain, rather than farmers being continually squeezed. While Government pursues a cheap food policy, the increasing costs of producing food will lead to many exiting the industry. This serious threat to food security must be recognised and addressed by Government as a priority.”
Dairy UK described it as a significant contribution to the debate over the UK's future food needs.
Dr Judith Bryans, Chief Executive of Dairy UK, said: "The issue of food security is of crucial importance and one which all food-related industries must take very seriously. The dairy industry remains wholly committed to playing its part, not only in relation to the future food needs of the UK, but also in terms of addressing climate change.
"As an industry with a short supply chain and a proud track record in producing safe, nutritious products, the UK dairy industry is well positioned to meet the challenges of food security and it is working to generate more exports and tackle import substitution. We welcome recent support for the dairy industry from across the political spectrum and will continue to work with all relevant government departments, particularly DEFRA with whom we have an very constructive relationship, in the hope of assisting government meet its food security objectives."
Professor Sarah Gurr, Chair in Food Security at a University of Exeter conference, said: “We are becoming increasingly aware of issues surrounding global food security and, indeed, of our own needs to improve sustainability and self-sufficiency in the UK. In July 2013, the Government recognised the importance of the agricultural technology sector to the UK economy by launching a £160m UK strategy for AgriTech. This is a welcome step in the right direction - we need now to embrace all technologies that we can muster in our quest for greater sustainability”
Robert McIlwraith, chairman of ExIST said “the ExIST conference programme has been designed to discuss the ways in which technological development can address the UK’s self-sufficiency issues, with experts from the Royal Agricultural University, the University of Exeter, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Met Office and Syngenta participating in the day. Interest from attendees is already strong, indicating that there is recognition of the increasing opportunity for Westcountry science and technology business to contribute to the food self-sufficiency solution.”
Louise Payton, Soil Association policy officer commented: “We agree wholeheartedly with the EFRA Select Committee food security report when they say we need a "significant shift in how we produce our food” – however we think this also means we need to shift the way we currently measure food security.
“Rather than measuring agricultural output as yields per hectare, we need to measure how efficiently we produce our food. Currently looking just at yields masks the high levels of inputs with subsequent impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. And when it comes to agricultural emissions, we strongly welcome the report’s call on the Government to produce a detailed plan for how the agriculture sector should reduce its emissions. This must be a plan for orderly progress in cuts to meet the Government’s target of 80% cuts in emissions by 2050.
“We also welcome the recognition from Select Committee that food security requires more funding for farm-scale research – it will be innovation at the farm level, led by farmers, that will yield the next agricultural revolution. Cutting-edge technologies are all very well, but they usually only provide generic solutions that too often do not fit the specific, practical needs of farmers.”
The report rightly draws attention to the provenance of protein for animal feed, but the issue needs exploring in more depth to understand the issues for different livestock species, according to the Agricultural Industries Confederation
“With over 60% of imported protein being consumed in the poultry sector, the challenge is to find alternatives which deliver the requisite protein level, quality and consistency as soya,” says George Perrott, Head of Feed Sector AIC, “Home-produced legumes (peas and beans) have protein levels typically around half that of soya with biofuel co-products such as DDGS (Distillers Dark Grain Solubles) between the two. This means that soya replacement has been easier to achieve in species other than poultry.”
Alongside the challenge of protein quality and anti-nutritional factors, the feed manufacturing industry has sought a sufficiently robust and consistent supply which has not been achievable at recent production levels.
“We note, however, the confidence from Defra Ministers that recent decisions on pulses as eligible crops within the CAP’s Environmental Focus Areas (EFAs) will increase the area, and supply, of UK produced proteins, generating new confidence in pulse breeding programmes. We look forward to seeing the outcome of that change in harvest 2015” concludes George.
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