The government has been urged to embed sustainability metrics – measuring the external impacts of farming per unit of food produced - at the heart of agri policy.
Julian Sturdy MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science & Technology in Agriculture, said the move would help secure the 'optimum balance' between food production, resource use and environmental impact.
The group aims to promote debate among politicians and other stakeholders on the value and role of scientific innovation in UK agriculture.
Writing in the group's 2018-19 annual report, Mr Sturdy highlighted that British agriculture faced a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty.
He said the devastating Covid-19 outbreak had provided a 'stark reminder' that food was a 'basic human need'.
"It is inconceivable that this crisis will not stimulate a renewed policy focus on food security and the importance of maintaining a productive and sustainable domestic farming industry as the first vital link in our food supply chain.
"Recent government figures point a drop in UK agricultural productivity of more than 2%, signalling the scale and urgency of the challenge, and the importance of getting the policy balance right," Mr Sturdy said.
He noted how it has been 10 years since Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report on food security, which urged the government to take a lead in promoting ‘sustainable intensification’ in agriculture.
But while the pressures on global food supply remain as critical as ever, he said 'little progress' had been made at a UK level to 'define, measure or monitor sustainable intensification in practice'.
“The UK has a unique opportunity to put sustainability metrics at the heart of a new policy agenda," Mr Sturdy explained.
"Farming businesses already generate large amounts of data relating to input use, production and management, but no centralised system currently exists for industry-wide sharing or collation of data.”
The Conservative MP noted that a 10-year study presented to the APPG during 2019 by scientists at Cambridge University had challenged the notion that more extensive farming systems were always the most sustainable.
In fact, their research suggested that high-yield, intensive farming may be the best way to feed the world sustainably.
“The scientists were equally clear that the only way to provide meaningful comparisons between different farming systems is to measure external impacts per unit of food produced, rather than per unit of area farmed. We don’t currently do this on a systematic basis in the UK.
“Access to metrics capable of objectively and consistently monitoring the balance between productivity, resource use and environmental impact will be essential to define the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ in practice, to set targets, measure progress and develop coherent R&D programmes.
"It will also provide the basis to understand and disseminate advice on best practice throughout the industry,” Mr Sturdy said.