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Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Sunday, 9 August 2009 11:21 UK

Feeding the population

On Sunday 09 August Sophie Raworth interviewed Hilary Benn MP, Environment Secretary

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Hilary Benn MP, Environment Secretary says food production to rise 70% by 2050.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

Hilary Benn MP, Environment Secretary
Hilary Benn MP, Environment Secretary

Now an appropriate subject for breakfast time or if you're contemplating Sunday lunch: food.

By historical standards, we've never had such easy access to plentiful, varied, good quality and relatively cheap food, but the government is concerned about how we will feed ourselves over the next 20 years.

They want the UK to lead a Food Revolution to change the way we produce and consume what we eat.

Well I'm joined now by the Environment and Food Secretary, Hilary Benn. Good morning.

HILARY BENN:

Good morning.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

So what revolution do you want to lead then?

HILARY BENN:

Well if we look at the challenge we face in the world, the global population's going to increase by two and a half to three billion in the next 50 years, so by any measure we're going to need a big increase in food production. And we've done it in the past.

The Green Revolution of 30, 40 years ago has enabled us to ensure that the production of food has kept up with the increasing population that we've seen, but what's going to make it quite difficult is that this will have to happen at a time when we know the climate is changing, water may be less available, and we're going to have to think about the impact of the way in which we grow our food on climate change itself - the way in which we use fertilisers, for example. So it's a big challenge.

And what happened last year - the big increase in food prices, the impact of drought (we saw a drought in Australia, it affected the price of bread here in the UK) - has really made a lot of people think now we've taken food for granted for a long time.

RAWORTH: I'm not so sure …

HILARY BENN: Can we be sure that we're going to be okay in the years ahead? And that's the work that we're … we've set in train and we'll be publishing the results of that tomorrow.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

I'm not so sure that the public actually think that because you mentioned the word 'food strategy', you talk about protecting our food supply for the next you know 20, 30 years. I think a lot of people would say, "Really? Do we need to? Haven't we … You know haven't we got the great time, so we can get food from all over the world whenever we want nowadays?" What crisis do you fear?

HILARY BENN:

We can indeed, but we saw last year in some countries riots because the price of food went up, we saw other countries deciding that they were going to ban the export of some crops. And we produce a lot of our food ourselves. We're about 60% self-sufficient overall. 73% in the foods that we can grow, but obviously we have to import some things because you can't grow them here in the UK.

And we export a lot of food as well. And British agriculture is strong. It's very important. I want British farmers to produce as much food as possible, but they're going to have to do it in a way which takes account of a change in climate and the need to tackle climate change itself.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

So we need to be more self-sufficient. That is the target, is it? And how much more?

HILARY BENN:

Well we need to produce as much food as we can ourselves. But if a country were to become wholly self-sufficient - supposing a new disease came along and affected your staple crop, what are you going to do then? So, therefore, it is a combination of strong domestic food production but also having a global market in which people are able to buy from each other that gives you the best combination of ensuring that you can feed people.

And we're going to need science to contribute as well. I was at the East Malling Research Centre last month where they have been doing work looking at growing strawberries, for example, using much less water than is currently used by strawberry growers and they produce just as good strawberries and just as big a crop.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

(over) But is that …

HILARY BENN:

And that's the kind of understanding that we need to get out there. We need more research because we'll need all the means at our disposal to ensure that we are able to feed a much, much bigger world population over the next 40, 50 years.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

But should we be, should we stop jetting in, I don't know, strawberries from Spain or wherever they come from and mangetout from you know Africa? Is that what you want to do? Do you want to stop those kind of food sources being brought in by air, which obviously has climate change you know impacts on greenhouse gases and things like that?

HILARY BENN:

No, it isn't about stopping those things. I think making people more aware of the consequence of the way in which food is produced. Now in some cases those crops are going to be grown using the natural power of the sun, and that's much … has much less of an impact in terms of carbon as opposed to growing things in a heated greenhouse. So you do need to look actually at the way in which something was produced.

But I think it's also about people eating more food seasonally. And when you look at the growth in farmers markets, the growing interest there is … demand for allotments, for example; you look at the extent to which the supermarkets are now building relationships with farmers and you can see where particular products came from when you buy them - it's a good thing.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

We've let our let's say apple industry … I mean we used to have you know 1500 apple growers in the 80s. There's about 400 now. We fly in apples from New Zealand when we could quite easily grow them here.

HILARY BENN:

I couldn't agree with you more on that. And last month, I brought together all of the people who represent the fruit and vegetable industry to talk about how we can grow more fruit and vegetables here in the UK, and apples is a really good example. In the last few years, we've provided a bit more of the domestic market and there's no reason why we shouldn't grow more apples. But it's partly about the choice that we make as consumers and we go into supermarkets and you see the same apples and the same size - and celebrating variety, I think that's something we should be keen to do.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

And wastage is another key issue. I mean we throw away, what, 30% of what we buy, which is an extraordinary figure. How can you stop - a) stop people doing that? And b) get the supermarkets on board to … I mean a lot of it is to do with the labelling, isn't it? People think you say 'best before date' and they think I must throw that away where actually that's a quality thing, not a food safety label.

HILARY BENN:

You're absolutely right, and we need to look at that and we're working with the supermarkets and the industry on that very subject. There's 'use by' and that's very important because that's food safety; but when it comes to 'sell by' or 'best before', I think if we as consumers understand better what those labels mean.

And don't forget in the past, long before any such labels existed, people would look at the food in the fridge or in the larder and decide whether it was okay to eat. And throwing that food away - well obviously it costs us money in our pockets and that's not very sensible, and if it goes to landfill then it produces methane and that adds to the problem of climate change.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

So why not intervene and tell the supermarkets what they should do, tell them to label more sensibly so that we cut down on the amount of food that we throw away?

HILARY BENN:

Well I think we have to do this in partnership because the supermarkets are very aware of this. Some of them are working very hard, for example, to reduce the amount of packaging that they have got, to minimise the amount of food that they send to landfill. So there's a lot of good practice being developed. I just think we need to be more aware of all of this. And we've taken food for granted for a long time and it's fundamental to life. We need to think now about how we can feed the growing world population and do it sustainably.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

Let me just ask you one more story about … the story that's running today about the Foreign Affairs Committee and their comments on rendition. It must make you feel very uncomfortable. Should the government be more honest and MI5 be more honest and give more evidence about what they actually know, if anything?

HILARY BENN:

Well the government's position is very, very clear, as David Miliband and Alan Johnson have made clear in the article they've published today. The government does not condone the use of torture. We are resolutely opposed to it, and that remains the case. Other countries, they're responsible for what they do, but the position of the British government is absolutely clear.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

But it doesn't actually say how much we actually knew about it. Should we be more open and explaining more about what exactly we know?

HILARY BENN:

Well, as you will be aware, there is an investigation going on at the moment into one particular allegation, in relation to what happened to Binyam Mohamed. That's a police matter and we need to leave that to produce its results. But the government's position is very, very clear on this: we protect the nation, but we do not condone the use of torture under any circumstances.

SOPHIE RAWORTH:

Hilary Benn, thank you very much.

HILARY BENN:

Thank you.

INTERVIEW ENDS


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.


NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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