Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 11:34 UK

'Radical rethink' needed on food

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News


Scientists try to boost crop yield

A "radical rethink" of how the UK produces and consumes its food is needed, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has warned.

He was speaking at the launch of the government's assessment of the threats to the security of what we eat.

The food supply was currently secure but population growth and climate change could have an impact, he warned.

Producers, supermarkets and consumers have been invited to suggest how a secure food system should look in 2030.

Some of the findings from the consultation are expected to be published in the autumn.

We have to feed another two and a half to three billion mouths over the next 40 to 50 years
Hilary Benn

As well as launching the consultation process, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a scorecard-style assessment of the current state of the UK's food supply.

"It is to stimulate a debate within the UK on what a food policy should be, and how do we define and look at food security more broadly," said Defra's chief scientific adviser Professor Robert Watson.

"Food is absolutely essential, and over the past few years we did see a food price increase - not only in the UK, but across the globe," he told BBC News.

"We think it is time to have a debate with consumers, farmers, the private sector... on what the food policy should be for the UK.

"We are clearly food secure in the UK today," he observed. "We produce about 60-65% of our own food [and] import about 20% from Europe.

"So the [test] for us will be, as the Earth's climate changes, what will be the challenges not only in the UK but throughout the world?"

More needs to be done to promote natural ways of growing food. It needs to be sustainable, seasonal and fresh
Rui De Sousa, London

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said while Britain was more self-sufficient now than it was in the 1930s and 1950s, everyone had to start thinking ahead about how to produce more using less water and less fertiliser.

He said last year's sudden jump in the price of food and oil, which most fertilisers are based on, was a "wake-up call".

"We saw last year when the oil price went up and there was a drought in Australia, which had an impact on the price of bread here in the UK, just how interdependent all these things are," he said.

"We have to feed another two and a half to three billion mouths over the next 40 to 50 years, so I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible."

He also encouraged British consumers to buy more UK-grown produce and called for a re-think on best before or sell by dates to reduce waste.

Food for the future

Today's food security assessment focuses on six areas, including global availability, UK food chain resilience and household food security.

Vegetables (Getty Images)
Population growth means the world needs more food from fewer inputs

It assesses the current situation in each area, and the likely situation in 5-10 years time.

One sector identified as "very unfavourable" and showing no sign of improving is global fish stocks.

Yet other areas, such as the diversity of the UK's suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables are deemed "favourable" and likely to improve even more.

In July, the Sustainable Development Commission - the government's environmental watchdog - warned that the current food system was failing.

In its report, the commission warned that the current approach was a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and paid little attention to soil quality and water use.

Diagram showing UK self-sufficiency for food groups (Image: BBC)

Responding to the Defra publications, the British Retail Consortium said that any strategy had to be centred around consumers.

"Without their buy-in, no plan will work," said food policy director Andrew Opie.

"We do need a sustainable supply chain, but retailers do not need government statements to wake them up to these issues, they are already taking action.

"What we need is joined-up policy with government agreeing what it wants from food across all its departments and agencies."

Theme Current position Compared to mid 1990s Likely position in 5-10 years' time
Source: Defra's Food Chain Analysis Group, August 2009
Global resources sustainability (land use change) Uncertain Deterioration Very
Comments Unclear how much forest loss attributable to food production; small rise in farmland use since 1990s.
UK availability and access (diversity of supply) Favourable        Similar Favourable
Comments UK has impressive diversity - 26 countries account for 90% of supply.
UK food chain resilience (energy dependency of UK food chain) Uncertain Improvement Favourable
Comments Food chain a heavy energy user but intensity is falling and high prices and policy are incentivising further efficiency improvements. But other risks remain as does the challenge to go low carbon.

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