Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Benn unveils 20-year plan to boost food production

'We need to get emissions down from agriculture'

Plans to boost food production in Britain and reduce its impact on the environment have been unveiled.

The government's 20-year food strategy also looks at making Britons eat more healthily and throw less food away.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said shoppers had led the push for more free-range eggs and could do the same for sustainable food.

The Tories say they plan a supermarket ombudsman to protect farmers against potential abuses of power by retailers.

Mr Benn unveiled the government's Food 2030 plan at the Oxford Farming Conference - where the Conservatives are also outlining their plans - and said a rising population and climate change meant food could not be taken for granted.

Smaller portions

The document includes proposals for a "healthy food code of conduct" to help people choose what food to buy - ideas include clearer labelling, smaller portions for "energy dense" or high salt foods, reducing fat and sugar in foods and nutrition information on restaurant menus.

The government also wants less food waste, more food bought in season to reduce environmental impact and to make land available for people to grow their own food and to encourage them to buy sustainably-farmed food.

A decade ago, only 16% of eggs produced in the UK were free range. In the last 10 years that's more than doubled to just under 40%
Hilary Benn

Addressing the conference, Mr Benn said the expansion of fair trade and free-range food illustrated how shoppers could drive trends in food production - and he hoped they could do the same for sustainable, locally-grown products.

"A decade ago, only 16% of eggs produced in the UK were free range. In the last 10 years that's more than doubled to just under 40%. Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op now sell only free range or organic eggs," he said.

"And with the UK 80% self-sufficient in free-range eggs this is a great example of how our farmers have responded to what consumers want, to the benefit of both."

More expensive

Earlier he told the BBC a rising population and changing climate meant "food security" - the availability of food - could no longer be taken for granted.

The government wants Britain to increase food production, do it more sustainably and make sure food is more healthy, to tackle rising obesity.

Mr Benn said 20 years ago British families spend about 20% of their income on food, now it had dropped to "just under 11%" - although families on low incomes still spent about 15-16% on food.

Food stall
The government wants to increase British food production

Asked whether it would mean food becoming more expensive, he said: "In the end we are responsible for what we eat and we have choices that we can make which do impact on our health and that of our families - it's important we give consumers the information to help them make their choices."

And, Mr Benn said, for those who wanted to come into the industry, it was a time of "real opportunity".

But the idea of "meat-free Mondays" - to reduce emissions from agriculture - was not a part of the strategy, he said, although there were changes that could be made to the way livestock was fed, the way the soil was tilled, and planting more trees.

'Right balance'

The National Farmers' Union said the government's plans were a "useful blueprint", but said the government needed to achieve "the right balance" between productivity and sustainability.

NFU president Peter Kendall said: "Farmers and growers are already demonstrating that they can produce more food while impacting less. What we now need are policies that underpin and enhance a productive agriculture sector."

The Conservatives are unveiling their own plans for a supermarket ombudsman at the same conference - to settle disputes between retailers and suppliers.

Shadow environment spokesman Nick Herbert argues a voluntary code of practice will not work unless it is properly enforced.

He told the BBC: "We welcome the fact that the government has belatedly recognised the importance of food security, but they presided over a decade of declining British production, and we're importing more and more food from overseas.

"They can't just will the end of higher food production, without addressing the means and they're turning their back on proposals like honest food labelling, a supermarket ombudsman, animal health measures."

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