Urgent Need for Strategy on Sustainable Food

UK - The Government must develop a joined-up strategy to change the UK's unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system, as fears mount about global food security, MPs on the Commons Environmental Audit Committee warned government this week.
calendar icon 15 May 2012
clock icon 5 minute read

Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Committee, said: "Our food system is failing. Obesity and diet related illness is on the increase, fewer young people are being taught how to cook or grow food, and advertisers are targeting kids with junk food ads on the internet.

"At the same time the world faces growing fears about food security as the global population increases, more people eat meat and dairy, and the climate destabilises as a result of forest destruction and fossil fuel use."

Defra's 'Green Food Project' due to be published in June examines only part of the food system and the Government's focus on 'sustainable intensification' risks ignoring the wider social and health implications of how we grow, trade and consume food in the UK, says the Committee.

The challenge for the Government is to define what 'sustainable intensification' means in practice, and particularly for the UK. The MPs believe that sustainable intensification must be more than simply increasing yields: the emphasise should be on 'sustainable'.

Policy must take account of social and environmental impacts of the food system, including retaining space for small scale production practices and local food networks.

No Support for GM until Public Acceptance Evident

The Committee received some evidence arguing that genetically modified (GM) crops could be part of the solution for a sustainable food system, but also other evidence that food shortage problems could be better addressed through other means, for example by tackling the 30 per cent of all food grown worldwide that is lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer.

The MPs call on the Government to establish an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system. An initial focus of such research should be on the scope for, and risks of, the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming regimes.

Ms Walley MP added: "Until there is clear public acceptance of GM and it is proven to be beneficial, the Government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas."

WWF Calls for Truly Sustainable Livestock Production

Responding to the publication, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it would have liked to see the report go further and call for the Government to define a sustainable diet. The group said that the Government should also tackle other complex issues around production, consumption and subsidies that some stakeholders would like brushed under the carpet.

Mark Driscoll, head of the one planet food programme at WWF-UK, said: “Around the world we’re seeing the early warning signs of a global food crisis, what the Government’s own chief scientific advisor, John Beddington, has called a "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources. How we produce and consume food is also at the heart of many of the key environmental and social challenges we face today, including the biodiversity crisis."

“A key step towards fixing the system is defining what a sustainable diet is and integrating sustainability criteria into healthy eating advice. There’s also a need to define what we mean by ‘less but better livestock products’, and to work with farmers, retailers and consumer groups to help us move towards a more sustainable food system that’s fair for all.”

WWF-UK said there was also a need to look at how livestock is produced and consumed and ensure that is truly sustainable, taking into account direct and indirect costs. In addition, the Government should promote the production of temperate fruit and vegetables which are suited to our climatic conditions and invest much more in the UK horticultural industry.

The group said it was vital the food industry adopts targets for GHG emissions reduction accompanied by a route map to achieving these targets. WWF-UK also called on the Government to convene a group that will work towards defining a sustainable diet and overarching food strategy as soon as possible.

Industry Works Towards Sustainable Future

Whilst welcoming WWF-UK’s support of work already being carried out by the livestock sector to reduce environmental impact, EBLEX has stressed the need for clarity in defining exactly what a sustainable diet is and the consumption of ‘less but better quality meat’.

EBLEX sector director Nick Allen said: “We are delighted that WWF and other organisations like Friends of the Earth (FoE) are now recognising the real value of red meat in a balanced diet and acknowledging the valuable contribution beef and sheep production makes to this country. We are all pushing in the same direction and working towards more sustainable production. In England we have the right climate, landscape and professionalism to produce high quality beef and lamb to help feed our population in an efficient way making best use of available resources.

“However, the complexities around consuming ‘less but better quality meat’ are far reaching and we are far from clear exactly what this statement means, how this is achieved – or what it gains. Similar issues surround the concept of defining a sustainable diet. UK consumers are not actually high consumers of red meat compared to other countries in the EU and further afield. We look forward to discussing these issues further and being involved in the debate on what needs to happen next.”

Grocery Adjudicator Bill Key to Improving

The Groceries Code Adjudicator's role in delivering fairer prices to food producers will be vital in helping farmers and producers earn the means to invest in less impacting methods of production.

The report also asked the government to raise the Government Buying Standards for eggs, dairy and meat, to ensure healthy and sustainable food is made accessible to more people and to help establish new markets for producers.

Sustainable Labels to Improve Diets

The report suggests that the Government examine the scope for simple and consistent labelling on the sustainability of food products, perhaps through a weighting system to produce an overall score.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

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