Food security report: DEFRA must take lead

McIntosh: 'We need a significant shift in how the UK produces food'

Government must lead the genetically modified (GM) food debate and take a more co-ordinated approach to food security, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) at the vanguard.

That’s according to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee’s Food security report, which warned inaction would weaken the UK’s ability to feed itself.

The report follows several hearings on the issue, at which expert opinions were called to provide their perspectives.

EFRA chairwoman Anne McIntosh called for a more co-ordinated approach from government to tackling food security, with clearer lines of responsibility.

“At least three departments are now responsible for food security — DEFRA, BIS [the Department for Business Innovation and Skills] and DECC [Department of Energy & Climate Change],” said McIntosh.

‘Coherent planning and action’

“To ensure coherent planning and action, overall strategy must be led by DEFRA, who must ensure a robust approach right across Whitehall.”

Among other proposals, the Food Security report recommends the government should lead a public debate to counter fears about genetically modified (GM) foods and rely more on evidence when considering GM crop licensing.

The analysis also proposes that:

• supermarkets should shorten supply chains to reduce threats of disruption;

• UK farmers should extend seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in coordination with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, local and central government;

• Government should reduce dependence on imported soybean for animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines;

• government should produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agricultural sector

Funding levels insufficient

The EFRA committee welcomed the government’s new £160M AgriTech Strategy to translate technological ideas into farm practice, but warned that current funding levels were insufficient.

For instance, precision farming technologies were an example of good research it said, but one that needed commercial partners to make it viable.

It called for work to increase the number of UK farmers and supported the idea of ‘sustainable intensification’ - producing more food with fewer resources. For example, for key cereal crops, yield levels have not increased for over 15 years.

Just 68% self-sufficient

According to the EFRA committee, the UK is currently just 68% self-sufficient in foods which could be produced at home, down from 87% 20 years ago.

The report says the biggest long-term challenge to food production systems is the impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change. Increased demand for foodstuffs from emerging economies such as China was also a threat, it claimed.

Launching the document, McIntosh warned UK food production needed a big shake-up: “If we are to curb emissions and adjust to climate change, we need a significant shift in how the UK produces food. For instance, livestock production contributes 49% of farm-related emissions, so we need more research to identify ways to curb this.

“Farmers also need better longer-term weather forecasts and more resilient production systems to be able to cope with severe weather events such as the floods that devastated the Somerset levels last winter.”

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