food sustainability

What’s for dinner in 2030? Exploring the UK’s food security strategy

In recent months the British government has turned its attention to climate change and energy security, with mixed results. This week they tackle food security, and it’s about time too. 2008 was a real wake-up call to world governments, and many countries have reacted to protect and shore up their food supplies for a changing planet.

DEFRA’s Hilary Benn certainly understands the gravity of what he’s dealing with: “We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves” he said on Tuesday. “We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.”

Benn was speaking at the launch of Food 2030, a new strategy paper for securing Britain’s food security which aims to make farming sustainable and create a more resilient food system. The aims are easy to agree on, just how that should be done is a little more complicated, so I’ve been browsing the report this morning. Click below to find out how it shapes up.

First of all some good things:

  • Taking a holistic approach, the report begins with health considerations. A significant part of the 2030 strategy is to get people eating better food, cutting obesity levels and raising health standards generally. Among the ideas here are a Cooking with Families pilot scheme that will work through SureStart to help build confidence in the kitchen. Depending on your philosophy of government that could be rather patronising, but there’s no denying that being able to cook for yourself is key to healthy eating.
  • Growing your own – there’s some great stuff in the report about encouraging people to have a go, and there are plans to make public land available on a new ‘meantime lease’. Community land banks also get a nod, which is great to see. Britain is still pretty feudal when it comes to land access. The report also suggests getting started early. There’s a good emphasis on schools, recognising that the eating patterns we establish as children are likely to continue. Schools will talk more about where food comes from, and the schools will be encouraged to grow food on site, working with parents and staff.
  • The strategy takes the issue of subsidies seriously, and aims to reduce these and level the playing field globally. This is vital for protecting agriculture in developing countries.
  • Rejuvenating rural areas is a priority, including building skills and promoting farming as a career. As a country, we are forgetting how to farm, and nobody grows up wanting to be a farmer any more. A farmer I visited last year told me he had to hire New Zealanders to handle his cattle, as there was no local skills base whatsoever. Re-skilling is an important part of maintaining our farms.
  • 22% of Britain’s carbon emissions are from agriculture, and there’s a dedicated section on climate change. Ideas include more efficient fertiliser use, energy efficiencies and ‘better slurry management’.
  • We still throw away a third of our food, which is obviously pretty dumb when food security is an issue. The report recommends redistributing surpluses and greater use of composting, as well as cutting down on that waste, tying in all the very good work that WRAP has been doing in recent years.

And some bad things:

  • The overall approach puts a great deal of faith in the consumer. For example, there is a big emphasis on information – labelling, recommended portion sizes, nutritional details. Details on packaging are pretty comprehensive already, and more probably isn’t going to help. It makes healthy eating sound far more mathematical and complicated than it really is.
    More importantly, it masks a fall-back on the consumer and the mechanics of the free market to bring about change. It assumes that if we’re better informed we’ll demand higher standards from the supermarkets and growers. This is ducking the political challenges in my opinion. The report mentions free range eggs as a success story, saying in a decade we had gone from 16% free range to 40%. Why wait ten years for just a 34% change? Why not ban battery egg farming and be 100% done with it in five years?
  • The report steers well clear of advocating a change in diet, ignoring all the recent evidence that we need to cut down our consumption of meat and dairy. We eat too much meat, and demand for meat is one of the main drivers of deforestation and hence climate change. That will have to change by 2030 if we’re to have a sustainable diet, but it’s been overlooked here. (Allow me to recommend my wife’s useful documentary on this on the Ecologist website.)
    Similarly, the report acknowledges that “buying foods when they are locally in season can mean buying products that have had to use less energy to grow”, but doesn’t go on to use that fact in any practical way. If we want to cut the energy intensity of the food chain, that’s a particularly useful tool that’s been left in the box.
  • Since the government looked at energy security last year and concluded that peak oil was not a real danger, oil depletion and its consequences for farming is entirely absent from the strategy paper. This could turn out to be its biggest weakness, because if you assume that everything can carry on as it is, you regulate accordingly and other options get shut out.
  • For example, there is no mention of localisation. The report mentions that a broader food system would  increase demands on the transport network, and doesn’t stop to think that promoting local food would solve that in one stroke, reducing costs, energy use and carbon emissions. It praises a Tesco initiative that uses rail freight rather than lorries – that’s great, but wouldn’t a de-centralised food system be far better for both farmers and consumers? The transport and retail middle-men are the only ones who benefit from our inefficient large-scale food network.
  • Similarly, there is no mention of organic agriculture in the entire document. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to organics – fertiliser use has saved millions of lives by raising yields across the developing world. However, it is quite possible to farm without them, or with much smaller quantities. Since fertiliser production and use is very energy intensive, organic agriculture could help Britain meets its climate change objectives. Fertiliser run-off is also a major environmental problem, and chemicals in food is a health issue that isn’t yet fully understood. We don’t have to pursue organic agriculture as an overall policy goal, but would it have killed DEFRA to at least mention it?

In conclusion, the Food 2030 report is similar to the government’s energy security and climate change work. It’s great to see these topics addressed and taken seriously, but there’s a real lack of vision. Everything works around making the most of the status quo, tweaking the unjust and inefficient systems we already have, rather than moving beyond them.

Notice that it was this week that the Conservatives announced that they would create a role for a supermarkets ombudsman, something the government has been procrastinating about for a decade. That decision, like the Food 2030 report, show just how much policy is influenced by business interests. There is nothing here that would trouble Terry Leahy and his Tesco empire. And because of that, it falls rather short of the mark.

As usual I feel like I’m being a little negative, and that’s not my intention. There’s plenty to celebrate in Food 2030, especially the idea of making public land available. It’s just that to paraphrase Einstein, the flawed thinking that created the problem is unlikely to create a solution.

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