Anne McIntosh: Complacency is a real threat to food security

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THE UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, in no small part thanks to the work of Yorkshire farmers.

However, the situation will not last unless the Government plans now for future changes in our weather patterns and the changing global demand for food, according to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee’s report on food production.

Complacency is a genuine risk to future UK food security. If we want our food production and supply systems to be secure, Government and food producers must plan to meet the impacts of climate change, population growth and increasing global demand for food.

At least three Whitehall ministries are now responsible for food security – Defra, Business, Innovation and Skills and the Energy and Climate Change departments.

To ensure coherent planning and action, overall strategy must be led by Defra who must ensure a robust approach right across Whitehall. We want to see a cross-departmental champion for farming and food security and we believe Defra is the natural choice to give long-term leadership to UK food security.

Our report supports the idea of “sustainable intensification” – producing more food with fewer resources – and calls on Defra to stem decline in UK self-sufficiency and deliver more resilience in the UK food system. We note that for key cereal crops, for example, wheat, yield levels have not increased for over 15 years.

The UK’s self-sufficiency in foods which can be produced at home has steadily declined over the past 20 years. As a key indicator for farm production and food security, this is deeply worrying. The report says the biggest long-term challenge to food production systems is the impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

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. During these recent flood events, thousands of acres of farmland were underwater, ruining crops and taking fertile land out of production.

In our report, we call for supermarkets to shorten supply chains to reduce threats of disruption; UK farmers to extend seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in co-ordination with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, and local and central Government; the Government to reduce dependence on imported soybean for animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines and for Ministers to produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agricultural sector.

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 per cent of farm-related emissions, so we need more research to identify ways to curb this.

Hill farms in North Yorkshire are vital for livestock production and as a source of income for local farmers, so we want to see more research into reducing greenhouse gas emissions from this sector.

How can this be achieved? Much research is already taking place, some at the University of York. Sainsbury’s and Asda are already trialling high sugar grasses on which to feed cattle, thereby helping to reduce livestock emissions.

My committee welcomes the fact that the Government is already spending £410m annually on agri-food research. The new AgriTech Strategy of £160m will translate technological ideas into farm practice. We warn however that current funding levels are insufficient and need to be given more long term security of funding. We cite precision farming technologies as an example of good research. We want to press the Government to ensure ready access to commercial partners to make the research viable.

In our view, the Government must lead a public debate to counter food safety fears among consumers about GM foods. We need to allay public fears of cross contamination between existing crops and GM crops and any potential threat to organic food production. The Government must also ensure a more evidence-based approach to EU licensing of GM crops.

We believe the Government must also intensify its efforts to attract new farmers into the sector, to ensure that farming has a future in the UK. Britain’s food security depends on a vibrant, innovative and professional UK farming sector. Efforts must be made to encourage new entrants to rise to the challenge of new technologies in order to ensure the sector is modern and competitive.

With these modest recommendations and with Defra’s positive leadership, we see a bright and sustainable future for UK food production and long-term food security.