Hilary Benn: We must all take responsibility for our food

IT'S only in the last few decades that we have felt able to take food supply for granted, but the truth is now apparent. We cannot take it for granted any more.

Food security is as important to this country's future wellbeing – and that of the world's – as energy security. Securing both must be our priority.

Sixty years ago, at the end of the Second World War, Clement Attlee's government published the UK's first Food Strategy. Its aim was to ensure the nation's food security in the years ahead.

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I am now publishing the Government's new Food Strategy – Food 2030. Why? Because we need once again as a nation to see why food production matters.

Food shapes our landscape. We spend 173bn a year on food and drink. It provides a livelihood for more than three and a half million people. And it is, of course, about sustaining life itself.

Food 2030 is a national strategy, but it recognises that we live in a global marketplace. And the UK needs to stay competitive in that market which is already challenging, and is going to get tougher. The Strategy sets out what we have to do to secure our food for 2030 and beyond, and how each of us must play our part in helping to make this happen.

It is a big challenge, yes, but it is also a big opportunity for farming. We need to do three things. First, we need to produce more food. Second, we need to do it sustainably. And third we need to make sure that the food we eat safeguards our health.

How are we going to do it?

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By helping consumers to be better informed and able to buy healthy food from sustainable sources with the minimum of waste.

By making sure that every part of the supply chain is resilient, competitive and has the skills that match the challenge.

By using science and technological advance to assist us.

By having the strength to conserve what's good and the courage to change what isn't.

By talking up farming and food, not running it down, and by working together to celebrate what it does and everything that it means.

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Now, all this may seem daunting, but it's nothing that we haven't done before in our history.

Since Attlee's plan, our talent for trade has built a food supply that offers almost unlimited diversity and choice.

In 60 short years, we have gone from tinned pike (known as snoek) and powdered eggs to a wealth of home-grown meat and fish, cheese, salads, fruit and vegetables, including 40 name-protected food products, from Scotch Beef to the latest – Cornish sardines. It's a great achievement, and one of which farmers, food producers and retailers can justifiably be proud. And none of us want to go back

But we also know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume much of our food are unsustainable. To our planet and to ourselves.

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Ours is a world where a billion people go to bed hungry each night because they are too poor to have enough to eat, while the same number of people in rich countries are overweight or obese because they eat too much.

A world where three billion people live on less than 1.30 a day while British households throw out nearly 33m worth of food a day.

A world where a lot of food production depends on oil and water to such an extent that we will be very vulnerable when they become either too expensive or too scarce.

Is all this sustainable? No, it isn't.

Is it just? Of course it isn't.

Is it going to be helped by governments abdicating responsibility or by leaving it just to the market to sort out? Clearly not.

We know some things have to change.

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I think we know that we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.

And, we should have confidence that provided we make the right choices, we can do it.

Now why do I say that?

Because it is the very same skill, ingenuity, passion, and sheer proud commitment that have given us this plenty, which will provide us with what we need in the years to come.

But farmers can't make these choices on their own. The supply chain is a circle and consumers are the beginning and the end of it. The choices they make determine yours.

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A decade ago, only 16 per cent of eggs produced in Britain were free range. It's more than doubled to just under 40 per cent. Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op now sell only free range or organic eggs.

Or take Fairtrade. In 1994, it was launched with just three products. Now, 15 years later, there are over 4,500 Fairtrade products on our supermarket shelves. A direct response by consumers wanting to make sure that farmers in developing countries get a fair price for what they produce.

Food 2030 makes the point that consumers' choices do have an effect.

Government has to do its bit on issues such as labelling, but so does everyone else.

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It is why need to take collective responsibility for the future of our food, rather than seeing it as somebody else's.

Hilary Benn is the Environment Secretary and Leeds Central MP. This is an edited extract of a speech that he delivered yesterday at the Oxford Farming Conference.