Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by The Soil Association (SFS 47)


How robust is the current UK food system?

  Superficially—in reality, not "fit" for future shocks & challenges.

Achieving agreed 80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and contending with depleting oil requires radical transformation of UK farming and food systems.

Government has excessive, unfounded faith in "global markets"

Dominant methods of food production, distribution and retailing in the UK, and in countries from which UK imports food: "not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future."

UK and European soils are under stress

Healthy soil is the foundation of any Nation's true food security. Humanity has forgotten this simple fact. Soil erosion and degradation affect some 157 million hectares, 16% of Europe.

Lack of labour

Lower-carbon farming systems will require more people working in food production.

Inconsistencies re: agriculture, health and climate change policies

Public urged to eat more fruit and vegetables, yet UK production declined—over 90% of fruit eaten here imported.

Public R&D misdirected

Government is failing to provide R&D funding for the "agroecological approaches" and "the improved techniques for organic and low-input systems" identified by scientific consensus.

Foundations of a more resilient food and farming system remain in place (just)

More localised food systems are key to enhancing the resilience of the UK's food security, regenerating rural economies and providing new routes to market for farmers.

Help consumers choose climate-friendly food

With 30% of individual's carbon foot-print coming from their food, being able to choose "climate-friendly" food—just as they can fridges, washing machines, cars and light-bulbs—offers an easy, everyday action for consumers.

A Food Plan for Britain needed

Lack of official strategic direction as to best mix of food types and farming systems for delivering sustainable UK food security.


  1.0  The Soil Association congratulates the Committee on choosing such a pertinent issue. The security and sustainability of UK and global food production and farming have been primary concerns of the Soil Association since its foundation 63 years ago.

1.1  We examined the current situation in our report, An inconvenient truth about food—neither secure, nor resilient, published November 2008 and already made available to Committee members.

  1.2  We are pleased to provide an updated summary of our concerns, indicating possible policy measures and practical solutions as appropriate.

How robust is the current UK food system?

  2.0  Superficially: Supermarket shelves are stacked high with a wide variety of foodstuffs and few people go hungry. Quite the opposite—with 40% of Britons predicted to be obese by 2025; 70% of girls and 55% of boys overweight or obese by 2050.

2.1  Whilst global rises in food prices, with consequent "food riots" over cost and scarcities, have occurred in 14 countries, Defra does not appear concerned that any of the underlying causes affect the long-term security and sustainability of UK food supplies. The language is less dismissive than a few years ago, but the Government's view remains broadly the same,

    "…because the UK is a developed economy, we are able to access the food we need on the global market."[1]

  In the brief period since that statement was published, the world has changed dramatically as global financial markets have collapsed. There are strong indications that the global food market, on which Government places so much reliance, is no more stable.

  2.2  The Soil Association shares the conclusions drawn in the first version of the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit analysis of food issues:

"…existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future".


"…existing patterns of food consumption will result in our society being loaded with a heavy burden of obesity and diet-related ill health."[2]

  Those unequivocal statements were air-brushed out of the final report. The Strategy Unit's original more critical analysis of UK food security has not been a key policy influence.

  2.3  The Department of Health urges the public to eat more fruit and vegetables—yet indigenous fruit and veg production has declined—with over 90% of fruit eaten here being imported. Enabling farmers to grow more of the food types highlighted in national and WHO dietary guidelines would improve people's health (see obesity stats above) and encourage production of lower carbon food— less, better-quality meat from grass-fed beef and sheep; wider range of cereals for direct human consumption; more root crops, fresh fruit and veg.

What are the current UK food system's main strengths and weaknesses?

  3.0  Most methods of food production, distribution and retailing in the UK, and in countries upon which the UK relies for imports of human food and feed for livestock production are inherently unsustainable—as the Strategy Unit concluded, "not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future."

3.1  The Inquiry's terms of reference emphasise sustainability as a key factor in food security, but do not sufficiently set this in the overarching context of climate change and the longer-term inevitability of scarcer, costlier oil. The Government target of 80% cuts in UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change, includes nitrous oxide and methane—for which agriculture is the main source:

    —  Nitrous oxide being the biggest portion: The Scottish Executive calculated that artificial nitrogen fertilisers made up 57% of Scotland's total nitrous oxide emissions, contributing 6.5-7% of the country's overall greenhouse gas emissions.[3]

    —  Manufacturing and delivering 1 tonne of nitrogen fertiliser uses 1 tonne of oil, 108 tonnes of water, giving off 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process.[4]

    —  Overall food and farming (excluding soil carbon loss) make up c.18% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions.

European agriculture no different

  3.2  Defra dismisses concerns over the UK's dependence on imports for 40-50% of our food needs, on the basis that 68% of these come from "low-risk, stable trading partners" within the EU.[5] Yet food production across the developed world is predominantly dependent on vast amounts of finite, fossil-fuel derived inputs:

    —  Industrial food production uses 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food energy.

    —  Food and drink make up 31% of the global warming potential generated across all goods & product categories in the EU.

  3.3  "Decarbonising" agriculture is key to our long-term food security. That requires reducing reliance on fossil-fuel based, greenhouse-gas generating artificial fertilisers and moving rapidly to modern rotational and mixed-farming supported by the best science.

  3.4  With one-third of each European citizen's carbon footprint coming from what they choose to eat and drink, helping consumers make easy, low-carbon food choices is crucial—and enabling farmers to produce such foodstuffs.[6]

  3.5  A life-cycle analysis in 2003 of the Swedish food-chain from farm inputs through to home preparation showed the best way to reduce the energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions embedded in people's food was to shift to a diet of less meat and cheese, more in-season vegetables, locally produced and fresh foods.[7]

Loss of Labour, Lack of Skills

  3.6  Lower-carbon farming systems will require more rather than fewer people working in food production. An indication of how many is offered by Cuba's experience. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it imports of Soviet oil, fertilisers and pesticides, Cuba had to deploy some 15-24% of its population into growing food.

3.7  The number of people working on the land has been in decline since the Agricultural Revolution—although 40% of the population were still employed in farming in 1900; falling to 15% by the start of World War Two. Today less than 2% work in agriculture.

  3.8  Despite this exodus, the foundations of a more resilient, stable food and farming system remain in place (just)—with some encouraging "green shoots of recovery":

    —  Around 10,000 mixed-farms (organic and non-organic) remain, providing the basis for more sustainable, lower-carbon forms of farming relying on crop and livestock rotations to build fertility, rather than oil and chemicals.

    —  As the number of farms and farm labour has declined, so has the infrastructure needed for more resilient, localised food and farming economies. 1000 independent butchers, greengrocers, bakers etc. closed every year during the 1990s and the number of UK abattoirs fell from 3,000 at the end of the Second World War to under 300 today. But the last decade has seen some resurgence: over 550 farmers' markets provide fresh, local, seasonal produce to consumers and enable farmers to get more of the "Food £".

  3.9  Employment figures for organic farming offer a model for the likely labour requirements of a lower-carbon farming system: Based on actual comparative, farm data, the University of Essex found that organic farms provided 32% more jobs per farm than equivalent non-organic farms. If all UK farming went organic 93,000 new jobs would be created, ten times the number of jobs lost from the closure of rural post offices over the past 15 years.

  3.10  Against the trend of an aging farming sector (average age of British farmer = 56), organic farmers are seven years younger; a higher proportion are new-entrants, and three-times as many are involved in direct or local marketing than their non-organic counterparts.[8]

How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

  4.0  The conclusion that we need to "double food production by 2050" is too narrowly focused. The world produces enough food to feed everyone on the planet—WHO states that 2200-2500 calories are needed per day to sustain an individual in productive health. Globally more than sufficient calories are produced—whilst nearly 1 billion people are malnourished in the South; 2 billion are clinically overweight in the North. The issue, the UN and the UK should address is not simply the volume of food grown, but what types of food, destined for what end uses?

    —  One-third of the UK and global grain harvest goes to feed animals—mainly as concentrates for intensive livestock units. These are inefficient converters of plant energy to meat for human consumption, taking 10 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef; 4-4.5 kilograms for each kilo of pork.

    —  70% of all EU livestock feed is imported, underlining the inherent unsustainability of intensive meat production—and its vulnerability should developing countries decide to grow food to feed their own people rather than our livestock.

    —  More morally questionable is the diversion of grains to feed not humans, however indirectly, but cars. In 2006, the US turned 20% of its corn harvest into biofuel, taking millions of tons of maize (and wheat) off the world market.

  4.1  On climate change, human health and food security grounds, the UK would be better off if we reduced our overall consumption of meat, relying more on extensively-grazed livestock than those raised in intensive units, dependent on imported feed.

  4.2  The healthier, low-carbon diet as outlined in paragraph 2.3 above could be delivered through a wholesale shift to organic farming and in sufficient quantities to feed the UK population according to independent research by the University of Reading.[9]

In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

Soil quality

  5.0  The UK and EU countries are not suffering from soil degradation and erosion to the degree suffered in more arid regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa or from salinity caused by inappropriate farming techniques as in parts of China, the former Soviet Union and Australia. The UN's Environment Programme estimates half of the world's arable land will be "unusable" by 2050 (reason to prioritise care of our own farmland). But UK and European soils are under stress: erosion and degradation affect 157 million hectares, 16% of Europe. The Environment Agency estimated that 2.3 million tonnes of UK soil were lost over 1995-8, mainly due to intensive farming practices.

5.1  A key indicator of soil quality is organic matter levels. Over 30 years ago the "Strutt report" concluded that, "some soils are now suffering from dangerously low organic matter levels and could not be expected to sustain the farming systems which have been imposed on them."[10] "Organic matter" means crop residues like straw, the root masses of previous crops, naturally deposited and mechanically-spread manures, as well as the myriad organisms from microbes to earthworms that inhabit a healthy soil—the building blocks of healthy, resilient soil structure and fertility. The most recent data from the National Soil Inventory shows that organic matter levels have continued to fall: in 1981 22% of our soils contained more than 7% organic matter, by 1995 only 13% did.

  5.2  Less organic matter means less carbon storage. According to the National Soil Resources Institute, UK soils are losing carbon "on an enormous scale", around 13 million tonnes annually—almost as much as from all other agricultural sources (14 million tons).

  5.3  Healthy soil is the foundation of any Nation's true food security. Soil husbandry needs to be made a paramount priority, with farmers given incentives to increase organic matter and the soil's capacity to store carbon. Good soil management should be rewarded through the Single Farm Payment scheme.

Water availability

  6.0  Agriculture is the greatest user of water globally, accounting for 70% of water use. Under climate change, the UK is predicted to experience hotter, drier summers with rainfall declining by up to 50% in the south and east of the country by the 2080s; along with warmer, wetter winters, characterised by sudden, heavy downpours. Parched, poorly structured soils are less able to absorb and store water.

6.1  Countries suffering greater water-stress than the UK will increasingly limit the quantity of "embedded" water they are exporting along with cash crops. Around 12% of the UK's fruit and vegetable imports come from Africa. Annual imports of green beans alone bring in 189 million cubic metres of virtual water—each bean stem taking four litres.

The marine environment

  7.0  The UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation estimate 75% of the world's fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted. For the UK, it was estimated that half of the fish landed in 2004 came from sources that were unsustainable or borderline.[11]

7.1  In response, fish-farming has become the fastest growing animal-food producing sector, making up 30% of fish consumed. Mainstream fish-farming relies on fishmeal made from small, wild fish—not eaten by humans, but the food source for myriad marine species. Apart from impacts on wildlife, fishmeal conversion rates to human-edible fish protein are poor—generally 3-5kg of wild fish to each kilogram of farmed fish produced. Scotland's farmed salmon harvest of 130,000 tonnes in 2001 was produced from 400,000 tonnes of wild-sourced fishmeal.

  7.2  Healthy eating guidelines recommend one portion of oily fish weekly—but eating fish in moderation, closer to a serving of oily fish every three weeks would be more sustainable. There is good evidence that milk from organically-raised, grass and clover grazed cows produces significant levels of the key nutrients found in oily fish (omega-3 fatty acids).[12] More research is needed to verify and develop such land-based substitutes, as well as increasing the amount of fishmeal produced from crop plants.

The science base

  8.0  Government is failing to provide sufficient research funding for the "agroecological approaches" and "the improved techniques for organic and low-input systems" that the consensus of international scientists say are needed to curb climate change and deliver food security globally.[13]

8.1  Defra's overall spending on R&D related to organic farming was a mere £1.6 million between 2006 and 2007. Available evidence shows public spending on straight organic farming research has been about £2.2 million per year over 1997 to 2006. In contrast, public spending by the Government on agricultural biotechnology research was at least £49 million between 2006 and 2007 and £50 million between 2005 and 2006. This doesn't include spending via individual grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), for which data is not available.[14]

  8.2  This bias in the direction of publicly funded research contradicts public preferences as to the food they want to eat. In 2004, when the Government officially asked the public, 86 % said they would not be happy to eat GM foods. By contrast, sales of organic produce rose by 22 % last year. Unlike organic crops, no GM crops are grown commercially in the UK.

  8.3  Public research funding should be redirected to:

    —  Developing modern, mixed-farming systems.

    —  Decarbonising the food system.

    —  Delivering and increasing fertility without fertilisers.

    —  Improving understanding of and productivity from the use of rotations.

    —  Placing soil science, management of soils for fertility and carbon sequestration at the top of agricultural scientific endeavour.

The provision of training

  9.0  "Shedding labour" has been seen as an inevitable and conventional agronomic "efficiency". But to achieve secure, sustainable food supplies over the next 50 years, we will need more people in agriculture—yet there is a serious shortage of available labour and skills.

9.1  The UK has historically failed to take advantage of EU schemes providing grants to enable young people to set up in farming. As of 2002, across EU Member States the average annual take-up of such schemes stood at 24-31,000 people, with France alone accounting for 40% of the scheme. UK take-up was 0%.

  9.2  County Council tenancies traditionally provided a key "first rung on the farming ladder", but successive Governments have encouraged or forced Councils to dispose of their farming estate. The acreage of council tenancies declined by 7,558 acres, with 202 farms no longer available to tenants over a three-year period between 1999-2002.

  9.3  Government should introduce measures to encourage young people to take up a career in food production and support farm labour, as has been done with the teaching profession. The Soil Association runs a modest "Organic Apprenticeship" training scheme providing on-farm work placements and training for young people and new entrants. Funded by the Soil Association and apprentice contributions, this merits support and extension by Government.[15]

The way in which land is farmed and managed

  10.0  The statistics cited above show that our current food production system in the main is not sustainable, nor guaranteeing our long-term food security. An accepted definition of food security in the past has been that provided by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation:

    "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."[16]

      That 10-year old definition doesn't adequately reflect the need for food security to be founded above all on sustainable production, given current understanding of the scale and urgency of the challenges brought by climate change.

      10.1  UK and global food security must be considered in that context, as has the International Agricultural Assessment of Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD), a global colloquium of over 400 scientists, signed-up to by over 60 governments, including the UK. IAASTD concluded that:

    "…despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and environmental consequences of our achievements.

    Business as usual is no longer an option…Policies that promote sustainable agricultural practices (…) stimulate more technology innovation, such as agroecological approaches and organic farming to alleviate poverty and improve food security."[17]

  10.2  The "agroecological approaches and organic farming" that IAASTD calls for have been starved of research and development funding (see para 8.1 above). Consequently, sustainable farming systems are in a comparable situation to the renewable energy sector, where the lion's share of funding was swallowed up by the fossil-fuel and nuclear energy industries, setting renewables back a decade or more. Only when fiscal measures were introduced to stimulate non-fossil fuel energy generation was the necessary investment, innovation and progress made. Similar incentives are needed to drive sustainable and secure food and farming systems.

What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer taste and habits, and what will be their main effect?

  11.0  As awareness of climate change and evidence of its impacts increases, more consumers are going to seek ways of reducing their carbon-footprint. With 30% coming from their food, being able to choose "climate-friendly" food—just as they can fridges, washing machines, cars and light-bulbs—offers an easy, everyday action.

What use could be made of local food networks?

12.0  More localised food systems are key to enhancing the resilience of the UK's food security, as well as regenerating rural economies and providing new routes to market for farmers.

12.1  The Soil Association is the lead partner in the Food for Life Partnership which is working with a core of 180 flagship schools across England to deliver healthier, more sustainable school food and connect children more closely to where their food comes from. Food for Life targets for school food are 75% unprocessed, 50% local and 30% organic. Apart from enabling children to understand and make better food choices, Food for Life schools are dramatically cutting their food miles: Hurlford Primary School in East Ayrshire reduced its food miles by 75%, with average distance traveled per menu food item dropping from 330 to 99 miles.[18]

What role should Defra play both in ensuring that the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?

  13.0  Produce a "Food Security Plan for Britain": providing strategic thinking as to the best mix of food types and farming systems to deliver national food security whilst meeting the challenges of climate change and longer-term, depleting oil.

13.1  Lead by example: as the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Defra and all government departments and food procurement contracts which they oversee should specify seasonal, fresh and low-carbon food—encouraging local producers and suppliers to tender as permitted under European law.

How well does Defra engage with other relevant departments across Government, and with European and international bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?

  14.0  Insufficient links between food production, public health, and climate change mitigation policies.

What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

15.0  Simply doubling food production is a crude, inaccurate measure that could drive a return to crude maximised production with minimal human health and environmental restraints.

Criteria would include:

    —  Reverse damage to UK soils —targets for increasing soil organic matter content.

    —  Develop accurate measurement for individual farm's soil carbon storage/losses —set annual targets for sustaining/increasing soil carbon storage per farm.

    —  Annual target cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and throughout food-chain (some supermarkets have already calculated and set targets for individual food items carbon budgets).

    —  Increase proportion of "healthy eating" guidelines foodstuffs grown in UK i.e. currently 90% of fruit consumed in the UK is imported.

    —  Biodiversity is not an "either/or" when it comes to food security, but a key indicator of the sustainability of the system. We can have "sky-lark friendly daily bread".

    —  Increases in employment in farming as a positive indicator of lower-carbon farming.

January 2009

1   Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, Defra 2008. Back

2   Food: An analysis of the issues, Cabinet Office discussion paper, January 2008. Back

3   Scottish Executive (2004), Scottish Agriculture and Global Change-Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Fertiliser Use. Environment Group Research Report 2004/09. Back

4   NF0614 Environmental Assessment Tools for Biomaterials, North Energy Associates, Springdale Crop Synergies, 2007. Back

5   Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World, Defra 2008 Back

6   Environmental Impacts of Products (EIPRO): Analysis of life-cycle environmental impacts related to the total fuel consumption of the EU25, European Science & Technology Observatory & Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, April 2005 Back

7   "Food and life cycle energy inputs: consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency", Ecological economics, 44, 2-3, 293-307, 2003 Back

8   Organic works, providing more jobs through organic farming and local food supply, Soil Association, University of Essex, 2006 Back

9   England and Wales under Organic Agriculture: How much food could be produced? Centre for Agricultural Strategy, University of Reading, 2008 Back

10   Strutt Report "Modern farming and the soil", published 1970, MAFF Back

11   Foster C (2005) Fish Consumption and production: The sustainability Challenge. National Consumer Council Back

12   Butler et al (2008) "Fatty acid and fat-soluble antioxidant concentrations in milk from high and low input conventional and organic systems: seasonal variation", Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture J Sci Food Agric 88:1431-1441.
K. A. Ellis, G. Innocent, D. Grove-White, P. Cripps, W. G. McLean, C. V. Howard and M. Mihm (2006) Comparing the Fatty Acid Composition of Organic and Conventional Milk, J. Dairy Sci. 89:1938-1950.
Dewhurst R J, Fisher W J, Tweed J K S and Wilkins R J (2003). Comparison of grass and legume silages for milk production. 1. Production responses with different levels of concentrate. Journal of Dairy Science, 86:2598-2611. 

13   International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology Development, April 2008. Back

14   Planting Prejudice, How UK Government support for GM crops undermines sustainable farming policies, Friends of the Earth, September 2007 Back

15 Back

16   Rome Declaration on Food Security, FAO, 1996 Back

17   IAAST, Global Summary, Options for Action, p. 33, Back

18 Back

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