Defra launches Green Food Project

A major new study into how Britain’s food system must change in order to keep food affordable without destroying natural resources was unveiled by Agriculture Minister Jim Paice today (10 July).

The Green Food Project has brought together representatives of the farming, manufacturing, retailing and catering industries with environmentalists and scientists to redesign the entire food system and find ways to balance the competing demands of producing more food for a growing population with improving the environment.

The report looked at how production and consumption might change in the future in five different sectors (wheat, dairy, bread, curry and geographical areas) and at ways in which these changes could be met. The initial findings have announced the first steps towards using less energy and water in food production, introducing more innovative technology, increasing crop yields, improving conservation management, and boosting the numbers of talented, entrepreneurial young people making careers in the food industry. The steering group will meet regularly from now on in order to effect the changes.

Paice said: “With our increasingly hungry world, every country must play its part to produce more food and improve the environment. Britain already punches above its weight, but we’re a small island with limited space, so we’ve got to show leadership and play to our strengths more efficiently.

“We’re not talking about setting Soviet-style targets, but an overall approach in which the whole food chain pulls together. Whether it means embracing new farming technology or people wasting less, we’ve got to become more sustainable.

“There are already many examples of cutting-edge innovations in all sectors, but these are the exception rather than the rule. We are talking about the need for a culture change across the entire food chain and this is the first step in a long-term plan to make that happen.”

Leading project members include the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Country Land and Business Association, National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF-UK, Linking Environment and Farming, the British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation, the Business Services Association, the British Hospitality Association, and Defra.

The report has been described as a “turning point” by the NFU, and a major step towards achieving a national food strategy across government.

NFU president Peter Kendall, who sat on the steering group, said: “It’s not quite the end of the journey, but it is a significant body of work that identifies the key issues that will need to be addressed by government, industry and other stakeholders.

“We now have some clear actions to move forward with. In particular, the report identifies some of the steps that need to be taken by the science community, government and farmers in delivering more user-inspired, applied research. It pushes us to think smarter about knowledge exchange. Stimulating investment is critical if Defra is to consider how it can better support a more competitive, resilient industry. A step that government could take quickly is to overhaul capital allowances to create more generous incentives for farmers to invest in new buildings, water lagoons and slurry stores.”

He said that it had been encouraging to see the constructive collaboration from members of the project, but that it would be up to all members to take responsibility for actions. “For our part, we are committing to work more closely on skills, new entrants, competitiveness and environmental delivery,” he said.

However, the WWF said that while the project was an encouraging first step and that action was undeniable, the government “urgently needed to show much more leadership to fix the ‘broken’ food system”. It described some of the Project’s recommendations as “woolly”, and said they lacked specific targets and milestones.

It argued that the most important question was how to address the underlying problems of the food system, including waste, access and diets, and that simply ramping up food production was a “fool’s errand”.
 
Mark Driscoll, head of WWF-UK’s food programme, said: “We support the collaborative approach taken by the Green Food Project as a – very small – first step. However, what’s really important is the need to take action so we move towards a more equitable and sustainable food system which addresses the twin global challenges of sustainability and hunger.
 
“The establishment of a consumption forum is a useful initiative, but this has to be much more than just a talking shop. It must report back with clear recommendations and a timetable for action from government, business and civil society.”

The WWF also reiterated the need not to shy away from addressing difficult issues, such as consumption and sustainable diets, pointing out that retailers and food manufacturers have a key role to play in boosting sustainable diets, which must go beyond merely giving consumers information to help them make informed choices. It said that placing all the responsibility on consumers was unrealistic.

The Food Ethics Council welcomed the publication, but questioned the “narrow focus on food production”, saying that there was an urgent need to transform our food system to meet the challenges ahead.

Sue Dibb, The Food Ethics Council’s executive director, said: “What’s clear is that a focus on food production alone isn’t enough. What we’re eating, how much we waste, how we feed people fairly and treat animals humanely all need to be part of the picture. Business as usual – even with a green tinge – is not the answer.


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