World must act to secure food supply, says Benn

Environment secretary Hilary Benn has warned that the 21st century will be "defined by the search for food and water".

In a lecture to influential think-tank the Fabian Society, Benn called on world governments to adopt a Kyoto-style agreement to secure future food supplies. He said that the world needs to face up to the scale of the food problem and implement a long-term plan to deal with it.

Although he acknowledged that in order to secure food and water supplies, it is essential for world governments to reach an agreement on a climate deal in Copenhagen next year, Benn pointed out that "a climate deal cannot deal with all the problems we face" - such as uneven distribution of resources, export bans and unfair markets.

"We need to look at how we can build on the work of the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and others to create a kind of new Kyoto - a global agreement to secure the future of our food," he said.

Pointing to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's latest report on the food crisis, which estimates that 40m more people have been pushed deeper into poverty and hunger, Benn said that the 'silent tsumami' caused by the sudden increase in food price "was a deafening warning to us all".

He argued that just as the 20th century was marked by the search for oil, the 21st will be defined by the search for food, adding that nations such as Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea have already started negotiations to lease tracts of farmland in other countries.

"This new Klondike rush for land tells us how the politics of food are changing, and we need to wake up," he said.

Benn predicted that, in the future, the world will be forced to produce more food on less land per person, a task threatened by "the perfect storm" of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity.

He warned against protectionism, adding that although domestic food production is important, "we cannot and should not look to the UK for all the food we need."

Instead, he said, the UK should look to maintain the security of its supply sources and create a stable food market, which can meet global demand for future generations.

In order to guarantee food security, Benn said that the UK needs to work with developing countries to help them raise agricultural productivity and erase inequality, implement a fairer global trading system and improve sustainability of production.

"British agriculture has led the world on many occasions in the past, and we need it to do so again on sustainable agriculture," he said, urging consumers to buy more local, seasonal food, grow their own vegetables and reduce food waste.

Most importantly of all, he said that the world must agree on an international action plan to ensure future food security for all.

"The plain, simple, unarguable truth is that, in the 21st century, it is wrong that anyone should go to bed hungry at night," he said.

"It is our responsibility to make sure that in the 21st century we make this poverty, and this hunger, history."

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