A blueprint for food

With great fanfare at the start of the year, the government launched its vision for food for the next 20 years. But if alarm bells in the meat industry were ringing, then those concerned that consumers would be urged to eat less meat for the sake of the environment need not have worried.

The main thrust of the Food 2030 strategy is crystallised in six core issues: encouraging people to eat a healthy, sustainable diet; ensuring a resilient, profitable and competitive food system; increasing food production sustainably; reducing food production greenhouse gas emissions; reusing and reprocessing waste; and increasing the impact of skills, knowledge, research and technology. The report instantly got the backing of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), which praised Defra for grasping the complex issue. "The fact that government wants to deliver its vision for food in partnership with industry and build on existing work in progress is good news. But the need to base decisions on sound science, particularly where food production is concerned, has never been greater," said NFU president Peter Kendall.

better returns support

The Food 2030 document even highlights Eblex's 'Better Returns Programme', which Defra says is supporting the department's environmental goals by focusing on increasing the productive efficiency of livestock farms. The strategy warns that livestock grazing uses more land than any other human activity, while in developing countries, meat consumption is rising at a rate of 5% a year. But Food 2030 also highlights positive action already being taken to deal with the problems arising, such as the work by the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force, which demonstrates industry improving supply chain relations as well as competitiveness and responsiveness to markets.

The Defra strategy also fails to completely back the notion that consumers should eat less meat to reduce the environmental impact of their diets, which is encouraging news for the livestock and processing industries. In the document, one of the promising aspects of the report is that, although it recognises livestock production as "a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions globally", it points out that not all meat should be tarred with the same brush. "Different types of livestock are responsible for different levels of emissions. Chicken, for example, is the most popular meat protein in the UK and emits fewer GHGs per kg than any other meat," says the report. It also adds: "Livestock can also be part of agricultural systems that contribute to locking carbon into soil and upland livestock production is often the most economically productive activity possible in such areas."

nutritious product

The study also highlights that meat is a good source of essential nutrients and that eating less meat does not necessarily mean a reduction in competitive, GHG-efficient production, as there are growing global markets, particularly in the developing world. Going forward, Food 2030 recommends that the livestock sector should work to minimise its environmental impact, as far as possible, in the UK and overseas. It also encourages the notion that consumers should be able to exercise choice over what to eat, including choosing how to reduce the carbon footprint of their diet.

Meanwhile, it adds that government should: continue to provide advice to allow consumers to make dietary choices based on up-to-date nutrition and environmental evidence; work with the UK livestock sector to help reduce emissions for example by facilitating product roadmaps such as the recent Eblex and Bpex launches last year; and work with global partners to reduce emissions overseas for example through initiatives like the Department for International Development and Defra's co-operative work with Brazil, which aims to improve ranching efficiency and avoid deforestation.

Organisations with environmental links that have recently published reports on meat-eating have been divided as to whether this report is a useful endeavour or not. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) welcomed Food 2030 for its focus on healthy, sustainable diets. "The focus on defining and supporting sustainable diets, as recommended in the SDC's recent advice to government, is particularly welcome. We recognise this raises thorny issues, including reconciling the environmental and health impacts of meat and dairy production with the legitimate concerns of producers and consumers. The government's commitment to further research in this area is encouraging," says SDC commissioner for food Tim Lang.

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) is also positive, on the whole, about the suggestions, which chime with its vision for livestock farming. One of Defra's goals that farmers should produce to high standards of animal welfare with food production particularly pleases CIWF. Friends of the Earth, however, has described the whole exercise as "business as usual" from the government, saying that it has "failed to choose the path to fair and planet-friendly food". Food campaigner Helen Rimmer said: "We can feed a growing population without going vegetarian or relying on factory farms, but Ministers must come clean about the need to cut down on meat and dairy."

Last week, Hilary Benn appeared before the Select Committee, which scrutinises Defra where it was put to him that Food 2030 was thin on detail. "There are challenges for everyone involved in the food system, from production right through to managing food waste, and this strategy helps to tackle those," he retorted. Time will tell if he is correct. l

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