Food Security on the UK Agenda

Food security has been high on the agenda in the UK recently with the publication of documents by Defra (the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the UK House of Commons EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Committee. The documents argue that the UK will almost certainly need to increase food production given the challenges posed for future global food security by climate change, population growth and increasing pressure on natural resources.

However, although the need for such increases in food production to be sustainable in the long-term is stressed, few concrete policy measures for achieving this (within the CAP or nationally) have been proposed by Defra. The UK government has historically argued for greater market orientation of agricultural production; it remains unclear, however, whether this apparent new emphasis on increasing food production represents a change of policy or merely a change of tone. In contrast to Defra, the EFRA Committee is more explicit about advocating a production focus for the CAP.

Overview of Defra Food Policy Package

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Hilary Benn has called for a radical rethink of all aspects of the food chain

The issue of food security has enjoyed an unusually high profile in the UK over the summer, principally linked to the publication of a package of food policy documents by Defra on 10 August. Indeed, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Hilary Benn has called for a radical rethink of all aspects of the food chain - production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption and disposal.

In order to address this challenge, Defra has published several documents including an assessment of the UK’s current and future food security in the global context based on a framework of indicators in six themes, of which ‘global resource sustainability’ is identified as the most problematic. In particular, the assessment identifies climate change, agricultural intensification and expansion (including biofuels), and population growth as the three main threats to food security in this thematic area.

Food Matters: One Year On’, an update of a 2008 Cabinet Office report, provides an overview of food related policy developments over the past 12 months as well as an outline of significant challenges ahead; notably how to reduce the significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food sector in the context of climate change, combined with increasing demand and decreasing resources – estimates putting the world’s population at around 9 billion by 2050 are quoted. The report also notes that ‘the agricultural sector, like every other sector, should make a contribution to mitigating climate change under any comprehensive global agreement’ [reached in Copenhagen in December 2009].

In addition, Defra has also launched an online consultation, ‘Food 2030’, which is open until 16 October. The consultation is intended to provide a forum for discussion on the way in which food is produced and consumed in the UK, as well as how to increase global food production sustainably. Defra intends to publish its food strategy for the future later this year taking into account consultation responses, whilst the publication of an update to ‘Food Matters’ is planned for next summer.

Policy Implications Remain Unclear

Whilst the holistic scope and repeated references to sustainability in Defra’s food policy package are encouraging, it remains unclear at this stage what concrete policy measures or interventions might be enacted in order to address the challenges outlined.

Reference to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the role of the EU are, for example, limited to emphasising the need for a ‘successful conclusion to the Doha Development round [of WTO talks]’ in the context of ‘radical reform of the CAP to produce an industry that is genuinely sustainable and internationally competitive, and one that is rewarded… by the taxpayer for producing environmental and societal benefits that the market cannot otherwise deliver’.

[an] increase [in] food production... could also potentially result in tensions with other policies.

Hilary Benn has recently gone on record to state that ‘we need to produce as much food as we can ourselves’ whilst not advocating national self-sufficiency per se – potentially signalling a change in position compared to previous UK administrations, which have tended to emphasise the role of the market rather than political interventions in determining the level of UK food production.

At the same time, the Minister has noted that there are significant ‘environmental challenges associated with increased productivity’ and that ‘the way food is produced today [should not] damage the natural resources on which future food production depends’. Whilst the role of scientific and technical advances (potentially including greater use of genetically modified technologies) and resource efficiency gains in production methods could potentially allow the UK to maintain or increase food production, it could also potentially result in tensions with other policies. For example, the implications for agri-environment schemes, a key agricultural policy priority in the UK and at EU level, remain unclear. Current schemes tend to incentivise more extensive forms of production – an objective potentially at odds with future policy decisions intended to increase productivity or which resulted in significant changes in land use.

EFRA Committee report on food security

‘the focus of the post-2013 CAP should be on sustainable food production, rather than land management by itself’

Also of interest in the food security debate is a report published by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee in July which concludes that ‘the UK has a moral obligation to make the most of… its advantages for producing certain types of food’.

The report calls on Defra to provide leadership in Europe and suggests that ‘the focus of the post-2013 CAP should be on sustainable food production, rather than land management by itself’. In addition it ‘should provide incentives and mechanisms to encourage farming that uses less water and fossil fuels, produces less greenhouse gas emission and does not degrade the soils’.

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16 Sep 2009




The Institute for European Environmental Policy coordinates CAP2020. It is an independent not for profit institute which undertakes research in a number of policy areas including agriculture and rural development.