VEGA responds to a Defra consultation on 'Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World'
VEGA's response to the Defra consultation on Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World follows:
We welcome the debate on this issue, which is particularly topical given recent global price increases in food and commodity markets.
We agree with Sir Don Curry's comments that "We need to return to a strong production base in Britain in the light of global trends which strongly indicate that pressure on land use is going to be critical", and believe that a crucial issue in ensuring future security, as well as the sustainability of the food supply generally, is the pattern of food production and consumption in the UK.
VEGA's views can be summed up in the slogan "grow food not feed" and our responses to previous consultations explain the importance of this for food security and sustainability of the food supply. Livestock represent a very inefficient use of resources for food production. The amount of land, fuel, water and other resources used in producing animal protein vastly exceeds - usually by a factor of between 5 and 20 - resources used to produce the equivalent plant protein.
The UK has a high population density and cannot produce sufficient food for its needs, given current patterns of production and consumption. Not only is a large amount of animal feed imported, but animal feed grown in the UK exerts unnecessary pressure on arable land here, resulting in much unnecessary importation of food crops, such as cereals, fruit and salad vegetables.
The effect of increasing global consumption of animal products is extreme pressure on land and other resources, leading to environmental degradation, price increases and food insecurity. Although a significant amount of land in the UK is given over to grazing, the livestock population nevertheless creates a major demand on feed from arable crops, whether grown in the UK or imported. The price of animal feed is increasing in the same way as the price of crops for direct human consumption and this dependency on large amounts of livestock feed both affects and is affected by global markets, leading to increasing food insecurity.
The impacts of BSE, Foot and Mouth and other animal disease, supermarket pressure on farm gate prices, and now the increased costs of animal feed and fuel, make livestock farming increasingly uneconomic for farmers. Whilst there may be an opportunity here for farmers using organic and more extensive farming systems that are no so vulnerable to these pressures, the main effects of these pressures are to put small farmers out of business and to encourage amalgamation of farms and the further intensification of livestock systems. This is compounding the problems of insecurity and unsustainability in the food supply and likely results in lower animal welfare standards.
Without a reduction in the consumption of animal products, there will likely be increasing importation, especially of meat, from countries having lower standards of animal welfare, employment rights and food quality, which can therefore produce meat etc at a lower cost.
We do not accept the apparently complacent view that Britain, as a wealthy nation, can secure its food supply despite global food insecurity. Not only is this a risky strategy, but it is unethical, given the high levels of under-nourishment and malnourishment in developing countries.
In addition to impacts on food prices, food security and the environment, Britain's high consumption of animal products is contributing to an 'obesity epidemic' and is linked to many of the diseases of 'modern society', such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Reducing consumption of animal products would have benefits for food security, the environment and for public health. It should also make food more affordable. These facts have been acknowledged by former Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw and we applaud the advice given on the DirectGov website: "The production of meat and dairy products has a much bigger effect on climate change and other environmental impacts than that of most grains, pulses and outdoor fruit and vegetables." The findings of the 2006 FAO Report 'Livestock's Long Shadow' detailing the impact of livestock on climate change have been backed up research by other distinguished bodies. Avoiding political action is no longer an option.
There are many practical means for achieving a transition to plant-based diets, for instance:
- Government agencies, including the FSA, should be encouraging healthy, plant-based nutrition, through public education and by setting an example in providing healthy food choices in schools, hospitals and other government institutions.
- On the production side, the costs of livestock farming (both economic and environmental) have long been subsidised, for instance, through CAP subsidies, cheap fossil fuels and relatively low land prices. These 'external costs' can no longer be absorbed without having a major impact on food security, the economy and the environment. Rather than 'propping up' the livestock industry, government strategy should be focusing on supporting a transition to growing food for direct human consumption.
We would therefore make the following comments on your questions at the end of the Discussion Paper:
1. Whether we have correctly identified the challenges facing global and UK food security.
You have completely ducked the issue of livestock farming. Generally, there should be more regard to:
- Sustainability (ie from an ecological rather than mainly economic perspective)
- Ethical questions such as impacts on animal welfare and developing countries
2. The action the UK Government is taking globally and domestically to address these challenges and ensure food security.
3. What further role the agricultural or retail and food service sectors can play in ensuring UK food security.
4. Whether the food security indicators cover the right areas and measure the right things.
The indicators may be a useful 'monitoring tool', but should not form the underlying basis for strategy. Problems in one or more of the five areas highlighted should not be addressed in isolation - a more 'holistic' and 'preventative' strategy is needed that aims to increase food security generally before any (or more serious) problems emerge.
5. What steps we should take together if the indicators suggest there is a problem.
See 4. above