Britain must grow more sustainable food, says Benn

5/1/2010 Guardian While eating less red meat will help achieve sustainable food production, grass-fed livestock play a role in minimising farming’s CO2 emissions, says the Soil Association.Britain must grow more food in a different way to respond to mounting ecological challenges such as climate change, and help provide food for burgeoning world populations, the environment secretary Hilary Benn has told farmers. “Food security is as important to this country’s future wellbeing – and the world’s – as energy security. We need to produce more food. We need to do it
sustainably. And we need to make sure that what we eat safeguards our health,” he said.

Launching the government’s food strategy goals for the next 20 years at a farming conference in Oxford, he proposed a consumer-led, technological revolution which would transform UK farming over the next generation. “We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves. There are challenges for everyone involved in the food system, from production right through to managing food waste.”

The government aims to develop a “meanwhile” lease to formalise such arrangements between landowners and voluntary groups and is considering establishing a “land bank” to broker better links and ensure plots are not left idle. Ministers believe the move could foster community spirit and skills as well as improve physical and mental health. “People power can help bring about a revolution in the way food is produced and sold, and that food businesses, including supermarkets and food manufacturers, would follow consumer demand for food that is local, healthy and has been produced with a smaller environmental footprint – just as consumers have pushed the rapid expansion of Fairtrade products and free range eggs over the last decade,” Benn said.

“We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.”  A decade ago, only 16% of eggs produced in the UK were free range. In the last 10 years that’s more than doubled to just under 40%. Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op now sell only free range or organic eggs. And with the UK 80% self-sufficient in free-range eggs this is a great example of how our farmers have responded to what consumers want, to the benefit of both.”  About one in three people in the UK grows fruit and vegetables, according to a survey commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Ministers hope the voluntary sector can help build on examples such as that set
by the National Trust, which hopes to have established 1,000 allotment plots on restored kitchen gardens, agricultural land and vacant spaces, in its varied property portfolio by 2012.

The cross-departmental policy report, Food 2030, will also support further farmers’ and community markets to boost consumption of local produce. But, compared with the government’s own sustainable development commission, the report appears more cautious about changing agriculture, by, for instance, encouraging less reliance on intensive meat and dairy production. The Food 2030 report will acknowledge that livestock production is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions but say that the evidence that would allow consumers to decide whether or not to cut the environmental footprint of their diet, is still unclear. “Not all types of meat have the same impacts, neither do all systems of production,” it will state, while adding that livestock farming could be the
only economically productive activity possible in some hilly areas.

In a forward to the report Gordon Brown speaks of the need to ensure the annual £80bn-a-year food industry thrives, but adds: “We can’t carry on just as we are. We need to produce more food without damaging the natural resources – air, soil, water and marine resources, biodiversity and climate – that we all depend on. We need to feed more people globally, many of whom want, or need to eat, a better diet.” Emma Hockridge, policy manager of the Soil Association, said: “Consumers are feeling increasingly confused by the proliferation of diet-related advice doled out by government departments. The debate about meat encapsulates this. Whilst it is right that we need to eat less meat overall to achieve sustainable food production, red meat, as long as it is from grass-fed livestock, has a critical role to play in minimising carbon emissions from farming.

This is because grasslands for grazing represent vitally important carbon stores. “The government makes an excellent suggestion that publicly owned land should be converted to growing spaces. The Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) is already leading the way by encouraging schools to grow their own food. FFLP gives communities access to seasonal, local and organic food, and to the skills they need to cook and grow fresh food for themselves.” The campaign group Sustain said the report recommended only “soft” measures, such as wasting less food, and avoided tough issues, such as reducing children’s consumption of junk food by, for example, properly protecting young people from marketing. Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, said: “The government’s food vision is hardly worthy of the name. The document proposes a series of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system and ignores obvious ideas to help British farmers, like improving the food that government itself buys.

“What we need is an ambitious programme of investment in British farming so that it can produce healthy and sustainable food. If the government is serious about making our food system sustainable, it must put its money where its mouth is and only spend taxpayers’ money on good-quality and sustainable food.” 

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