13 May 2012

Government must act to ensure a sustainable food supply

A cross-party committee of MPs calls on the government to develop a joined-up strategy to tackle the UK’s ‘unhealthy and environmentally damaging’ food system.

Government must act to tackle our unhealthy and damaging food system (Getty)

“Our food system is failing” warned the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Joan Walley MP, as her committee published its wide-ranging findings into sustainable food, adding:

“obesity and diet-related illness is on the increase, fewer young people are being taught how to cook or grow food, and advertisers are targeting kids with junk food ads on the internet.”

The government needs an over-arching food strategy if is to get to grips with the many strands of policy that are involved in providing both sustainability and security of food supply warns the committee. Relying on the market to provide is not sufficient, the MPs concluded.

Among the committees recommendations are:

• food skills such as cooking and gardening on the school curriculum
• stricter limits on advertising of junk food on all media including the internet
• national planning policy guidance to give communities access to healthy food and land to grow produce
• government buying standards on food to be extended to cover hospitals, prisons and schools
• change the Office of Fair Trading's remit to allow supermarkets to co-operate on sustainability initiatives
• simple and consistent labelling on sustainability of food products

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “we spend £400m a year on agriculture and food research, we’re close to publishing the ambitious Green Food Project to make the whole food chain as sustainable as possible, and we’re also pushing hard for food security to be high on the agenda at Rio +20 next month.”

However, environmental pressure group Sustain warned that rather than concrete action it expected only “greenwash” from the government in response to the report. Jeanette Longfield, Sustain’s co-ordinator said: “I would love to be proved wrong, but this government’s track record is to quietly shelve reports that produce the ‘wrong’ results.”

GM crops

Despite hearing evidence that genetically modified (GM) crops could be part of the solution in achieving food sustainability, the committee pointed out that tackling the fact that 30 per cent of all food grown worldwide is lost or wasted might be an easier way to address food shortages.

Read more: GM scientists in open letter plea to protesters

Committee chair Joan Walley MP says: “until there is clear public acceptance of GM and it is proven to be beneficial, the Government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas.”

Health challenges

As far as diet goes, the MPs urge the government to act to advise consumers on the environmental and health benefits of eating well. England has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, with more than 60 per cent of adults and a third of 10 and 11 years overweight or obese. Those numbers are predicted to rise to over 50 per cent of adults and 25 per cent of children by 2050 if no action is taken. Diet-related chronic disease already costs £7bn a year when taking into account treatment costs, state benefits and loss of earnings.

Environmental challenges

The global population is predicted to rise from 7 billion to 8 billion by 2030 and possibly 9 billion by 2050. Not only will farmers have more mouths to feed, but they will have to adapt to cope with the effects of global warming.

However the MPs’ report warns that: “intensifying production risks damaging the environment and society” and calls on the government to put sustainability first while retaining “space for small scale production practices and local food networks.”

To achieve all this, the MPs say the government will need a clearer and more cross-cutting strategy.

As Joan Walley puts it: “The government is understandably sceptical about anything that seems like nanny-statism, but the evidence is clear – intervention is needed to tackle obesity and fix our food system.”