UK must rethink its food policy says Porritt

Posted: 3 June 2009

Jonathon Porritt, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, today launched a sharp attack on the government's Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy. It was, he said,"no longer fit for purpose".

Delivering the Annual Campden Lecture in London, he said the strategy had been completely overtaken by new policy developments elsewhere in government (particularly on climate change and obesity), and by a dramatic worsening of key geopolitical factors such as energy prices, resource shortages and vulnerable supply chains.

As part of the Climate Change Act, the Government has just announced the statutory targets against which the UK's 'carbon budgets' will now be assessed. These include a cut of at least 34 per cent in greenhouse gases by 2020, rising to 40 per cent if a deal is done in Copenhagen at the end of the year, on the way through to an 80 per cent cut by 2050.

But, says Porritt, this can't be done unless there is a complete rethink of farming policy. "To make any kind of positive contribution in achieving those targets, the food sector is going to have to undertake a dramatic 'decarbonisation' of every aspect of its supply chain, from on-farm production all the way through to point of sale," he said.

Energy expended in food production
Energy expended in food production
Energy expended in producing and delivering one food calorie.
That would involve the rich world espousing sustainable farming methods which were not reliant on nitrogen fixed by fossil fuels but on 'real time' solar energy, on more local and labour intensive farming and better care of the soil.

"Our entire farming enterprise is still geared to high carbon emissions and low energy prices - and that's going to have to be completely reversed."

Food and oil

For the moment, the economic recession was masking the fact that energy prices will rise again when economic activity picks up again – particularly in China and India.

Relative price of crude oil, corn, wheat and soybean
Relative price of crude oil, corn, wheat and soybean
Relative price of crude oil, corn, wheat and soybean on world makrets 2000-2008.
"As far as I can tell, there are no serious commentators who think that oil will ever go below $40 again, and most are projecting a price range of between $60 and $110 by the middle of 2010. Even the oil companies now acknowledge that the days of 'easy oil' are gone forever, removing the foundation stone on which the whole of modern food production has been built. Without cheap oil and cheap gas, there is no more cheap food, and the sooner we recognise that non-negotiable reality, the easier it will be to adapt policy accordingly."

The same sort of challenge arises from the Government's own Obesity Strategy, he said. An estimated 70,000 premature deaths in the UK could be prevented each year if UK diets matched official UK nutritional guidelines. The UK already has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the EU, and the Foresight Report predicts that 40 per cent of UK citizens will be obese by 2025, and 60 per cent by 2050.

"Despite their recognition of this massive problem, the measures taken so far by the Department of Health and by Defra [the department of environment, food and rural affairs] are no longer fit for purpose".

UK food production
UK food production
The high point of UK food production was reached in the early 1980s. Home-grown production has steadily declined since then. Today, the proportion of all food which comes from the UK is just above 60%, and for indigenous food (which can be grown in the UK) around 74%.
On the 'ultimate discontinuity' of climate change Porritt concludes that we must all hope that the tipping point when manking loses the ability to command its own destiny is still so far away that we can avoid it altogether. "That means, quite simply, radically decarbonising (or "resolarizing”) food and farming must now become the driving force of UK policies.

"Despite its ready acceptance of the 2020 and 2050 targets, Defra still has no clear idea about what needs to happen in farming and food retail to make it possible to meet those targets. As soon as it does so, it will discover (not so surprisingly) that real food security and real sustainability are in fact one and the same thing."

Jonathon Porritt is also Founder Director of Forum for the Future