COMMONS

Environmental Audit Committee publishes report on sustainable food

13 May 2012

The Government must develop a joined-up strategy to change the UK's unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system, as fears mount about global food security, MPs on the Commons Environmental Audit Committee warn.

The Environmental Audit Committee's Sustainable Food report recommends that:

  • stricter advertising limits protect children from junk food marketing  on all media including the internet
  • food skills, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum in all schools
  • new national planning policy guidance for Local Authorities should ensure communities have access to healthy food and land to grow their own produce
  • Government Buying Standards for food must be improved on meat and dairy and extended to cover hospitals, prisons and schools
  • the Office of Fair Trading's remit should be amended so supermarkets are not blocked from cooperating on sustainability initiatives;
  • Government should examine the scope for simple and consistent labelling on the sustainability of food products

Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Our food system is failing. 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.

At the same time the world faces growing fears about food security as the global population increases, more people eat meat and dairy, and the climate destabilises as a result of forest destruction and fossil fuel use.

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.

In many cases, reducing environmental impacts and getting people to eat more healthily can be achieved in tandem."

The Committee report warns that the current Government has no overarching food strategy in place. Defra's 'Green Food Project' due to be published in June examines only part of the food system and the Government's focus on 'sustainable intensification' risks ignoring the wider social and health implications of how we grow, trade and consume food in the UK.

The challenge for the Government is to define what 'sustainable intensification' means in practice, and particularly for the UK. The MPs believe that sustainable intensification must be more than simply increasing yields: the emphasise should be on 'sustainable'. Policy must take account of social and environmental impacts of the food system, including retaining space for small scale production practices and local food networks. To put that into practice the Government needs a clearer and more cross-cutting strategy, according to the MPs.  

Research

The UK does not currently have the basic science base to deliver more sustainable food production practices, the report warns. Relying on markets to identify and to direct where the research is needed is likely to fail according to the cross party MPs. The Government must take a more active role in directing research to ensure we have the science base to deliver food security and sustainability. It must be prepared to intervene with universities, colleges and the Research Councils to develop incentives for them to train more agricultural and food scientists.

Consumer information & better food education

The Government has a vital role to play in advising consumers on the environmental and health benefits of eating well, by ensuring that they have clear and easily understood information. The Government should examine the scope for simple and consistent labelling on the sustainability of food products, perhaps through a weighting system to produce an overall score.

Good food skills should be part of the curriculum  in all schools. The current review of the national curriculum provides an opportunity for Ministers to promote that. The Government should also consider stricter advertising limits, to extend the protection for children from junk food marketing on children's televisions to all media viewed by children, including the internet. 

Access to healthy food  & planning policy

Planning policy often fails to recognise the importance of sustainable production and consumption of food, according to the report. Evidence suggests that access to land for food growing is vital for a sustainable local food system. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) potentially provides local authorities with more powers to provide communities with better access to local food and to be able to grow their own food. The Government should make clear in the subsequent guidance it provides that for Local Plans to be consistent with the NPPF they should take account of communities' access to sustainable food and ensure that they are provided with alternatives to unhealthy food options. There should also be provisions in Local Plans to ensure that communities are provided with open spaces to grow their own produce.

GM crops

The Committee received some evidence arguing that GM crops could be part of the solution for a sustainable food system, but also other evidence that food shortage problems could be better addressed through other means, for example by tackling the 30% of all food grown worldwide that is lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer. The MPs call on the Government to establish an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system. An initial focus of such research should be on the scope for, and risks of, the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming regimes.

Joan Walley MP added:

"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."

Public sector food procurement & supermarket sustainability schemes

Although it has been proven that public sector procurement standards – known as Government Buying Standards - can be adopted for minimal cost, voluntary measures to promote them have not achieved the necessary improvements across the sector. The Government Buying Standards for food should be extended to cover the wider public sector, to ensure healthy and sustainable food is made accessible to more people and to help establish new markets for producers. The MPs are urging the Government to raise the standards further, to reflect best practices in particular for eggs, dairy and meat.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator's role in delivering fairer prices to food producers will be vital in helping farmers and producers earn the means to invest in less impacting methods of production. The Government should amend the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) remit to take account of sustainable development while protecting competition, and task the OFT and the Competition & Markets Authority to investigate and clarify the scope for supermarkets to cooperate in developing shared sustainability good practice.

The health challenges

Obesity imposes a significant burden on the NHS - with the direct costs of as much as £4.2 billion a year and rising - according to research commissioned by the Department of Health.

  • England has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, with more than 60% of adults and a third of 10 and 11 year olds overweight or obese 
  • if no action is taken, over 50% of adults and 25% of children could be obese by 2050
  • Poor diet could account for a third of all cases of cancer, and a further third of cases of cardiovascular disease
  • The doubling of  obesity over the past 25 years has increased the risk of developing type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer
  • Diet-related chronic disease costs the NHS £7 billion a year, including direct treatment costs, state benefits and loss of earnings

The environmental challenges

In addition to the health challenges, we also face an environmental challenge. The Foresight Report on the 'Future of Food and Farming' published last year set out the unprecedented pressures which the global food system will experience over the next 40 years.

  • Global population will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030 and probably to over 9 billion by 2050
  • agriculture will have to adapt to increasingly variable and unpredictable growing conditions as climate change gets worse
  • there may be increased incidence of floods and droughts, increased temperatures, and different patterns in the occurrence of weeds, pest and diseases

The Foresight report concluded that to feed a growing global population, the same amount of land will have to produce more food - 'sustainable intensification'.
The need to produce more from less is highlighted by the Government in the 'Green Food Project', in the Defra Business Plan and in the Natural Environment White Paper.  Food waste - whether of water, energy, or food itself - remained the largest single issue across the whole supply chain.

Further Information

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