UK Parliamentary Committee reports on Sustainable Food

The Environmental Audit Committee of the UK House of Commons has published a report on Sustainable Food and concludes that the food production and safety systems need a major shake up if the availability of food in that country is to become more sustainable.

Recommendations of the report include, in summary,

  • We do not currently have the basic science base to deliver more sustainable food production practices. Relying on markets to identify and to direct where this research is needed, and on sufficient scale, is likely to fail. The Government must be prepared to intervene with universities, colleges and the Research Councils to develop incentives for them to train more agricultural and food scientists.
  • In developing the Green Food Project, and a subsequent food strategy, the Government must explicitly recognize the need for more research into:
    • the interactions between the impacts of food production practices and the environment, so that these can be better managed to increase production in a sustainable way;
    • the impacts of agriculture on climate change, to provide a basis for encouraging farmers to adopt more sustainable practices and behaviours;
    • the life-cycle impacts of food, to give producers, suppliers and customers the information they need to be able to make decisions which would have less impact on the sustainability of food;
    • soil science; and
    • the benefits of new farming practices, such as those in fresh water fish farming.
  • Unless and until there is both clear public and political acceptance of GM, it is proven to be both beneficial to the environment and to producers, and evidence that demand for these products is based on understanding by consumers and transparent product labelling, the Government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas. The Government must ensure that the public and Parliament is well informed on this issue. It should 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.
  • Food systems are more likely to be sustainable if food reflects value or cost of the environmental impacts of producing it; an area we identified as needing more research. In the absence of such mechanisms food prices have been relatively low particularly when supplied through supermarkets which are able to bring economies of scale to bear.
  • The Government should amend the Office of Fair Trading’s 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 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 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 sustainability of food, however, is a multifaceted concept, as we have described in this report, covering a range of health, animal welfare, environmental, climate-change, resource-efficiency and ethical dimensions. As a result there is a wide range of different food label claims — recyclable packaging, food miles, organic, local, carbon footprint, fair trade, lower fat, low salt, etc. Recognizing the multi-faceted nature of sustainable food, 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.
  • We welcome the findings of the Food Growing in Schools Taskforce. Good food education and skills, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum in all schools. The current review of the national curriculum provides an opportunity for the Government to promote that. The Government should consider stricter advertising limits, to extend the protection for children from junk food marketing on children’s television to all media viewed by children, including the internet.
  • We welcome that the Government will now enable local authorities to use the £250 million Weekly Collection Support Scheme to initiate food waste collections. Without such collections, there is a risk to the use of food waste in anaerobic digestion, as well as for packaging recycling rates. The Government must ensure that there is sufficient funding available for all councils to be able to make sufficiently regular and separated food collections, to help develop a healthy anaerobic digestion sector.
  • The Government should undertake new research to consider the opportunities and risks in using food waste to feed livestock.
  • The overarching aim behind the Government’s work in improving the UK’s food system is ‘sustainable intensification’. The Foresight report presented sustainable intensification as the solution to the global food crisis. The challenge for the Government is to define what this term means in practice, and particularly for the UK. Sustainable intensification must be more than simply increasing yields: the emphasis 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.
  • The Government must use the Green Food Project to provide a foundation for developing a broader food strategy that takes into account the health, environmental, social and economic consequences of the way that the food we eat is produced, sold and disposed of.
  • A key theme of the Rio+20 Earth Summit will be sustainable food production. The Government should review its food policy in the light of the Summit agenda, and after the Summit it should build any commitments agreed into that strategy. That review must ensure that UK food policy is consistent with the global aspirations for delivering a sustainable food system.

The 35 page report is accompanied by extensive appendices including the evidence presented to the Committee by numerous organizations.

The role of the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons is to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and it audits their performance against any sustainable development and environmental protection targets.

A summary and links to the full report are available at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/news/report-on-sustainable-food/

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