Benn set to announce proposals for a national food strategy to secure supplies

PROPOSALS for a national food strategy are to be announced todayby Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, when he addresses the Oxford conference, writes Eddie Gillanders.

The government's U-turn on food policy reflects increasing concern about future food supplies in the light of burgeoning world population, climate change, the high cost of energy and pressure on land and water. The real risk of food shortages in the future, even in the UK, is not being discounted.

Benn is expected to call for increased food production to ensure a "secure and sustainable" supply of home-produced food and will go as far as encouraging the adoption of genetic modification (GM) technology to boost crop yields – a move which will put him on a collision course with the Scottish Government which is totally opposed to GM.

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The Food 2030 report, which Benn will unveil, points to the challenges the world faces to feed a global population which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates will reach nine billion by 2050. The UN has said that world food supplies need to increase by 70 per cent.

"With a growing population, climate change and the pressure we are putting on land, we will have to produce more food sustainably," the report states.

Recognition of the importance of home food production will be welcomed by farmers and represents a marked turnaround in the attitude of government. Benn has been accused of placing more emphasis on environmental issues than food production and one of his recent predecessors, Margaret Beckett, environment secretary for five years until 2006, is on record stating that greater food self-sufficiency is not an issue and that the UK can simply import more food if UK farmers choose not to produce it.

However, there was a clear indication of a change in direction at last year's Oxford Conference when Benn stated unequivocally: "I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs, no buts."

His only qualification was that consumers wanted what was produced and that farming methods both sustained the environment and safeguarded the landscape.

Benn will open the two-day conference this morning and will be joined on the platform by shadow environment secretary, Nick Herbert, and Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam.