Farming: Security summit faces national and global food threat

The growing recognition of food security as a major global and national issue was reflected in the holding of a high level UK summit on the topic in Dundee yesterday.

And leading politicians, policy makers, economists and scientists attending the UK Agriculture partnership event, which was jointly organised by Defra and the Scottish Government at the James Hutton Institute, heard that the issue was here to stay.

However, while the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and Brexit had all highlighted weaknesses in the supply chain and pushed the issue up the political agenda, climate change and biodiversity along with health issues had already set it on that course - and major changes in global geopolitics are likely to keep it there for some time to come.

Professor Tim Benton of the international affairs think-tank Chatham House said that, over recent decades, food security as a whole had lurched from crisis to crisis, adding that government had spent too much without addressing the real underlying problems.

He said the current move away from globalisation, with the widespread growth in populism, nationalism and regionalisation was unlikely to be reversed.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to ‘business and usual’ as we had come to know it again.”

Benton said that the term food security had itself also to take on new meaning as simply supplying enough food to prevent hunger was no longer enough.

“And it would now be better defined as giving access to affordable nutritious food which has been sustainably produced.”

But he said that while the food security crisis in the UK was currently one of cost rather than supply, there was a moral obligation to make sure the supply wasn’t maintained at the cost of developing nations which often struggled to feed themselves while still exporting food to Western countries.

The UK supporting a greater degree of self-sufficiency would require the country to diversify its food production and there would need to be structural changes in the markets if feeding people was to take on more prominence.

Asked what needed to be done to reverse the market conditions driving the high risk high/value fruit and veg sectors to contract, government said that it was licensed to step in when markets were going to fail. “And if this isn’t a market failure then I don’t know what is.”

Benton said that these sectors had traditionally received little support – but by re-channelling existing support away from cereal production the Government could rebalance domestic production by making cereals – and consequently meat – production more expensive while supporting fruit and veg growers.

“But the government needs to decide what it want yo do then provide suitable incentives to drive the desired change.”

However Benton also warned any policy should be both robust and flexible:

“And rather than going for a ‘single bet’ option and lock us into blunt intensification of agriculture we should be looking for diversification of production.”

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