Farming chickpeas and spices would open up new markets and reduce dependence on imports, a new report says
Growing ingredients for Indian curries such as chickpeas for roti flour as well as a range of exotic herbs and spices would open up new markets for British farmers and reduce dependence on imports, according to government report into how the agricultural sector can operate more sustainably in future. Growing more curry ingredients domestically could also potentially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from food imports.
By examining the problems facing the UK’s food production and countryside through key sectors and foods including curries, breads and dairy products, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is hoping to improve food systems at a time when they are coming under increasing threat. The Green Food Project report says that major changes must be made to agriculture, food processing and retailing, if price rises are to be kept in check and the natural environment preserved.
Jim Paice, farming minister, said: “With our increasingly hungry world every country must play its part to produce more food and improve the environment. Britain already punches above its weight, but we’re a small island with limited space, so we’ve got to show leadership and play to our strengths more efficiently.”
Food is one of the most important sectors of the UK economy, as one of the biggest exporting and manufacturing sectors and a major employer – about one in seven UK jobs depends on the food industry, according to government estimates.
As a result of the report, a steering group of government officials, farming representatives and food companies – including retailers, caterers and manufacturers – will be joined by environmentalists and scientists to find ways in which the UK’s food sector can use less energy, less water and other natural resources, reduce its environmental impact and become more efficient.
The study and steering group looked at the UK’s food industry through the prism of a few key foods and regions. They examined wheat and bread, the dairy sector, and looked at curry as a popular dish whose complex ingredients cover several important food groups and issues from food imports to waste management.
Some of the changes the group predicted would be needed are likely to be wide-ranging in scope, such as ways of encouraging consumers to waste less of the edible food they buy – currently, as much as a third is thrown away uneaten. But other changes will be at a more detailed level – for instance, more efficient toasters could make a big impact on the energy use associated with bread.
The group also looked in detail at three regions: Norfolk, the Lake District and the catchment area of the Tamar river in the south-west.
However, although the steering group and the progress made as a result of its efforts will be evaluated regularly on improvements to efficiency, water and energy use, increasing crop yields, using more innovative technology and creating jobs, no targets will be set for such improvements.
Paice said: “We’re not talking about setting Soviet-style targets but an overall approach in which the whole food chain pulls together. Whether it means embracing new farming technology or people wasting less, we’ve got to become more sustainable.”
But he admitted major changes were urgently needed: “There are already many examples of cutting-edge innovations in all sectors, but these are the exception rather than the rule. We are talking about the need for a culture change across the entire food chain and this is the first step in a long-term plan to make that happen.”
The report found an “unprecedented confluence of pressures”, including the world’s rapidly growing population – which according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation will mean that 60% more food will be needed globally by 2050; pressures on key resources such as water, energy and land; and the increasing severity of a variety of environmental problems including soil degradation, climate change and threats to biodiversity. “Producing more food through a business as usual approach is not an option,” the report found. “We need to do so in a way that does not degrade the environment and as a result compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in the future.”
As well as Defra officials, the members of the steering group include the National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association, the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF-UK, the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation.
Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association, warned that the government must be held to account on the success or otherwise of the initiative. “The big risk is that this report goes the same way as previous reports and recommendations for greening the food system. They failed because government didn’t take the lead that industry and the public need it to, particularly on the tough but crucial issue of sustainable consumption,” he said. “This report is weak when it comes to the key challenge of making it easy to eat a diet that doesn’t seriously damage our own health and that of the planet.”
Mark Driscoll of WWF-UK said: “Success will be measured by actions that lead to clear and measurable outcomes and actions – for example, reversing the declines in biodiversity in the UK, through monitoring of such things as the farmland bird and butterfly indices. Also, improvements in water quality in our rivers, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and a healthy and vibrant farming community where producers are rewarded for environmental stewardship.”
But in contrast to the government’s determination not to set targets for improvements, Driscoll said they were needed. “The next steps of this project are crucial if we are to move from some great words to action. We therefore need to look at key milestones and targets for the project under each of the recommendations – you can’t measure success or project progress unless this happens.”
[An English Rural Landscape with Farmhouse and grazing Cattle, via Shutterstock.com.]