Farming must change to feed a hungry world
The farming industry must change to become more productive to meet rising food demand while balancing conservation and adapting to climate change, a Government report said today.
A study by The Green Food Project examined how production and consumption could change in five areas – wheat, dairy, bread, curry and geographical areas – in future.
The initial Green Food Report, which brings together farmers, manufacturers, retailers, environmentalists and scientists, details measures to boost sustainable farming including improving research and development of innovative technology in the sector.
Farming Minister Jim Paice said: "With our increasingly hungry world, every country must play its part to produce more food and improve the environment.
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"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.
"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."
Today's report said biotechnology could play a role in addressing some of the challenges surrounding food production, but investment and the "emotive nature" of the debate around genetic modification (GM) had affected progress.
While some in the industry warned the approvals process was creating unnecessary delays in getting products to market, the report said GM raised important health and environmental concerns and needed to be assessed.
On bread, experts suggested that significant amounts of energy could be saved if new more energy efficient toasters are invented.
Experts also suggested that Britain's farmers could grow more herbs and spices as the UK's climate changes, or chickpeas for roti-bread flour.
One of the geographical areas studied was the Tamar Valley, an area dominated by small farms grazing sheep and cattle.
"In South West England by 2050, under a medium emissions scenario, winter mean temperature is predicted to increase by 2.1C and summer mean temperature by 2.7C," the report said.
"Winter mean precipitation is predicted to increase by 17% and summer mean precipitation to decrease by 20%.
"Equally or more important to farmers will be increases in the frequency of extreme weather events.
"Changes in rainfall and temperatures may impact on the ability to grow certain crops or present opportunities to grow novel ones. These potential changes must be factored into thinking about future productivity."
The impact of an increase in food production in the valley, it said, was "a very difficult question to answer".
But it added: "The evidence presented suggests that increasing livestock production by further intensification of current systems would exacerbate existing negative impacts on water quality and biodiversity, in particular.
"If a different way was found to increase production then the environmental implications would be different."
The National Farmers' Union in the South West welcomed the report saying it identified "clear actions to move forward with".
Spokesman Ian Johnson said "producing more with less" was the mantra of "modern farming" while farmers were well used to adapting to the weather, or new regulation.
"Flexibility and investment in research and development are the key issues," he said. "There must be the right kind of regulatory encouragement because it is no good trying to move forward in a 'can't do' regulation culture.
"Farmers can produce more, more efficiently but they must get fair returns to enable that research and development to take place."
NFU president Peter Kendall, who sat on the steering group, said: "We know what the challenges are in feeding a growing population while minimising and reducing our impacts on the environment.
"And we know that the UK farming industry must play a part in addressing food security here and globally. This means we will have to produce significantly more food whilst impacting less on the natural environment.
"Last year we made a call at our annual conference for a national food plan – a strategy across government and industry that moves us beyond the cliches and starts to map out who needs to do what, where and when.
"The Green Food Project is certainly a major step forward to achieving this. It's not quite the end of the journey but it is a significant body of work that identifies the key issues that will need to be addressed."