The radical transformation of our food systems that is needed to improve human health, 'save the planet' and build domestic resilience, was a hot topic at the NFU conference, in Birmingham, this week.
Challenging delegates to think differently about ‘food security in a changing world,’ Professor Tim Benton, research director at Chatham House, argued that the UK Government’s current strategies around ‘productivity, growth and land sparring’ didn’t respond to current challenges.
“We need to upgrade our food system so it is fit for today’s needs, delivering on food security and supporting healthy diets in a sustainable way, which also ensures food producers are given a fair price,” said Professor Benton, calling for a radical overhaul in the way food is produced, to better support public health.
“Globally, one in 10 people are chronically undernourished, but 40% are overweight or obese and associated illnesses with being overweight or obese, amounts to 2.2% of global GDP. This is part of the reason we have pressure on the National Health Service.”
He added that in 2020, half of the number of people who died from Covid, died from diet-related ill health and argued that there was as much of a need to get our diets right to save the NHS as there was a need to transform agriculture to be more sustainable, to save the environment.
“At a global level, we do not incentivise through the market the production of sufficiently enough food to allow people to eat healthily,” he continued. “We grow about one-third of the fruit and vegetables needed if everybody were to eat five of their recommended a day.”
He added that we grow about 50% too much grain, about four times more vegetable oil than is needed from a nutritional perspective and 10 times too much sugar.
Challenging the concept of increasing production levels to address food security, he argued that the UK was a minor player when it came to addressing global food security but instead should look to improve regional food supply and farmer should ask what is the right food to be producing?
“The more we innovate to produce more food, the more prices come down and it leads to greater food waste, more repurposing of food in to biofuels and animal feed, and over consumption.
"Driving up productivity makes it less sustainable in the long run. We need to have more food to eat, but it isn’t about how we maximise productivity, but what should we grow and how should we grow it? UK food security rests as much on supplying fruit and vegetables, as well as grains, meat and dairy,” he said.