The UK Government has published recommendations that will shape policy and decisions well into the future. The Minister of State for Agriculture and Food tells us more.

Jim Paice

How might we produce more food and improve our environment in the future? Not an easy exam question!

Some say the answer is sustainable intensification, but there is a lot of disagreement about what that might mean (see this blog post for more), particularly when you start talking about what it might mean in England.

Over the last year, I have been part of a project that has been looking at exactly this question. The ‘Green Food Project’ spearheaded the new approach of open policy-making by bringing together farming, food and environmental organisations to explore the issues faced by our food system and what this means for the natural environment. We knew that this wasn’t something Government could do alone and the conclusions (PDF) published recently represent the collective view of those that have been involved.

Vision and direction

We have all read the reports, such as the Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming (PDF), that set out the challenges we will face over the coming decades; an increasingly affluent global population, increasing pressures on our limited natural resources (such as water, energy etc) and the ever growing need to reverse and improve the damage that has been made on the environment (such as biodiversity loss, soil degradation etc).

We all know that the relationship between food and the environment is complex and there is no silver bullet. But what is clear is that ‘business as usual’ is not an option. We need a sustainable food system that doesn’t degrade the environment and we also need to tackle waste and changes in diets.

The UK needs to contribute to this global debate and we have a role in meeting the challenges of an increase in the demand for food and in improving the environment. We have already demonstrated international leadership in this arena, with our farming and food sectors producing some of the highest quality products (think welfare, think sustainability, think Melton Mowbray pork pies!) and as a nation, championing the need to tackle environmental challenges, for example through the Climate Change Act.

However, more still needs to be done and for this reason the Government made a commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper, published June 2011, to scope out the issues that we face.

Active implementation

Overall, the conclusions reached following the work undertaken in the Green Food Project recognised that some ‘win-win’ scenarios are possible, for example in one of the case studies a farm that moved from a typical lowland beef and sheep farm, to a mixed farming system managed to eliminate a large part of their input costs by growing more of their own feed and bedding, and helped to restore the farm’s landscape and environmental features.

The number and scale of win-win’s possible will vary, which is why we need the ‘right management for the right place’. Decisions on how best to balance the trade-offs need to also be made. There can be trade-offs between production, the environment and other factors such as animal welfare, or other things of social value or for the “public good”, for example through the adoption of free range poultry or livestock systems.

There is no one path that can be taken that will solve the problems and challenges ahead. But to place us in a better position a number of strategic steps were identified: more coordinated research and more innovative technology; improved knowledge exchange from across the food chain, and from labs to farms and back to research labs; ensuring we have the right talented and entrepreneurial young people entering the food industry; giving farmers and food businesses the confidence to make the right investment; ensuring we have the right business structures that will enable fair and effective sustainable growth; developing a clear understanding of the value of services that our natural environment provides; and adopting an approach that will enable us to consider how we can best use the land.

One thing we have struggled with is where to draw the line. We tried to look at England in isolation, but kept hitting the reality that England is one small part of a fiercely complicated global food system.

And while the Green Food Project focused more on the challenges of increasing food production and improving the environment, we did recognise that tackling consumption and waste also formed an important part of the story. So to explore this further, a debate and more work has been called for to ensure that it feeds into the wider thinking about our food system (we can update you on how this goes!)

I am clear that this is not the end of the project or the work. More needs to be done to build on the platform generated so far.

About Jim Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food

Rt. Hon. Jim Paice MP has been the Member of Parliament for South East Cambridgeshire since 1987, and before joining Defra as the Minister of State in May 2010 was the Opposition spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Affairs from 1997 to 2001 and from 2004 onwards, as well as being a spokesperson for Home Affairs from 2001 to 2003. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 2010.

Mr Paice has a lifelong involvement with farming. After leaving school, he spent two years working on farms before attending Writtle Agricultural College and starting a career in farm management and active involvement in in the Young Farmers movement, ultimately becoming Chairman of the Agricultural Policy Committee of the National Federation of Young Farmers and representing the UK on the European Council of Young Farmers from 1975 to 1979.

Mr Paice is married with two sons.

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