Will Covid recovery mark an overhaul of our food production?

Time is running out for mankind to make the changes needed to continue feeding itself. Food production has been the biggest destroyer of biodiversity in recent decades, the damage to the natural world has been dramatically undervalued, and radical change to production and consumption is urgently needed to avoid collapse of food systems.

So said two landmark reports in the past week – ‘The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review’ commissioned by the UK government, and ‘Food system impacts on biodiversity loss’ by Chatham House.

Yet the next 12 months could also see a new dawn for the world’s food systems. For decades, food has driven issues in public health, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, and 2021 presents a unique opportunity to put things right.

A series of international summits has raised hopes that governments can be catalysed into action in addressing the need to balance our ever-growing food demands against the burden such production can place on the natural world. Alongside that, governments will continue to pump unprecedented levels of public investment into economies recovering from the global pandemic, many in search of a ‘green recovery’.

The big issue is what the roadmap for food systems reform would be. It’s a question the two reports set out to answer.

So what are they proposing? What would those proposals mean for the food sector? And what are the prospects for change?

Tim Benton, research director at Chatham House and its report’s lead author, explains it is the vicious circle of cheap food that has driven many of the problems. The drive for low prices means demand for food has grown. This in turn drove farmers to use ever-more intensive means of production, clearing land and using harmful fertilisers and chemicals. The end result has been immense food waste, an overconsumption of meat, and an accelerating loss of biodiversity, he says.

Tech to help reduce agriculture’s impact
GE/GM crops: Changing the biological capabilities of crops could enable farmers to obtain higher yields on existing farmland, reduce chemical use, and enhance nutritional quality.

Precision agriculture: By using remote sensing, information systems, and embedded machinery, agriculture could become more targeted in its use of inputs, thereby reducing pesticide and fertiliser use.

Vertical farming: The technique aims to reduce pressure on traditional agricultural land by using soil-free growth systems in vertically stacked layers.

Meat analogues: Cellular agriculture and plant-based meat are the two major meat analogues. Both have the potential to reduce land use and environmentally damaging inputs.

Source: The Dasgupta Review

Three solutions
The report proposes three solutions to halt the problem. First, a shift to predominantly plant-based diets to address the “disproportionate impact of animal farming on biodiversity”. Second, restore native ecosystem to enhance biodiversity. And finally, less-intensive farming, using fewer pesticides, fertilisers and monocultures.

While for now organic systems typically yield 34% less food than intensive systems, claims the report, Benton argues this gap would reduce as further investment came into the sector.

Ending a decades-old drive for ever cheaper prices may seem at odds with the current zeitgeist of ferocious supermarket price wars, but Benton argues failure to change will inevitably “end up in a place where everything falls apart”.

“The long-run direction is not good for anybody: consumers, citizens, politicians, increasingly. And it might not be sustainable in the long run for the profit takers, the shareholders and the industry bosses.”

Evidence of this is already emerging. Institutional investors launched a revolt against Tesco this week, demanding the supermarket go further in its fight to tackle obesity. Tesco, they said, had fallen behind other retailers on health and failed to implement any of its ‘nudge policies’ to encourage healthy eating.

While Tesco has launched numerous initiatives in recent years, including former CEO Dave Lewis urging suppliers to slash the price of healthy products in a bid to help the supermarket fight obesity, critics claim these have failed to translate into systemic change.

Benton insists cheap food is not the answer, but rather prices must more accurately reflect each food’s cost on the environment and human health. And though this relies on government policy change on farming subsidies plus interventions to ensure low-income households are not unduly punished, the food industry can show leadership in lobbying for it.

“It is really about changing the politics of food, so it doesn’t immediately become toxic for a politician to say ‘food prices are too low’,” he says. “And while it may seem to come at a cost, it doesn’t actually, because you’ll save money on the health service and environment.”

The Dasgupta review, commissioned by the Treasury, lends weight to such an argument. It suggests the depletion of natural resources must now be included in the government’s economic assessments. Such a shift could likely have knock-on effects for food prices, pushing some businesses to increasingly incorporate the environmental costs of food production.

The ideas are not without their critics. Prince Charles this week suggested vocabulary such as biodiversity, agroforestry and natural capital was at risk of becoming so “obscure” it could in fact hinder efforts to combat climate change.

Simple reform
Tim Mead, owner of Yeo Valley, echoed the sentiment, stressing food system reform is at its heart very simple. “It’s about us as human beings making conscious choices to choose a wide range of products, whether it’s dairy, meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts or seeds. If we have a completely varied diet we will be much better off,” he says.

When it comes to encouraging dietary change, Mead argues government should take the lead. The UK currently spends over £2.4bn on food for hospitals, schools, and prisons each year, and the government has previously vowed to “‘Buy British’ to support our farmers and reduce environmental costs” once free of EU rules.

“If the government wanted to, it could set a standard for public procurement that would set an example and begin to drive the change towards regenerative farming,” Mead says.

While Boris Johnson has shown few signs of reforming public procurement so far, he has been clear on setting out his green objectives, including placing a carbon reduction blueprint at the heart of his strategy for this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.

Plans could include new carbon taxes, suggested a leaked Whitehall memo last week, meaning carbon-intensive foods like beef, lamb, and cheese could soon be more expensive at tills.

Industry reaction was mixed. Andrew Kuyk, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, says that while COP26 “provides a clear opportunity for us all to explore innovative thinking”, this must be done “at a system level and in the context of a comprehensive UK food strategy, rather than through isolated initiatives such as new taxes”.

If all goes to the plan, the blueprint for our future food systems will be slightly clearer by the end of this year, but in reality, change will require deep collaboration between government, industry, and the public – a major challenge in itself.

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