Food security is looming large as an issue at the Rio+20 summit. So what does the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs think should be done to tackle it? And what role can the food industry play? Caroline Spelman responds to Green Futures.
What are the big challenges facing the food sector – and how can Rio help?
By 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water, and this will all need to be produced without further damaging the environment. Many systems of food production are unsustainable – which compromises the world’s capacity to produce food in the future. That is why at Rio I’ll be calling for a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on food security and sustainable agriculture, in order to galvanise international and domestic efforts to deliver a more sustainable global food and agricultural system. It’s important to remember that Rio+20 is not just an environmental conference, it’s about creating a framework for more sustainable global growth.
How strong is the business case for sustainability in the food sector?
There is a clear link between businesses becoming more sustainable and becoming more profitable. UK businesses could save around £23bn a year through low cost improvements in the way they use materials, energy and water. International agreement [at Rio] on such key issues such as food, water and energy security will be of great value to the UK food industry. It will create new investment opportunities, allowing the industry to showcase its leadership on sustainability issues, and provide greater transparency in how companies report on sustainability. I want to work closely with the industry to show the rest of the world the expertise we can bring to the table.
What more should the government be doing to help the food industry become genuinely sustainable? Is there a need for more regulation or fiscal incentives / penalties – or will mere voluntary initiatives be enough?
We need to make it easier for people to do the right thing. We have seen how successful voluntary agreements, such as the Courtauld Commitment to reduce waste, can drive behaviour change across the food chain, helping businesses save money and become more sustainable. The Government is making regulation more efficient, but there are areas where we can help signpost what is being done on sustainability, such as through labelling. Businesses can help themselves by providing credible information, demonstrating that they are acting responsibly…and helping to steer the market towards greener products.
At the end of the day, do we have to choose between taking steps to boost economic growth and ones to protect the environment?
No. Economic growth and protecting the environment work hand-in-hand. I believe increasing food production and driving economic growth can be balanced with protecting the environment. That is why we are pressing hard for Sustainable Development Goals at Rio+20.
Caroline Spelman is UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
This article is an advance extract from the up-coming Green Futures Special Edition: 'The Future of Food', which will be published in June 2012.