Business as usual is not an option, says Andrew Kuyk of the Food and Drink Federation. So what solutions should the food industry seek out?
If there's one thing that strikes me as I read through the findings of the Global Food and Farming Futures report, it's the sheer complexity of food security. Painstakingly researched, Global Futures seems quite balanced in its message. But anyone hoping for a tidy list of key actions for organisations and policymakers will be disappointed. There are no quick fixes, no 'one size fits all' solutions, says the report, which was commissioned by the UK Government to explore the increasing pressures on the global food system between now and 2050. Simply avoiding meat, or going organic, won't cut it – and nor will more controversial proposals, like genetic modification, though they could all play a part.
What the report asks us to accept is that business as usual is no longer an option.
We'd be fools to underestimate the scale of the challenge we face. Simply put, we have to produce more food to feed a growing world population, while at the same time using fewer natural resources. Unless we find a way to do this, we risk significant disruption to vital ecosystems, and more climate change. But if we're going to have any chance of rising to the challenge, a lot will have to change.
So what does this mean for food producers in the UK? For a start, we need a clearer understanding of what 'sustainable food' really is. Take the common assumption that 'local' is always best. It doesn't apply if you end up emitting more CO2 to grow something in the UK, rather than in a warmer climate – even taking transport emissions into account. 'Seasonal' can also be misleading, as virtually everything is in season somewhere on the planet at any one time.
The answer has to be a proper life-cycle approach. We have to look at how resources are used across the supply chain, from farmer to retailer – and by consumers, too.
In a recent interview, I was challenged as to whether population growth was in fact good for food businesses. More people equates to more demand, which in turn means more opportunity for profit. It's a logical argument, but it has its limitations. A simplistic capitalist approach such as this fails to take onboard how businesses in the food sector are responding to the issue of sustainability and why it matters to us.
As Unilever CEO Paul Polman said at the 2011 City Food Lecture, his company "requires a stable environment and a continuous supply of raw materials to survive and grow". Of course growth is key, but it is no longer a case of choosing between sustainability and the bottom line: the food businesses of the future must deliver both.
So how should they go about it, and where can they look for solutions?
Industry-wide initiatives such as our Five-fold Environmental Ambition – which has supported UK food manufacturers in reducing their CO2 emissions by 21% against a 1990 baseline – are a step in the right direction. But more must be done.
Global Futures argues strongly for a joined up approach – across the food supply chain and in policy. This is something the Food and Drink Federation has been advocating for some time. As the voice of UK food manufacturers, we have long made the case for Government to understand the economic and strategic importance of food, and to take a long-term view of the challenges facing the sector.
The report is timely. Ministers will use it to influence discussions on global food security at the forthcoming G20 meeting, and it will inform the UK's position on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy. We agree with the emerging view within Defra that we need to move away from the CAP to develop a long-term 'Common Sustainable Food Policy' for Europe. But quite how we will achieve that in the context of the EU political framework remains unclear.
There's much unrealised potential for science to make a positive contribution, offering solutions from fuel-efficient tractors to bio-technology. Global Futures recognises this, and stresses that we must stay open to all options, and scrutinise them in free and unbiased debate.
Perhaps the most valuable thing the report offers is a sound platform for business leaders and policy makers to discuss the best ways to deliver food security. And a good dose of political clout for a catalyst.
Andrew Kuyk is Director of Sustainability at the Food and Drink Federation
The Food and Drink Federation
is a Forum for the Future partner.
Image credit: Eric Michaud / istock