Dr Frances Cossar (co-authored with Prof. Dominic Moran, Prof. Mark Rounsevell, Dr Peter Alexander, and Dr Roslyn Henry), University of Edinburgh – Written evidence (FPO0005)
- This evidence has been co-authored by a group of researchers at the University of Edinburgh and its Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security who work on land use and food security issues. We offer observations informed by some of our recent research, as well as other UK research, on questions 9, 10, 11 and 13 of the Call for Evidence. Our insights are largely derived from our current research project - Resilience of the UK Food System to Global Shocks (RUGS) (BB/N020545/2)– funded through the Global Food Security's 'Resilience of the UK Food System Programme', with support from BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and The Scottish Government. The project focuses on UK food systems in the context of global trends and patterns of demand, supply, and trade in agricultural products, particularly with attention to environment and climate change, and shocks to global production and trade.
- Summary of research project: An increasing global population needs more food, fuel and shelter than ever before, with changing demand shifting production towards commodities that are more land intensive to supply. The interconnected nature of the global food system means local shocks or changes can cause impacts in other regions. The RUGS project aims to better understand where food supply chains are vulnerable and where they show resilience, and to identify actions that could help the UK to mitigate or adapt to these events. The project looks at how the global food system deals with shocks and changes, and will develop our understanding of the impact that these events have on the UK food system. The project has engaged with stakeholders to identify a range of shocks that could plausibly impact upon the global food system, and will continue to co-evolve knowledge with these stakeholders through the rest of the project. We have also presented interim results during a meeting with DEFRA/FSA (December 2018) and will be delivering a seminar at Scottish Government in late 2019/early 2020.
[Call Question 9] To what extent is it possible for the UK to be self-sufficient in producing healthy, affordable food that supports good population health, in a way that is also environmentally sustainable?
- Why might self-sufficiency be desirable? Self-sufficiency could be seen as a ways to reduce the global environmental impact of UK consumption (Blandford et al., 2018). If UK consumption is only from domestic production, then we may be better able to control the environmental impact. Currently, the UK diet is firmly situated within a global food system. For example, USA and Brazil have been the main producers of soybeans in recent years, a major imported source of animal feed in the UK, as well as many other countries. China has become the main global importer of soybeans, driven by its growing demand for pigmeat. The ongoing trade war between USA and China has the potential to push soybean production to Brazil, where expansion of agricultural land into the fragile Cerrado and Amazon biomes has historical precedence (Fuchs et al., 2019). This example is one illustration of the interconnected nature of our food supply chains, and the global environmental consequences of the UK diet. A second reason for self-sufficiency may be to reduce the vulnerability of the UK food system to shocks in the global production and trade of agricultural commodities.
- It may technically be feasible for the UK to produce enough food, in terms of calories, to sustain the population. However, we do not know of any rigorous research that has shown this feasibility either way, nor the environmental implications, or type of diet which could be supplied. For such a shift to also meet the goals of a healthy diet, that is affordable, and environmentally sustainable is unlikely. We explore evidence from our recent research which can help our understanding of these trade-offs.
- Is it technically feasible to increase UK production? In 2018, utilized agricultural land took up 71% of UK’s total land area (ONS 2018). In the same year, 47% of UK food consumed was imported (ONS 2018). To move the UK food system to ‘self-sufficiency’ (i.e. no imports) would require considerable changes to production. Increasing domestic production would necessarily involve either a) increased intensification with attendant environmental impacts, or b) area expansion, which would lead to the degradation of semi-natural and forested land. Land area expansion would largely be into marginal land with lower productivity, so the production benefits would be diminishing. To our knowledge, this scenario has not been seriously researched or modelled to consider the changes to production and diet which would be required to achieve self-sufficiency. Assuming an increase in production would be into less productive land, the implication would be that the average cost of food production would rise, and healthy diets (particularly fruit and vegetables) becoming less affordable for some in society.
- Can the UK produce a healthy diet? Our diets are healthier and more diverse due to the range of fruits, vegetables, and other imported products that cannot be produced in the UK due to soil and climate conditions. Furthermore, by connecting to global markets we overcome the seasonality of food production. In many isolated markets in developing countries, households and communities continue to struggle in lean seasons before the annual harvest. A connection to global trade offers employment opportunities that can overcome this seasonality. As mentioned above, even if it were technically feasible to produce all UK food domestically, the UK is not the most efficient location to produce many of the foods we eat. For example, non-native fruits and vegetables would require production methods that are highly resource-intensive, and therefore more expensive and environmentally damaging to produce in the UK compared to elsewhere in the world. In this way, the cost of food in the UK would likely rise with the average cost of food production if self-sufficiency were imposed. It would also create a greater environmental burden.
- Would a self-sufficient UK diet be environmentally sustainable? The current average UK diet is more land-using in its production than the average diet of most countries in the world. To illustrate the global land use implications of diets, Alexander et al. (2016) look at the agricultural land use requirements if the global population were to adopt the current average diet for USA or India (which lie towards but not at global consumption extremes). Hypothetically, if the world were to adopt the average Indian diet, 55% less agricultural land would be needed to satisfy demand, while global consumption of the average USA diet would necessitate 178% more land. The types of food commodities consumed are more important than the quantity of per-capita consumption in determining the agricultural land requirement, largely due to the impact of animal products and in particular ruminant species. The percentage of the UK diet from animal products has declined from around 37% in 1960, to 30% in 2010. Over the same period, the per capita intake of energy has increased but the source of energy has shifted away from animal products. The result is a decline the land area required to produce the average UK diet (see also: de Ruiter et al., 2017). However, the UK diet is more similar to the US diet than that of the average Indian diet. The consequence is that the current UK diet is highly land-using. For the UK diet to improve its environmental sustainability, a considerable shift away from animal products would be needed. However, the current UK agriculture sector is concentrated in animal production: in 2018, total value of livestock output was £14,800 million, compared to £9,388 million for crop output (some of which is used for animal feed) (ONS, 2019).
- An alternative pathway to self-sufficiency? The motivation behind a move to self-sufficiency may be to protect the UK food system from external shocks and volatility. We would argue that managing volatility, intrinsic to weather-dependent agricultural production, is better achieved through being connected to the global food system. Furthermore, locating production of UK food in the UK, is not necessarily the most environmentally sustainable allocation of production globally. Some areas of the world are more efficient and have lower environmental impact in producing certain products compared to the UK.
8.1 Recent evidence indicates that the food security of UK households is relatively well protected from volatility in global agricultural markets. The global food price spikes observed over 2006-2011 are a recent example of volatility in the global agricultural system. This period provides insight into how disturbances in global supply may affect UK households and food security. Over 2007-08, global prices of agricultural commodities such as rice, maize, wheat, and soybean increased by over 40%, and more than doubled for rice (OECD-FAO, 2019). The spike was attributed to a combination of weather events, rising biofuel demand, and export restrictions that exacerbated the price shock. These shocks fed through to higher prices for households across the world and shortages of food staples and civil unrest occurred in several developing countries. For the UK, food price inflation rose to 10% in 2008 with the rise driven by prices of bread & cereals, meat, milk, cheese & eggs, and oils and fats. Inflation fell the following year, and the overall inflation rate rose from 2.3% in 2007, to 3.6% in 2008. Global price volatility was felt in the UK, but the consequences were far more muted than elsewhere in the world. On average, UK households did not suffer under consumption in terms of no of calories during this period. However, food insecurity due to short-term disruptions to a household’s ability to afford or access food has not been regularly measured in the UK, therefore we may be missing some of the picture.
8.2 The limited impact of global food price volatility is in part explained by the structure of the UK food sector. Firstly, good competitive behaviour with the food retail sector means that retailers often absorb volatility in input prices without passing on to final consumers, particularly when the price shock is expected to be short-lived. Secondly, agricultural commodities are only a small fraction of the production costs for final consumer food products. The marketing, processing, and other costs are just as important in determining final consumer food prices. In their study of the issue, Davidson et al. (2016) find that UK food retail prices are affected by global commodity prices, but no more so than by exchange rates and oil prices.
8.3 However, such an analysis relies upon observed episodes of price and production volatility. Food retailers and others may not be so likely to absorb price shocks when they are driven by more long-lasting disruptions to policy, trade, subsidies, or infrastructure. By participating in global trade, the UK is able to diversify its spatial sourcing of food products, thereby spreading the risk of production and supply shocks. Future trade policy should enable the UK food sector to maintain diverse trade links globally, in order to allow for diversity in where our food is imported from.
[Call Question 10] Can efforts to improve food production sustainability simultaneously offer solutions to improving food insecurity and dietary health in the UK? Inequality + public health + sustainability activities
- From our viewpoint, the biggest gains to achieve improved public health and sustainability would be to focus on consumption rather than production. As discussed in the following paragraphs, there is more scope to transform production sustainability through changing the diet which is demanded by consumer. The sustainability and efficiency of food production for the current diets can only bring limited improvements in meeting dietary health and sustainability objectives. Shifting diets towards less animal production has been shown again and again to have great potential to increase overall production sustainability by changing the foods being produced.
- Transformation of the UK, and global, food system towards sustainability, food security, and dietary health can be an overwhelming task for policy, with no single action promising to satisfy all objectives. Recent work by Alexander et al. (2019) explores the combined impacts of implementing 29 diverse changes in the food system that have the potential to reduce agricultural land use, such as production efficiency, reducing losses, and shifting diets. From these estimations, the global land area for food production could be reduced by up to 37% if a combination of marginal improvements were made to the current global food system. For Europe and the UK, much of the gains were to be found in changing consumer choices, rather than improvements in production and supply chains (Alexander et al. 2019).
- The relatively high land use and greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant meat production have focussed attention on reducing meat consumption in order to improve the environmental sustainability of the food system. Our research has considered the land use and environmental implications of alternative sources of protein, namely: insects (mealworm and crickets), cultured meat, imitation meat (e.g. tofu), and aquaculture (Tilapia and Carp) (Alexander et al., 2017). Healthy diets still require consumption of protein-rich foods, therefore reduction of meat consumption cannot be considered a solution for sustainability and dietary health, without considering alternative sources of protein. By switching at least half of calorie and protein intake from current global diet, to any of these alternative sources, total global cropland and pasture hectares would remain below 2011 levels, and in fact is associated with a fall in total agricultural land use. These meat alternatives have a much higher land use efficiency without sacrificing diet quality in terms of major nutrients (calories and protein), nor micronutrients. Although these calculations were focused on global diets and food production, in part given the UK’s reliance on imports, the findings have relevance in the UK.
- In fact, there has been little research on the intersection of inequality and food insecurity in the UK, and moves towards more environmentally sustainable and healthy diets. There have been some findings that the price of healthy foods in the UK have been consistently higher than unhealthy foods over 2002-2012 (Jones et al. 2014). There is need to have a greater understanding of the household-level impacts of policies and interventions at the food-system scale.
[Call Question 11] How effective are any current measures operated or assisted by Government, local authorities, or others to minimise food waste? What further action is required to minimise food waste?
- Focus on food waste can often be on losses of food, and more importantly for quality diets, loss of nutrients through consumer waste, i.e. between purchase and consumption of food. We have analysed losses throughout the food system from production, handing, transport and processing to consumer waste, through to nutrient losses from over-consumption (Alexander et al. 2017). From our global estimates, most of the losses in the food system occur in livestock production in terms of mass, energy, and protein. Loss of protein due to over-consumption is 26.6% of total protein loss in the food system, whilst consumer waste accounts for only 8.6%. Such calculations can help to focus the attention of policy, research, and innovation on sectors and stages of the food production system to increase efficiency and reduce losses throughout the food system. Calculations for the UK specifically were not carried out, but for Europe, consumer waste and over-consumption rates were highest for production of cereals (25%), fruits and vegetables (19%), and roots & tubers (17%). The loss rates are generally lower than North America & Oceania, but higher than the average for other regions in the world.
[Call Question 13] Has sufficient research been conducted to provide a robust analysis of the links between poverty, food insecurity, health inequalities and the sustainability of food production? How well is existing research on the impact of existing food policy used to inform decision making?
- In the course of our research, we have been looking at existing data and measures of household food security for the UK. There are extensive and regular data collection through the Living Cost and Food Survey (LCFS), and the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), carried out by ONS. These provide good data on average household consumption, expenditure, and nutritional content of food. However, the methodology they use obscures important aspects of food insecurity and thus weakens the academic community’s ability to comprehensively study food insecurity in the UK, and its links to poverty, health, inequality, and sustainability.
- The LCFS and NDNS rely upon households completing a diary of their food consumption or food purchases over a set period (usually 2 weeks). However, food insecurity often occurs as a household or members of the households skipping meals on some days in the month (e.g. before payday), or a few weeks in the year. When looking at LCFS and NDNS datasets, these disruptions are not visible. Regular measurement of food insecurity should be built into the data collection work of ONS, following survey tools used elsewhere for measuring food insecurity in high-income countries (e.g. US Department of Agriculture 10-item Adult Food Security module). These issues are discussed in Loopstra et al. (2019). Data on food bank use is increasingly being collected, but cannot provide a nationally representative and independent measure of the prevalence of food insecurity.
- In early 2019 the EAT-Lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems conducted analysis to quantitatively describe a ‘diet for planetary health’ (Willet et al., 2019). This healthy reference diet was designed to improve human health while remaining sustainable, keeping the food system within environmentally safe operating space. The environmentally safe operating space is a space defined by boundaries that ensures the stability of the earth system. The EAT-Lancet diet is based on increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and decreasing consumption of unhealthy foods such as processed and red meat and sugar. However, the publication of the report was controversial with many critics questioning the one size fits all approach. In particular, a single set of global dietary recommendations may not be nutritionally adequate for certain populations. Furthermore, western biases overlook potentially positive aspects from animal product production and consumption in developing countries. In impoverished regions, livestock represent an important asset (as a source of farm power and status) or even a vital livelihood security during frequent droughts and periods of economics or political instability. Global targets may also miss the intricacies of local policy and implementing such changes may not be particularly feasible depending on governance and individual preferences. While the EAT-Lancet diet is an interesting concept at a global scale and highlights the need for healthy and sustainable food choices, more research on the links between human health and the sustainability of the food system is required to address the afore mentioned gaps.
- For the UK specifically, more research could be done to understand the welfare and food security impacts of adopting a ‘sustainable’ diet. What would a ‘sustainable’ diet look like for the UK, and which parts of society would gain or lose from the policies required to shift diets?
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Dr Frances Cossar (co-authored with Prof. Dominic Moran, Prof. Mark Rounsevell, Dr Peter Alexander, and Dr Roslyn Henry), University of Edinburgh.
30 August 2019