Caroline Spelman’s speech the stakeholder launch of the Foresight report, “A problem with food…”

Caroline Spelman’s speech the stakeholder launch of the Foresight report, “A problem with food…”

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman

This is a timely and invaluable report. Although it’s telling us something we already know. That we have a problem with food. It’s a problem we know about but have, largely, failed to act on. Although there are many organisations, public, private and voluntary, working hard to identify actions and galvanise us all. So what is this problem? It’s that the dramatic increase in global food production over the past 40 years is marred by two big failures.

  1. that nearly a billion of the world’s people are still hungry;
  2. that food production methods are polluting the environment and using up our natural resources.

These two issues - hunger and environmental degradation - are intrinsically linked. So we must act on them both - and we must act now. Because, as the report clearly and chillingly shows, a growing population and the pressures of climate change mean our food problem is going to get bigger. In fact it’s already getting bigger.

Dramatic weather events are already destroying crops. Food systems are already failing. In the past couple of weeks the US has cut its forecasts for key crops, sending prices soaring. In the Middle East, Jordon, Morocco and Libya have all put curbs on food prices, after a wave of violent protests. And in India the cabinet has met to discuss how to tackle the hoarding of onions.

This is the report that must not gather dust. Business as usual will result in catastrophe. We must act now, and we must act together. We all have a part to play. So what do we need to do? We must grow more food, at less cost to the environment. Governments in the developed world must help farmers to adopt sustainable intensification methods.  And developed nations must disseminate these methods to help poorer nations build farming practices that will provide abundant food in perpetuity.

In developing countries, access to knowledge and technology, small increases in fertiliser, access to markets and investment in infrastructure could unlock an agricultural revolution. A revolution which would benefit the poorest the most.

This process must not be one-way: it’s imperative that, as we invest and educate, we also listen and learn.

In 2002, as shadow international development secretary, I visited Malawi. Tens of thousands of people had fled the war in neighbouring Mozambique - an already hungry country now had its back against the wall. In the first year of its famine, Malawi received grain grown in other countries. This depressed local markets, shrank rural incomes pushed more people towards starvation.

In the second year, Malawi’s farmers received money to buy seeds and invest in future harvests. But with hungry families, it’s not surprising that most of this money was spent on food.

And in the third year, we decided to listen properly. And, having listened, we developed a system that worked.

Malawi is Africa’s agricultural success story. It hasn’t suffered famine since. Listening to local knowledge, understanding the pressures that drive behaviour, are vital to ensuring the support we give actually works.

What else? We must manage price volatility. We must build trust and cooperation, and ensure greater transparency about food stocks. And we must open up markets. We must boost trade, and ensure that the benefits of increased trade are felt by everyone; by making reforms that help the poorest, by avoiding trade restrictions at times of scarcity, by removing distorting and environmentally harmful subsidies, and by ensuring all costs to the environment are paid for.

I am determined that the UK will show international leadership on these vital actions. We are working hard in Europe to rebalance the environmental and economic objectives of both CAP and CFP. And, through the EU we are working towards a genuinely pro-poor conclusion to the Doha Development Round.

The Foresight report estimates that a third of the world’s food is currently being wasted; so halving food waste would be the same as increasing food production in 2050 by 25 percent.

Post harvest waste in the developing world could be dramatically reduced by investing in infrastructure, better trucks, better roads and better storage facilities.

For developed nations, the infrastructure is already there. But still we waste huge amounts of food. In the UK we already recognize that the amount we waste is not acceptable. With our Love Food Hate Waste campaign, and the Courtauld Commitment, we’re taking this seriously. But more needs to be done. We must showcase what can be achieved, working with other countries and the private sector to share good practice and learn from one another.**

The report shows again and again how everything is connected. We need a global, integrated approach to food security; and it’s essential that we also look beyond the food system.

We need to apply a ‘food security lens’ to poverty and gender, to nature and wildlife, to climate change and energy, to better understand the tensions between policy goals, to spot the synergies, and to fill the gaps.

Land use, for example, will come under pressure not only from food demand, but from demand for biofuels - and from the need to protect wildlife.

Food demand, urbanisation and economic development will drastically increase demand for water, at a time when we’re already using too much. So water conservation strategies must be aligned with food security policies.

At home, the UK government must work in partnership with the whole food chain to increase productivity and competitiveness while protecting the environment and using resources more sustainably. This work is set out in the Structural Reform Plan and is vital to the building of a new, green economy.

The food chain includes consumers of course. They are a vital link. We must empower people to make choices about food that will bring real change. We should do this working with all our partners - the EU, international organisations, schools, charities, industry - to provide clear, trusted information that is consistent worldwide.

The governments of the world are also consumers, with positive choices to make. In the UK we’re determined to make our own food procurement more sustainable; and to encourage other countries to also use their buying power to encourage sustainably produced food.

This is a report that lays down the gauntlet to a whole generation. Our actions now to embed sustainability, preserve ecosystems and secure our food production will be felt down the decades and the centuries.

This is not a challenge for individual nations to tackle in isolation. This is a global challenge, and needs a global response. Individuals, communities, businesses big and small, as well as NGOs and government must work together, at national, European and international levels. As said at the beginning, we all have a part to play.

As I read the report, I remembered a time when I worked for the International Confederation of European Beet Growers. Of spending six weeks in a room in Geneva, working on an international commodity agreement. It was an arduous six weeks, hammering out an agreement, which ultimately failed.

And then a far more recent memory came to me. Of spending five days in a room in Nagoya. They were long, intense, and yes, arduous days - but they were full of energy, passion and political will. And they ended in a major breakthrough.

Inspired by Nagoya, we must work hard to better understand how to meet both our own needs and those of the natural world. We must act, and carefully monitor the effects of our actions, so that we are always able to learn more and adjust our approach.

We can do it. We can, as a world, meet this challenge. Because we are beginning to understand the imperative; because we have the collective will. I and my department will do everything we can to galvanise the actions that will feed the world for the rest of this century and beyond.

Published 24 January 2011