The UK does not currently have the basic science base to deliver more sustainable food production practices, a new report warns.

Sustainable Food, a report by a group of cross-party MPs, said the government must take a more active role in directing research to ensure we have the science base to deliver food security and sustainability.

The government must do more to train more agricultural and food scientists, according to the report published on Sunday (13 May).

“Relying on markets to identify and to direct where this research is needed, and on sufficient scale, is likely to fail…” says the report.

“The government must be prepared to intervene with universities, colleges and research council to develop incentives for them to train more agricultural food scientists.

“It must also take a more active role in directing the Technology Strategy Board and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to focus on research on sustainable food production.”

Food waste

The committee heard evidence that GM crops could be “part of the solution in achieving food sustainability”. But it pointed out that tackling food waste might be an easier way to address food shortages.

Currently, about 30% of food grown globally is lost or wasted. And the committee said that tackling food waste “remained the largest single issue across the whole of the supply chain”.

“The government must ensure that there is sufficient funding available for all councils to be able to make sufficiently regular and separated food collections, to help develop a healthy anaerobic digestion sector,” it added.

GM crops

The MPs called on the government to establish “an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system”.

“An initial focus of such research should be on the scope for, and risks of, the co-existence of GM crops with conventional and organic farming regimes,” the report says.

But committee chairwoman Joan Walley added: “Until there is clear public acceptance of GM and it is proven to be beneficial, the government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas.”

The committee report also warned that the current government has no overarching food strategy in place.

It said an independent body must be established to research and report on the potential impact of GM crops on the environment, farming and global food system.

It added that DEFRA’s Green Food Project, due to be published in June, examines only part of the food system.

And the government’s focus on “sustainable intensification” – the need to produce more from less – risks “damaging the environment and society” as well as ignoring the wider social and health implications of how we grow, trade and consume food in the UK.

Ms Walley said: “Our food system is failing… the government is understandably sceptical about anything that seems like nanny-statism, but the evidence is clear – intervention is needed to tackle obesity and fix our food system.

“In many cases, reducing environmental impacts and getting people to eat more healthily can be achieved in tandem.”

Committee recommendations:

  • food skills such as cooking and gardening on the school curriculum
  • stricter limits on advertising of junk food on all media including the internet
  • national planning policy guidance to give communities access to healthy food and land to grow produce
  • government buying standards on food to be extended to cover hospitals, prisons and schools
  • change the Office of Fair Trading’s remit to allow supermarkets to co-operate on sustainability initiatives
  • simple and consistent labelling on sustainability of food products

DEFRA insisted it was trying to boost food production at less environmental cost.

“We spend £400m a year on agriculture and food research, we’re close to publishing the ambitious Green Food Project to make the whole food chain as sustainable as possible,” a spokeswoman said.

“We’re also pushing hard for food security to be high on the agenda at Rio +20 [UN sustainable development summit in Brazil] next month.”