Focus: UK government seeks to engage all in the green food challenge
This week saw the launch of the first report of the UK government's Green Food Project, which aims to bring stakeholders together to seek sustainable solutions to the challenges of food security and climate change. Andrew Kuyk, sustainability director at UK industry body the Food and Drink Federation and a member of the committee behind the project, spoke with Ben Cooper about the project's initial phase.
The fact the UK government chose to launch the initial report of the Green Food Project, its multi-stakeholder sustainable food initiative, at the Great Yorkshire Show, which was abandoned the next day because of torrential rain, would appear poignant.
The UK Met Office has suggested Britain's prolonged bout of wet weather, along with other extreme weather the country is often now experiencing, could be a result of climate change, which is of course central to the challenges discussed in the report.
The Green Food Project follows the publication last year of the Future of Food and Farming, a report by the Foresight government think-tank, and a commitment in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper that government should bring together a wide range of stakeholders to look at the potential tensions created by the need to produce more food and preserve environmental resources.
Through the project, the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has brought together farmers, food manufacturers, retailers, academics and NGOs, in a bid to find mutually agreed solutions to the challenges outlined by Foresight. In addition to looking at farming and food production overall, the first stage in the Green Food Project also looked at certain specific food sectors, namely wheat, dairy, bread and curry.
Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability at the Food and Drink Federation and a member of the Green Food Project Steering Committee, stresses that this first report was not intended to provide definitive solutions. Rather, it identifies eight areas where strategic steps can be taken: research and technology; knowledge exchange; future workforce; investment; effective structures; valuing ecosystem services; land management; and consumption and waste.
Kuyk says it is "encouraging" that, in spite of the differing perspectives of the various stakeholders, there was "broad recognition" on a "clear majority" of the areas identified for action.
The emphasis placed by all stakeholders on issues such as research and technology, knowledge exchange and skills underlines the "public good" case for long-term investment, Kuyk says. The case for that kind of investment "is very clearly made" in the report.
The report's findings also showed many of the answers are already there, Kuyk adds, and the challenge is to ensure they are applied more widely. "It's really about using the best available knowledge, getting smarter with the science, driving resource efficiency. If all producers came up to the standard of the best in terms of resource efficiency and resource protection we'd be a long, long way there. So there's general agreement around that and general agreement that we need greater cooperation across the supply chain, not looking at this in our own individual silos, but looking at supply chains as a whole."
While the references to more contentious technologies, notably GM, had drawn criticism from some campaigners, Kuyk says the report reflects the need for "a genuine, grown-up debate" around new technologies "based on evidence, not prejudice" in order to determine if they have a part to play in meeting the challenges being considered.
Kuyk also believes the emphasis the report places on consumption and waste to be significant. Interestingly, consumption was not within the scope of the report as originally set out, and the fact it has emerged as a critical element is clearly telling. "This isn't something that just concerns farmers or just concerns food manufacturers. Consumers need to be part of this as well."
While consumption is not addressed in great detail, the inter-stakeholder discussion has clearly shown how central it is, and Kuyk stresses consumption issues will be an important focus for the Green Food Project going forward.
"Although it wasn't on the exam paper, clearly it is highly relevant and needs to be looked at, and it wasn't possible within the timeframe of the project to do justice to that," he tells just-food. "So what has been flagged up is that there will be further work on this under the umbrella of the project and under the auspices of the Steering Group to take this forward and look at a number of different aspects." These will include work on waste and diet and nutrition.
The expanding emphasis the Green Food Project will be giving to consumption underlines the parallels with the European Food Consumption and Production Round Table. However, that round table was initiated by the food industry and there have been concerns the agenda has been too industry-led.
Kuyk agrees that the fact that the Green Food Project has been initiated by government and is by definition a multi-stakeholder initiative "owned collectively" is a strength. "This is a genuinely multi-stakeholder collaborative piece of work, and I think that is one of the very important things that does set it apart."
Kuyk also believes Defra's approach puts it ahead of other countries. "I don't see as much evidence of this sort of debate taking place elsewhere, not in the way we're doing it."
With governments being widely criticised around Rio+20 for their lack of action, Kuyk's observation is noteworthy, and he is not the only person to have observed this.
Evan Fraser, senior lecturer in sustainable development at Leeds University and an associate of the Economic and Social Research Council's centre for climate change economics and policy, recently commented in an article in The Yorkshire Post that the UK "is leading the G8 nations with regard to seeking ideas on sustainable food production, and in recognising that we can't go on the way we always have globally".
Regarding Rio+20, Kuyk adds: "There was a very good alignment between the business view and the government view on the UK side going into Rio which was not as conspicuous for many of the other participants."
However, while Defra appears to be winning some plaudits, others have stressed the findings of the report must be followed up by government action. Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association, said the Green Food Project could fail if the government does not "take the lead that industry and the public need it to, particularly on the tough but crucial issues of sustainable consumption".
While the report is somewhat short on tangible action, Kuyk points out this is just the first phase of the Green Food Project, which will be an ongoing process. He also points out that achieving the consensus around the issues that need to be addressed from such a wide stakeholder group was in itself a significant achievement.
In the first phase, "it was necessary to build that cohesion and that degree of collaboration around some stakeholders with very different starting positions," Kuyk says, "and to have done that and got the sign-up for taking this process forward is in itself not a mean achievement."
While he is "sure" that tangible and precise deliverables will follow he concedes that at this stage the timeframes for these continuing pieces of work are yet to be set out. "We don't have a firm timetable but certainly everyone is keen we don't lose the momentum. The commitment to do serious and meaningful pieces of work in a number of areas is very clearly spelled out."
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