Ensuring food security is just as important to the UK’s future as its energy supply, environment secretary Hilary Benn told farmers today (5 January).

Launching governmental food strategy goals for the next 20 years at the Oxford Farming Conference today (5 January), Benn told delegates that the country needs to produce more food sustainably to respond to mounting environmental challenges and help provide food for a growing world population.

“We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves. There are challenges for everyone involved in the food system, from production right through to managing food waste,” Benn said.

“We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now.”

Farming and food businesses contribute more than GBP80bn to the economy and represent the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing 3.6m people, according to figures from Defra.

The Government plans to develop a “meanwhile” lease to formalise arrangements between landowners and voluntary groups by encouraging people to set up temporary allotments or community gardens on land awaiting development or other permanent use. It is also considering establishing a “land bank” to broker better links and ensure plots are not left idle.

Benn said that “people power” could help bring about a revolution in the way food is produced and sold, adding that food businesses, including supermarkets and food manufacturers, would follow consumer demand for food that is local, healthy and has been produced with a smaller environmental footprint.

“A decade ago, only 16% of eggs produced in the UK were free range. In the last ten years that’s more than doubled to just under 40%. Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and the Co-operative Group now sell only free-range or organic eggs. And with the UK 80% self-sufficient in free-range eggs this is a great example of how our farmers have responded to what consumers want, to the benefit of both.”