East Anglia at heart of major Government food study

Looking at the challenges the United Kingdom faces in the next 50 to 100 years, there are not many more fundamental than working out how we feed ourselves.

The number of people in the UK and the world is rising; the United Nations predicts global population will spill over nine billion by 2050 from seven billion today.

Meanwhile there is only a finite amount of land, meaning we need to work out how to produce an ever increasing amount of food on it, without damaging it for future use or wrecking the natural environment.

It was this massive and fundamental challenge, affecting everyone from the farmer who sows seeds in his field to the consumer who pours milk in his tea, which led the government to publish a ‘white paper’ last year aiming to bring together all groups involved in food production to come up with the answers.

Amongst those involved in what has become known as the Green Food Project were the government, the National Farmers’ Union, WWF UK, the RSPB, the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation.

Today it published its first report mapping out the challenges the country faces and taking a few tentative steps towards finding solutions. It reads: “We know that our conclusions are not comprehensive, and many of the challenges we need to get to grips with cannot be fixed easily in the short term.

“But the project is part of an evolving process of discussion that will shape policy and decision making. It is a foundation on which we will build as we work jointly together going forward.”

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But in assessing the challenges facing the country a ‘sub-group’ of the Green Food Project also undertook a more focused investigation of specific challenges facing parts of East Anglia, revealing some concerning insights.

The sub-group concentrated on looking at north west and central Norfolk and the north Norfolk coast, characterising them collectively as an area producing a significant amount food and with a farming industry employing some 2,500 people over 121,000 hectares of farmland.

The area, the sub-group noted, is also home to the protected natural habitats of rare plant and bird species and of areas of outstanding natural beauty which attracts thousands of tourists.

The sub-group’s report first highlighted how climate change would impact on Norfolk farmers as they attempted to turn-out ever larger amounts of food to meet demand.

In the East of England by 2050 mean temperature in winter is predicted to jump by 2.2 degrees celsius and in summer, by 2.5 degrees, the report says.

The sub group highlighted that in the same time frame Norfolk’s average rainfall in winter is predicted to jump by 14pc and in summer to fall by 17pc, leading to a long dry season, meanwhile there will be more frequent extreme weather events.

As a result of those changes, the sub-group said, farmers will have to account for reduced soil moisture levels, increased soil erosion and new pests and diseases. Meanwhile a key problem farmers in Norfolk would have to grapple with would be water supply.

The report read: “The Anglian region as a whole has the worst water quality of all river basin districts in England and Wales. It has the least number of water bodies reaching the required good status and will also have the lowest number of water bodies achieving good status by 2015.

“There are a number of impacts causing these failures, with agricultural diffuse pollution known to be important in this region. Anglian Water, the water company who manage this river basin district, will invest �6.82m between 2010 and 2015 on nitrate removal, UV pesticide treatment and catchment management.”

To mitigate this, the sub-group’s report suggests better schemes to encourage farmers to protect environment

Meanwhile to improve productivity it suggest using better technology and scientific innovation, adding more organic matter to soil and using more effective crop rotation systems.

All of these points were then fed back into the recommendations outlined in the main Green Food Project document published yesterday, which outlined areas where steps needed to be taken.

In particular the report highlighted the ongoing need for more research investment into specific areas, such as soil science, and praised the recent government promise to pump �250m into life-sciences research institutes including �90m to those at the Norwich Research Park.

A key recommendation in the project report sees the government pledge to develop a research programme that brings together work on the environmental, social and economic impacts of farming, and to set up a ‘Leadership Council’ to coordinate that research.

Meanwhile the document also pledges that work will be commissioned to explore fluctuations in world food prices.

MP George Freeman, the government’s life sciences advisor said: “Significantly this report also backs those of us who have been calling for a UK strategy for agricultural science in which the government works with a leadership council to identify specific actions parties can take to unlock investment.”

The Green Food Project’s steering group will also oversee a probe into the barriers faced by young people entering the farming industry and to promote apprenticeship opportunities.

The document concludes that investment by the government and by groups at all parts of the food supply chain will be crucial for the farming industry’s future; a point underlined by NFU president Peter Kendall, who sits on the steering group.

He said: “The [Green Food Project] is not quite the end of the journey but it is a significant body of work that identifies the key issues that will need to be addressed by government, industry and other stakeholders.

“We now have some clear actions to move forward with.

He added: “It pushes us to think smarter about knowledge exchange. Stimulating investment is critical if [the government] is to consider how it can better support a more competitive, resilient industry.”

As well as pledging to explore better ways of managing food waste and the consumption habits of future generations, the study report said the Green Food Project’s steering group would look at how to manage landscape better to protect wildlife.

RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: “The Green Food Project is an important first step towards working out what England’s contribution should be to help food production become more sustainable and shared more equitably.

“We need to be thinking and planning at the landscape scale to get the most from our land and stay within environmental limits; both within England and globally.”