As a bit of a foodie, I wanted to go along to learn from the experts. I was certainly in the right place – the debate was hosted by Sir Ben Gill CBE, chairman of Visit Herefordshire and panel members included Anthea McIntyre MEP, Jenny Barnes, Area Committee Chair at The Co-operative, Russell Carrington of Transition Farming and John Thorley OBE, Red Tractor Assurance Beef and Lamb Board.
And so what did I learn? Well, I learned there are no easy answers! It was a complicated and wide-ranging debate that was both fascinating and frightening. Here are some of the issues that gave me food for thought.
If bio-fuels are the answer to dwindling oil reserves, should farmers be growing food or fuel?
Biofuels are often seen as an alternative to petrol and diesel. But biofuels need land to grow on – land that could also be used for growing food. So what should farmers grow? Food or fuel? Or should more farmers start to think in the same way as one of the panel members, Charlie Beldam of Cotswold Gold? The best of the oil from his oilseed rape crop goes into his cold-pressed rapeseed oil. The remainder goes for animal feed or bio-fuel. He also collects his used oil from commercial operations to be processed and used as bio-diesel. In short, he’s a zero waste company that believes in food and fuel not food vs fuel.
How do we feed a growing world population?
The world population is not just growing bigger, it’s also growing richer. And the richer we are, the more meat we eat. But when a kilogram of beef requires seven kilograms of feed to produce, is it time to change our habits? Or can smart agriculture or GM foods provide an alternative? I was surprised just how open the panel was to GM foods. When someone raised the subject I was expecting widespread derision. Far from it: putting in place lots of caveats about testing, there was general acceptance that GM foods might be “one of the tools in the toolkit” as one panel member put it.
As fuel prices go up, how will they affect food prices?
The price of petrol is something we all complain about. But rising fuel costs also mean rising food costs. At the moment, a strawberry grown in, say, Morocco, costs roughly the same as a strawberry grown in Herefordshire. With prices like that, it’s easy to see why supermarkets say that consumers demand year-round strawberries / green beans / asparagus. Will consumers still demand them when prices don’t compare? Will rising fuel prices bring back seasonal eating and decrease our reliance on imported produce?
There was also some interesting debate in the role of supermarkets around the issue of food miles. Jenny Barnes of The Cooperative spoke about her supermarket’s concern over their transport hubs. We all know the story: apples grown in Herefordshire are transported to a central distribution hub miles away before being transported back to Herefordshire supermarkets. She said they recognised that was a weakness that needed to be addressed, not least because of the popularity of the local food movement.
She also made the observation that having only a few centralised distribution hubs made them – and us as consumers – very vulnerable to the food supply being stopped if they were blockaded or if a fuel crisis went on too long. I found that a genuinely shocking prospect.
Do we need to be more responsible consumers?
It was clear that ensuring food security will need a coordinated effort from everyone in the food industry from farmers to shops to government. But we as consumers have a part to play too. For example, we waste, on average, 20% of the food we buy. That’s a figure that could only exist in the developed world, where we have enough food to be able to waste it. Small things like cutting down what we waste could make a big difference to food security globally because we’ll be consuming what we need and no more.
If I learned one thing from this debate it was that we have just as important a role as government, businesses and organisations in ensuring the world has enough to eat both now and in the future. And as most of the panel agreed, most of the power lies with the consumer: we are the ones who can drive change.
A shorter version of this blog appeared on page 24 of the July edition of Ledbury Focus.