Speech by Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP at the Chatham House Conference “Food Security in the 21st Century”, 6 October 2008
I’d like to congratulate Chatham House on their impeccable timing – as immediately after this I am going to the first meeting of the National Economic Council, where we will be discussing the topic of today’s conference.
It has been a turbulent year for the global economy.
A year which has seen:
- increased prices threatening to push 100 million more people deeper into poverty and hunger;
- a doubling in the cost of basic commodities like wheat ;
- food riots in Haiti, Cameroon and Mexico;
- droughts and changing weather conditions hitting yields; and
- energy prices, growing demand for food and feed, and export bans conspiring to push up prices.
Even before this ‘silent tsunami’, as it was dubbed by Josette Sheeran, Head of the World Food Programme, over 900 million people were going hungry each day.
Around the world a child dies every 5 seconds from starvation or malnutrition, while in the UK we throw away £10 billion of food each year.
Amartya Sen put it in these words:
‘It is a tale of two peoples..... A country with a lot of poor people suddenly experiences fast economic expansion, but only half of the people share in the new prosperity. The favoured ones spend a lot of their new income on food, and unless supply expands very quickly, prices shoot up. The rest of the poor now face higher food prices but no greater income, and begin to starve. Tragedies like this happen repeatedly in the world.’
At a time of global economic instability, changes in food prices – and fuel prices – make people’s lives more difficult.
At home, poorer families spend more of their weekly budget on food as prices rise – around 15%. Bread and butter are up by around 70p on 12 months ago. Eggs and cheese cost about 25% more.
But of course, we in the UK are the ‘favoured ones’.
The world’s poorest bear the heavier load, as their very survival each day becomes even harder.
In developing countries, the percentage of income spent on food can reach 90% - not 10% or 15%. And the OECD and FAO say that prices are likely to remain higher in the medium term than they have been over the last decade.
The UK has helped to lead the international response to this crisis. We have already committed some £800 million to assist, including:
- £400m towards agricultural research to increase crop yields;
- £30m to the World Food Programme’s emergency appeal; and
- targeted assistance to the DRC, Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
Urgent investment is needed in African agriculture and social protection to help people cope with price shocks.
That’s why we called on the World Bank to disburse the $1.2 billion Global Food Crisis Response Programme fund as soon as possible, and for $500 million in further contributions to support this programme.
A long-term solution, however, requires long-term, coordinated action. And that’s why we called for the establishment of a Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food to fight food insecurity across the world.
In all countries, it is the government that has the responsibility to ensure food security in an uncertain time.
Of course the future is hard to predict. In the past 40 years or so, and until the recent price rises, we saw a long-term decline in real food prices in the UK. And today the signals are mixed.
Falls in commodity prices can take time to filter through to the supermarket shelves – in part depending on the nature of contract. And for many products, the raw material cost is a small part of the final price.
World cereal production has risen significantly, and prices are now quite a bit lower than they were in the spring.
Oil prices have declined from their peak earlier this summer, but remain volatile.
The fall in the pound has contributed to rising prices here in Britain. And then there’s the weather. But perhaps most important influence of all is demand. Demand for food across the world has increased as people have become better off, and as the world’s population rises. And this is the really big challenge we face.
By 2050, there will be 9 billion of us sharing this fragile planet. That’s the equal to adding another China and another India to the world in just over 40 years. Just think about that for a moment. It’s why the FAO, World Bank and OECD estimate that global food production may need to double by 2050, but it will have to happen at a time when our climate is changing.
Farmers will have to cope with less reliable water supplies and increasingly frequent droughts and floods. So we will have to ensure that this huge increase in production is sustainable. And as well as adapting to climate change, the way we do agriculture will have to ensure that it does not add to the problem. Managing the land and the soil to lock in as much CO2 as possible.
In short, we need to think about where and how we produce our food for the future.
Our food supply will need to be reliable and resilient and able to withstand shocks and crises. So our policy for food security will need to cover the availability, access and affordability of food. In the UK our food supply is currently secure. We have the capacity to produce food in significant quantities. We have trading partners across Europe and beyond.
And there is good public confidence in food safety thanks to the work of the Food Standards Agency.
As you all know, of the foods that can be produced in this country we are currently 74% self-sufficient – a higher proportion than in the 1930s or the 1950s. And I think that where possible, people want food to be produced here in the UK.
But of course self-sufficiency is not the same thing as food security. We are a trading nation. We both export and import food, and of the food we import, the vast majority – about 70% - comes from the EU.
Rather, food security depends – as well as on production - on the ability of our distributors and retailers to get what consumers need onto the shelves, wherever the food comes from.
And our food security cannot be considered in isolation from that of the rest of the world, as the Prime Minister made clear when the Strategy Unit report on food was launched in July.
If protectionism is the answer, someone is asking the wrong question. We need a trading system that is strong, open and global and sustainable. And this depends on getting the level of intervention from government, and from the EU, right.
The Common Agricultural Policy, and agricultural support policies in the US, keep prices high domestically and don’t help poorer countries in the global economy. That is why continuing efforts to agree a WTO deal through the Doha round continue to be so important - despite the recent breakdown we must not give up on that task.
Of course regulation is very important – for safeguarding the natural environment, for example – but sometimes it doesn’t help.
Take the proposed EU regulation on pesticides and the electronic identification of sheep (EID). We are opposing the pesticides proposals in Brussels as they could hit yields by up to 30% - limiting the crops that can be successfully be grown in the UK and elsewhere - for no recognisable gain to human health. Part of the problem is that we’re being asked to sign up to proposals when no-one can say for sure what its impact will be. Not very sensible, is it?
As for EID, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time it was originally adopted, but times have changed and the costs clearly outweigh the benefits to the sheep sector. Regulation – from wherever it comes – has to recognise when circumstances change.
“I have started so I must finish” isn’t very sensible either, is it?
For me, food security and sustainable production have to go together. We all want people to have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at prices they can afford, but in this new world we need to ask ourselves this big question:
“Are we organised to do this while dealing with the many risks and uncertainties out there?”
In the summer , we published the Strategy Unit report on food and the Defra discussion paper on Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World. We are now working to develop a framework of indicators to assess trends in prices, production and supply. This, I hope, will help us to manage the risks more effectively and to improve resilience to shocks throughout the supply chain. And we intend to share the initial conclusions with you before the end of the year. Thank you to all those who contributed to this debate.
But I now want to go further. I can announce today that to help respond to these new challenges for a new world, I will be establishing a council of food policy advisers.
This new body will draw in expertise on every aspect of our food system – from production to retailers, and from regulation and distribution to consumption - providing advice from the farm to the fork.
Building on Defra’s work, and the work of the Strategy Unit, this body signals a new approach from the Government to food policy.
My aim is to make sure that our food supplies remain secure, and that we have a strong, thriving, environmentally sustainable farming industry in this country, which continues to produce a significant proportion of our food.
With the EU, the UN and other partners, my aim is to work with them to meet the challenge of feeding the world, of sustaining our natural resources, and of tackling climate change.
The simple truth is that it is wrong in the 21st century that anyone should go to bed hungry at night.
And it is our job to make sure that it is in the 21st century that we make this poverty, and this hunger, history.
Page published: 10 October 2008