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Food for Thought

February 28, 2012 3:30 PM
By Baroness Kate Parminter in Lib Dem Voice

Food is part of all our lives - whether it is concerns about the cost of eating or about getting the right nutrition for elderly relatives or fussy youngsters. It is part of our cultural experience - sharing meals with loved ones to celebrate special occasions and local delicacies reflecting the interplay of people and land like Bakewell Tarts, Lancashire Hotpots & Yorkshire Puddings. Given its centrality to all our lives it is important that the policy framework to support the provision of food is right.

The environment in which we produce food is changing. The world's population could reach nine billion by 2050, with many people wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. At the same time the effects of climate change and competition for land, water and energy will intensify. Couple those pressures with over a billion people hungry and over a billion people over-consuming, creating a public health epidemic and you see the challenges of a global food system.

It adds up to Liberal Democrats needing to think afresh about how we can supply food in the future which is healthy, affordable and environmentally sustainable. I have been asked by the Liberal Democrats DECC & DEFRA Parliamentary Party Committee to draft a paper on food policy in time for Autumn Conference. I would welcome party members' views on some of the key questions:

Firstly, how we can increase productivity sustainably? Meeting the challenge to reduce the footprint of the food system and which minimises the release of greenhouse gases. We need to be clear what 'sustainable intensification' means and what the animal welfare impacts of the drive to American style mega farms are. Weighing up the value of new technologies such as genetic modification and the use of cloned livestock and ensuring that the voice of the public is adequately reflected in decisions about their introduction. And with estimates that up to a third of food is wasted, ensuring waste reduction is a priority above technological solutions. Raising the profile of innovative schemes and initiatives encouraging food growing in local communities up and down the land.

Secondly, how can consumers be helped to make better food choices? Can we define a sustainable diet, reflecting a healthy diet which also delivers resilience in the face of environmental pressures? How acceptable might it be to recommend a meat free day once a week in the way the Government has recently stepped up its advice about alcohol? As Liberal Democrats we believe in the freedom of the individual but is a combination of education, labelling and promotional activity delivering the step change needed in our nation's diets? What role might fiscal measures, such as taxation of sugary drinks, have to play in influencing consumer demand?

Thirdly, how we can support food businesses that meet our food goals? Positive reform of the Common Agricultural Policy offers the opportunity to support food businesses that recognise the natural capital of the land. But what more could we do? Are farming cooperatives a model that should be encouraged to flourish in the United Kingdom as they do in much of mainland Europe?

And finally how Government can lead from the front. Despite welcome changes in school food purchasing in recent years, Government has been unwilling to support positive food choices throughout the range of public services they fund, including hospitals. Is it time to look at the true costs and opportunities of central procurement?

Our commitment to fairness, our commitment to protecting and respecting the earth's finite resources and our commitment to individual freedom will all impact on our thinking about food. If you have views that you would like to share with me on this subject, please email me on parminterk@parliament.uk or come to the Green Liberal Democrats fringe meeting on food policy at Spring Conference.