Skills, research and development (R&D) and access to funding need to be combined into a ‘proper agri-food strategy’ in order to feed people in Britain and abroad in the years to come.
That was the consensus at a debate held at the Labour party conference featuring shadow secretary of state for Department for Environment, Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Mary Creagh, her deputy Huw Irranca-Davies, National Farmers Union (NFU) deputy president Meurig Raymond and director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Melanie Leech.
The fringe debate, held at Manchester Town Hall, heard that the global population was likely to reach 8bn by 2025 and 9bn by 2050.
“This is a major issue for us all to grapple with,” said Irranca-Davies. “We need to produce more by putting less in. Agriculture and food production is going to be one of the major issues moving forward, both in feeding ourselves and the rest of the world.”
Leech told delegates that this was a huge challenge, but also provided an immense opportunity for manufacturers.
She called on British firms to maximise innovation to minimise the environmental impact of production, while also doing everything possible to increase the nutritional content of goods.
She added, however, that British manufacturers would only be able to enhance food security at home and abroad through a concerted government strategy.
“We need a proper agri-food strategy,” she said. “One that is not just about agriculture, but about the whole food chain and getting food on to plates.”
She said the FDF was doing its bit to improve skills and training, but maintained government had a pivotal role to play.
‘Impossible’ R&D tax credits
In terms of innovation, she said the government had to simplify the “impossible” R&D tax credits system, and develop a “regulatory framework” for the role of science in production.
She added that research had a fundamental part to play, claiming that very few academic research programmes ever came to market.
“We need a strategy to connect human capital, finance and expertise,” she said.
Creagh added that any strategy needed to take into account of waste.
“It is indefensible how much edible food is wasted. We don’t grow it, produce it and sell it for it to end up in landfill,” she said.
“We also need to be a lot smarter into attracting people into the industry. At the moment people just fall into it and then leave it.”
Irranca-Davies said a dedicated government-backed programme was the only solution for the UK's largest manufacturing sector: “We have to find a joined-up approach across farming and food production, using R&D, to make the supply chain more effective and resilient,” he added.