The Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the need for improved education, more effective research and revised public sector food procurement and supermarket sustainability schemes.
Joan Walley, chair of the committee and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said: “Our food system is failing. Obesity and diet related illness is on the increase, fewer young people are being taught how to cook or grow food, and advertisers are targeting kids with junk food ads on the internet.
“At the same time the world faces growing fears about food security as the global population increases, more people eat meat and dairy, and the climate destabilises as a result of forest destruction and fossil fuel use.”
Walley acknowledged that the government was “understandably sceptical about anything that seems like nanny-statism”. But, she insisted: “The evidence is clear – intervention is needed to tackle obesity and fix our food system. In many cases, reducing environmental impacts and getting people to eat more healthily can be achieved in tandem.”
But the government has “no overarching food strategy in place”, she warned. The Green Food Project – due to be published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June – focuses only on part of the food system.
Plus, the government’s emphasis on ‘sustainable intensification’ risks ignoring the wider social and health implications of how we grow, trade and consume food in the UK, said Walley.
“The challenge for the government is to define what ‘sustainable intensification’ means in practice, and particularly for the UK.”
Policy must take account of social and environmental impacts of the food system, including retaining space for small-scale production practices and local food networks. To put that into practice, the government needs “a clearer and more cross-cutting strategy”, said the MPs.
On genetically modified (GM) crops, the MPs urged government to set up an independent body to research, evaluate and report on the potential impacts on the environment of GM crops, and their impacts on farming and on the global food system.
Walley said: “Until there is clear public acceptance of GM and it is proven to be beneficial, the government should not license its commercial use in the UK nor promote its use overseas.”
The committee reported it had received evidence that food shortage could be better addressed by tackling the 30% of all food grown worldwide that is wasted before or after it reaches the consumer.
To remedy the growing problem of obesity – said to cost the up to £4.2bn a year and rising – the MPs recommended stricter advertising limits protect children from junk food marketing on all media including the internet.
They also recommended that good skills, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum in all schools.
Andrew Kuyk, the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) director of sustainability, said: “As the report itself makes clear, no single part of the food chain can address these complex issues on its own.
“Government also needs a more joined up strategic approach to make sustainable food production a priority in its own right, something the FDF has consistently called for. It also acknowledges our view on the need for a better evidence and more research into how to improve and develop the necessary skills and capabilities across the food system.”
The FDF supported the need for more to be done to inform and educate consumers to assist them in making healthier and more sustainable choices, he added.
Sustainable Food report recommendations
• Food skills, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum in all schools;
• Stricter advertising limits to protect children from junk food marketing on all media including the internet;
• New national planning policy guidance for local authorities should ensure communities have access to healthy food and land to grow their own produce;
• Government buying standards for food must be improved on meat and dairy and extended to cover hospitals, prisons and schools;
• The Office of Fair Trading’s remit should be amended so supermarkets are not blocked from cooperating on sustainability initiatives;
• Government should examine the scope for simple and consistent labelling on the sustainability of food products.