BSAS 2009 - UK Science Meeting Opens with Discussion on Food Security

UK - The annual meeting of the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) opened yesterday in the seaside town of Southport on the north-west coast of England. The well-attended first session addressed the topic of food and feed security, writes Jackie Linden, editor of ThePoultrySite.
calendar icon 31 March 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

The first paper was scheduled to be given by the Minister of State for Farming and the Environment, Jane Kennedy, MP. Owing to illness, her paper was presented by Professor Maggie Gill from Scotland. Her topic was 'Feed and food security: the landscape of government activities on food security'.

She explained that food security is not, in act, a new topic but rather the issue was raised in the eighteenth century by those who observed that population growth was already out-pacing the increase in food production.

"Let's get more involvement from animal science"
Professor Maggie Gill

Professor Gill emphasised that food security is not the same as self-sufficiency, citing the current definition used by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which offers the following definition: 'consumers having access at all times to sufficient safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy life at affordable prices'.

Until last year, this was achieved in the UK and other developed countries, she said, but it is now estimated that one billion people in the world are malnourished, and that this number will rise by 2050, when the population is predicted to reach nine billion.

One year ago, the respected expert in this field, John Beddington described food security as 'the elephant in the room' and recent events have done nothing to dispel the fears.

Professor Gill went onto describe the recent evidence on meeting the challenge of food security, noting that at many of the meetings she has attended, she has been the only representative from animal science. "Let's get more involvement from animal science in these activities," she urged. One of the reasons, she thinks, is that animal production is – wrongly but widely – perceived as being inefficient.

The political challenge, she explained, is to achieve a balance between consumer preferences and wider choices made by systems that supply it.

From the various meetings and working groups, she concluded that we need to do things differently to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

Professor Gill concluded that:

  • Food security depends on aligning supply and demand
  • Meeting the challenge is not just about maximising food production: the environment must also be considered
  • Both natural and social science research questions ned to be addressed and need to be farmed within the wider context of climate change.
  • Animal scientists are needed to provide evidence to test the various scenarios, and
  • It is vital to address the issues raised by those organisations providing the funding for research.

The second speaker was Meurig Raymond, who is the deputy president of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales.

He said that food security was neglected by political leaders until a very few years ago. However, it has reached the attention of governments all over the world following the predictions that the world population is expected to rise from six billion to nine billion over a 20-year period, and that food production must double to meet the growing demand. And this, he emphasised, should occur during a period of climate change and global economic problems. Furthermore, there is evidence of a growing threat of a shortage of water for agricultural production.

Mr Raymond explained that the population growth will take place particularly in countries such as China and India, whose economies were growing rapidly to the extent that the demand from animal products, especially meat, is growing at well above the average rate.

As a result, food security can only be understood at global level, he explained. Self-sufficiency will never be achieved everywhere for all foods, and so the world will rely on a balance between those countries that produces surpluses and those that need to import. As a result, trade and effective distribution channels will be vital, as will maximising the efficiency of production.

Mr Raymond went on to explain that he sees three main barriers to achieving this target in the UK:

  • agricultural research has been deprived of both public and private finding over many years
  • there is a poor record on animal health with disease beyond the control of farmers. Examples include post-weaning mortality and wasting syndrome (PMWS) in pigs, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, foot and mouth disease in cattle, sheep and pigs, and bovine tuberculosis
  • poor relationship between the country's few but powerful supermarket chains and the nation's many farmers
  • a serious skills shortage on farms, and
  • slow acceptance of genetic modification (GM) technologies in Europe, which threatens the livestock industries.
Mr Raymond finished with the optimistic observations that the Prime Minister and Secretary of State have shown more support of British agriculture of late. "Farmers are up to the challenges," he observed, adding that all they need is more understanding and encouragement to meet the future challenges.

During the discussion session following the two presentations, the problem of poor representation by animal scientists in food security discussions was explored further. It was suggested this may be due to the greater difficulties of calculating the environmental impact of livestock than crops: the production systems are even more complex, which makes 'joined up thinking' all the more important. The governments in Denmark and Germany are years ahead of the UK on the topic of anaerobic digestion, for example, which links the production of crops, livestock and energy. Furthermore, the consumption of animal products is also linked to health problems and obesity, topics that are now high priorities for government action currently.

Points were also raised about what level of regulation is appropriate in livestock production. Mr Raymond accepted that a level of regulation is necessary but pointed out that over-regulation strangles supply and lead to the product being imported over a great distance from a possibly unregulated country. His own farm participates in quality assurance schemes for each product.

The final series of questions and comments concerned how to change consumer perceptions about animal agriculture. It is vital, said Professor Gill, for scientists to share their results with farmers and consumers, without adding to information overload. Mr Raymond described this as a challenge but that some progress is now being achieved. The public is gradually becoming better informed about how their food is produced, and particular emphasis has been put on educating schoolchildren in this area. Also, retailers are starting to meet their customers' demands for local produce, and there are growing relations between producers and consumers at farmers markets.
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