While much in Defra’s latest report on Britain’s future food security is familiar, there are signs of a shift in government thinking, says Nick Hughes

The way in which Hilary Benn launched Defra’s latest visionary report Food 2030 with a humdrum speech at the Oxford Farming Conference on Tuesday suggested a government in possession of all the pieces of the food security jigsaw but struggling to make them fit together.

Like Benn’s speech, the Defra report contains plenty of broad brush strokes but falls short on detail about how the UK can guarantee a sustainable, long-term food supply. For example, the claim that “defining a sustainable diet would make it easier for people to make informed choices about food”, is followed by the admission that “it is not easy” to solve the paradox of what constitutes a sustainable diet.

There are also familiar refrains on the need to improve clarity of nutritional and origin labelling and reduce portion sizes and food waste, but little fresh thinking on how these goals can be achieved.

“The government’s vision for a sustainable and healthy future will have wide appeal, but the ways it hopes to get there aren’t up to the job,” says Food Ethics Council executive director Dr Tom MacMillan.

Yet one of the government’s proposals has been broadly welcomed by the industry. Benn’s admission that “we need to produce more food” will be music to the ears of farmers.

“Politically, this is really important because it moves us on from that ghastly 2005 document that the Treasury put out,” says NFU chairman Peter Kendall, referring to ‘A Vision for the Common Agriculture Policy’ published jointly by HM Treasury and Defra in 2005. “It is not loaded with punchy regulatory changes or recommendations but it is a very positive canvass about the importance of the industry, of things we can be doing and should be doing.”

The farming community has faced calls to reduce meat and dairy consumption on account of their environmental impact, and the Defra proposals do not ignore the fact that livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The proposal to produce more food comes with the caveat that it must impact less on the environment.

The key to achieving this, says Defra, will be investment in technology. The report outlines plans to double investment in agricultural R&D to £80m a year by 2013. A new Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform, led by the Technology Strategy Board and co-funded by Defra and BBSRC with £90m over five years, will fund technological R&D in areas such as crop productivity, sustainable livestock production, waste management, and greenhouse gas reduction.

Defra gives the example of East Malling Research, which has achieved a 70% reduction in water use in the production of strawberries through better scheduling of irrigation, as an example of what an investment in R&D can achieve.

The proposal to increase food production has garnered some cross-party support. “I’m pleased that they’ve woken up to this issue,” says shadow environment minister Nick Herbert.

But, he warns, such laudable ambitions must be followed up with tangible action. “It’s no good talking about food labelling unless you’re willing to deliver it, it’s no good talking about a fair market unless you’re willing to deliver that, it’s no good talking about being competitive unless you’re willing to ensure farmers can be competitive and are equipped to do so.”

Herbert believes the Conservatives have identified more effective ways of boosting production, such as dealing decisively with TB, deregulation of the farming industry and increasing public sector procurement of local food. He may have the chance to translate his words into actions following the general election, but if Benn’s vision can overcome the inherent paradoxes, it could prove the template for a credible UK food strategy.