Baroness Parminter writes… Food for thought

Defra has today launched its Hospitality and Food Service Agreement. This is a new voluntary UK-wide agreement with caterers, pubs, hotels and restaurants to reduce food and packaging waste by 5% and to increase the rate of recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion to 70% (it’s currently around 47%). While we as Liberal Democrats should welcome this and recognise the positive environmental impact it will have, the Government could and should be going much further on food.

Food production and consumption play a key role in public health, the UK economy, and in enhancing natural capital. Everyone should have access to affordable and nutritious food produced sustainably and with respect for the environment and for animal welfare. But we face a number of tough issues over the coming years.

Firstly, as the population increases we need to produce more food. But we also need to be mindful of climate change – both the need not to make it worse and the need to adapt to its impacts. So we need to be aware of the amount of water we’re using and also of the greenhouse gases being emitted.

There is also the issue of affordability in these days of climbing prices, with pressure on every element of the food production process. We’ve all seen the recent press on the increasing numbers of people relying on food banks, mothers skipping meals so their children can eat, and on families buying cheaper food with higher fat and sugar contents.

And thirdly, of course, individuals need to know what they should be eating and what to avoid. They should be encouraged to develop the knowledge and skills to make informed choices over food consumption.

That’s why I’ll be calling on the Government to adopt a National Food Strategy to secure the production and consumption of sustainable and healthy food, addressing issues of food security, climate change, environmental protection, affordability, nutrition and animal welfare. I’ll be calling for policies and measures aimed at promoting healthier and more sustainable diets, including consultation on fiscal measures such as the taxation of heavily sugared drinks, and for food skills to be included in the school curriculum.

But I’ll also be asking Government to put its money where its mouth is, by using public procurement policy to require healthy and sustainable food for public food contracts, including adopting a timetable to achieve a minimum of 30 per cent organic food, and asking them to set a target date for zero food waste to landfill.

I’ll be bringing a full motion to Conference on these issues, but I’d welcome your comments on the points above.

Baroness Kate Parminter is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Defra issues.

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  • Kathryn – (With regard to food and waste). I’m indulging in a bit of blue sky thinking here, (and hence probably dumb!), but here goes.
    I’ve noticed a couple of things.
    Firstly, many of the Tesco, Asda, Morrisons stores, have massive car parks, and in many cases the far corners, of these car parks are never used, (for cars). Secondly, at the national level, a massive amount of fruit and vegetables go to waste, simply because it is ‘ugly’. The aforementioned stores, (sadly), will only display ‘pretty’, fruit n veg inside the store.
    However, could it be possible (via defra policy), to encourage, cajole, pressure, these stores to create an open market environment, for the ugly fruit and veg, to be sold from stalls, in the outer reaches of their (unused) areas of car park?
    There would still be a profit to be made for the stores, (maybe even some kind of carbon or environmental offset), but at a practical level, their squeamish customers who insist on pretty veg could continue as normal, but the customers with less money (but more sense!), would have access to wholesome (if ugly), fruit and veg, which would cut down on national food waste.
    Just a thought ?
    ….. Even ugly fruit and veg need to feel loved.

  • Why should the government spend more on organic food when this would run contrary to the need to increase food production and use less land? There are other issues but any policy on organic food must present detailed justification rather than a vague sense of “oh, everyone knows organic is better”.

    The amount of food Britons waste is staggering. I recall there were plans to change the system of best-before and use-by dates and that would help.

    I also think a minister should be given responsibility for ‘greening’ our imports. This may sound odd, but as a voter I want the government to help me limit the damage I do abroad and ensure my food and goods aren’t products of deforestation, overfishing or inequitable water use. Very importantly, this should go along far greater reporting of the embedded emissions, resource use etc. that we import. The sum of domestic plus imported CO2 emissions has kept rising, IIRC.

    I hope liberals won’t reject the idea of taxing unhealthy food – and changing supermarket layouts – out of hand. At the moment, unhealthy food and drinks actually get a tax advantage in the form of zero VAT, while sports nutrition drinks and protein shakes have just had this exemption removed (unlike milkshakes and biscuits!), and of course buying a bicycle or using a swimming pool incur VAT.

    We also need to consider our use of meat on environmental, welfare and nutritional grounds, as well as the fact that an increase in meat consumption globally will either push the price up and/or do great environmental damage.

    CentreForum have a report coming out about anaerobic digestion which I hope you’ll look at for tips on ensuring household and other food waste doesn’t go to landfill. But we shouldn’t be wasting so much in the first place…

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Jun '12 - 10:32am

    So, Kate, do you want to make it compulsory for me to include 30% so-called “organic” food in my diet.? I’ve always considered the “organic” movement to be a meaningless, and expensive fad:(what would an “inorganic “carrot consist of?); so,when shopping, I try to avoid buying anything with the word “organic” on the label.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Jun '12 - 10:56am

    Kate, further to my comment above (if /when it emerges from “moderation”, that is”), having re-read your piece, I realise that it is only 30% of publicly procured food which you want to make “organic”. I don’t often, these days, visit public events where food is provided.but, in case I do, will you please ask them to label the 30% which is “organic” so that I may avoid eating it?

  • All supermarkets should be required to provide packaging recycling bins at their front doors, so that customers can return their packaging when they next come to shop. That would have an effect on the whole retail food business.. why should local councils and the council tax-payer have to pick up the bill for getting rid of their excessive packaging?
    Forced to deal with their own generated waste might make them put more thought into their choices of packaging materials, not just the quantities used but the sheer variety of different plastics which don’t all easily recycle together. They would be forced to find the most economic way to resolve the problem they have created.

  • Geoffrey Payne, I’m afraid organic is a confidence trick – it still uses pesticides and it still suffers from all the environmental problems of conventional farming. The problem is monoculture, the loss of wild fields and hedgerows – none of which are dealt with by organic. It’s just a branding for a regressive form of farming based on mystical principles.

    Also, outside of europe, it’s corrupt. In india, and elsewhere, organic certification is the result of bribes, not farming methods.

  • Concentrating on the ‘organic costs more but people need food to be affordable’ argument is really scraping the tip of the iceberg.

    Every bit of fruit or veg sold (particularly in supermarkets) holds the cost not only of the item itself but of all of its relations that were plowed back into farmland (wrong size, surplus), bruised on arrival (binned), damaged at any point (binned), not sold and too old (binned).

    If less food was thrown away prior to purchase, if sometimes customers were tolerant of supermarkets ‘running out’, then we could eat of the food we produce. That’s how food can be more affordable.

    (Incidentally we shop at our local farmers market….and yes I know not everyone has that luxury…but the fruit and veg COST LESS than at the supermarket.)

    Oh and ‘g’ what about the value of natural nitrates rather than being dependent on oil based fertilisers, crop rotation, carbon storage in the earth, and other environmental benefits of organic farming. Elements of organic farming have been overegged I agree but you can’t seriously be suggesting that it has no value to the environment at all?!

  • Keith Owens 8th Oct '12 - 9:58am

    I resent the implication that “organic” food somehow equates with “healthy” food. I find it disappointing that a country with such a high percentage of educated people can be so anti-science. The food that will save the human population from mass starvation as numbers continue to rise is not organic food, GM crops are the future. Like Nick (not Clegg) I avoid organic food wherever possible – it is expensive and it has no scientifically proven benefits over other food – organic farming is however labour intensive, provides lower crop yields , cannot feed the existing population, and has been found on occasion to be contaminated with animal waste (which is used to fertilise the field in the absence of chemical fertiliser).
    As several posters have said, an area which does require attention is the amount of waste food – estimates vary, but it is clear that a lot of food is wasted both before and after purchase – but this is a very “unsexy” and difficult problem to tackle – far easier to ask for 30 percent of public food contract to be organic isn’t it even though this arguably makes the situation worse.

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