America’s food system could be more vulnerable to climate change than we thought

Mother Jones – Wednesday 6th January

The impact of climate change on agriculture is being mapped in more detail as we watch climate change take hold of the planet. New research calls into question the assumption that developed countries will fare better than developing countries, with some surprising results – weather extremes like droughts and heat waves can reduce agricultural yields in developed countries by up to 11% more than in developing countries.

It appears that our large, industrialised monocrop approach to farming in the developed world, is less resilient than diversified, small-scale farming. Its emphasis on high yields at all costs, doesn’t leave much room for failure. Small farms, which are the mainstay of farming in developing countries through Asia, Africa and South America, have more flexibility and can more easily make compromises in relation to production levels, which may help them survive the weather better.

All this indicates that sustainable practices in agriculture which protect the environment, increase soil health and build resilience will be more important in future for farming on all scales. It also points out that despite assumptions that the developed world will cope better with climate change, the actuality of this is much less assured.

More than 50 percent of UK’s food and feed sourced overseas

Farmers Weekly – Saturday 9th January

Britain’s long-term food security is a continuing concern, especially with Environment Minister Liz Truss commenting that “Opening new export markets is a central part of our ambition for UK food and farming to lead the world.” Why this focus on export markets when our levels of food imports have been steadily rising since the 1970s (and self-sufficiency falling from 78% to 60% in the last 30 years)?

Recently published research from the James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen has brought this issue of self-sufficiency to the fore. Some 70% of the country’s overall cropland footprint – i.e. the acreage needed to produce enough food for British people – is overseas and the associated GHG emissions from this are effectively being outsourced making it another country’s problem. That’s neither fair to the countries that grow crops for the UK, nor good for the UK in terms of its food security. In the precarity of the 21st century, the cost of imports is likely to increase significantly and if we’re eating food from someone else’s country, what are they eating?

The researchers argue that Britain could be 100% food self-sufficient and secure, though that would demand compromises unimaginable to many in our globalised world: no coffee, no chocolate, no lemons, although there would be plenty of good protein from our grass-fed livestock. The call for more regional eating may become an imperative if we don’t stem climate change. Still the hungry gap could be somewhat unrelenting, with the onslaught of root vegetables and kale.

However, we must ensure that we can produce most of our food in the future and that means supporting British farmers. As NFU president Meurig Raymond commented “If you want great British food tomorrow, then buy great British food today.”

Food bank for under-25s ‘stops stigma’

BBC News – Monday 11th January

The hand of poverty reaches far and wide and in the UK, young people in particular are struggling to find employment. The Merseyside Youth Association, which supports young people and helps them into work, has started its own food bank for under-25s, who often don’t use food banks out of shame or embarrassment.

While unemployment as a whole is declining, youth unemployment still stands at 16%. The Merseyside Youth Association doesn’t require a referral to use the food bank, as it presents yet another deterrent for young people. They are only asked to fill in a form detailing why they’ve come, which is overwhelmingly because of benefit sanctions, as has been widely reported in food banks more generally.

The food bank also becomes an access point for support, with a counsellor available for visitors to speak with and a means for the charity to make contact with its core constituency. The reluctance to access food banks means young people are missing out on critical support they may need when they are jobless, so considering the stigma associated with food banks for young people helps break down important barriers to access so they don’t fall through the cracks and go hungry. While food banks are undoubtedly a useful response in a crisis situation, they are not a long-term solution to the problems of food poverty. With huge numbers of people accessing food banks, there is clearly a need for a stronger response and co-ordinated action from local and national government to tackle food poverty and ensure that all people can eat healthy and sustainably-produced food as a basic human right.

What’s in America’s new dietary guidelines – and what’s not

National Geographic – Thursday 7th January

New dietary guidelines for the US have finally been issued after much discussion and debate about what should and shouldn’t be in them. The guidelines were contentious during their development with intense battles over two key issues: whether eating less red meat should be recommended and whether the environmental impact of food production should be considered in recommendations of what to eat. The fact that these issues were even debated is clearly a positive sign of change. The guidelines have long been heavily influenced by the food and drinks industry, who notably managed to get tomato paste included as a vegetable serving on the guidelines so that processed food companies could continue to have it included in school meals.

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of environmental impacts on food production did not make it into the final guidelines. There is a somewhat veiled call to eat less meat, especially processed meat including processed chicken, in the first chapter, though it completely ignores any mention of how the meat might have been produced – corn-fed vs. grass-fed, antibiotic-free, organic aren’t touched on. It also suggests eating varied proteins including nuts, legumes and previously maligned eggs. And the guidelines take a strong stance on the need to lower sugar consumption, pointing specifically to processed food and sugary drinks and highlighting added sugar. But the continuing influence of the food industry can still be seen in a recommendation that consumption of dairy is well-below “a healthy US-pattern” suggesting an increase in no-fat/low-fat dairy. This flies in the face of recent science which links consumption of whole-fat dairy to lowered rates of weight gain and metabolic disease.

In conclusion, it is probably best not to take the guidelines entirely at face value. Instead, eat widely and eat wisely – common sense is a good guide. Many of the things you may think are bad for you, may not be. Have a read of Joanna Blythman’s lively piece on the real truths about the health benefits of eight widely hailed or reviled foods.

Britain’s top doctor warns of sugar tax unless food companies change recipes and slash advertising

Daily Mail – Friday 8th January

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that while she doesn’t believe that a sugar tax will have the biggest impact on tackling our obesity epidemic, unless the food industry acts by “reformulating, resizing, preventing promotions and changing advertising”, it may be a possibility in the future.

A sugar tax is a good idea on many levels. We already have an obesity epidemic on our hands and it’s not, at present, abating. The health costs of this are growing and a major contributor to the epidemic is the processed food and sugary drinks produced by the food and drink industry. A tax would not only be a deterrent to purchase, but also could contribute £1.1 billion (based on a 20p tax) to UK health care costs, or to subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables – as proposed by the British Medical Association.

Photograph: Neil Howard

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