idespread reforms to UK agriculture and its environmental impact have been recommended in a new government report, including enhanced data collection throughout food production. This would lead to better labelling about the environmental impact of food choices.
The Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) report makes 120 recommendations across many sectors. In the agri-food space, they include developing “a comprehensive system of environmental metrics for sustainable agriculture, incorporating the impacts from field to fork, to support clearer food labelling.”
Specialists already delivering eco labelling to food businesses have broadly welcomed the move, but have warned against cutting corners and say rigour across all food types and environmental impacts is essential.
Anya Doherty, Founder and CEO at Foodsteps, said, “land use, water use, pollution, plastic must be weighted carefully and based on the best science.”
She added, “We would support a framework which has undergone rigorous consumer testing, such as the trials we conducted at Cambridge. They showed the label design and visibility is very important. Consumers need a simple grading that allows them to compare at a glance between products.
“I would also say one of the wider data capture challenges is corner cutting. Any label quantification system needs to be rigorous enough to prevent this. We’ve found in our work that given the chance, corners will be cut in environmental impact accounting, because that makes the sellers look better. The best way to avoid this would be to have a non-flexible and clear system boundary for accounting. All products must be measured to the same system boundary such as including land use changes, post-retail impacts etc.
“There needs to be rigorous and specific guidance for different food types, such as guidance for labelling vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, baked goods etc. In our experience, generic guidance tends to allow too much flexibility. Processing stages might be very different for meat compared with baked goods, leaving too much room for interpretation.”
The TIGRR report says, “There is a growing recognition and major investment by the agricultural and food sectors in farm to fork metrics to properly measure the environmental impact of a crop or food product line.
“This is key to helping consumers make enlightened choices, by ensuring that these metrics are able to be clearly displayed on food labels.
“These sustainability metrics are also an important part of a modern regulatory framework that incentivises industry to develop more sustainable supply chains.
“Access to metrics will be essential provide meaningful information to consumers”
“The UK has a huge opportunity to lead this next agricultural revolution to pioneer a new farm support regime which rewards genuine environmental enhancement and empowers consumers to make informed choices about the food they buy.”
Julian Sturdy, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, said the group was pleased sustainability metrics were among those to feature so prominently.
“We believe access to metrics will be essential to… provide meaningful information to consumers relating to the resource use, environmental impacts and climate change implications of each unit of food produced, whether a litre of milk or a kg of potatoes.
“As a group we have long advocated the need to embed data science and sustainability metrics at the heart of a policy agenda.”
The report goes on to say, “The right flexible and market led system could see the UK pioneering sustainable agriculture and the global leadership in financing, metrics, standards and environmental agri-tech innovation.
“The government should introduce reform to support data sharing in the agri-food sector, to open up data silos, so that different parts of the supply chain can share more data more easily.
“A market-based model for selling biodiversity impact credits to developers”
“This is key to the development of integrated metrics for sustainability needed to help manage risk, promote traceability, minimise farm waste, and increase recycling…
“The Government should promote these metrics through international engagement on global standards for agrimetrics, for example in discussions of reform of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA).”
The report also recommends promoting “a flexible, market based trading system for biodiversity offset credits.”
It says, “The biodiversity net gain (BNG) initiative, due to be introduced by the Environment Bill, mandates around 10 per cent net gain through the use of a specified biodiversity metric, based on both the area and quality of habitat which is disrupted by development.
“Developers will have the option, once mitigation hierarchy has been demonstrated, to pay for the offset of remaining units through a biodiversity units market.”
“The UK could be a leader in agri-robotics”
Licensing this should be removed from Natural England in favour of a “more dynamic market-based model, creating a market for BNG credits.”
The report goes on to say, “With the right regulatory framework, the UK could be a leader in agri-robotics to help to reduce the sector’s reliance on seasonal labour that has been traditionally sourced from overseas. Greater use of inexpensive, reliable robotics for certain routine farm tasks could drive innovation in agriculture and create a new skilled sector.”
It recommends the use of precision farming techniques such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to spray fertilisers and pesticides, which can reduce the volume of chemicals used.
It adds that the UK should be seeking to go further faster than the EU in putting habitat and environment at the heart of commercial agriculture. Along with accelerating carbon sequestration and low input and high output agriculture.
Further recommendations include adopting a new approach to waste regulation to drive greater re-use of waste products. And removing EU regulation on the animal feed industry.
It says the law “should be amended to allow insect protein to be fed to pigs and poultry. It is currently only authorised for pets and fish.” It also says the classification and segregation of food waste should be reviewed with a view to including more categories of human food waste as feed materials.
“The Brexit dividends for UK-based plant breeders have been in short supply”
The report recommends the use of gene editing (GE) and, when appropriate, genetic modification (GM).
It says, “Carefully calibrated regulatory reform could enable the UK to tap into a global market for agricultural genetics that is already estimated to be worth £17 billion a year. This technology has the potential to increase crop yields, reduce the environmental impact of farming by improving plant resilience and health, tackle climate change, develop a new range of industrial bio-energy crops, and develop foods with enhanced benefits for human health…
“We should adopt the Cartagena protocol definition which allows the interpretation that simple GE is not considered to be GM. This would mean that new plant strains that incorporate GE could be regulated as any other new variety.
… There are some potential benefits for animal welfare in applying agricultural genetics in the UK livestock sector. However, given the understandable public and consumer sensitivity in this area, our proposals in this section relate solely to plant science which we recommend should be the Government’s priority at this present time.”
British Society of Plant Breeders chief executive Samantha Brooke said early action to translate “pro-innovation rhetoric” into regulation was urgently needed.
She said, “The Brexit dividends for UK-based plant breeders have been in short supply to date, and the reality is that our members are facing increased costs, bureaucracy and uncertainty while operating in a much smaller market-place.
“This will inevitably be focusing minds on investment decisions for the future.
“We strongly welcome the TIGRR report’s recommendation that the government should move rapidly to amend the definition section 106 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 such that simple gene edited crops which could have been produced through conventional breeding should be regulated as any other variety.”
The Crop Protection Association’s CEO Dave Bench said, “It is right that agri-tech is recognised as one of the potential high-growth sectors in the UK economy.
“Nutraceuticals are not referred to anywhere in current UK or EU regulations”
“Innovation in agri-tech has a fundamental role to play in meeting one of the great challenges of our time, helping farmers grow healthy, affordable and sustainable food whilst helping respond to the challenges of climate change and delivering benefits to the environment.”
The report describes nutraceuticals as a “rapidly expanding sector led by corporate giants like Unilever and Danone and a system of smaller specialist suppliers… worth £275 billion globally and £4 billion in the UK.”
Examples include probiotics, foods containing live bacteria with beneficial properties for health, forecast to reach about $69.3 billion in value by 2023. In the UK the sector stands at around £750 million.
Also, enriched food like Beneforte broccoli, it says. Apio Inc, one of the largest North American growers and distributors of fresh vegetables, anticipates 100 per cent replacement of conventional broccoli within five years.
The report says nutraceuticals are not referred to anywhere in current UK or EU regulations, “There is an opportunity for the UK to lead the way in setting clear, comparable standards for these terms…
“We propose a new cross-organisational innovation office to provide a clear regulatory pathway for this sector. This could be linked to the central registry of Patient Recorded Medical Outcomes to inform the regulatory process with up-to-date evidence from consumers to help validate medical benefits.”