Stark warning for food producers

Present working methods and lifestyles cannot continue if a better future is to be realised, a key member of the Defra's team charged with implementing a sustainable food chain has warned processors.

Brian Harding said the present way of life was placing an unsustainable burden on society that could lead to world problems with millions affected. "Globally we aren't even meeting the needs of the present, let along the future," he warned. A decisive move towards more sustainable development was needed.

The first three years of the government's sustainable farming policy had focused on better ways of working in the food chain, including CAP reform, environmental measures and the Public Sector Procurement Initiative. Bodies including the English Farming and Food Partnership and the Food Chain Centre had also been established. All this had established a framework of best practice and now the move was to sector specific strategies that, although not comprehensive, focused on priorities. In the case of meat processing, this will look at issues like animal welfare, waste incineration and water usage.

Harding said an industry-wide group would be set up to look at reducing administration and regulation costs. He admitted, however, that not everything was clear-cut. It was difficult to say what the outcome of the world trade talks would be, although the aim was for a more liberal trading regime to benefit third countries, and to generate security and peace at the expense of protectionism. One question was whether beef would be classified as a 'sensitive' product? He had not yet seen the proposed list of such products, although he understood the EU wanted to keep them to a minimum.

CAP reform had made good progress. "We are determined that the UK will play a full part in the way forward," he said.

As far as the timetable was concerned, the Doha talks would come to a head in a few months time, next year would see the beginning of a review of various sectors. In 2008 there will be a review of the dairy regime and moves to further decoupling, followed by a review of the EU budget. Talks will now begin with trade organisations over what the effects of these changes will be. The industry will be asked for its view on transition issues and potential policy changes.

Harding went on to warn that a further restructuring of the beef industry would be needed as farmers adjusted to life without subsidy. Such adjustments would impact on processors' businesses.

Big changes could also be expected in the pig sector, he said. The breeding herd had stabilised but an abattoir surveillance scheme to monitor diseases in pigs was needed. The Government's relationship with agriculture is changing, he said, with a move towards less direct influence over operations.