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A shopper walks by the eastern entrance of Borough Market in London. British shoppers are being told to choose what to eat based on food security issues as well as environmental and health considerations. (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A shopper walks by the eastern entrance of Borough Market in London. British shoppers are being told to choose what to eat based on food security issues as well as environmental and health considerations. (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GMO is in, local is out

Britain unveils future of food Add to ...

Imported beef. Genetically modified potatoes. The disappearance of those handy labels that tell you just how far your green beans travelled before reaching the grocery store shelf.

This is the stuff of Jamie Oliver's nightmares - and all of it may come true.

The British government unveiled a national 20-year food-security manifesto Tuesday aimed at safeguarding the future of the country's food supply, which is in danger of shrinking if certain consumer trends - the favouring of local foods over imported, the rejection of genetically modified food and reliance on "food miles" to measure the environmental cost of food - continue.

The plan argues that the way food is bought and sold in Britain must be revolutionized, and is one of the first of its kind among developed nations. But that may not be for long. International food-policy experts predict similar strategies will be cropping up in developed countries all over the world as the availability of food is increasingly linked to national security.

"We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now," Hilary Benn, Britain's secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said in announcing the strategy at a farming conference in Oxford.

"Food security is as important to this country's future well-being … as energy security. We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves," he said.

The strategy, an 84-page document entitled Food 2030, is Britain's first comprehensive food policy in more than 50 years.

"We can't just carry on as we are," warns Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the report's introduction. "We need to produce more food without damaging the natural resources - air, soil, water and marine resources, biodiversity and climate - that we all depend on. We need to feed more people globally, many of whom want or need to eat a better diet."

The strategy aims to have both a national and global impact. Within Britain, it advocates for increased in-country food production and a smaller environmental footprint (via adoption of greener farming techniques, for example, and increased acceptance of "technological innovation" - a phrase some experts are interpreting as advocating the introduction of genetically modified food to the country).

It warns consumers that an overzealous dedication to buying local - and avoiding imported foods - will have a negative economic impact on often poorer exporting countries if the trend continues. The report also takes aim at an over-reliance on "food miles." For years, laws have mandated that British-sold products be labelled with indicators of their carbon footprint.

However, continuing to use food miles as a main means of calculating the environmental impact of certain foods is not sustainable in the food regime of the future, according to the report, because transport accounts for so little (9 per cent) of the food chain's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Phil Bloomer, a policy director for Oxfam in Great Britain who attended the announcement, said the strategy is by no means a perfect blueprint for food security. However, he applauded the British government for taking the initiative.

"It's good governments are talking about these things … and not in an inward-looking fashion," he said. "It's becoming increasingly fashionable to talk about local food production and food miles, none of which guarantees that you're going to create low-carbon agriculture," he said. On the contrary, the buy-local philosophy could lead to a desire to "erect walls around countries instead of seeing ourselves as having a shared destiny."

"We are far more mutually dependent than we've ever been in the past," Mr. Bloomer said. "We need to make sure that we're not creating Fortress Canada or Fortress Europe and leaving everybody else out. That is definitely unsustainable … Not trading with developing countries would lead to far greater levels of international tension and conflict."

While activist critics panned the strategy for its lack of teeth (it contains no indication of impending policies aimed at enacting the changes it advocates), Dr. Shenggen Fan, director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said the document should be seen as a positive pledge of intention.

"It is a welcome step," he said, adding it is critical that its authors envision using "the whole global food system to ensure food security."

"The question is whether the U.K. government will really implement it," he said.

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