Innovation, innovation, innovation – UK must act now on food security and sustainability

Ken Murphy
Ken Murphy
Group Chief Executive

Food security has risen to the top of the agenda as first the Covid pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, pile unprecedented pressure on our food systems. Combined with long-term trends of population growth and climate change, these issues could have a catastrophic impact on the planet and our quality of life.

We must secure a food system that delivers for farmers as well as provides affordable, healthy and sustainable food for all. The affordable part is critical. Rising inflation has led to 83% of people experiencing an increase in their cost of living, while one in five British households are facing a ”heat or eat” dilemma. The food industry must find new ways to provide sustainable food which is good for your wallet and the planet.

More sustainable food is imperative. Climate change will impact our ability to grow food, but today’s food system is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and the biggest driver of biodiversity loss globally. That makes it one of our biggest opportunities to make a difference. By finding ways to feed the nation more sustainably and affordably, using fewer resources, we can improve the health of people and planet. 

We cannot achieve these goals through incremental progress. Without food systems innovation that drives transformational change, these threats to the health of our planet and food security will grow. We need the right policy, incentives and regulatory frameworks in place to overcome them.

The first is to boost the UK’s capacity to sustainably produce more of the food it needs. New technologies and innovative farming practices can help achieve this here in the UK. From vertical farming that improves volumes and affordability, and low-carbon fertilisers that can reduce dependence on manufactured fertilisers and protect against price volatility, to alternative animal feed that is deforestation-free and can be developed and established in the UK.

By scaling up these innovations in our farming standards and safeguarding them in future trade deals, we can maintain a level playing field for UK producers and bolster our food security, while at the same time driving down the cost of production, making food more affordable for customers in the long-term.

Progress in these areas requires joined-up action from industry and government – trialling and scaling new technologies and supporting proven innovations to market readiness, not just at the seed funding stage.

At Tesco, our ambition to achieve net zero emissions from our products and supply chain by 2050 requires innovation. As well as improving our operations, we’re innovating with suppliers and start-ups to drive change in our sector.

We’re exploring how insects grown on food waste can feed fish and potentially livestock, cutting emissions from food waste and reducing the use of imported soy and fishmeal. One of our suppliers is working with a UK start-up to trial alternative fertilisers made from waste, which can cut emissions and replenish soil organic matter. And we are selling the first commercial volumes of vertically-grown strawberries, a revolutionary system that lengthens the UK growing season, uses 50 per cent less water and cuts carbon by 90 per cent. We’re also launching an initiative with WWF which provides innovators with access to our supply chain to pilot their ideas and explore routes to scale.

As the importance of tackling climate change and maintaining food security continues to grow, the UK’s level of focus on food system innovation will need to match the sector’s importance to our quality of life and the health of the planet.

It was encouraging to see the Environment Secretary reiterate the need to put food security at the heart of the National Food Strategy White Paper recently. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unleash innovation in Britain’s food system.

Crucially, supporting our food system will mean updating and removing regulatory barriers that currently stand in the way of innovations being scaled up. For example, legislation needs to be updated to allow alternative feeds like insect protein in pig and poultry feed – a natural part of their diets.

The Food Strategy White Paper represents an important moment for our country.  We hope it provides the right framework and sets out the timelines for government and industry to work together to address these regulatory barriers to scaling food system innovation.

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