THE BLOG
04/07/2013 05:35 BST | Updated 02/09/2013 06:12 BST

Feeding the Nation

In April, baby milk sales were limited in supermarkets in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong because of shortages caused by high demand in China. China's demand for foreign produced baby milk has been growing since 2008 when infant formula milk adulterated with melamine led to the death of six babies and caused thousands of children to fall ill. Worried about new adulteration scandals, Chinese parents reached for the global brands they trusted. The largest consumer market in the world made a choice which affected supplies around the world as distributers followed the money and rushed supplies to China.

The baby milk episode highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a globalised food supply chain. As people in developing countries get richer, they're eating a more Western diet - more meat, wheat and dairy. The emerging middle-classes of China, India and Pakistan are developing a taste for Western goods. The supply chain allows for food to be moved around quickly. But it is also vulnerable to shocks, either from a surge in demand, as with baby milk, or scarcity, caused by poor harvests or extreme weather events.

Food will be one of the major challenges of the 21st Century. The world will need to feed eight billion people by 2025. Emerging demand in new markets, lack of access to land and water, and the changing weather, are putting pressure on the global food system. A rising population, climate change and water stress will affect how the UK produces its food.

That is why the Labour Party has launched a review of Britain's food supply and the challenges that face our food system. You can read the policy document - Feeding the Nation: creating a resilient, growing food industry -online at YourBritain.org.uk.

In the UK, life is getting harder for many families. Food prices are rising faster than wages and there is a cost of living crisis. The recent horsemeat scandal sparked a debate about how Britain's food is produced, traced and regulated.

These challenges also provide the opportunity for UK PLC to innovate. Food can drive the economy, not least when times are tough. Currently, Britain imports 40% of our food. Labour believes there are opportunities to boost our domestic food security, produce more food in the UK and to boost our exports to new emerging markets. This is an ambitious approach. I believe that we can produce more food as a nation whilst addressing the decline in biodiversity that we have seen over the last 60 years. But it will require government leadership and a clear strategy.

The free market, de-regulatory approach of the current coalition government is letting us down. Labour in government published Food 2030, the first national food strategy since the Second World War, setting out a vision for a sustainable and secure food supply in the UK. That work has been ignored by the coalition. We set up a Cabinet Subcommittee to bring together the relevant government departments involved in food. The coalition government scrapped it. There is no food strategy for England and no co-ordination of food policy across government. After the 2010 election, the government split up the labelling responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency creating a fragmented approach to food governance.

The food and farming sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. 400,000 people work in food processing and manufacturing in the UK, and exports amount to £11 billion. Yet the sector still struggles to find suitable candidates for engineering, science and technical positions. The Food and Drink Federation estimates that the sector will need to replace 40% of its workforce by 2020. The food industry has the potential to create new jobs and boost UK growth. My colleague, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, has been leading Labour's policy work to develop a modern industrial strategy. We need an industrial strategy for the food sector that brings together government and industry to plan for success, just as in other sectors.

Despite the challenges, there are huge opportunities for Britain to lead the world on food. The UK is home to some of the world's best universities and research centres on agriculture, food and environmental sciences. We need to find practical applications for this research to be translated into commercial and business opportunities.

We have the finest Scottish smoked salmon, succulent Welsh Lamb, and more craft cheese makers than France. Twenty years ago we were mocked around the world for our traditions of overcooking our meat and vegetables. Today there are innovative young chefs, such as Liam Duffy at Iris restaurant in my home city of Wakefield, using their talents to bring great cooking, not just to the capital city, but to our regional cities too.

We want a growing food industry, pride in our culinary craft and farming traditions, and more great food. Today we look at how we achieve that.