National Food Strategy and Food Security

– in the House of Commons at 12:56 pm on 27th October 2022.

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[Relevant document: e-petition 611113, Ban development on agricultural land to increase food self-sufficiency.]

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 1:19 pm, 27th October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
recognises that food security is a major concern to the British public and that the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the conflict in Ukraine has made UK food security more important than ever before;
further recognises the strain on the farming sector due to rising farming and energy costs;
supports the Government’s ambition to produce a National Food Strategy white paper and recognises the urgent need for its publication;
notes that the UK food system needs to become more sustainable;
and calls on the Government to recognise and promote alternative proteins in the National Food Strategy, invest in homegrown opportunities for food innovation, back British businesses and help future-proof British farming.

The motion is in my name and that of Kerry McCarthy. I pay tribute to her for all her help in co-ordinating this debate, and I particularly thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for it.

Food security is a perennial concern. Even the meaning of “food security” causes concern and disagreement, but I will use this definition as a starting point—being able to feed the population at a reasonable cost, even in the face of future shocks such as a global pandemic, massive harvest failure or a general crisis of agricultural productivity caused by climate change. However, colleagues may well wish to expand on that definition and talk about a whole array of issues, for this is such a vast topic with so many important implications for farmers and for families and household food bills, particularly now that we see them rising with the cost of living crisis.

The UK is addressing the issues of food security by using new approaches to agriculture such as vertical farming, precision agriculture and genome editing. It is cutting food waste with Government policies and new technology, producing alternative proteins from cultured insects and algae—not for the faint-hearted—as well as producing plant-based meat, on which the UK leads the way, and packaging food in innovative ways to reduce damage, prolong freshness and fight off bacteria.

However, with the shocks we have suffered to our food security over the last two years—the consequences of covid and lockdowns, and now of the war in Ukraine —there is much more the Government need to do, particularly to help our local farmers. In the north-west, our 12,815 farming and growing community quietly go about their business, collectively producing a wealth of food commodities and contributing more than £726 million to the economy. Our UK farmers and growers are world leaders in food safety, animal welfare, traceability and environmental enhancements, and these values are reflected through our UK annual food and drink export value of £2 billion.

I want to focus on my little corner of the world. Over 70% of Cheshire county is still agriculture-producing, with large swathes given to dairy, sheep and cattle farming. More than 7,000 people are employed on 2,804 farm holdings covering nearly 160,000 hectares of land. We are home to some of the country’s leading dairy farms and dairies—for example, Grosvenor’s Eaton Estate in Cheshire produces more than 35 million litres of fresh milk a year, which is enough for half a million people every day. In Tatton, we have County Milk, which is a family-run business and the largest privately owned dairy ingredient company in the UK. We have the award-winning Delamere Dairy, located in Knutsford, and Bexton Cheese in Knutsford. We have the award-winning Lambing Shed, run by the Mitchell family, and Cheshire Smokehouse in Morley Green, Wilmslow. We have Mobberley Ice Cream, Great Budworth Ice Cream and Seven Sisters Farm Ice Cream—there are lots of ice creams—and Roberts Bakery. I meet my local farmers regularly, assisted and facilitated by the local National Farmers Union team.

There have always been concerns in farming, for livestock and the Great British weather are temperamental fellows to work with, but of late these issues have got bigger and they need to be addressed if we want our food strategy to work. In Tatton, our farmers, like those across the country, are facing labour shortages, energy price increases of up to 400%, fertiliser cost increases of over 150% and red diesel increases, as well as increases in rural crime. Only the other week, I met a group of local farmers at Shepherd’s farm in Aston by Budworth, which has just invested £300,000 in a new milking shed of the new cubicle type, and they all concurred that we are now seeing particularly tough times.

My farmers are renowned for good husbandry, good farming and good farming techniques, and they go to great lengths to look after their animals and land, for high-quality care leads to high-quality meat, milk and produce, but they need help to find staff and to offer competitive training and apprenticeships. New farmers entering the profession need to have a chance to get a farm, and those leaving it need a chance to relinquish a farm at a price that will provide for their retirement. Can the Minister please look into these matters as a matter of urgency? I know significant work has been done, but certainly more work needs to be done. If the Minister cannot provide a full answer today, I am more than happy for him to write to me.

Another of my constituents is Philip Pearson, who, along with other members of his family, runs a family business called the APS Group. Set up by his grandfather after the second world war in Alderley Edge, it is now the biggest tomato producer in the UK, producing approximately 650 million tomatoes a year. He has explained quite clearly that the horticulture sector in the UK is desperately short of staff to look after crops and to cope during the harvest. He would have expected 1,500 workers, out of a peak total of 2,500, from central and eastern Europe each year—from March to Christmas—but this has not been possible this year.

A question for the Minister is: can these farmers have more visas for seasonal agricultural workers—the number must rise from the current 30,000 to at least 50,000 as soon as possible—and can farmers employ Ukrainian nationals and other migrants now housed in the UK to help deliver an increase in the number of seasonal agricultural workers?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The right hon. Lady is making a very powerful case, very little of which I would disagree with, but the food strategy is not all about agriculture. The fishing industry also needs visas for crews in particular, which has been a problem for years. Through her, can I add to the Minister’s list to take to the Home Office the plight of the fishing industry as well as that of farmers?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

The right hon. Member absolutely can, and indeed he has. I expect other Members to talk about the farming in and the produce coming from their parts of the country. As I said, I am focusing on Cheshire, but I believe we all share the same concerns.

In my patch, farmers are leading the way in technology, too. In the case of APS, it is developing robotics for tomato production, starting with harvesting and going right the way through to packaging. It is putting significant money and research into this development to cope with the lack of people now coming forward to work in the farming sector. However, these robots will not be ready for four to five years, so it needs short-term help now to be able to deliver on its commitment to supply tomatoes for the country.

Farmers also care deeply about the environment. This particular farm is working hard to deliver compostable packaging. It uses its tomato plant waste to develop packaging, and it is using it for other sectors, including fake leather for car seats, coffee cups and even bactericidal treatment for the NHS. It is charged a packaging tax, yet it is developing green, biodegradable alternatives, so can the Minister let me know what incentives there are for such great British technology to help the companies providing these terrific developments, which will be used not just here, but right around the world?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Robotics is very important in my constituency of Strangford in two ways. First, for the dairy sector, it is a seven-figure sum to set up a new robotic milking dairy—my neighbours are doing that—and, secondly, it is a significant six-figure sum for those wanting to have tomato houses, as the right hon. Lady has mentioned. To make such vast investments happen, the Government must be involved, so the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs here and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back home will have to be very much part of that process.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I thank the hon. Member for joining in and adding that pertinent point.

We could not have this debate without talking about the high energy prices at the moment, with an increase of 400%, and what is happening to farms having to cope with those increased costs. For APS, this has resulted in reduced production of UK tomatoes and other foods, because the costs of production are not recovered through higher prices. Farmers must be mindful of passing on higher prices to customers—if they can, as the supermarkets and shops the food goes to will not accept them—so we must be mindful of how we support farmers.

That company has even developed a combined heat and power plant, which supplies 3 MW of power to Alderley Edge, and it uses the waste heat and the carbon dioxide from that to grow their crop. I wonder whether it can get some recognition that it uses carbon dioxide from power generation to produce food, because that would help it to offset the huge increases in energy cost. I know the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is reviewing the move from the European Union energy trading scheme to the ETS UK equivalent post Brexit, but can the Minister liaise with his ministerial colleague at BEIS and give me the latest news on that?

Food production is essential for the delivery of the environmental benefits on which the Government plan to centre in their agricultural support policy, but unless we recognise the dual role of farmers as food producers and conservationists, we risk turning farmers into environmental contractors with little incentive to continue farming. That would do enormous damage to the jobs and communities that depend on farming, as well as weaken our food security. The strategy needs to be clearer in linking food production to action against climate change and enhancing the natural environment.

My final plea is for greater clarity on food labelling, so that the high standards of British food are known and recognised—so a shopper knows the quality of the produce and where it is from. Buying British and locally, for me that means buying from Cheshire, is important not just because of the high husbandry standards of UK food but the low transport mileage to get from field to fork. That low transport mileage is particularly important if we are concerned about the environment. As my beef and sheep farmers say, it is better to have high-quality beef and lamb from Cheshire than chickpeas from halfway around the world. [Interruption.] I thank Members for the cheers for that.

On food standards, it is important when the Government are negotiating and implementing free trade agreements to avoid undermining the domestic sector for farmers and growers and reducing standards. In its report on the UK-Australia free trade agreement issued on Friday 17 June 2022, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee concluded:

“In practice it appears unlikely that food produced to lower animal welfare standards will enter the UK as a result of this deal.”

That is positive news, but my farmers are calling for greater transparency on food labelling. Like me, they believe in choice, but we only have choice when we have knowledge of what we are choosing and what we are choosing from.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

I sit on that Committee and we observed that the average size of a sheep farm in Australia is 100 times the size of one in Wales, and they practise mulesing—shearing the back- sides of sheep in a painful way without anaesthetics—and transport cattle for 24 hours. So there is a clear problem of British producers being undercut by inhumane welfare practices and massive intensity of production.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

That relates to the transparency that some people are calling for to know what they are eating and enjoying, to appreciate the difference in cost and the treatment the animals have gone through. Fair competition can only really come from accurate labelling and transparency on produce. The UK produces some of the best food in the world, with the highest standards of safety and animal welfare, and it is only right that people in this country know what they are getting.

Tatton farmers and producers are hard-working, dedicated to the sector, industrious and experts in their field, with many generations of experience. They want to help solve the food security issues that this country is facing, but along with this strategy, which goes some of the way, and along with awareness of what is happening around the world, more assistance is needed to help our farmers here and now with the problems the world is facing.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 1:34 pm, 27th October 2022

I thank Esther McVey for that comprehensive introduction. It means, I hope, that I can keep my remarks quite short. I agree on a lot of what she said, although she may not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with her about chickpeas. Hodmedod, a really good British pulse grower, has been growing them in Norfolk for the past few years and I urge her to support it in its efforts. There is so much potential and growing pulses here is really good for the soil. I can wax lyrical about things like chickpeas.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I want to explain that I make a fabulous chickpea soup and stew. If anyone would like to know the recipes, I will be more than happy to share them.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I make a very good chana dal.

The debate is about food security, which the right hon. Lady covered in detail, but also about the national food strategy. I pay tribute to Henry Dimbleby, who put a huge amount of work into the strategy. I have a well-thumbed copy of the strategy document; it is almost like a Bible to me, giving an overview of all the different aspects of food policy and what we need to do.

I think Henry should feel let down by the inadequacy of the Government’s response to that document. I want to highlight some of the things the Government should be doing more on. The work was commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and he was an executive director there. It is disappointing that the Government are not treating that as the Bible for how to take things forward.

Food poverty is now far worse than when Henry Dimbleby started that work. We have seen frightening figures from the Office for National Statistics this week showing how prices of basic foodstuffs have shot up: vegetable oil by 65%; pasta by 60%; bread by 38%. The Food Foundation recently reported that 18% of households, and 26% of households with children, have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is nearly 10 million adults, and around 4 million children. Many of those surveyed said they have cooked less, eaten food cold, turned off fridges and washed dishes in cold water because of concern about energy bills and rising inflation. Many were buying less fruit and vegetables.

On “Newsnight” last week, the former Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, said she had never seen child food poverty on this scale before. She called, as did Henry Dimbleby, for Cobra to be convened. I raised that at Cabinet Office questions this morning and got a response about how the Prime Minister wanted compassion to be at the heart of what he did, but I did not get a response on how a cross-departmental approach to tackling food poverty could be steered by the Cabinet Office. A cross-departmental approach is needed. As Henry Dimbleby said when giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week, we need a structural mechanism to drive progress. If it is not Cobra, I would like to know from the Minister what mechanism he envisages would work.

Cobra is also very good at looking at granular detail, which is important because this calls for a localised response. We can express some generalities about food poverty, but Bristol, for example, which is known to be quite a foodie place, also has two of the top five food deserts in the entire country. There are estates in south Bristol where it is very difficult to access affordable and healthy food. So this needs to be done at a local level. My first question to the Minister is about how he sees that overarching response. Would DEFRA be leading? Does he see a role for Cobra?

In terms of swift action, the national food strategy is clear that extending eligibility for free school meals is one of the best levers we have. Extending it just to families on universal credit would feed an extra 1.4 million children. Healthy Start and holiday hunger schemes are also important.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the importance of families being able to afford healthy food—all the more important given the rising cost of living. In relation to Healthy Start, she will know that take-up of these essential vouchers that provide fresh fruit and veg, and milk and vitamins to pregnant and new mums and their children is at only about 60% across the country. Will she support me in calling on the Government to work across Departments so that those applying for universal credit who are also eligible for Healthy Start are automatically registered for that Healthy Start support?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I understand it, next week she will introduce a Bill, which I very much support and I hope that the Government will, too.

I do not have much time to talk about the importance of healthy diets, but does the Minister know what has happened to the health inequalities White Paper? Will we see that soon?

The national food strategy approach on junk food is quite straightforward: it is about restricting advertising and promotions, and targeting ingredients. Some people I know are concerned that that will mean increased costs for consumers, who can ill-afford to feed their families as it is. However, the suggestion is not to tax food in the shops but, for example, to tax sugar in the huge quantities bought by the food manufacturers, so it would be in their interests to reformulate their products to avoid that tax. We saw that happen with the soft drinks levy. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about that.

There is all this concern about the nanny state and not wanting to dictate to people what they do and do not eat. However, we accept that action on smoking is important for public health reasons and that action on alcohol abuse is important. When we look at the cost to the NHS of diet-related diseases and ill health, it seems a no-brainer to me to take an interventionist approach on this, too. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot eat; it is about helping them to make the right choices for themselves and their families, making sure that the education is out there and giving financial incentives such as the Healthy Start scheme.

In terms of other levers that could be used, public procurement could make a huge difference. The DEFRA consultation on public sector food and catering closed on 4 September. Could the Minister tell us when we will hear the results from that?

This may be going back to chickpeas, but the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, who describes himself as an imperfect vegan—I suppose that is better than nothing—has introduced a scheme whereby the default option for catering in New York hospitals is plant-based. That does not mean that people cannot choose meat-based options or things that are not plant-based, but apparently it is proving to be really popular and there is good take-up. Again, that is a way of encouraging people down the path of taking a healthier option. I hope the Minister agrees that much of the food served in our hospitals—regardless of whether it is of animal origin—is not the sort of food we should be serving people we are trying to make healthier and better.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

In that regard, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that Healthy Start does support the provision of plant-based meals.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I am glad to hear that; it is a good step. I will not go into the environmental arguments. I hope that people accept that I am not trying to force people down a particular path, but the Climate Change Committee, the UN and several Cabinet Ministers have accepted that, for environmental and health reasons, we could do with reducing meat consumption.

I turn to the need for a land-use framework. I understand that the Government intend to publish one next year. Land is a finite, scarce resource, but we do not always treat it as such. We need to be strategic about how we use it for food, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and fuel. Where possible, “best and most versatile” land should be used for food growing,

It is nonsense for the Government to seek to reclassify poorer-quality soil as BMV as part of their war on solar farms. Is that ill-thought-out proposal still Government policy? It was a few weeks ago; I hope the Minister understands that I am finding it quite difficult to keep up. Could he tell me whether the proposal to reclassify poorer-quality land as BMV is still going to be brought through?

After yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, I am also not sure where the Government stand on onshore wind. Will the Minister clarify that? I am glad, however, to see that the fracking ban is back, but that one U-turn—or two U-turns—has left many casualties on the road in its wake. Again, that goes to the whole issue of what land is best used for. As Henry Dimbleby told the EFRA Committee last week, over the seven or eight decades since the war, we have been steadily producing more and more food on the same amount of land. He said:

“That is making the land sick, destroying the environment and driving out nature.”

What he said about the need for the land to be carbon-negative—not net zero—was spot on. The potential for carbon sequestration is huge, and by taking some of the least productive agricultural land out of production, we could enhance biodiversity at the same time as creating natural carbon sinks.

Some 20% of our farmland—mostly peatland and upland—produces only 3% of our calories. Henry Dimbleby argued that about 5% of that should come out of farming. The rest of the farmland would be higher yielding, with lower inputs and lower environmental costs.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

May I warn the hon. Lady about the law of unintended consequences? By way of illustration, I offer the example of my own family farm on Islay, not in my constituency but on the west coast. Our farm sits in a site of special scientific interest designed to protect choughs, which are a highly endangered species. However, chough numbers continue to decline because the way in which land is farmed discourages the presence of cattle and, to encourage chough, both sheep and cattle need to be on that land. If she is not careful, the sort of blunt tool that she is talking about could work to the detriment of the chough population.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I do not know why the right hon. Member says that I am suggesting a blunt tool.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Yes; Henry Dimbleby suggests that that 5% should come out of production. However he does not dictate that that should be anywhere that, perhaps, does not have certain productivity levels or does not do this or that. That brings me neatly to my concluding point.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I think that the hon. Gentleman will make a speech, so I will let him make his comments then.

This is where the environmental land management scheme comes in, which is a sophisticated approach and not a blunt tool. It is about looking at everything taking place on the land, including what is being done to support nature and biodiversity. I would think that the farmland mentioned by Mr Carmichael would very much come under those criteria; I hope so. My final question to the Minister is: where are we now with ELMS? Farmers are desperately seeking certainty on it. Will he confirm that the public money for public goods approach will still underpin support for our food and farming system?

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 1:47 pm, 27th October 2022

It is a particular pleasure to follow Kerry McCarthy, with whom I sat on the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, which has been disbanded. She covered a comprehensive range of issues that needed to be spoken about, so I will try not to cover some of them.

I have consistently highlighted the need for a robust food system to ensure that every one of our constituents has access to nutritious, affordable food. In achieving that, we must safeguard our countryside and restore the balance of nature. We need to reduce the health problems that result from poor diets, and we can accomplish that only by working together—both across all Government Departments and more widely in society—from field to fork.

The food system underpins our economy and security, and the health of our planet. Without restoring equilibrium to our food system, we will continue to have food production that depletes nature and makes us unwell. As the world faces ever more environmental and social challenges, ensuring a well-functioning and equitable food system becomes a matter of strategic importance. Food security depends on global peace, stability, and a healthy planet and population. We have been facing a threat to all three of those.

The war in Ukraine has seen millions across the world put at risk of starvation. Ukraine is commonly referred to as the breadbasket of the world. It boasts some of the most fertile land on Earth, with rich black soil—chernozem—perfectly suited to growing grains and producing and exporting vast amounts of barley, corn, rye and wheat. Ukraine ranks first in the world in global sunflower production and export. Even after the war is over, it is likely that up to 50% of the land will have been rendered unproductive by landmines, which will take many years to clear.

As buyers have looked to find alternative supplies, international commodity markets have faced turbulence and prices have risen. That affects the price of basic foods in shopping baskets in our local supermarkets.

Russia is one of the biggest exporters of fertilisers. Farmers in the UK have concerns about input costs—particularly about fertilisers and animal feed—as well as energy costs. Indeed, agricultural commodity prices have always been strongly correlated to the price of energy. We forget that energy prices were increasing before the war in Ukraine, and as a net importer, the UK is exposed to the increasing volatility in gas prices. Energy inputs for farms increased by 34% between January and April 2022, and farm motor fuel costs increased by 30% over the same period. That comes at a period of significant economic turmoil following the effects of a global pandemic, when the food supply chain has had to respond to a surge in demand due to panic buying. A cluster of hot, dry summers has led to crop failure and nature loss, making our land less productive. We will all notice the impact on familiar products. I read recently that there is a challenge with tomato ketchup, which is a key ingredient of Staffordshire oatcakes. It may become a rarer commodity as climate change threatens to halve the harvest in the coming years.

Fear of food shortages from multiple fronts has changed our attitude towards food. Increasingly, purchasing decisions are based on affordability and choosing the healthy option is more difficult than before. Lack of money means cold food and cold water. Some 71% of households who experienced food insecurity in the past month said they have cooked less, eaten food cold, turned off fridges and washed dishes in cold water.

When families are being faced with the question of whether to eat or heat, it is more important than ever that we should have a national food strategy in place, aligning the nation’s hunger and health with UK climate goals and UK farm sustainability. Access to good food is essential to improving life chances and health must be a focus of our food production. Whatever the cause, we must recognise that the challenges around access to a healthy diet are major indicators of inequality. As I think the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, 18% of all households experienced food insecurity last month, compared with 54% for households on universal credit, so any Government policy developed needs to address that disproportionate impact.

Foods that are bad for our health should not be the cheapest foods on the market, yet people are having to compromise the quality of their diets to cut food costs. The Food Foundation suggests that of those experiencing food insecurity, 58% said they were buying less fruit and 48% said they were buying fewer vegetables. One young person from Bite Back 2030 said:

“There’s two chicken shops about a one-minute walk from my school that sells two wings and chips for £1. A school dinner is £2.40.”

This is a serious issue. People are being forced to choose the cheapest calories, which are typically the least healthy. Families with lower incomes are not going to be driven by whether labels say food is high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. We should probably check those things, but we do not because the driver is money and that is what is affordable and within budget. Good food policy needs to reduce and rebalance the bombardment of unhealthy food and use the revenue raised to make more affordable, accessible, easy and appealing food for those on low incomes.

We see the need to work closely with the food and drink industry to ensure that our whole population can afford good food, but tackling obesity is also central to our commitment to levelling up. We need to support healthier options and behaviours by addressing social factors that lead to obesity and making them more conducive to healthy living. Underpinning any economic levelling up must be a levelling up of diet-related life choices.

Because I care passionately about the importance of fixing our food system from the triple challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and diet-related ill health, I am hosting a food summit at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent on 4 November. I am delighted that the author of the national food strategy report, Henry Dimbleby, will be opening the summit. We will have a big conversation about food, and about inspiring new thinking and embracing new expectations of our food system, celebrating innovators and shining a light on the great work already under way. I think my right hon. Friend Esther McVey mentioned some of that work on innovation already.

Under the current food system, the amount of food being produced from a given area of land has increased and the amount of other life occupying that same area of land has decreased. Data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that wheat yields in the UK have doubled from 1970 to today. Yet through that time, we have also seen the number of farmland birds decrease by 54%. We have touched on land use, so I will skip over it, but it is very important that we have a clear understanding of how we should use land.

We need to recognise the dual role of farmers as food producers and conservationists, but we have to be careful not to turn farmers into environmental contractors with little incentive to continue food farming. Therefore, the food strategy could be clearer in linking food production to action against climate change and action to enhance the natural environment. Without such action, climate change further threatens to cause crop failures and nature loss, which makes our land less productive. Our priority must be looking at how we can reduce the environmental impact of the foods we consume, while making it easier and cheaper for people to consume healthier and more nutritious food. To build national resilience to food insecurity, we need to grow—quite literally—our local food production and enable smaller food businesses to thrive.

The strategy is right to recognise that promoting local food and drink can also increase cultural identity and community pride. That, in turn, makes an area a more attractive tourist offer, while also ensuring the resilience of the local food supply and supporting farmers and small producers. Growing community involvement in the redistribution of food will help us to minimise food waste and ensure that food surplus from the supply chain is not wasted.

I welcomed the emphasis that the Prime Minister placed on delivering the 2019 manifesto commitments. The manifesto has high aspirations for agriculture, food standards, children’s dietary health and levelling up opportunities, which are impacted directly by access to good food. Research has already been conducted on health disparities, and this could be considered within the compassionate framework that the Prime Minister has committed to, so the motion has my full support.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. I hope we can manage without a time limit this afternoon. It is a good-natured debate and everybody appears to be behaving quite well. If speeches are around eight minutes, then everyone will get a fair chance.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice) 1:56 pm, 27th October 2022

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will see what I can do about that!

First of all, I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate Esther McVey on securing the debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. This is an enormously important and timely subject for the House to be debating.

The cost of food and where people put their money at the moment is probably the uppermost consideration in the minds of all our constituents. I hope the Government will bear that in mind when they think about the wider policy and strategy, because the implications for some of what we are seeing at the moment could be profound for both producers and consumers. When people are primarily driven by price—I think that is their primary consideration at the moment—and they go to a supermarket and are looking for the cheapest food on the shelf, they are not necessarily going to find it with a Union Jack, red label or saltire on it. At a time when the Government are seeking to increase, through the variety of trade deals we have, the range of foods coming into this country, which may not have been produced to the same environmental and welfare standards that we are accustomed to, the damage that could be done to our own producers could be long-term and profound.

I do not want to detain the House for too long today, not least because the right hon. Member for Tatton was comprehensive in her introduction to the debate. I can say that there was really nothing with which I disagreed in her speech—I am agnostic on the question of chickpeas, but apart from that. It is right that we should consider for a moment the role of our food producers in food strategy and food security, and particularly our fishermen, farmers and fish farmers. Aquaculture is one area of food production that offers a real opportunity for producing high-quality protein at affordable prices, but which also brings with it a number of challenges and opportunities.

This issue also strikes at the heart of the role of Government. There are things that the Government can do, such as on food labelling and encouraging people to eat more or different fish or to use food in a different way—that is perfectly legitimate. There is an obvious role for the Government, for example in the production of support payments for farmers. At other times, however, the role of Government is to get out of the way and allow food producers to get on and do what they do best. The Minister, with his background, will be alive to that tension in Government.

For farmers, fishermen and fish farmers, the many challenges result in a perfect storm. The rising cost of energy has had a wide range of impacts; the cost of fertiliser is the one that is spoken of most frequently, but the costs of running machinery, such as tractors, are also affected. With the agricultural industry facing an uncertain future, in particular, regarding the future of support payments, there is real anxiety in the industry about what the future holds.

Let me say parenthetically that the suggestion of support payments being subsidies for farmers has to stop. Support payments for farmers are actually support payments for, probably, consumers and supermarkets. It is their route to ensuring that cheap food keeps being produced in this country—it is not just farmers who benefit from support payments. One thing that the Government could do as part of the food strategy is to look at how the big supermarkets have a real, adverse impact on how farmers can get their food on to the shelves. There is a massive imbalance of power. A few years ago, we started the Groceries Code Adjudicator. It has not had the effectiveness that I hoped it would, but that issue has to be revisited through whatever means we can.

One of my frustrations relating to the future of support payments is that we see that as being about either agriculture and food production or environmental goods. From my experience as somebody who lives in and is part of an agricultural community and who was brought up on a farm, that is not an either/or—it is both. Farmers are working the land in a way that would maintain the richness of our countryside’s ecology, especially in many areas that are less productive, where the land is not of such good quality. I offered an example from my experience to Kerry McCarthy, but there are others from my constituency. I see the damage that is done to crops grown in Orkney by barnacle geese, and Orkney is not a great cropping county. The balance between what farmers can do and the challenges of nature has really fallen out of kilter there.

Our food strategy needs to be holistic; we cannot allow it to be silent on things. It is very well to say that we will have visas to bring in workers to pick fruit or to work on fishing boats, or whatever else it may be, but that is of absolutely no use if we have no housing in which to accommodate them. Housing in our rural communities is a massive issue. My hon. Friend Tim Farron speaks about that issue frequently.

On transport, it frustrates me beyond measure that it seems to be a massive surprise to our shipping companies every year that suddenly in October, crofters start wanting to sell their lambs and to export them to the Scottish mainland. We need extra capacity in our ferries at that time. A bit more joined-up thinking in Government, wherever that is, would allow us to put food policy at the heart of Government and Government strategy. In that way, there would be a win for us all.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 2:03 pm, 27th October 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy on securing it. I have been calling for a national food strategy for many years. Like the hon. Member, I agree that the food strategy is not about the nanny state; it is a road map, putting a spotlight on the path that we should tread as a nation.

The national food strategy mentions food security a lot. Many of us are concerned about that, but what is food security? Academic research on that issue found that there are more than 200 definitions of “food security”. The NFS, however, defines self-sufficiency as the ability of a nation to produce its own food, but under that definition the UK has not been self-sufficient in food security for the past 176 years. We are all aware of the problems with the blockades during the first and second world wars. The Agriculture Act 1947 was designed to improve food security, but I am not convinced that we have since achieved that.

Many people say that food security is all about shortage, but we have to ask ourselves, “Is there actually a shortage of food?” No, there is not. Global food production is forecast to be higher this year than last. If England’s 2019 wheat crop had been used for human consumption alone, it would have provided 2,500 calories per person per day for 63 million people while using less than 20% of our agricultural land.

Globally, a large share of crops are used to fuel cars and feed livestock. In the US, a third of the maize crop is turned into biofuels in a process that is worse for the climate than burning fossil fuels. Grain is expensive not because it is scarce, but because we feed most of it to livestock. Animals consume a disproportionate amount of feed to supply a small amount of meat. That ensures that 70% of farmland produces just 10% of the calories manufactured in the UK each year.

Some hon. Members will be able to see where the debate is going. The issue of meat consumption is important to many people in the United Kingdom, and the popularity of vegetarianism and veganism is more important than ever. I will declare an interest: I have been a vegetarian for 39 years—not for moral or ethical reasons, but simply because I do not like eating meat. The hon. Member for Bristol East is a vegan, probably for the same reason, so I share her love of chickpeas rather than of Cheshire lambs. There are alternatives. I would never stop anyone eating meat, and I feel that everyone has the right to do so. It is important to many people and they enjoy it, so we should let them continue to eat meat.

However, the food strategy has one area in which the Government have missed a trick: sustainable protein. The Government have the opportunity to become a global leader in the sustainable protein space. When I say protein, I mean plant-based or fermentation-made and cultivated meat, eggs, dairy and seafood. If we establish the UK at the forefront of the protein transition, we will help to make the UK’s food system more resilient, healthier and more sustainable. At the same time, the industry would align with many of the UK’s existing policy commitments, including reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, addressing the looming threat of antimicrobial resistance and championing animal welfare. It would also further cement the UK’s reputation as a climate leader and a global scientific superpower.

Making meat from plants and cultivating it from cells presents enormous opportunities to provide the British public with the familiar foods that they want, but at a fraction of the external cost to the environment and planetary health. Plant-based meat production results in up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and uses up to 99% less land than conventional meat. When produced with renewable energy, cultivated meat could cut the climate impact of meat by 92% and use up to 95% less land. In addition, those sustainable proteins are free from antibiotics and involve no risk of the emergence of zoonotic diseases, which is associated with raising and killing animals for food.

Back in June, I asked the Government whether they would consider sustainable protein as part of the national food strategy. They said that it was a very important issue, on which they were very keen, but they decided not to include it as part of the national food strategy. I therefore ask the Minister to do so today. This is an opportunity not to prevent people from eating meat, but to give them a choice. As a vegetarian, I would have the choice to eat such a product, whereas other people would have the choice of eating what is considered freshly reared meat or something that has been created. That could also help to address some of the issues surrounding food labelling. I know that many colleagues share concerns about production methods in certain religious communities, so the alternative protein market would allay some of those concerns.

I ask the Minister to do four things: establish a strategy to make the UK a global leader in the sustainable protein space; invest in open access research and development for sustainable proteins; ensure a fair and robust regulatory plan for the market; and invest to ensure a dynamic industry ecosystem. That could help many parts of the world, and the UK could really take its place as a global leader in the market. Rather than cutting down on choice, it would extend choice to our constituents.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 2:10 pm, 27th October 2022

In 2010, when the Labour Government left office, there were 26,000 people getting food from food banks. By 2021, that had increased a hundredfold to 2.6 million, and that was before the Ukraine war. Now, one in four children and one in five adults—4 million children and 10 million adults—are in food poverty, in the sixth richest country in the world. That is a catastrophe. The number of people who are in food poverty, who cannot afford to eat nutritious food and who are freezing in their house, is much, much higher than it was during the pandemic.

I am a member of the Co-operative party and the Labour party. We agree with the right to food. The right to life is in the UN charter and the UN convention on human rights, and obviously an intrinsic part of the right to life is the right to food. I support Co-op party initiatives such as Healthy Start vouchers, and it is important that they be rolled out and index-linked to keep up with inflation, but we need much more.

The co-operative movement was started by the Rochdale pioneers to stop adulterated food. It is about food, and everybody should have the right to daily nutritional food. Winston Churchill famously said that the most important asset of a country is its health; a country’s health is predicated on having enough healthy food, and the reality is that people do not have enough money to buy healthy food after taking account of the housing costs and the heating costs that they face. Amartya Sen, a famous Nobel prize winner, wrote about famines: he was focused on the developing world, but he argued that famines are not about a shortage of food, but about the conjunction of high prices with low wages in particular communities, leading to starvation.

That is what we are now on the brink of seeing in Britain. High prices are coming in—yes, because of Ukraine, but also from Brexit. The price of imports is going down as the value of sterling has gone down. We have shortages in our own production: a quarter of our fruit is not picked, we have had a mass culling of 40,000 pigs and we do not have enough people to work in abattoirs. We have problems with food production locally and with sterling being further pushed down, which is driving prices up. Some of those problems were avoidable political problems.

Alongside high prices, we have low wages. Since 2010, we have had very low growth and pay freezes. In the previous 10 years under the Labour party, or certainly in the 10 years to 2008, the economy grew by 40%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that if that trend in growth had continued, average wages would now be £10,000 higher. The country would be much more resilient to the external shocks that are now causing this catastrophe of localised famine.

The Government need to act, and act quickly. They need to think carefully about how to manage the upcoming new Budget. I know everybody thinks the national insurance abolition idea is great on the face of it, but the reality is that it will give £7.60 back to the lowest 10% and more than £1,000 back to the richest 10%. At a time when half of people on universal credit are in food poverty, we need to think very carefully about how we sustain our people and about what is right and what is effective for our nation.

We have talked about the quality of our food, but the truth is that people in poverty are often obese because they have to resort to low-nutrition, high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar products that keep them going for a long time but are not particularly good for them. That is storing up a time bomb for the NHS of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Health inequality is a real problem for us. Famously, in a 2014 study of many countries over many years, the OECD found a relationship between inequality and growth, namely that less inequality means higher growth and a bigger cake.

Health inequality is also linked to income inequality. I look forward to the White Paper, but we need to be serious. We need to feed our people to get a productive economy and a fair economy that we can all be proud of. I am from Wales, and I am very pleased about the initiatives in Wales that are providing universal free breakfasts and are now rolling out universal free lunches. For all children—for all the adults who sign their children up—that will be free in Wales. Henry Dimbleby, whose strategy I very much welcome, has welcomed that. When questioned by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I serve, about universal credit and levels of payment to make food affordable, he said:

“That is beyond my pay grade.”

But it is not beyond the Government’s pay grade to realise what the issues are. If children have affordable, nutritious food, their performance is better, their life chances are better, future tax revenues are better and NHS costs are lower. From UK plc’s point of view it makes a lot of sense, quite apart from being morally right.

I spoke only this week to an online audience of student unions across Wales. That was one group, of course, and I am not saying that they are the only group, but as hon. Members might expect, they face high rents, they live in houses in multiple occupation and their food costs and energy costs have gone up. A large proportion of them have something like £10 a week or less to live on after paying for utilities. They cannot afford their student learning materials. More than 90% of them face mental health problems. There is a cost of living crisis, and they also face an uncertain future in the jobs market and the mortgage market. We need to think very carefully about that.

Finally, I turn to food security. Having invaded the Crimea, Russia is now producing 15% more food. We should think about our food security. The cost of fertiliser has gone up, and we are reliant on too much. Our home production should be organic. We need spatial planning. We need a proper plan so that we do not end up with another wave of austerity that costs 300,000 lives. Instead, we should focus on the opportunity to provide all our people with decent food. We need a healthy and productive economy that is more equal and fairer, and a stronger, greener future for all, but I fear that that will only come with a Labour Government.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 2:18 pm, 27th October 2022

I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I say how delighted I am to see the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Mark Spencer back on the Front Bench? That is great news, because he really does know a great deal about the subject.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Esther McVey on opening the debate. I look forward to being invited to have some of her excellent chickpea soup, preferably garnished with some excellent Tatton beef. I also congratulate Kerry McCarthy. Having spent years disagreeing with her in rural debates, I agreed with nearly everything she said. On chickpeas, I hope that she agrees that one of the great challenges for British agriculture is to produce more pulses and a greater variety of them. That is absolutely possible with new varieties.

The national food strategy is an important milestone, and Henry Dimbleby was an important contributor. This week, as hon. Members have said, the price of staple foods including bread, tea, potatoes and vegetable oil has absolutely soared. Data from the Office for National Statistics collected thousands of prices from items available on supermarket websites, and food price inflation is staggering. When we look at the percentage changes in the prices of the lowest-cost products between September 2021 and 2022 we see that vegetable oil is up by 65%, pasta by 59.9%, tea by 46%, bread by 37%, and milk by 29.4%. These price increases are huge, making the weekly shop for many people simply unaffordable. The differences in price seem to be starkest in the case of food staples as opposed to luxury items: for example, the price of orange juice is actually down by 8.9%, while the price of wine has increased by only 2%. The impact on food staples will be catastrophic for those living on the breadline, who are already having to budget tightly to feed their families each week.

Food and energy prices are highly regressive, causing more of those on low incomes to pay much more as a percentage of their budgets than those higher up the income scale. Increasing food prices will soon become as big a problem as the increase in energy prices, to which much more attention has been paid in the House and elsewhere. As has already been said, 18% of all households have experienced food insecurity in the last month.

Supermarkets should be doing more to compete with each other and try to hold prices down, even if it has an impact on their profits. After all, that is what they are dictating to their suppliers—often small suppliers, some of whom will not survive this latest bout of cost and food inflation. The country’s largest supermarket, Tesco, has taken steps to ease the costs for its customers. Despite falls in profits, it is freezing prices on more than 1,000 products, while at the same time increasing the hourly rate of pay in its stores to £10.98 to help its workers.

While costs in supermarkets are soaring, the increased costs of fertiliser and feed, exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, will cause a crisis for some farmers who will undoubtedly cease to trade. The cost of potatoes in the supermarkets has recently been hiked by 13.2%, whereas farmers have seen only a 5% rise this year. I know that the hon. Member for Bristol East will disapprove, but British Sugar is to increase its wholesale sugar price by 40% by the end of the month, while sugar beet farmers have seen a substantive increase of only 30% this year, which is the first increase in three years. All this is happening in an environment where the price of fertiliser—the main cost to farmers—has increased by 300% in the last 18 months.

DEFRA urgently needs to discuss this matter with the supermarkets. They should not be raising their prices for customers by more than the increase for their suppliers, and they certainly ought not to be increasing shareholders’ profits on the back of the poorest in the country. In short, they should be exercising restraint for a short period to get us over this financial crisis. They should also continue the policy that some began during covid, and buy British wherever possible.

It is important for the Government to continue with their environmental land management scheme re-evaluation to see whether taking land out of food production for environmental schemes such as tree-planting and rewilding balances with the need to maintain the land to grow food sustainably, and to protect our own food security. In the current circumstances, in which the cost of food is so high and the poorest in our society —as has already been said—are having to rely on food banks to feed themselves, it is our duty to ensure that we can produce as much of our own food as possible to meet demand.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, because he knows a great deal about this subject—as does my right hon. Friend the Minister. Does he agree that, given the challenges we are facing, it is right to start focusing on tackling food waste? I recently met representatives of a potato business in my constituency, E. Park & Sons, and Sodexo, one of one its major clients. That focus will not just help them and their bottom line, but ensure that food is more available in these difficult times.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

My hon. Friend has raised a point that is important in two respects: it applies not only to the food retailers and processors but to individuals in their homes, where far too much food waste goes on.

As an island nation, we should not be over-reliant on imports or the global market with the shocks that can come with that, the most recent case being the war in Ukraine. In the 1980s, our self-sufficiency in food was 75%; it has now fallen to only 60%. We need to encourage as much food production in this country as possible, so that more of the food we eat is grown in this country to keep prices at a sustainable level. Since August 2021, imports of food and live animals have increased rapidly, while exports have barely moved.

I fully recognise that environmental schemes such as tree-planting and soil improvement schemes to prevent our rivers from being polluted will help to slow climate change and improve our natural environment. However, it is also the case that as global temperatures warm, vast swathes of countries near the equator will inevitably produce less food, which means that temperate countries such as ours will have to produce more to feed the world.

Environmental and animal welfare issues are often forgotten. Either animals are having to be transported for long distances to be slaughtered, or environmental damage is caused by shipping or, worse still, flying food for vast distances across the world. The way to improve the situation is to ensure that animals are slaughtered as humanely as possible close to the farm where they are kept, and to ensure that all food around the world is consumed as close as possible to the point of production whenever that is practicable.

Let me say this sincerely to my right hon. Friend the Minister: we need to be very careful about taking land out of production. It makes no sense for a 2,000-acre good-quality arable farm in Essex which was formerly growing wheat, barley, rape and field beans to be encouraged to put all its land down to grass under the countryside stewardship scheme. Let me also say to the hon. Member for Bristol East that while I fully accept that we should be taking some of our poorest land out of production for environmental schemes, we should be very careful about taking our best land—particularly grade 1 and 2 land, in the old parlance that was used when I was training —out of production for non-food-producing schemes.

No one is keener on improving and protecting the natural environment than I am. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds are eager to protect its natural beauty, and I pay tribute to my Cotswolds farmers for not only producing some of the best lamb in the country but participating fully in environmental schemes to improve biodiversity. On the other hand, everyone in the world is reliant, wherever possible, on a good supply of food at a reasonable price. If we are to reduce the amount of food that we import and have a long-term sustainable food policy, we must do more to grow and process our own food. That will help to bring down the cost of our basic food staples, helping individuals and families to shop for food without fear of what it will cost. I imagine that so many are unable to do that at present. Equally, we in the UK have the most beautiful countryside and rivers in the world, in which we need to be careful to preserve our biodiversity.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs) 2:27 pm, 27th October 2022

It is a pleasure to follow Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. I agreed with a great deal of what he said, and I should like to elaborate on some of the themes of his speech, particularly his exhortation for us to grow more of our own food in the United Kingdom. That is not only good for UK farmers and growers, but good for the health of people across these islands. It will also help us to reduce our climate footprint when we lessen our dependence on imports and global supply chains.

I do not want to labour the point, but this will be the focus of my speech. I believe that self-sufficiency plays an important part in food security, and we need to concentrate on that. A DEFRA report on food security published in 2021 stated that the UK was about 75% self- sufficient in foodstuffs that could be produced domestically. The actual consumption of UK-produced food was about 54%, which means that we were importing some 46% of the food that we consumed. When I first came across that statistic, I was interested and, indeed, shocked by the discrepancy between the two figures, but it makes much more sense when we recognise that there is a considerable variance in the level of self-sufficiency in different types of food. For example, we are 100% self-sufficient in oats and barley and lamb. That is an important statistic for me, as a proud Member for a Welsh constituency. It then goes up to 90% self-sufficiency in wheat—we heard from Dr Offord about the real contribution that wheat growers on these islands have made in the past year—and 80% in oilseed. However, the figure stands at only 54% for fresh vegetables and 16% for fresh fruit. In discussing food security, we need to consider the foodstuffs—fruit and vegetables in this particular example—of which we clearly need to grow more.

The dependence on global supply chains for so many of our imports means that, as Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown explained, we are vulnerable and exposed to shocks—be they geopolitical, climate, production or logistical—that are completely beyond our control. This Parliament has perhaps experienced a few unprecedented global shocks, the first being the covid pandemic, which wrought havoc on a lot of our food production and imports, and then, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has had a significant impact not only on grains, wheat and sunflower oil, but on many of the import costs for domestic production—I will talk more about that.

When we look to the future of our food security, increasing climate change poses a significant risk. I mentioned that we are self-sufficient to the tune of only 16% of the fruit that we consume. DEFRA’s food security report notes that:

“There are concerns about water availability for fruit and vegetable production in many of the countries on which the UK currently depends”, particularly on the equator, but also in the Mediterranean region.

When we discuss food security, we need to think about growing more of our own. Other Members have mentioned the shocking impact that food inflation is having on families across the country. I do not wish to labour that point further, but for a number of foodstuffs, the problem could be alleviated to some extent if we had greater self-sufficiency in the categories that they relate to.

The hon. Member for The Cotswolds, who I hope will forgive me for referring to him so often—I thought he made an excellent speech—mentioned the Groceries Code Adjudicator and the power of the supermarkets. It is not right for them to balance their books, or indeed to profit, on the backs of the nation’s poorest families. We know that some of their increasing costs are not being fed back to the primary producers. As we have discussed this afternoon, rising import costs—particularly for fertiliser and feedstock—and high fuel and energy costs are having an impact on primary producers, who are not getting higher prices for their goods from the supermarkets and their suppliers. The Government need to look again at how they can make the system fairer.

Personally, I think there is much to be said for moving away from the more globalised food system to a more local one. In that regard, I recognise that a great deal of work needs to be done to reinvest in the processing facilities that were once very local but have now been lost, such as mills, abattoirs and the like. They were once a feature of every village in rural areas; now, they are seldom found.

The rising costs on farmers are being fed through the system and, in turn, into shopping bills, but are not being recompensed by the major supplier and supermarkets. That is a serious issue that could be addressed by greater self-sufficiency. The food strategy is an opportunity to consider a holistic way of ensuring that more of the food that we consume is produced on these islands.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that consumers also need to be re-educated on the fact that strawberries do not grow for 12 months of the year, for example, and supermarkets will inevitably have different offers of our own produce at different times of the year?

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

I entirely agree. We should set an ambition not only to be self-sufficient in the food that we produce, but to move down to a more local and seasonal food system. One of my peeves is that it is still possible to buy fresh strawberries on Christmas Eve—consider the environmental cost, if nothing else. We as a society are sadly ignorant to that, and we need to learn it again.

I am conscious that I am running out of time, so I will finish with a warning to the Government: in our move—I hope—to becoming more self-sufficient in our food production, we must remember that we need producers to do the work on the land and, as Mr Carmichael said, in our seas. I am afraid that in a recent survey, NFU Cymru found that of the 700 farmers it spoke to, 71% intended to reduce production in the next year, and a significant number of them were also questioning whether to continue farming in the years to come, as a result partly of higher costs, yes, but also of the cumulative impact of many years of not getting a fair deal from some of the larger supermarkets for the price of the goods that they grow and rear.

Finally, I am very concerned—I think the Government can return to this—about the need for proper land-use planning and consideration. I know that the administrative burden would cross the four nations of the United Kingdom, but we know exactly the types of land that we have, down to the field level. At the moment, I fear that when it comes to certain carbon-offsetting schemes, prime agricultural land is being sold, often to corporations that intend to greenwash their own emissions rather than contributing to the nationwide effort to reduce our carbon footprint.

Even the Green Finance Observatory has expressed concerns about the current UK emissions trading scheme system. It states:

“The elephant in the room is that offsets are fundamentally not about mitigating climate change, or even about removing past emissions, but about enabling future emissions, about protecting economic growth and corporate profits.”

Too often—and, I am afraid to say, in Ceredigion—too many farms that were prime agricultural productive land have been bought by such corporations not to reduce their emissions, but to greenwash them so that they can continue business as usual. In so doing, they reduce our own productive capacity.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 2:37 pm, 27th October 2022

Given all the chat about chickpeas, I feel compelled to join in and recommend my mother’s chickpea curry or my very own Moroccan-spiced lamb shank with chickpeas. Hon. Members who want the recipes may get in touch later.

I congratulate Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy on securing this important debate. The motion before the House notes the impact of the cost of living crisis and calls for the urgent publication of the national food strategy White Paper. I presume the White Paper will build on the Government’s food strategy, which was published back in June but was, as the hon. Member for Bristol East noted, fairly disappointing and vague in its commitments, rather than a detailed response to the Dimbleby review, which spanned two volumes and more than 400 pages.

The most glaring omission from the Government’s food strategy is how they plan to feed hungry children. That is even more glaring given that the very first recommendation in part 1 of the Dimbleby national food strategy was to extend free school meals to all households on universal credit. As that report states:

“A hot, freshly-cooked school lunch is, for some children, the only proper meal in the day, providing a nutritional safety net for those at greatest risk of hunger or poor diet.”

In the majority of schools, however, only children from very low-income households—meaning an annual income of £7,400 before benefits—are eligible for free school meals after the age of seven. That threshold is much too low—I completely agree with Henry Dimbleby. That recommendation was so central to his thinking that when it became clear that the Government were not willing to make that financial commitment, he offered them the less generous alternative—in part 2 of the report—of increasing the household income threshold to £20,000, but the Government still have not moved. All we got in the Government food strategy was a vague commitment to

“continue to keep free school meal eligibility under review”.—[Official Report, 8 September 2022; Vol. 719, c. 486.]

The Government’s position cannot hold much longer, because they know it is economically, morally and politically unsustainable amid this cost of living crisis. We know from the DWP’s own data, published in part 2 of the Dimbleby report, that nearly half the families living in food insecurity—those who are skipping meals or not eating when they are hungry because they cannot afford it—do not qualify for free school meals because the earnings threshold is too low.

A few weeks ago, at one of my constituency surgeries, I met a mother who had fled an abusive partner and was skipping her mental health medication because she was trying to save the money she would have spent on her prescription to enable her daughter to have lunch at college. That is the reality of this policy.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Like the hon. Lady, I hope free school meals are realised across the rest of the United Kingdom. Will she congratulate the Scottish Government on introducing free school meals for all primary school pupils between primary 1 and 5, with a view to expanding it to primary 6 and 7? Every child in Scotland living in a household in receipt of universal credit gets a free school meal. Does she acknowledge that it can be done if there is the political will?

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I am happy to congratulate the Scottish Government, as it has long been Liberal Democrat policy to extend free school meals to all primary-age children. I am happy to welcome that development in Scotland.

The new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—or the old one, because they keep changing—Michael Gove, told a Conservative party conference fringe event that he is in favour of expanding free school meals to all children on universal credit. The case for expanding free school meals is compelling because it is not just a welfare intervention but a health and education intervention.

The Dimbleby review reminds us:

“Children who are hungry at school struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records. More generally, children who experience food insecurity suffer worse physical and mental health outcomes.”

I appreciate that I am making the case for greater public spending when the Government are desperately searching for efficiency savings, otherwise known as cuts, to pay for their botched Budget but, as with much of education and children’s policy and spending, I ask Ministers to view this as an investment in our children’s future and our country’s future. A PwC analysis found that, over 20 years, every £1 spent on free school meals for all children on universal credit would generate £1.38 in return, including £2.9 billion in increased lifetime earnings.

The Government are keen to move people off social security and into work, yet their current policy creates a huge poverty trap that actively deters families with children from increasing their hours. A single mum with three children would have to earn £3,100 a year more after tax to make up for the shortfall of crossing the eligibility threshold for free school meals. That is nonsense.

I am proud that Liberal Democrat Ministers fought tooth and nail with Conservative Ministers in the coalition Government to introduce free school meals for every infant pupil. I am proud that Liberal Democrat Richmond Council has, this half-term, prioritised free school meal vouchers, even though the Department for Education does not fund free school meals during half-term. I am proud that it was a former Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales who, during the pandemic, led the way in ensuring that children got free school meals in every school holiday when the Westminster Government had to be shamed by Marcus Rashford into doing the same for English children.

Liberal Democrat Members will continue to campaign for every child living in a household receiving universal credit to get a free healthy school meal. During the cost of living crisis, we think there is a strong case for extending free school meals to all primary schoolchildren. If that is too much for the Minister to stomach, I beg him, as an absolute bare minimum, to agree to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education about increasing the £7,400 threshold. The threshold has not increased since it was introduced in 2018, yet prices have risen by almost 16%.

The Government’s food strategy reminds us that school food is an invaluable lifeline for many children and families, especially those on low incomes, but with 800,000 children living in poverty not eligible for free school meals and with one in four households with children now living in food insecurity, too few children who need a free lunch are getting one.

One school leader in the north of England told me last week that, for the first time ever, parents were coming into some of his schools asking for a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. He is now contemplating the introduction of a free evening meal for many children in his academy trust. He is not sure how he will pay for it, because we know that nine in 10 schools will be in deficit by next September.

I read this morning that our new Prime Minister thinks education is a silver bullet, and I agree. It is the reason why I am in politics. I believe education can open doors and opportunities for every child, no matter what their background, but a hungry child cannot learn. The moral and economic case for taking action on this issue is clear. Ministers must urgently intervene so that no child goes hungry at school.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:45 pm, 27th October 2022

It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. We had a similar debate in Westminster Hall yesterday morning, and I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He has a deep practical interest in this subject, so I believe he will give us the answers to our questions.

I thank Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy for setting the scene, and I thank every Member who has contributed to this debate. Madam Deputy Speaker, you are right to say this has been a good-humoured debate, and there is agreement on both sides of the House about supporting the thrust of the national food strategy.

I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, which is similar to the National Farmers Union over here, and as a landowner and farmer. The world has been devastated by the adverse effects of the pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, and we in Northern Ireland also have the Northern Ireland protocol. The Minister will not be surprised that I bring it up, because it clearly has an impact by continuing to subjugate Northern Ireland and damaging small food producers.

The United Kingdom still imports 46% to 47% of its food. Many people seem to be pushing reforestation, but we need to retain productive agricultural land, so I seek confirmation from the Minister that good land will continue to be used for food production. I understand that we cannot produce all the food we consume, but we need to address that issue, too. The inescapable detriment to us of the Northern Ireland protocol has been left to fester. Food and drink entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain could be hit with hundreds of pages of paperwork, hours of border checks and millions of pounds of extra cost.

In my constituency, Lakeland Dairies, Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces all produce goods that they export. Lakeland Dairies exports almost 70% of its products, across the whole world. It has four factories in Northern Ireland and five in the Republic of Ireland, so it faces a delicate and complex issue when it comes to continuing to produce; it services a large number of dairy farmers across the whole of Northern Ireland. In my constituency, there are almost 3,000 jobs in those sectors and across the whole of Northern Ireland 100,000 jobs depend on agriculture for their future. So the situation with the protocol is the very antithesis of food security and it has the potential to severely damage supply chain resilience in Northern Ireland. That highlights the need for the smooth passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to ensure that we in Northern Ireland to continue to produce.

The House cannot ignore and disregard the invaluable contributions of the Northern Ireland farming industry. About 75% of Northern Ireland’s countryside is farmed in some way and 80% of Northern Ireland’s produce is exported. The industry is vital for the Northern Ireland economy, employing more than 3.5% of the total workforce, which surpasses the UK average of 1.2%. Again, that underlines the true importance for us in Northern Ireland of the agriculture sector. Mr Carmichael is not in his place, but he referred to fishing, which is so important for us. I know that the Minister knows that, but if he gets the opportunity to come to Northern Ireland, we will show him some of the factories I mentioned and perhaps arrange a visit to Portavogie as well.

There are measures in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that are needed to address concerns in agri-industry, such as on veterinary certificates and on country of origin. As many Members are aware, my constituency has prolific farming, and I have already mentioned the fishing communities in Portavogie; we are seeking to increase those numbers. We face some workforce issues, which the Minister is aware of. We wish to contribute to and increase the UK’s national food security.

The right hon. Member for Tatton referred to robotics, and in farming of all types, be it cattle or tomato production, we see vast steps forward that will reduce the number of people we need to be involved. Robotics will be brought more into play. Again, I ask the Minister for more clarity on that and more help for farmers, who may have a lot of money to find. We must also combine productive farming, in order to sustain livelihoods and meet the growing demand for food, with sustainable methods.

I should also make a point to the Minister about partnerships involving universities. For example, Queen’s University Belfast has a partnership with business to produce new varieties of cereals and so on, which can give a 20% bigger yield. That is another thing that we need to look at—how what we put in the land can produce more. That will help us across the world. The title of this debate is “National Food Strategy and Food Security”, which makes it clear that this is about the national position, but we also have an obligation to look after other parts of the world.

However, we cannot reap the true benefits of the Northern Irish farming and fishing industries if the protocol continues to erect a border down the Irish sea, preventing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We need the fit-for-purpose Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, as it is, in order to secure food for the entire UK and not simply to fix the protocol for the people of the Province, although that really should be enough of a reason to implement it. I look to the Minister to be committed to it, as it will put us on an equal status with everywhere else. That is as it should be.

Photo of Claudia Webbe Claudia Webbe Independent, Leicester East 2:52 pm, 27th October 2022

I thank Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy for proposing this important debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

The first job of Government is to keep people safe and well. No debate on food strategy and food security is worth its name if the issue of hunger within this country caused by the UK’s gross structural inequality is not addressed. In the UK, in September, 4 million children did not have enough to eat—that is one out of every four households with children. About 3 million of those children have working parents and still face hunger, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. An even higher number, one in three of our children, live in poverty and could tip into hunger at any moment. At the same time in our country, one in seven adults—about 8 million people—were forced to miss meals because they could not afford food as well as other essentials.

In my constituency, 42% of children have been living in poverty, a percentage that will only have risen as household bills rocket. The UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty visited the UK only four years ago and was shocked at what he saw then. He said that the issues of poverty, hunger and inequality were not expensive to fix, and that the Government could easily put them right if they chose to. Instead, the situation has been allowed to become much worse. Some would say that it has been knowingly accelerated. No food strategy adopted by the Government that does not address these issues is fit for purpose.

Equally, if the national food strategy does not protect the most vulnerable in society from food price increases, it may do more harm than good. There is no guarantee that the corporate giants in the food industry will not pass on tax costs to consumers. The Government must take steps to ensure that these businesses are not simply passing the cost of any future tax on sugar or salt on to consumers in order to maintain profits to pay excessive shareholder dividends and senior staff bonuses. There is no honour in making the poor pay for the rich.

The Government’s obligations under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights states that citizens must have access to affordable food without compromising other basic needs. But we already know that people are forced to compromise—forced to choose between eating or heating their homes. What work has been done to assess the imposition of a regulatory obligation on supermarkets, which wield incredible power, so as to protect the price of food staples to provide quality, nutritious foods to consumers on a cost recovery-only basis? I hope that the Minister can advise on the work that has been done in that regard. The Government have the power to stop allowing the UK to be a food bank nation and to stop forcing citizens to make such choices. The nation’s poverty and hunger is a political choice made here.

Ian Byrne is running a campaign for adequate nutrition to be recognised as a human right in the UK, which would force the Government to take responsibility for ensuring that everyone in this country is well fed, regardless of their financial circumstances. This is a duty that this Government have shamefully neglected—just ask any teacher how many of their pupils come to school hungry each morning and struggle to study as a result, which damages their prospects of any kind of improvement in their situation.

My constituents will want to know why the Government are allowing this situation not only to continue but to explode, and why having enough to eat and decent wages to allow people to feed their children is not a human right in this country. Tragically for such people, under this Government the disaster is only set to get worse. Ultimately, I believe that the primary recommendation of the national food strategy must be to make healthy food available to the nation on supermarket shelves, priced without profit and on a cost-recovery basis only, in order to honour the Government’s obligation to ensure that everyone has the right to food.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:58 pm, 27th October 2022

I congratulate Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy on raising this important issue. This has been a largely consensual debate. I will try not to spoil that tone, perhaps unsurprisingly, Madam Deputy Speaker —not by much, anyway.

It is almost unbelievable that here we are in 2022 discussing food security, but such is the range of issues we face that we now have to confront the fact this is becoming an increasingly pressing problem. There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine has had its effect, just as recovery from covid has forced us all to look at this agenda. Governments throughout the world are now looking at their strategies to deal with what is clearly an emerging crisis.

However, it is not just here in the developed world; we also have to look at what is happening in the developing world. The International Development Committee reminded us of that, because we have not just the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the covid pandemic, but the climate crisis. Some of the biblical scenes that we have seen, particularly from the Horn of Africa, would chill any Member of this House to the bone.

In the UK, though, we have a particular and distinct problem, and it has not been mentioned at all today, which is really surprising. It is the thing that has caused most of the issues that we have in this country—Brexit. Brexit has made sure that we in the UK have a range of issues and problems that are not shared by any other comparable country in the world. It has led to a set of circumstances, which are not seen elsewhere, that have negatively and adversely impacted this country. It is just so surprising that, in all the contributions that we have had today, Brexit is the one word that has not been mentioned.

As well as Brexit, there are the economic policies that have been implemented by this Government, which have made things so much worse. Inflation in this country is running at 10.1%, which is way above anything that we see in Europe and the rest of the developed world. We have negative GDP, when GDP everywhere else is growing. Food prices are way above the 10.1% headline inflation rate. They have jumped by 14.6%, led by the soaring cost of staples such as meat, bread, milk and eggs.

We now have a term for what is going on in households across the United Kingdom. It is called “low food security”, which is where households reduce the quality and desirability of their diets just to make ends meet. Worse than that, we also have the term “very low food security”, which is where household members are reducing their food intake because they lack money or other resources for food. I know that it gets said an awful lot in this House, but it is probably an understatement to say that this winter many households will face the uncomfortable choice of whether to eat or to heat. This, in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, should shame us all.

However, it is Brexit that remains the biggest homegrown issue that has singled out the UK for particular misery, and has hampered the UK’s food production, acquisition and security. Brexit has meant that we have had to deprioritise our domestic food production, because we now have to secure these free trade deals, supporting cheaper, imported food. We have now got to the stage where the UK’s food self-sufficiency is below 60%, compared with 80% two decades ago.

In 2020 the UK imported 46% of the food that it consumed, 28% of which came from Europe. This means that the UK imports more than it exports, particularly when it comes to fruit and vegetables. That is something that will only increase unless it is addressed. In days such as these, particularly given the experience of the Ukraine war, we should be building resilience in domestic food production, but instead we are threatening it with these unbalanced trade deals.

We need only look at the deals that were struck with Australia and New Zealand to see how the market has become vulnerable to lower standards and open to cheap imports. The NFS addresses some of these issues. What it says, which I hope the Government will take on board, is that Governments should agree only to cut tariffs on products that meet our standards here in the UK.

Cheap imports are such an issue now that a farmer in my constituency has said to the BBC today that he is giving away a crop of blueberries, which would normally be worth £3 million, to the charity sector and to food banks. He reckons that that crop, which would usually get £3 million, has lost £1 million in value. It is not economically worth it for him now to take that crop to market. Donating that crop shows incredible generosity, but how have we got to this situation? This is a farm that has been in business in a very productive area of Strathmore in my constituency for more than 100 years. It is having to give away a crop because there is no value in harvesting it.

All over the UK, farmers and food producers are concerned about the pressures of rising input costs on their businesses. The National Farmers Union says that while growers are

“doing everything they can to reduce their overheads…double or even triple digit inflation” continues to cripple the sector.

This is agflation, and it is so bad that fruit and vegetable growers face inflation rates of up to 24%. Those rapidly rising costs could lead to a drop of 10% in production and more produce being left unharvested. I know the NFU has written to the Government to call for urgent action to help UK farmers to produce enough food to keep supermarkets stocked and prices affordable.

I like the strategy; I think it is a very good thing, and I hope the Government implement it and take its recommendations seriously. Recommendation 8 calls for a guarantee that agricultural payments will stay in place until 2029. That must now happen to create a semblance of certainty. Recommendation 11 also says that £1 billion should be invested

“in innovation to create a better food system.”

So far, the Government have not committed to that, and all we hear about is closing budgets.

Thankfully, agricultural support in Scotland is entirely devolved, and we are crafting a new agriculture Bill as we speak, consulting with the sector on the way forward. Unlike the UK’s approach to farm subsidies, the Scottish Government are maintaining a singular fund that will maintain pre-Brexit levels of support for farmers. The Scottish Government are doing everything they can within their limited powers and their budget envelope to ensure food security, and are consulting on the Bill to ensure that happens. At the heart of the Bill will be support for active farming, delivering high-quality, sustainable, affordable food while meeting climate change and biodiversity goals.

But the Scottish Government are doing so much more; I want to touch on free school meals, which Munira Wilson raised, because we have the most generous universal free school meal entitlement of any UK nation. In Scotland, all children from primary 1 to primary 5 are entitled to free school meals during term time, as well as all children from households in receipt of universal credit, saving them an average £400 per year. That combines with the Scottish child payment, which has just been doubled to £20 a week and will be increased to £25 in November, which will also help Scottish families.

We are doing what we can to ensure that we help our constituents and the people of Scotland through this time, but we need the recommendations in this strategy—this very good piece of work—implemented as quickly as possible, and we must do more to ensure that we are food secure and doing what we can to help and serve our constituents.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:07 pm, 27th October 2022

I, too, congratulate Esther McVey, my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy and the Backbench Business Committee on enabling this debate. I thank all hon. Members across the House for their excellent contributions and congratulate the Minister on his reappointment. I also pay tribute to all those who produce our food—the farmers, the fishers, the people in the processing sector, the retail workers and the delivery workers who keep Britain fed.

This debate is timely, but frankly it is very late—astonishingly, the UK has not had a proper food strategy since the last days of the Labour Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and others pointed out, we do at least have the widely welcomed Dimbleby report, called “The Plan”, which is significant in the absence of any plan from this Government—and not just the absence of a plan, but an abrogation of responsibility. It is the same old approach from this Government, leaving the food system to the supermarkets and saying, “Let them sort it out.” That is not good enough —not good enough at all.

The reason that is not good enough is because of what we have been hearing from hon. Members across the House. I will not repeat all the statistics, but Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown outlined some of the figures from the Office for National Statistics, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East. The appalling rise in staple prices is hitting people hard and the knock-on effect, as outlined by the Food Foundation, is that one in four households with children experienced food insecurity in September. That is a very bad place for this country to be in.

I will turn briefly to the furore around environmental land management plans for the future, which came about after the previous Secretary of State, Mr Jayawardena, instigated a review. That review gave rise to a whole train of concerns, with people speculating about just how committed the Government were to the “public money for public goods” approach. On the Labour side, we have consistently warned that complexity in those schemes would lead to low take-up. That is why we joined calls to move at pace to make them work, but it would be helpful if the Minister could give us some clarity about what the position now is. Perhaps he could today give precise details on the number of farmers who are taking up the schemes. He was reluctant to answer that question on Tuesday, although he admitted that sustainable farming incentive take-up was low, which confirmed what we had learned from the answer to a recent written question. If the money is not allocated, where will it go? I asked that question during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020.

Moving back to the food strategy, we are two iterations of Government further on since it was produced, so perhaps the Minister can confirm where we stand on that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Geraint Davies for raising school food and obesity. The new Secretary of State has just come from the Department of Health and Social Care, but we need a strong anti-obesity strategy. Some of the mood music coming from the new Secretary of State in her previous job did not exactly convince me that she is an interventionist on such issues, so will the Minister at least tell us where the current measures in the anti-obesity strategy stand?

Will the Minister also tell us where the Government are on supply chain fairness, on Dimbleby’s very important suggestions on data, and on the future of the Groceries Code Adjudicator? At a time of such pressure on producers, the notion that in the name of deregulation the role of the GCA will be subsumed into the Competition and Markets Authority rightly caused huge alarm. Given the CMA response a couple of days ago, which was subtle but, I thought, damning of the Government’s responses, perhaps the Minister could tell us where that has got to. Where is the review of the dairy sector? Where has the review of the pork sector got to?

Let me move briefly on to food security and land use. There is an e-petition attached to the debate, and these issues have clearly been much discussed. We have been arguing for a long time now that we need a national land use framework. We note the work of the Lords Committee, and that the previous Secretary of State admitted that he did not much like plans in general, so what is the Minister’s view? Will he explain the Government’s position?

Briefly, I will raise the issue of bird flu. We raised it in the debate on Tuesday, and we know that it is very serious. I genuinely hope that the Minister will come back to the House with a statement soon. There are a range of important issues around housing orders, the supply of catchers, culling capacity, Animal and Plant Health Agency resource, and compensation. Without compensation, producers will not have the confidence to restock. Relying on imports would be pretty risky when other neighbouring countries are suffering similarly. This is really important in terms of food security. Chicken and eggs are pretty basic components of what we eat. It is a horrible disease, and it is dreadful to see what has happened to the wild bird population. It is awful for those working in the industry, and it is worthy of the Government giving it some attention on the Floor of the House.

When we look at the whole area of food policy, the conclusion that we come to is that there is a series of unconnected initiatives, whether in farming, fishing or food, and a lack of an overall plan. In particular, as Lord Deben has commented in the other place, there is no overall plan to meet the vital climate targets, which are so important given the issues we face.

The Government may not have a plan, but the Opposition do. We have a plan for the future of the country’s food strategy and security. We want to make, buy and sell more in the UK. We stand by the principles of public funds for public goods, but we see delivering food security harmoniously with the environment as a public good in itself. We will use public procurement contracts to drive the purchase of locally sourced food. We will introduce breakfast clubs to help to tackle some of the school food poverty and obesity challenges that people have referred to. With Labour, every public body will be tasked with securing more contracts with local producers, and we will legislate to require reporting on how much they are buying from domestic sources with taxpayers’ money, which we believe will help British farmers and local food producers.

Labour is committed to fixing the food system in order to meet the health and environmental challenges identified by Henry Dimbleby in his national food plan, to end the growing food bank scandal, to ensure that all families can access healthy, affordable food, and to improve our food security as a country. With Labour, Britain will buy, make and sell more here, and ensure that our schools and hospitals are stocked with more healthy food produced locally. We will change the food system to meet the health and climate challenges of our age, and we will do it by having the plan that the current Government so sorely lack.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:14 pm, 27th October 2022

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Esther McVey and Kerry McCarthy on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time for it.

We are fortunate in the United Kingdom to have a highly resilient food supply chain that is built on strong domestic production and imports via sustainable trade routes, but it is worth acknowledging that food security has become a very hot topic politically. When I was elected in 2010, I highlighted food security as a very important topic in my maiden speech. It is not new to me; it is something I have been worrying about and concentrating on for most of my political career.

But we can meet these challenges. Domestic production figures have been very stable for most of this century. We produce 61% of all the food we need and 74% of that which we can grow in the UK. Those figures have changed little over the past 20 years. When food products cannot be produced here, or at least not on a year-round basis, British consumers have access to them through international trade. That supplements domestic production and ensures that any disruption from risks such as adverse weather or disease does not affect the overall security of the UK’s supply chain. I acknowledge that, as many Members have said, educating our consumers on what is seasonal and what is grown in the UK is a very healthy thing to do.

Across the UK, 465,000 people are employed in food and non-alcoholic drink manufacturing. We are proud to have a collaborative relationship with the industry, which allows us to respond to disruption effectively, as demonstrated in the response to the unprecedented disruption to supply chains during the covid-19 pandemic. DEFRA monitors food supply and will continue to do so over the autumn and winter period. We work closely with the industry to keep abreast of supply and price trends, which will be particularly important in the run-up to Christmas.

We recognise that rising food prices are a big challenge for household budgets. The latest figures for year-on-year food and drink prices show an annual rate of inflation of 14.6% in the year to September 2022, up from 13.1% in August 2022. While we remain confident in sectors being able to continue to deliver products to consumers, my Department continues to work to identify further options that will help businesses to reduce costs and pass on those savings to consumers.

The Government have committed £37 billion of support to households with the cost of living. That includes an additional £500 million to help with the cost of household essentials, bringing total funding for that support to £1.5 billion. In England, this is in the form of an extension to the household support fund, running from 1 October 2022 to 31 March 2023.

We must be prepared for the future. That is why we published the Government’s food strategy in June, setting out our plan to transform our food system, and I have a copy of it here. Daniel Zeichner said we had not given any thought to that; I hope he has had an opportunity to read the Government’s food strategy, to which the hon. Member for Bristol East referred. The strategy puts food security right at the heart of the Government’s vision for the food sector. It sets out our ambition to boost food production in key sectors and to create jobs, with a focus on skills and innovations, ensuring that those are spread across the whole country. Our aim is to broadly maintain the current level of food we produce domestically and boost production in sectors where there are the biggest opportunities. Setting this commitment demonstrates that we recognise the critical importance of domestic food production and the role it plays in our food security.

As the Prime Minister said only this week, at the heart of this Government’s mandate is our manifesto, which includes our commitment to protect the environment. The Government are introducing three environmental land management schemes that reward environmental benefits: the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery.

Our farming reforms are designed to support farmers to produce food sustainably and productively, and to deliver the environmental improvements from which we will all benefit. I assure the House that boosting food production and strengthening resilience go hand in hand with sustainability—we can do all those things. We can make sure that we increase biodiversity, we can improve the environment and we can continue to keep ourselves well fed in the UK.

Although our food supply chains remain strong, some specific commodities have been affected by the invasion of Ukraine, especially sunflower oil. The Government are supporting industry to manage those challenges. For example, DEFRA worked closely with the Food Standards Agency to adopt a pragmatic approach to the enforcement of labelling rules, so that certain alternative oils could be used in place of sunflower oil without requiring changes to the labels. DEFRA will continue to engage with the seafood sector, including the fish and chip shop industry, to monitor the impacts and to encourage the adoption of alternative sources of supply, which will be of great importance to Mr Carmichael.

The food strategy announced our intention to publish the land use framework, to which several hon. Members referred. We will set out our land use change principles to ensure that food security is balanced alongside climate, environment and infrastructure outcomes. We are seeking to deliver as much as we can with our limited supply of land to meet the full range of Government commitments through multifunctional landscapes.

We also need to recognise that the production of food and the support of our farmers have an impact on those landscapes. It is no coincidence that the beautiful stone walls in North Yorkshire, which tourists enjoy going to see, are there to keep sheep in. If we remove the sheep—

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

And the Cotswolds, I hear an interested hon. Member say from a sedentary position. Similarly, it is worth recognising that the beautiful rolling moors of Exmoor and Dartmoor look as they do only because of the food that is produced and the sheep that graze on them.

The food strategy also sets out the significant investments that are already being made across the food system, including more than £120 million of joint funding with UK Research and Innovation in food systems research and innovation; £100 million in the seafood fund; £270 million across the farming innovation programme; and £11 million to support new research to drive improvements in understanding the relationship between food and health. That is vital; agritech and investment in new technologies will help us on the way.

We are taking steps to accelerate innovation by creating a new, simpler regulatory regime to allow researchers and breeders to unlock the benefits of technologies. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton talked about her constituent who is producing an awfully large number of tomatoes—I forget how many.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That could produce quite a lot of ketchup. New technologies in harvesting and production will assist those industries as we move forward. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be here to support the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill as it passes through the House on Monday.

In the eight minutes that I have been allowed, it has not been possible to answer all the questions of Back Benchers. I think there were 11 speakers, which would have given me 40 seconds to respond to each contribution. If there are comments or questions that I have missed, however, I would be more than happy to write to hon. Members; I understand that this is a topic of great interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Food has rarely been as high on the Government’s agenda. It is a critical issue and the Government are prioritising it accordingly. We have already seen the high resilience of our food supply chains, but my Department will continue to work closely with the industry to address any evolving issues. We will prepare for the future by investing in research and innovation. Our farming reforms will help to support farmers to maintain higher levels of food production, and we will protect the environment at the same time.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The Minister’s speech prompts me to heap praise on the great farmers of the Ribble Valley. We have a lot of stone walls there too.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 3:24 pm, 27th October 2022

I want to thank all Members in the House for coming here today and taking part in this debate on food security and the national food strategy. It has been wide-ranging and timely, there has been much consensus across the House and it has been highly constructive. It has only been possible because of the hard work of Kerry McCarthy in making sure so many people were here.

A lot of Members, including Claudia Webbe, focused on food poverty, and securing food for children at school and families right across the country. Kate Green wanted support for her Healthy Start scheme (take-up) Bill, which is coming forward. Munira Wilson focused on free school meals and how we can help those most in need.

Looking for solutions and moving forward, my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown also focused on the cost of living and food price increases, but also on how we are going to grow more in this country and utilise our land more to bring prices down. Jim Shannon talked about partnerships, with universities, businesses and farmers coming together to get healthier crops, again so that we can bring food prices down.

My hon. Friend David Rutley had a close eye on food waste and what we can do there. I want to take a moment to talk about my hon. Friend Jo Gideon, who talked about affordability, healthy options and the sacrifices people are making to feed the family. Most importantly, she has a food summit coming up on 4 November, and Henry Dimbleby will be there to open it. My hon. Friend Dr Offord focused on the future technology of food—a passion I share—as well as sustainable proteins and plant-based protein alternatives to meat. That is something this country does very well, and it is an expertise we should really push and drive forward to help our country, but also other parts of the world.

I cannot forget Mr Carmichael, who spoke so passionately about his fish farmers, and Ben Lake, who talked about exposing the geopolitical shocks that we have suffered.

I want to thank the Minister, who is knowledgeable in this matter—he has spent his life in this area—but I want him to know that there will be constant pressure coming from all Members of this House on food security and on looking at what we need to do to make sure we have it. I again thank all Members for taking part in this debate.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Just for accuracy, the right hon. Lady referenced the hon. Member for Swansea East, but did she mean Geraint Davies?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hesitate to correct my right hon. Friend Esther McVey, but she referred to my old constituency of Cirencester and Tewkesbury. It is of course now The Cotswolds.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Wonderful—two corrections for Hansard.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
recognises that food security is a major concern to the British public and that the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the conflict in Ukraine has made UK food security more important than ever before;
further recognises the strain on the farming sector due to rising farming and energy costs;
supports the Government’s ambition to produce a National Food Strategy white paper and recognises the urgent need for its publication;
notes that the UK food system needs to become more sustainable;
and calls on the Government to recognise and promote alternative proteins in the National Food Strategy, invest in homegrown opportunities for food innovation, back British businesses and help future-proof British farming.