Food Security

– in the House of Commons at 2:55 pm on 21 March 2024.

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[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Insect decline and UK food security, HC 326; Second Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental change and food security, HC 312, and the Government response, HC 646; Seventh Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2022-23, Food security, HC 622, and the Government response, Session 2023-24, HC 37; Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 30 January and 12 March 2024, on the UK Government’s work on achieving SDG2: Zero Hunger, HC 112; and e-petition 611113, Ban development on agricultural land to increase food self-sufficiency.]

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I will call Philip Dunne to move the motion and will put an advisory 15-minute limit on the clock, which I am sure will be helpful.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 2:57, 21 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of food security, including the effects on it of environmental change and of insect decline.

I start by thanking the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate on food security, as covered in recent reports by the Environmental Audit Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, chaired respectively by myself and my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I look forward to their contributions.

Food security affects us all. We all want enough food to feed ourselves and our families. I declare a particular interest in this area as a food producer myself, having held responsibility for my family farm for over 30 years. Our reports are, we hope, in the broadest sense complementary, in that each Committee recognises threats to the country’s food security and makes recommendations to Government on how to mitigate those threats. It may be hard to imagine the UK not having access to enough food to feed our population, but the truth is that British people have already felt the effects of climate change on our plates. Cold snaps and floods in Spain and Morocco were partly to blame for empty salad shelves in our supermarkets last year. We know that extreme weather events both at home and abroad are likely to become more frequent. Cost of living pressures mean that there are households in this country for which insecure access to food is already a daily reality. I commend colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their work on household food security.

In the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry, we looked at how to keep Britons fed in the face of environmental change. What we found is that food production and environmental change are—not to put too fine a point on it—mutually destructive. Climate change and biodiversity loss threaten to undermine not just food production itself, but the whole food system. Colleagues on the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee have drawn attention to a particular aspect of this relationship in their recent report on insect decline and UK food security.

Our global food system is itself one of the biggest drivers of environmental change, contributing to those very factors that undermine food security. In our inquiry, we heard that British farming is responsible for only 0.5% of the UK’s gross domestic product, but 12% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the food system is responsible for 30% of carbon emissions, but 50% of biodiversity loss.

We framed our findings around three pillars. First, we need to adapt our food and farming system to become more resilient to the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Secondly, we must mitigate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on our food system. Thirdly, we must mitigate the damage to the environment that some aspects of our food system may cause.

According to the latest annual statistics of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK produced 58% of its own food in 2022 and imported the remaining 42%. My Committee took the view that prioritising, sustaining and improving our dependence on home-grown produce would be key to keeping Britain nourished while protecting the planet. That will be particularly important for foods that are vital for our health but where we currently rely on imports. For example, we currently import 84% of our fruit. We cannot rely on domestic produce alone and even if we did it, would not guarantee food security. We heard that an exclusive focus on producing food here would make us more vulnerable, not less, to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, which are becoming more common not just in other countries, but here in the UK. Food produced here is dependent on the wider global food system. British food still relies on imported fertiliser, pesticide and animal feed.

We know all too well that the global food system does not exist in a vacuum. Health crises, such as the covid pandemic or avian flu; geopolitical crises, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world’s breadbasket; and global supply pinch points, such as the blockage in the Suez canal all affect supply chains, prices and protectionism, and compound the effects of environmental change. We have seen all those things in the course of this Parliament.

When food insecurity is exacerbated by environmental change it can lead to conflict, with devastating consequences. Incidentally, that is why our Committee has just this week launched a new inquiry into the effects of climate change and wider security issues, and I encourage anybody who is interested, including those interested in the impact on food security, to submit evidence by the end of April.

Today, we have published the Government’s response to our report on environmental change and food security, and I wish to thank the Minister and his officials who have engaged with our report. There is much in the response that we welcome, and I would like to focus my remarks this afternoon on some of the responses to the issues that the Committee highlighted in our report.

Under the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government are required to produce a food security assessment every three years. Although that is welcome, in view of the growing risk of volatility of food supplies, we urge the Government in our report to move to an annual publication of its food security report, with which colleagues on the EFRA Committee agree. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that the Government will introduce an annual food security index and encourage them to find parliamentary time to put this on to a statutory footing at the earliest opportunity.

We found that one of the easiest wins in shoring up UK food self-sufficiency and mitigating the environmental impacts of our food system is to prevent the food that we have produced from going to waste, so I also welcome the £15 million that the Prime Minister recently announced to stop farm food going to waste. I would appreciate it if the Minister confirmed whether he agrees that the Government’s strategy for preventing food and drink waste, as outlined in their waste prevention programme for England, would be greatly enhanced if it included some targets and timescales for reducing food waste, as was recommended by my Committee.

In response to our report, the Secretary of State committed to taking a decision in the next four to six months on compulsory food waste reporting by businesses. I encourage him to do so before Dissolution. I also encourage the Minister to look at accelerating the regulation of insects as a high-protein source—something that has now been approved by the EU. Insects can be reared on organic waste streams, including food waste, to create a domestic alternative to soy imports for animal feed. It is potentially a tremendous way to have an impact in this area by reducing the millions of tonnes of soy imported for animal feed from countries at risk of deforestation, for example.

One of the key ingredients for food security is healthy soils, which face degradation from increasing droughts, flooding and more intense rainfall brought about by climate change. I welcome the new Government commitment to publish a progress report on the development of a soil health indicator by June. Ensuring that farmers have access to clear information to help to measure the health of their soils, which is a fascinatingly complex subject, is incredibly important, so I am pleased that the Government accepted our recommendation to publish guidance for farmers on soil monitoring. I believe that today the EFRA Committee is publishing the Government response to its report on soil health, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby might refer to in his remarks.

The other key ingredient is water, so I am particularly pleased that the Minister for water is responding to the debate. Food producers need enough of it, and they need it to be clean. My Committee recommended that the Government look holistically at managing water demand so that farmers have enough water in the right place at the right time to be able to feed the nation.

The Government’s commitment to consider more robust water efficiency standards is welcome as a demand control measure, as is their commitment to a third round of the water management grant later this year. We pointed out that the scheme will benefit only a small proportion of farmers in England. Will the Minister state what proportion of farmers he expects to benefit from the water management grant, specifically for establishing on-farm reservoirs and for precision irrigation technology to help British farming to become more water-efficient and better prepared for hotter, drier summers?

Turning briefly to consumption, what we choose to eat can have a big impact on the planet, which clearly affects our future food security. The choices that we make now will affect how much choice we have in the future. In response to our report, the Government pointed to Public Health England’s guidance, the Eatwell Guide, stating:

“Given that most people in the UK do not currently follow a diet in line with government dietary recommendations, improvements in population dietary intakes in line with the Eatwell Guide would go a significant way to meeting sustainability targets.”

All very laudable stuff. What will the Government do to encourage more people to follow this beneficial guidance? Surely if it is well-evidenced advice, the Government should be making more of it.

One landmark piece of work that we are still waiting for is the Government’s land use framework. Time and again, we heard in our inquiry that optimising the way English land is used for all the many demands required of it is the central issue to maintaining food security in a changing environment. When he gave evidence last July, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries promised us that the land use framework, already delayed, would be published by the end of 2023. Sadly, the Government are now telling my Committee that it will be published in 2024. Will the Minister update the House on when in 2024 we can expect the land use framework to be published? Will he undertake, as my Committee recommended, to publish the Government’s methodologies alongside the land use framework when it eventually appears, to give confidence that the framework will contribute both to maintaining food security and to the Government’s net zero and biodiversity targets?

The other hugely relevant innovation brought in by the Government are the environmental land management schemes, or ELMS. The Government described those schemes as being founded on the principle of public money for public goods, but Ministers have declined our reasonable invitation to designate food security as a public good—as the Minister will be aware, the NFU has been calling for that for some time. Will the Minister explain why?

I did not come here today to be all doom and gloom. The environmental challenges facing our food system are worrying, but they are also an opportunity for the best of technological innovation. Our Committee has been keen to examine over this Parliament how technology can help us to address to environmental and climate changes that we face. Modern technology—be it the use of artificial intelligence and drones to pinpoint the use of fertiliser, the use or methane-suppressing food additives, or alternative proteins such as insects, now mostly grown in labs—opens up new ways of producing food while minimising the environmental impact. I am sure that we will hear a lot about that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells.

In response to our recommendations on expanding the incentives for farmers to take technological innovations, the Government increased the farming equipment and technology grant to a maximum of £50,000 per farm, and increased its overall budget to £70 million, which I welcome.

The fact that three Select Committees are here to represent recent reports on different aspects of food security shows how important the subject is. We are not alone: the International Development Committee is in the middle on an inquiry on hunger and nutrition. I thank the Liaison Committee for granting time for the debate, and I thank the Government for their response to the Environmental Audit Committee report on environmental change and food security. I commend the report to the House.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 3:12, 21 March 2024

It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I served for some time. I was pleased that he referred to my Committee’s report on soil health and spoke about baselines on where we are with our soils. A lot of soil testing work has been done in Northern Ireland. As we have heard, although many farmers, particularly arable farmers, are making great strides in testing their soils, none of that data is uploaded to any Government website, and there is very little data on the amount of carbon in our soils and on what we can do to improve the situation.

This is not the first time that this House has debated food security. Perhaps the most contentious issue dominating politics in the 19th century was the balance to be struck between protecting the interests of British farmers and landowners, and the need to provide cheap food to the workers in factories and mills in the industrial revolution. Lord Liverpool introduced the corn laws in 1815, preventing the import of wheat under 80 shillings a quarter, or £20 a tonne. In today’s money, that is double the price that wheat hit after the invasion of Ukraine, although the production stimulated by those protections meant that the actual price of wheat, and hence bread, never reached those dizzy heights.

My own family farm—to which I draw the House’s attention in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—started business four years after the repeal of the corn laws by Robert Peel’s Administration in 1846. The workers’ cause, led by Cobden and Bright, had prevailed over the landowners’ vested interests. The era of free trade did not submerge the country under cheap imports from the empire and new world, however. British farmers enjoyed a golden era in the 1870s, helped to some extent by the mass exodus of workers from the prairies to make their fortunes in the 1849 California gold rush, and by the little matter of the American civil war between 1861 and 1865. I make these points because of the parallels we see today, as we move out of a protectionist European Union into a new era of free trade. We should not forget that it was only the submarine blockades of the first and second world wars that brought into sharp focus the need for domestic food production. Two years ago, following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we once again learned the same lesson.

We face a whole new challenge today: not only recognising the need for domestically produced food, but striking the right balance between food production and the environmental goals we need to achieve. In many cases, those goals can be delivered together, such as through the sustainable farming incentive, but in others, they are mutually exclusive. Surely, for example, it makes no sense to cover our most productive agricultural land with solar energy arrays. We can, of course, also produce biofuels on our land: wheat is used to make the ethanol in E10 petrol, and vegetable oil is used for diesel engines. However, if that means indirect land use changes in other parts of the world where forest is being cleared to create agricultural land, are we really delivering on our overall greenhouse gas obligations?

Perhaps the most contentious issue is that of the uplands—the moors and dales in places such as North Yorkshire and the Lake district. Henry Dimbleby MBE, who was then lead of the national food strategy for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave evidence to my Committee. His report is well worth a read, and I agree with much of its content. It correctly states that the 20% of farmland that is in the uplands contributes only 1% or 2% of the calories produced in this country, and suggests that that land would be better utilised by planting trees to lock up carbon. We have already seen that happening in the west of Scotland, with serious consequences for local communities and employment, and the Welsh Government have approached it in a very crude way: 10% of land is to be planted with trees, regardless of the size and viability of the remaining farming business. Farmers have made their opposition to that policy very clear in Cardiff. I worry when I hear that Labour in Wales is a blueprint for what will happen in England if Labour were to get into power after the election. It is disappointing that there are no Labour Back Benchers in the Chamber today to give me their view of the future. Where are they?

We need to strike the right balance between the need to deliver our carbon obligations and the need to support rural communities, while also protecting the landscapes that merit national park designation. My Committee’s report on food security was launched in July 2022, as a direct response to market volatility following the invasion of Ukraine. It was published in July 2023, and the Government responded in November last year. We also looked at food poverty, extending free school meal provision, and the junk food cycle that contributes to rising obesity levels. We made 18 recommendations, which can be read on pages 45 to 49 of the report by those who wish to do so.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow referred to, we were delighted that the Government have already adopted a number of those recommendations. I was particularly pleased that the Farm to Fork summit will, as we suggested, now be an annual event, alongside the publication of an annual UK food security report. In February, the Government announced that they would publish an annual food security index, in line with our recommendation in paragraph 29 of the report. I look forward to other aspects of that report being taken up, particularly the response to John Shropshire’s independent review of labour shortages.

I have two specific points that I would like to raise. First, do sugar beet and oilseed rape have a future in the UK? This is particularly relevant given the report on pollinators. The science is clear that neonicotinoids have a profound effect on bee behaviour and hive viability when those insects are exposed to them. Sugar beet is susceptible to a number of virus diseases, including virus yellows. The vector for those viruses is the peach potato aphid, Myzus persicae. If an aphid feeds on a beet plant, it transmits the virus in much the same way a mosquito transmits malaria. One bite is enough, and the earlier in the season the infection takes place, the more devastating the effect on the yield. In cold winters, there are fewer over-wintered aphids and the risk is low, but if—as in the current season—the scientists at Rothamsted determine that the risk is high, the use of a neonic seed dressing is sanctioned. If that option were not available, sugar beet production in the UK would quickly become unviable. We would have to import beet sugar from countries that have not banned those seed dressings, or cane sugar from tropical areas.

The point is that bees and other pollinators feed on nectar and pollen. Sugar beet is a biennial, and is harvested before it flowers—I know that DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser is looking at this issue. Is there a risk to bees from soil residues that may be taken up by flowering plants, either as weeds in the sugar beets or in subsequent years? The Science, Innovation and Technology Committee report calls for more research on pesticide accumulation in terrestrial environments.

Oilseed rape—those yellow fields that we see in the spring—has declined by about 60% in the UK. That is because of the cabbage stem flea beetle, which can decimate the crop as it emerges, and the larvae that hatch can also be a problem in the spring. My farm still grows rape, but like many of my neighbours, this could be our last year. Seed dressings only need to work against this pest in the first three or four weeks of drilling in August. The crop does not flower until April or May the following year. What evidence is there that there is a risk to bees more than six months after the chemical seed dressing has been used, and just as importantly, what will be the effect on pollinators if we lose this important source of pollen and nectar early in the season? I know some beekeepers worry, as I do, about the law of intended consequences coming into play. Indeed, in the absence of the neonic seed dressings, my own rape crop was sprayed five times with synthetic pyrethroids in the month or six weeks after drilling. This is not a chemical that is bee-friendly, although farmers obviously take the precaution of spraying when the bees are not flying.

For many, the only real alternative crop to sugar beet or rape would be field beans or combining peas. The economics of growing these profitably are not good. Perhaps the Minister would consider including these crops as stewardship options and eligible for support to reduce our reliance on imported soil, which we know has an effect on the planet globally.

Secondly, what will be the effect of the wet autumn and winter combined with depressed cereal prices on our future food security in the United Kingdom? Around 30% of our wheat crop either did not get drilled last autumn or has rotted in the field. With payment for stewardship options looking increasingly attractive and predictable, does the Minister share my worries that increasing areas of land may be entered into multi-annual options such as overwintered bird food, or pollen and nectar, and that we may be short of wheat in future years, or is there a risk that some schemes may even be over- subscribed? Of course, we have other schemes. There is certainly an offset scheme in my area, where quite a large amount of land has been taken out of production because of a housing developer needing to offset a particular biodiversity.

In conclusion, our farmers produce some of the best- quality food in the world. We need to improve the amount of food we produce here, not least because of the environmental impact of international transport, particularly air freight of out-of-season products. We can also deliver the environmental gains that the environmental land management scheme incentivises, but that loss must not be at the expense of domestic production or result in carbon emissions elsewhere.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I call the Chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee 3:22, 21 March 2024

It is a pleasure to follow my fellow Select Committee Chairs, my right hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill), who spoke expertly and forensically about some of the results of their inquiries.

One of the pleasures of chairing the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee is that we are spoilt for choice with the range of fascinating subjects into which to inquire, and on which the world’s experts are only too happy to give us tutorials in public for other Members and the wider public to see, so it is very difficult to choose particular subjects from among those we have in mind. We are enthusiastic about most of the subjects we choose, as we are finding new technologies that can make huge positive differences to the world. So it is unusual for the title of an inquiry we have conducted to have a slightly minor key element to it. We talk about “Insect decline”, and that is because the members of my Committee are worried about the regression or backward steps that we have unfortunately seen as a country in biodiversity, particularly with respect to insects, over many decades.

Our report reminds us that insects, and indeed all other invertebrates, are significant not only for their intrinsic importance as part of life on earth and in contributing to the richness of our natural world, but in making an essential contribution to the supply of food, as both my right hon. Friends mentioned. Pollination is the most obvious example, but they also have crucial roles to play in managing crop pests—I think that is a euphemism for consuming crop pests—maintaining the health of the soil and recycling nutrients from waste.

The first thing to say is that although data is surprisingly patchy, such data as we have and its interpretation by experts show that UK insects have indeed been in decline. Whether that is measured by abundance of insects, which is the number of insects found in a particular place; the diversity of insects, which is how many different species are present in a particular place; or the distribution of insects, which is the number of places in which insects can be found, all three measures indicate a decline in insects in the UK.

Even though the UK is one of the best-monitored countries in the world when it comes to insects, with surveys such as the Rothamsted insect survey, which began in 1964 and the UK butterfly monitoring scheme, which started in 1976, the wealth of knowledge that we have tends to be concentrated into relatively few insect groups, principally moths, butterflies, aphids and bees. The bee is a well-studied species, but of the 2,000 species of bee in Europe, more than half have little or no data associated with them to establish their conservation status, whether that is vulnerable, threatened or of least concern. Our report recommends that the funding authorities, such as UK Research and Innovation should give greater attention to long-term monitoring by improving budgets. The UK pollinator monitoring survey has a budget of only £216,000 a year for such a vital piece of longitudinal information. The celebrated Rothamsted insect survey has a budget that equates to £440,000 a year. These foundational studies are much less well-funded than many other studies that we see.

We also recommend that monitoring takes place over the long term, beyond the five-year duration of the typical research grant, and the reasons for that are obvious. If we want to see trends that take account of the year-to-year variations in the climate that we inevitably experience, we need that long-term commitment. As well as maintaining the coverage of the existing surveys, we should look to institute their equivalent covering a wider range of species, including those not currently covered.

Knowing the trends on abundance is one thing—it is important to proceed on the basis of evidence—but we want to halt decline. We have established that there is decline, and we should halt and reverse the decline that has taken place, so policy, as well as data, is important. The national pollinator strategy that many Members in this debate will be familiar with is an excellent model for that, and my Committee strongly commends it, but as I said a few moments ago, pollination and pollinators are not the only contribution that insects and wider invertebrates make to our ecology. We recommend that the approach of the national pollinator strategy should be applied to a national invertebrate strategy, containing accountability targets for non-pollinating, but agriculturally beneficial invertebrates.

Even within species such as the bee, there have been concentrations on honeybees, for reasons that are perhaps understandable. Members should not get me wrong—honey beekeeping is important. I am always grateful to my constituent, Mr Lorne Mitchell, who brings me a jar of his delicious honey from Goudhurst every time he comes to my surgery—long may that continue—but honeybees are not the only thing we should worry about. There are more than 270 wild species of bee in the UK, and they need conserving, as well as promoting the pollination advantages of honeybees. We call on DEFRA—I hope the Minister will respond positively to this—to expand the remit of the National Bee Unit to include a focus on wild bee health as well as honey bees.

In this work, it is not just professional entomologists and researchers in our universities and institutions such as Rothamsted who are important, because amateur entomologists have always played an important role in collecting data for research. Every Member will know about the data collections that we have, in some cases going back many decades and even centuries, from amateur enthusiasts who have meticulously compiled data in particular areas. In some respects that is becoming more popular. In the Big Butterfly Count, over 100,000 citizen scientists, as I think we can call them, take part annually. Some amateur entomologists are real experts. In Tunbridge Wells Dr Ian Beavis is an institution, with an encyclopaedic and profound knowledge of the insects of the High Wealds that surpasses that of any professor. Our Committee believes that funding authorities should be able to allow funding to go to experts of that type, who may not be employed in universities or research institutions, and that they should be able to participate in conferences, publications, and symposia through an outreach of the grants programme to provide opportunities for them.

Both my right hon. Friends referred to many of the agricultural policies that their Committees have looked into and promoted to the Government. My Committee shares the approval that both their Committees give to the statutory targets to halt and reverse species extinction and decline, but we believe they are too narrowly focused. For example, we believe that as well as having a red list of particular species that are at risk of extinction, as we have at the moment, there should also be a baseline list consisting of a wider range of insects and other invertebrates, so that we can monitor progress over time against those baselines, sometimes even before species become a cause for concern.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby spoke about the role of pesticides. That is an important matter and, as he said, we have called for more research to be done. We share the concern of many Members of the House, including those on the Environmental Audit Committee, that the Government are yet to publish a revised national action plan for sustainable pesticide use. That has now been delayed by more than six years since an update was due in February 2018. We believe that an updated plan should include a target for reducing pesticide use in urban and suburban areas, as well as in agricultural settings, following the good practice that we heard in evidence to our inquiry from organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society about phasing down the use of pesticides in gardens, as it is doing in its important and celebrated garden at Wisley.

Finally, much has been said about stewardship schemes such as the environmental land management scheme that is replacing the EU’s common agricultural policy. There is a big opportunity for the scheme to be beneficial for biodiversity, and specifically as a vehicle for insect decline to be targeted, halted and reversed. We would like integrated pest management, which is a much more holistic and natural way of suppressing pests, to be advanced, tested and deployed as pilots through the early implementation of ELMS. If that is shown to be effective, it should be incorporated as specific actions within ELMS. In promoting biodiversity, not only are we exercising stewardship over our precious natural environment—something every Member of the House is concerned to do—but we can make an important contribution to our economy and national security by ensuring that our supplies of food are more resilient. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised, and to the contributions of other hon. Members.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 3:34, 21 March 2024

I thank my right hon. Friends the Select Committee Chairs for their excellent reports on food security and for securing the debate. It is such an important topic, and one that I have been passionate about for a long time, so it is right that it is at the forefront of the political agenda.

Our food system now produces an unbelievable array of foods, and we produce almost twice as many calories per person on this planet as we did back in the 1940s, but the food system that we have created has completely dominated planetary ecosystems. If we look at the food system’s impact, we see that it is by far the biggest cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, water stress, freshwater pollution and destruction of aquatic life—and, together with the energy system, one of the two big causes of climate change.

Food security depends on global peace and stability, and a healthy planet and population. We have been facing a threat to all three of those. We see disruptions to the supply chain caused by the pandemic and risks triggered by the climate emergency and conflicts such as Putin’s war in Ukraine. We know that food shortages lead to political unrest, that famine triggers mass migration, and that climate change and biodiversity loss have led to the depletion of our ecosystem. We need to look again at how we rebuild a strong food system to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious and affordable food; how we can safeguard our countryside and restore the environment; how we can offer jobs to our communities; and how we can reduce the health problems caused by bad diets.

The need to be self-sustaining in fruit and vegetables is becoming even greater. While that is a challenge, domestic food production has significant benefits for both our health and environment by reducing air miles, and for the economy by enabling farmers and small food businesses to thrive. Currently as a country we produce 63% of all the food we need and 73% of the food that we can grow or rear in the UK for all or part of the year. Those figures have changed little in the last 20 years, and they mask some of the self-sufficiency challenges in particular food groups, with only 13% of fresh fruit and 50% of vegetables consumed in the UK being home-grown.

Domestically, the Government have committed to maintaining—not enhancing—the level of food that we produce. We should set our sights higher and look at growing, quite literally, our local food production. Investing in the latest technology and growing systems can extend the availability of British produce for more months of the year. For example, arguably the most iconic product—the British strawberry—has seen yields double in the last 20 years and the season extend to nearly nine months.

We should put more emphasis on localism to provide a food system that is resilient and delivers a vibrant, cyclical local economy. Backing our farmers is so important, which is why I am grateful that the Prime Minister announced measures and funding at the National Farmers Union conference to invest in home-grown opportunities for food innovation and to boost productivity and resilience in the sector.

As consumers, we also have a role to play when considering our buying habits. I recently cooked a community meal where all the vegetables were donated by local producers. One local grower, Derek Hulme, who is a three-times Guinness world record breaking producer of giant vegetables, provided courgettes the size of marrows. While they looked impressive and certainly tasted good, I reflected that they would have failed the size test in the local supermarket, where standardisation of products is valued. Is it not time for us to accept that perfect fruit and vegetables are an artificial construct that we have accepted without question for far too long? That certainly is not beneficial to our health or food security.

We waste huge quantities of natural produce that is perfectly good but not up to the exacting standards required by leading supermarkets. In recent years, we have seen the introduction of a category of “wonky” fruit and veg, which allows less manicured products to find their way to market. But is it not time to welcome the idea that “wonky” does not have to be a separate range? Just as humans come in all shapes and sizes, carrots and potatoes grow in interesting shapes. We must look at our local food supply chain and think more about what we can do to reduce waste.

The current impact of labour shortages has been described as the

“principal factor limiting UK food production”.

This is not just about seasonality but about workers throughout the whole supply chain. It is truly tragic to see food left rotting in fields for the lack of people to help harvest it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government are doing to prioritise the country’s long-term food security and ensure that the food supply chain has access to sufficient labour, including from overseas, and can realise its growth potential. Failure to do so places at risk the achievement of our self-sufficiency target and broader food security.

As highlighted in the reports we are discussing, food production and environmental improvement can and must go hand in hand. We are already seeing the benefits of environmental schemes, such as actions through the sustainable farming incentive to support the creation of flower-rich buffers that help pollinators, which in turn produce better yields. I remember learning about the role of pollinators in science lessons at school. Public interest often focuses on the charismatic insects such as bees and butterflies. I thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its recent report on insect decline and food security, which refers to the less-known, harder-to-identify and for many people unappealing insect species that play vital ecological roles, particularly in creating a productive landscape for food production. They require equal attention.

Dung beetles, for instance, play a vital role in maintaining pasture that livestock feed on by fertilising and aerating soils and helping to reduce greenhouse emissions. Those ecosystem services have been estimated to save the UK cattle industry up to £367 million a year. Disruptions to their populations have negative impacts on both soil health and long-term food production in these areas. It is positive to hear of farmers investing in the foundations of food production—healthy soil, water and biodiverse ecosystems.

In the UK, 70% of land is farmed, so agricultural practices have a major influence on insect populations. The lack of data and understanding of things such as the impact of pesticides on insect species is poor. We know that something has to be measured in order for there to be effective solutions to address it, so I support calls for a more comprehensive approach in the review of the national pollinator strategy, due this year, that includes provisions for invertebrates that carry out other important ecological roles, particularly relating to food security.

The environmental improvement plan sets out a target to bring at least 40% of England’s agricultural soil into sustainable management through farming schemes by 2028, increasing to 60% by 2030. We need to continue to be ambitious and ensure that food productivity and long-term food security are at the heart of the Government’s priorities.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover 3:43, 21 March 2024

Like my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, I thoroughly enjoy our Kentish honey, so I welcomed his encouragement of pollinators. May I start by putting on record my thanks to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee and the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee for their important work? I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the vital issue of food security.

Food security is important, as are other types of security, such as energy security or our national defence. Representing the area that is both guardian and gateway to our great nation for the European continent, I know that it is vital that there are robust measures and controls in place to protect our national interest. As outlined by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, the Government’s failure to bring forward an effective land use framework in time or an ambitious internal food strategy will leave our country continuing to be dependent on food imports.

The Environmental Audit Committee has reported that over 40% of the UK’s food is imported, and more than a quarter of that comes from the EU and wider Europe. A lot of that comes in through the port of Dover. Meat is the second highest import in our country, with a value of around £7 billion and an export value of around £2 billion the other way. It is of the utmost importance, when it comes to food security, that appropriate and effective checks are implemented and funded. The Environmental Audit Committee has noted:

“Since…food security depends on some degree of imports, it is vital that environmental harms are not exported abroad.”

A failure in import biosecurity on food exports, such as in the case of African swine flu, would decimate our domestic production capability for years, and clearly it would affect our export markets as a result.

In spite of biosecurity warnings and concerns from me, the EFRA Committee, Dover Port Health Authority and businesses operating across the channel routes, the Government remain steadfast in their decision to do the wrong thing when it comes to protecting biosecurity at the Dover border. The Government have been formally and persistency warned over the past two years that, as we have heard, Russia’s war on Ukraine and global food price spikes and constraints have impacted the quality and availability of food. That has also resulted in increased biosecurity risks, as we have been informed.

Food producers and customs businesses have echoed some of the concerns made by the Committees. One customs business wrote to me in scathing terms:

“Throughout this saga DEFRA and the Cabinet Office have been disingenuous at best, arrogant certainly but in the care of UK human and animal health, appear to be derelict in their duty. The blatant attempt to cover up scandalous spending and shall we say misdirection regarding safety, removing the internationally recognised safeguard of within the port of entry’s accepted legal area for BCP checks.”

It goes on to say that there will be an increase in

“biosecurity breaches and, for the less compliant a great opportunity to undermine all those seeking to do the right and safe thing.”

To what was this business referring? It was referring to the Government’s new security control regime, which puts the Dover port checks 22 miles away in Ashford. That is the same distance as from Dover to France —a long way.

The EFRA Committee has written to the Government to ask for assurances about biosecurity management along that route. Many Members of the House will have heard me speak about that route as being prone to traffic congestion from time to time. It is a “single point of failure” road where, from time to time, no traffic moves in either direction. Yet 22 miles away is where the Government have put these new controls, even though there is a ready-to-use, state-of-the-art border control facility raring to go on the Dover frontline.

In the next few days, if not today, the Government will table a statutory instrument to underpin their new biosecurity structure. I want to draw it to the House’s attention because it reflects on the important work of the Committees. There will not be an automatic consideration by a Committee of this fundamental change to how our borders are managed, because this measure, which will weaken future border controls and our country’s biosecurity, is to be laid under the negative procedure. We will therefore not have an opportunity to debate it.

This new statutory instrument covers animal health, plant health and genetically modified organisms—important for us all to keep an eye on. It also covers poisons, plant protection products—pesticides and the like—and other pollutants. It will remove the requirement for these checks to be done at a location immediately proximate to the border. That will be the case for the first time because currently, under retained EU law that our Government confirmed after we left the EU, there is a requirement for proximity—the nearest place possible to make these important checks. I am sure we would all agree that it is very sensible to do border checks at the border—why would we not?

The new statutory instrument will elevate visual and local character at a border point of entry over and above standards of protecting goods and food. It will elevate both visual and environmental issues over and above biosecurity and national interest food security management. It contains no requirement for there to be effective biosecurity controls between the port of entry and the place of checking. Just to remind Members, that is 22 miles of open, or sometimes congested or closed, Kentish road. There is no role for the current port health authority to inform the decision that will be made. It will be the decision of the new port authority, which in this case will be not one but two local authorities away.

That matters because at the Dover frontline we have a really remarkable, effective and committed port health team. It has brought to the Government’s attention in formal reports over the last two years—not once and not twice, but several times—that biosecurity risks have increased and continue to be of great significance at the border. I pay tribute to its work and believe it should be better supported. It said, and this is a matter I have raised in debates in this House over the last two years, that

“To not mobilise the facility”— the existing facility at Dover—

“would be an act of negligence that would significantly increase the risk of devastating consequences of another animal, health or food safety catastrophe.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells mentioned the importance of controlling pesticides, and he is absolutely right. But we cannot just control pesticides here, because of the very significant role of product coming into our country through imports. Let me refer to just one example. One item that was stopped by the port health team at the Dover port was pesticides on eastern European flax seeds, of the sort we might sprinkle on cereal. They were found to exceed the maximum level for UK health safety. In other words, they were dangerous to human life. That is illegal for the UK market and, given our own focus in the UK on wanting to improve the position on pesticides, it is unquestionable that we do not want product to come into this country that is both a danger to human health and could potentially damage our farming and food producers.

Biosecurity is a real concern. For example, on African swine fever the Government have said:

“The disease poses a significant risk to our pig herd and our long-term ability to export pork and pork products around the globe.”

So on food security we need robust measures on African swine fever in particular, because it is a known concern in terms of animal disease and its effects are devastating where they occur. In spite of that, the Government decided to slash African swine fever funding at the port of Dover and significantly reduce its capability to do checks. That does not protect our farmers or our food security. That decision puts our country and its farming at risk. I urgently ask the Government to reconsider that decision.

Food security is not just about what we grow; it is about protecting the very food on our table, and our farmers and food producers too. We cannot secure our food and food production without having strong borders and effective controls. I am grateful for all the work of the Committees, in particular the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is doing such important work on this issue. I thank all Members for their contributions today.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 3:53, 21 March 2024

It is a privilege and honour to speak in this very important debate.

Food security is part of national security. It is a vital issue. The fact that three major Select Committees tabled this debate to the Liaison Committee shows its importance for our country. I am very proud to represent a constituency with a large farming footprint, both as the Member of Parliament and as a proud member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

I pay tribute first to our fantastic farmers and growers up and down the land who produce the highest-quality food to the highest production standards and look after the precious environment, and to the bodies, such as the National Farmers Union, that champion the sector. Producing food and looking after the environment can and should go hand in hand, and our UK farmers are the best in the world in that regard.

Our Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee looked at this issue directly in producing our report “Food security”, and it has examined other aspects in studies including our ongoing study entitled “Fairness in the food supply chain” and previous inquiries such as “Moving animals across borders”, “Labour in the food supply chain”, “COVID-19 and food supply”, and “Soil health”, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, who chairs the Committee.

The challenges to our farmers and growers are huge. The importance of how we produce our food has been brought into sharp relief first during the pandemic, and now with the war in Ukraine. In Britain we have seen our excellent farmers and growers battle through this geopolitical context, dealing with factors such as extreme weather events, whether they involve a lack of water or flooding, and showing real tenacity in delivering for our country.

We all remember the startling headlines and the shortages on our shelves at the beginning of the pandemic. The concept of key workers was very much in our minds at that time. First and foremost we thought of NHS workers, but we also thought of the importance of all those involved in the food supply chain—farmers, growers, vets, drivers and abattoir workers. They were classified as key workers, and it is important to remember that.

The tragic illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia has again brought this issue into sharp focus. Again our producers face mounting challenges: increased fuel and energy costs, increased animal feed costs and increased fertiliser costs, as well as a lack of supply of fertiliser. Bolstering our food security is an urgent task, given inflation costs and the challenges around the world such as the war in Ukraine. We must think hard about becoming more self-sufficient. We produce about 60% of what we consume, and I firmly believe that we need to produce more.

Fertiliser became an important issue as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Select Committee took a close interest in that, suggesting that the UK needed to be more resilient. The fertiliser company CF Fertilisers UK has mothballed its Ince plant and ended ammonia production in its Billingham plant. A by-product of fertiliser production and ammonia production is carbon dioxide, which, as we know, is vital for our food and beverage industry, but which is also vital to the process of slaughtering pigs and poultry. I strongly believe that the Government need to keep a watching brief on how we can secure a resilient supply of fertiliser and carbon dioxide.

As my hon. Friend Mrs Elphicke mentioned, biosecurity is pivotal to food security, and it is also pivotal to national security. As a veterinary surgeon, I have seen how crucial it is, and not just for our nation but for our world. I started my journey into politics as a veterinary surgeon on the frontline, witnessing and supervising the culls during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, and I saw sights then that I never want to see again in my lifetime.

As we have heard, African swine fever is advancing upwards through the continent of Europe. It is yet to reach the UK, and I pray that it never does, but if it does it will be catastrophic for our country—catastrophic for our animal health in terms of the pig sector, but also for human mental health. Another major inquiry undertaken by our Committee, entitled “Rural mental health”, examined the challenges and pressures faced by people working in rural communities and the food production chains, such as animal disease outbreaks, extreme weather events and rural isolation. In the event of a catastrophic animal health outbreak such as swine fever, the mental health implications for people across the country would be devastating.

I pay tribute to the Government and the Animal and Plant Health Agency. We are facing many threats, including, as I have said, African swine fever, but there are also ongoing threats such as avian influenza, which is still bubbling away. I know that Ministers and officials are currently very exercised by the threat from the bluetongue virus; we have seen cases in Kent, Suffolk, Norfolk and Surrey, and when the Culicoides midge season arrives we will be under real threat. There are also ongoing, chronic threats from diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I hesitate to intervene on my hon. Friend, but he has just referred to TB and the mental health implications of animal health crises for our farmers. I would like to mention to the House that, on my own farm, we have just gone down with TB for the second time in six months. We have had 13 cows in calf—some have just calved, and some are about to calf—that were reactors. We do not yet know whether they were positive or were just reactors—in other words, whether they received false positives.

There was confusion between DEFRA and the vets about whether those animals could be taken to the slaughterhouse or had to be shot on farm. DEFRA was telling us that they had to go to the slaughterhouse. It turned out that had we done that, we would have been in breach of the law, because one cannot take an animal to a slaughterhouse within a month of its giving birth. Consequently, the animals had to be shot on farm, including calves and pregnant cows on the brink of giving birth. The mental health impact on the farmers who have to look after those animals is very significant. At this time of the year, this terrible disease affects many people.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I thank my right hon. Friend for that powerful testimony. In the EFRA Committee’s rural mental health inquiry, we took similarly powerful evidence on the implications of TB when there is an outbreak, but also when farmers are involved in testing. There are implications for vets and farmers while they are waiting for the results to come through, and from what happens when there are positive results, so I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.

The APHA is part of our frontline in protecting our biosecurity. It has its headquarters in Weybridge, Surrey, and the EFRA Committee visited the institution, which needs a radical refurbishment and redevelopment. The Government are committed to that, but I urge them to press ahead at full steam. It requires a lot of money— £2.8 billion. Some £1.2 billion has been allocated so far, but the EFRA Committee took evidence from the chief veterinary officer, who pressed the case for how important it is that the APHA is redeveloped. I hope that the Minister takes that message away. I know that DEFRA is on the same page and is making the case to the Treasury that we need to spend a fair amount of money now to prevent a future crisis.

We have talked today about some of the international challenges that our farmers and growers have faced, not least the ongoing situations in Ukraine and the middle east. As we have heard, Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe. It is important for supplies of grain and sunflower, but also fertiliser. What we have seen throughout that crisis is a choking of supply through the Black sea, and the deliberate and cynical decision by Putin to pull Russia out of the UN’s Black sea grain initiative, leading to its subsequent collapse. That has choked off supplies to the rest of the world. What we have seen as a consequence—I am sure this is intended by Putin—are food shortages and potential famine in the developing world. As a country, we need to be cognisant of that. It is so important that the Black sea route gets back up to speed.

The actions of the Houthis in the Red sea have affected trade and the free passage of vessels, which has implications for the security of shipping and trade routes. Costs have increased due to diversions around the Cape of Good Hope, adding an extra 14 days to journeys and sometimes upwards of an extra £1 million for a vessel’s voyage. That will have unintended consequences for the price and availability of food and other supplies. Securing the passage of goods throughout the world is part of global security, and we need to think about the Black sea, the Red sea, the Panama canal and the Suez canal to make sure that such routes are viable.

Amid all these challenges, I am proud that our Government are supporting the sector. We have a Prime Minister, a Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and a Government who are fully aware of the issues and challenges facing our farmers and growers, and I know the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Robbie Moore, personally feels it too.

I was pleased to attend the Prime Minister’s Farm to Fork summit. Food production and food security being brought into the heart of No. 10 is an important statement to the country. It is important that we are maintaining the farming budget for England at £2.4 billion a year through this Parliament and, coming into this election year, we need clarity that that level of funding will continue. Farmers and growers need to be able to plan, so we need to have security.

Our horticulture and agriculture have been bolstered by additional visas, allowing people to come in to harvest crops. That has been expanded to the poultry sector, but we need to keep a watching brief. My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne talked about animals being put down on farms. In the pig sector, where we have had labour shortages in the abattoir and processing sectors over the past couple of years, upwards of 60,000 healthy pigs were culled on farms. That is awful food wastage, but it is also harrowing and incredibly distressing for the people who reared those pigs. We need to keep a watching brief so that those situations never happen again.

Our Committee and the EAC have called for food security to be reviewed annually. I am pleased that the Government have announced an annual food security index that will underpin the food security report, which is an important statement. The last food security report was in December 2021, prior to the Ukraine war. We need annual check-ups, and I am pleased that the Government have responded to the Select Committees’ reports.

The Government are also very aware that good farming and food production and a healthy environment go hand in hand, and that the ELM scheme is pivotal in supporting both those goals. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has announced an expansion of ELMS in recent months.

My right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill mentioned the situation in Wales. If that is going to be Labour’s blueprint for England, there is a real concern that 10% of food-producing land will be diverted to planting trees and that another 10% will be diverted to wildlife habitats. That is a noble intention, but the idea of forcing farmers to take 20% of their food-producing land out of production is deeply alarming. We have talked about TB policy, and the statistics for cattle herds in Wales and England show that the TB situation is worse in Wales. We need to be cognisant and follow the science. We need evidence-based policymaking to control the dreadful threat of bovine TB.

I congratulate the Government on their important Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023. The Act, which some of the reports touch on, allows the technology to produce climate-resistant and disease-resistant crops, as well as disease-resistant animals and birds, which will reduce the need for drugs and antimicrobials and will indirectly help public health. It will help animal health, bird health and public health, and it will support the environment. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee visited the world-leading Rothamsted Research to look at its work.

I support the Government’s animal health and welfare pathway, their legislation to ban the live export of animals for fattening and slaughter, and their £4 million fund for small abattoirs. Those measures will help animals to be produced, reared, slaughtered and ultimately consumed locally, which is a win for local communities and for animal welfare, because animals will not have to be transported long distances. We have the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and we can be a beacon to the rest of the world in our policymaking. I am proud that our Conservative Government have done that.

The Government paused their trade negotiations with Canada, which was an important symbolic statement. They said, “No, we have red lines on hormone-treated beef, ractopamine-treated pork and chlorine-washed products. These are red-line products that are illegal in this country, and we will not import them.” I congratulate the Government on standing firm, because that says to the world, “This is where we stand and these are our values. If you want to trade with us, meet our standards.”

We cannot shy away from the need to do more to bolster our food security, domestic production and standards. The environmental land management schemes are good measures. We must ensure that all types of farmer are fairly rewarded, including commoners, tenants and upland farmers. Our Committee has looked at the issue and we have been calling for that. We also need to make sure that we are training up the next generation of people to go into farming by supporting our land-based educational sector. My colleagues have talked about food waste and we need to tackle that. We also need to think about fairness in the food supply chain, which our Select Committee is very much looking at.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to all our farmers, growers and producers, and everyone else involved in producing food in our country. Doing that and looking after the environment go hand in hand. We are a beacon to the world in our production standards. This area is vital for our communities and it is so important that our Government continue to support it, and I commend our reports to the House.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 4:10, 21 March 2024

I wish to start by thanking all three Committees for their excellent reports and for securing this important debate. Let me also highlight some shareholdings in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, contributing some £127 billion to our economy. The quality of what we produce is recognised throughout the world and plays a significant role in our global brand. As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I know that farming is an integral part of our national identity, helping to bind our Union of nations together. The value of our upland farmers is particularly keenly felt across the nations and regions, and I pay tribute to them and all farmers, and indeed everyone involved in the food sector.

Clearly, farming is not just a job; it is a cultural identity at the heart of our rural communities. As we have heard, the role that farmers perform goes far beyond the food they produce; crucially, they are custodians of our natural environment and our iconic landscapes. Events of recent years have emphasised the huge importance of food security to every single one of us. A massive Government effort was focused on preparing for our EU exit, then on maintaining food supplies during the pandemic and, most recently, on dealing with the impact of the Ukraine war. In the face of all those challenges, the UK food supply chain has shown itself to have great resilience.

However, as the Select Committee reports show, further vital matters still need to be addressed, including by tackling the food price inflation of recent years. I really welcome the progress we are seeing on that, with yesterday’s fall in the overall rate of inflation. We also need measures to ensure that farmers get a fair price for what they produce, and it is good to have the Prime Minister’s assurance that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will continue as an independent body and not be merged into the Competition and Markets Authority.

Thirdly, we have to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture if we are to meet our net zero commitments and ensure that we transition to farming methods that give more space for nature. That includes tackling the serious problems we have with insects, which were highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee. Much depends on ELMS, which are replacing the common agricultural policy. We need to achieve the crucial balance of ensuring that they keep our farms viable and profitable, while securing public goods on nature and climate.

When I was Environment Secretary, I was dismayed to receive a certain amount of collective responsibility push-back because I wanted to assert that ELMS should help farmers earn a living. Of course they should do that, because a successful and profitable farming sector is crucial for food security, the importance of which every speaker has emphasised this afternoon. In the role I then played, I felt it was very important to add commitments on food security to what was then the Agriculture Bill, now the Agriculture Act 2020, including the three-yearly report. I welcome the progress towards an annual food security index report publication, as promised by the Prime Minister.

Real progress is being made on improving ELMS and the sustainable farming incentive in response to feedback and concern expressed by the farming community. I am confident that those programmes will be a huge improvement on the EU ones they replace, and that they will deliver substantial benefits in reducing carbon emissions and protecting nature. In particular, I commend the efforts that are being made to protect peatland habitats and care for hedgerows.

In my view, it would have been extremely difficult to deliver a successful transition to more sustainable farming without maintaining overall levels of funding for farm support. I fought successfully for the Conservative manifesto commitment to do that; I hope we see similar commitments in the forthcoming manifesto. Even with that funding, the transition continues to be complex and difficult. I appeal to Ministers to continue to engage closely with farmers and to make further alterations to ELMS, as and when it is needed in response to changing circumstances and as a greater knowledge base is built up in relation to the schemes. I emphasise that we should not follow the example set in Wales, where their proposals would do significant damage to our farming sector and thus to our food security.

We have one of the biggest science and research budgets in the world, including £168 million for agricultural innovation. All of these reports show that we must increase the uptake of new technology in the farming sector if we are to have a chance of meeting the crucial environmental and biodiversity goals we have been speaking about. Like my hon. Friend Dr Hudson, I think lifting the EU ban on gene editing technology is a tremendous step forward. It could play an important part in boosting our efforts to ensure we can feed an ever-growing global population in a way that is consistent with our commitments on climate and nature.

Finally, if we are to ensure we have resilient supplies of food and thriving agriculture in this country, these domestic goals must be at the heart of our trade policies. Like others who have served as DEFRA Secretary, I had a number of debates with ministerial colleagues on these matters. A key problem with the global trade system is that sanitary and phytosanitary rules are focused on concerns about human health, important as they are, and they are less clear on environmental and animal welfare standards.

I have always argued for permanent quotas to restrict imports in sensitive sectors, where those imports are produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than ours. There is little point imposing high standards at home if we simply import more food as a result, with the outcome that we offshore carbon emissions, biodiversity loss and animal cruelty. For those reasons, I have concerns about aspects of the Australia trade agreement, particularly in relation to the beef sector, but I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement in advance of his Farm to Fork summit that permanent quotas would be used where appropriate. As far as I know, neither of his two immediate predecessors as Prime Minister was ever prepared to say that, and it demonstrates the Prime Minister’s strong commitment to British farming.

Our farmers here in the UK operate to some of the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. We should be proud of them and we should back them. If we are to meet our goals on climate and nature, we must work closely with them to deliver a successful transition to net zero, while ensuring that everyone continues to have access to the safe, high-quality, affordable food that they need.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 4:19, 21 March 2024

Food security is a term that we have all become more familiar with over recent years. It should mean that a nation can sustainably provide for all its citizens through well-resourced and highly valued agricultural communities. It should mean a farming system that balances fair pay for workers with affordable prices in the shops. And it should mean a food supply chain that is reliable and serves the needs of our struggling planet, as global temperatures rise and populations swell.

I have held this brief for only a short time, but I am already well aware of the endless varying definitions of food security, as was noted by the Environmental Audit Committee in its report. I have also noted the EFRA Committee’s scrutiny of the chosen definition of food security by the Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries, and I join fellow members of that Committee in expressing concern that that Minister is not taking households’ ability to access food into account when considering this vital topic. For us in the SNP, there are some definitions and some areas that take priority. I shall focus on those, because food security, or more appropriately food insecurity, sits at the heart of two defining crises facing the people of Scotland today: the climate crisis, with its impacts of extreme weather on our planet’s ability to provide for growing populations; and the cost of living crisis, which has been turbocharged by this Tory Government’s reckless relationship with the economy.

Many Members will be familiar with the Trussell Trust charity. Within its network are just under 1,400 food banks, with estimates of a further 1,000 or so food banks operating independently across the UK. There are three such food banks in my constituency, which are doing fantastic work in extremely difficult circumstances, and I thank them all for that. The Trussell Trust tells a stark and revealing story.

In 2010, when this Government first assumed office, the Trussell Trust delivered fewer than 300,000 emergency food parcels. Last year, following 13 years of Tory rule, that number had risen to 3 million parcels, 260,000 of which were distributed across Scotland. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions has found that a staggering 4.7 million people in the UK were in food-insecure households. That is 7% of our total population. That same data tells us that, between 2010 and last year, 19% of children lived in households with either low or very low food security. Of those children in poverty, 38% are in households with low or very low food security. That is shameful data and it is a vivid reminder that child poverty has been rising in every single part of the UK every year. That was happening long before the pandemic, and, respectfully, long before any invasion of Ukraine, which highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains. Long before any of that, there were people in abject poverty in the United Kingdom.

What kind of a legacy is that? It is the Tories’ legacy. We have often heard Members on the Government Benches—some of them have crossed the Floor now—talk about the choices that people make that lead them into abject poverty, insinuating that it is their own fault that they find themselves in such circumstances. However, the reality is that the choices that really matter are political choices. They are choices taken in places such as this. They are choices repeatedly made by this Conservative Government for 14 years now that have allowed 4.2 million children to grow up in poverty.

The Tory approach to problem-solving also summarises the UK’s position on the climate crisis. Both at home and overseas, climate change is already causing chaos for our food supply. Our farmers in Scotland need our support to provide vital resources for our communities. We in the SNP have made repeated calls for such support, as have farmers’ unions and family farmers, but, repeatedly and rather unsurprisingly, those calls and concerns have fallen on the deaf ears of this Government.

As well as trade disruption, this Government’s Brexit obsession has created significant workforce recruitment issues for Scotland’s food and drink sector. Many exports to the EU have fallen, including a 38% fall in fruit and vegetable exports, and a 7% fall in dairy and egg exports between 2019 and 2022. Extreme temperatures across Europe have led to an unprecedent level of wildfires and droughts, and in turn food production has suffered, with shortages and therefore price increases for the likes of olive oil, rice and potatoes, and an increase in animal welfare concerns.

All those points were referenced in all the reports that we are debating. Our food system is close to breaking point. Domestic suppliers are doing their very best in challenging circumstances, but they are being put at a constant competitive disadvantage thanks to the choices of this Government. Food prices in shops are rocketing, forcing more and more families to make impossible decisions about whether they should heat their homes or feed their children.

The SNP Government in Holyrood have chosen an alternative path to that of the Tory Government here in Westminster. In 2023, we created a new dedicated food security unit, tasked with monitoring the Scottish food supply chain for possible disruption. A similar unit is one of the key recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee, so I encourage the Government once again to follow Scotland’s lead in that regard. Our vision for agriculture has food right at its heart, making clear our support for farmers and crofters in providing Scotland with healthy food, while ensuring that Scotland meets its world-leading climate and nature restoration targets and outcomes.

Unlike the Tories, the Scottish Government have taken bold steps to address child poverty. The introduction of the Scottish child payment, unique across the UK, has been described by anti-poverty charities as an absolute game changer in the fight against child poverty. The payment has already benefited thousands of families on low incomes all across Scotland. The Scottish Government also provide support worth around £5,000 by the time a child turns six through the best start grant, best start foods, and the Scottish child payment.

Thanks to Westminster, rather than sustainable food production, UK food self-sufficiency is below 60%. Instead of valuing Scottish farmers and crofters, we have a Westminster Government whose new visa rules are threatening farmers’ financial sustainability, and who have repeatedly put us at a competitive disadvantage with reckless, poorly negotiated trade deals and incentives for low-value imports. We have 4.2 million children growing up in poverty, and a 900% increase in the use of emergency food support in the 14 years that this Tory Government have wreaked their havoc from the Dispatch Box.

The reports are timely, and I thank the Committees for their work in bringing the scale of the issues to light. They illuminate the scale of hardship faced by many of our constituents and lay bare the tragic impact of unjustifiable political decisions and a lack of political leadership. The SNP believes that the Scottish people deserve better. We deserve to have full control of our food production, our imports and exports, our destiny and future, and the support that we provide to those who need it. The only way that we can rid ourselves of Tory chaos for good, and avoid the clutches of Labour’s born-again Thatcherites, is for an independent Scotland to return to its rightful place within the European Union. At the next general election, only the SNP will offer that choice to the Scottish electorate.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:28, 21 March 2024

I congratulate all those who secured the debate, the three Select Committee Chairs on their very thoughtful introductions—exactly as one would expect—and the members of those Committees, who put in so much hard work. I assure all those people that I will look very closely at their recommendations. I also thank others for their contributions. I found myself very much in agreement with the comments on biosecurity made by the hon. Members for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) and for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). I struggled slightly with some of the other contributions on hedgerow protection. We find ourselves in the unfortunate position of hedgerows being currently unprotected because the Government have failed to introduce legislation quickly enough.

On food security in general, I am delighted by the conversion of Government Members to the cause that Labour and I were advancing four years ago during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020. Government Members consistently voted down our amendments proposing an annual food security review. We have now come to that point, which I welcome, but I remind those Members that it was not what they supported four or five years ago.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will not take interventions, because Conservative Members have spoken at length this afternoon and we do not have much time. I do not mean in any way to disregard the significance of the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

As far as Labour is concerned, food security is absolutely a matter of national security. As the reports point out, the sector has seen significant shocks over the last few years, as various climate events across the globe have impacted on so many crops and harvests, and made life so hard for many farmers, particularly the recent floods. However, some challenges are not consequences of things beyond our control; quite frankly, some have been made worse by political decisions made here. Others—the skyrocketing costs of fertiliser, animal feed and energy—are consequences of the situation in Ukraine. Alongside that, there has been a difficult transition from the previous agricultural support system to ELMS, and persistent labour shortages.

I will ask the Minister about the Government’s response to John Shropshire’s good report on the agricultural workforce, which highlights many of the problems that the EFRA Committee report picks up. I think his analysis and many of his recommendations are sensible. He is very critical of the overly bureaucratic and slow administration of visas, and of the lack of a long-term strategic workforce plan, and he calls for urgent action from the Government. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when we might expect the Government to respond.

I could speak at length about ELMS—almost as long as others have—but I will not. It seems to me that ELMS have left too many people, particularly in the uplands, in a parlous state. Although I support the overall goals of that move to public money for public goods, I absolutely endorse the Environmental Audit Committee’s argument that food security is a public good—there is a bit of a discussion with economists about what those terms mean. I have been arguing for some time that food security should be a public good. We have not mentioned the problems that tenant farmers face at the moment. Will the Minister say a little about when we can expect more responses to Baroness Rock’s report, because they are long overdue?

Put all that together and it is pretty clear that we are seeing a decline in food production, which is disappointing and worrying. Staples such as eggs and some vegetables are in decline—there is less and less. At the NFU conference the other week, an interesting Farmers Guardian article rather summarised the situation pretty starkly:

“UK food production in free fall”.

Frankly, that is not the position that we want to be in. If that is to change, we must ensure that farm businesses get a decent return, because they are businesses, and for too many, the risk-reward ratio is out of kilter at the moment.

As we know, that has also hit consumers. The rise in prices has slowed, which is welcome—they were very high a few years ago—but prices are still going up. There is a whole range of reasons why that is happening. We also know that too many of our fellow citizens are struggling. The Trussell Trust statistics on the escalating reliance on food banks is deeply shocking. The EFRA Committee report echoes that feeling of, “Do they feel food secure? Clearly, they do not.” I welcome and agree with the Committee’s criticism of the fact that the Minister with responsibility for food has claimed that the issue of household affordability and access to food does not constitute food security.

There are many matters that I would be happy to cover, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am rushing through my remarks because I am conscious of time. Let me turn briefly to the food chain supply issues, and particularly waste, which is relevant to these discussions. It is pretty clear that pressures in the food chain, such as last-minute changes to specification, are leading to economic stress for producers and to disappointing levels of waste. One grower told me that, at best, he sells only about 50% of the lettuces that he grows. It is particularly depressing that that food is being wasted at a time when so many of our fellow citizens are struggling. The NFU reported that as much as £60 million of food on farms was wasted in the first half of 2022 alone.

To turn briefly to pesticides, a very interesting set of observations was made by the Chair of the EFRA Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill, and the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark. I would just point to the evidence that is given in the Science and Technology Committee’s report—the view of the experts on neonicotinoids. Once again, for the third year running, they pointed out that they were not able to support an authorisation for Cruiser SB because

“the potential adverse effects to honeybees and other pollinators” outweigh the likely benefits. I am not going to rehearse the entire debate—we have also had debates on Westminster Hall on this issue—but it is clearly a major issue, and the public are clearly concerned. Quite frankly, it is time that we stopped ignoring expert advice.

However, I fully understand the problems that farmers face and the serious points that were raised by the Chair of the EFRA Committee. Sadly, it looks like the weather is not with us again this year, and we are going to see problems from virus yellows. I have been out in the field, looking at sugar beet plants with the British Beet Research Organisation, and there are some economic choices here. We might have to move to other varieties, but there is a yield penalty. To me, that is the decision and the challenge we face: not just producing food, but producing it in an environmentally sustainable and nature- positive way.

As I say, I am not going to go through all the recommendations, but I will just make a few comments. I take very seriously the points made by the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells about insect decline, and will look very closely at that issue. I have to say, I think the prospect of an invertebrates strategy will be a joy for parliamentary sketch writers, but possibly we can get them beyond that. I also echo the points about the wait for the national action plan on pesticides—it really is unacceptable. I hope the Minister can say something about it, but after a six-year wait, I do not think we are going to be holding our breath.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone to hear that Labour agrees with the Environmental Audit Committee report about using the Government’s purchasing power to ensure that more food in our hospitals and prisons is locally produced. That is Labour policy, and I think it is also Government policy; the question is whether the Government can actually make it happen. Should we get the opportunity, we will endeavour to do so.

The land use framework is another thing that we are waiting for with bated breath. I have challenged a colleague of the Minister on new ways of defining the words “soon”, “next”, “spring” or whatever. We really would like to see that framework, but again, if this Government cannot do it, I hope whoever forms the next Government will pick it up. It is a really important point as we deal with the complicated trade-offs of trying to ensure food security while recovering nature and not causing further environmental damage.

Finally, I will just pick up on the points that Henry Dimbleby made, referred to in the EFRA Committee report. I do not want to reopen the whole debate, but I do not think it is surprising that he says that in his view, the Government do not have anything resembling a proper food strategy, and that one is long overdue.

I reiterate my thanks for all the hard work that has been done to produce such comprehensive reports. I will be referring to them frequently for guidance—I already do so, because they identify some of the most urgent challenges we now face. To me, they are an example of Parliament working at its best, because they can inform not just Government thinking but certainly Opposition thinking too. For us, the goal of delivering food security and stability while optimising social, economic and environmental objectives is a priority.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:38, 21 March 2024

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to today’s debate, and also thank the Chairs of the three Select Committees for the valuable work they have done in pulling together the reports. Having been a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee before taking up my ministerial role, I know just how hard all Select Committees work, so I thank them for those reports.

UK food security, based on supply from diverse sources, is a top priority for this Government. We know just how important driving domestic food production is. As has been mentioned, we produce just over 60% of the food that we need, and 73% of the food that we can grow or rear in the UK for all or part of the year. Those figures have changed little over the past 20 years, but it is worth noting that the Government’s desire is to ensure that our domestic food production is enhanced.

A strong domestic food production system is the foundation of our food security, which is why we as a Government have committed £2.4 billion to supporting food producers. The Farm to Fork summit last year brought together over 70 businesses with the aim of growing a thriving British food and drink sector. It was hailed a great success by many of the stakeholders who attended—the Chairs of the three Select Committees noted just how valuable it was—which is why the Prime Minister has announced that we will be holding a further summit this spring.

We as a Government take a holistic view of food security, considering it across the five themes set out in the UK food security report. That report is an analysis of the statistics relating to food security that DEFRA is required to produce under the Agriculture Act 2020 to present to Parliament every three years. The report includes chapters with statistics on trends in global food production, total population demand, price inflation and sustainability. The global chapter of the UK food security report sits alongside chapters on other key aspects of food security, both domestic and international, to ensure that we are taking a holistic approach that considers links across the food system. The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, and the next food security report will be published in December this year.

All Members, including my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, have recognised just how important those reports are, as is the addition of the food security index, which was announced by the Prime Minister at the National Farmers Union conference. In addition to our existing robust processes for monitoring the UK’s food security, the food security index will complement the three-yearly food security report. We are currently developing the content of the index, but we expect it to present the key data and analysis needed to monitor how we are maintaining and enhancing our current levels of food security. We will publish the first draft of the food security index during the second UK Farm to Fork summit in the spring. The requirement for an annual food security index will be put on a statutory footing when parliamentary time allows.

A key challenge, which all countries are facing, is how we meet our climate and environmental objectives while maintaining a high level of food security. Domestically, the Government have committed to maintain the current level of food that we produce, but we want to enhance it to unleash our domestic potential. This includes sustainably boosting production in sectors in which there are post- Brexit opportunities, such as the horticulture and seafood sectors.

We know that food production and environmental improvement can and must go hand in hand. Our environmental land management schemes, which support climate and environmental outcomes as well as food production, are absolutely part of that. We have already ensured that our existing environmental schemes support food production. For instance, actions in the sustainable farming incentive support the creation of flower-rich buffers, which help pollinators, and that in turn helps with crop reduction.

The Agriculture Act imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England, and its production in an environmentally sustainable way, when framing any financial assistance scheme. That is why our reforms aim to support a highly productive food producing sector, and one that is more environmentally sustainable.

Many Members asked about the land use framework. It will be published this year, but I want to reiterate that the reason why it has not been published to date is that the Secretary of State and his ministerial team have been very keen to make sure that it relates to enhancing our food production and making sure that food security is at its very core. When we are balancing the use of land as a finite resource that is being pulled in all different directions—for energy security, biodiversity offsetting, net zero targets, housing, infrastructure—we need to make sure that food security is considered at the heart of it.

Many Members, including the Chairs of the Select Committees, referred to pesticides, which play an important role in UK food security.

The Science, Innovation and Technology Committee’s report, “Insect decline and UK food security”, states that there was a consensus among key industry stakeholders, academics, charities and farming representatives that

“pesticides, even if only used as a last resort, are needed for UK food production.”

However, it notes that they must be used sustainably, and the Government’s first priority on pesticides is to ensure that they will not harm people or impose unacceptable risks to the environment. A pesticide may only be placed on the market in Great Britain if a product has been authorised by the regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, following a thorough scientific risk assessment that concludes that all safety standards have been met.

Reference has been made to the national action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides. It will set out DEFRA’s ambition to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment, including how we intend to increase the uptake of integrated pest management across all sectors. We hope to publish that national action plan imminently. However, we have not waited for its publication, and we have been moving forward with work to support sustainable pest management, and DEFRA has funded a package of research projects that bring together scientific evidence underpinning integrated pest management. We look at ways of further encouraging its uptake.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

I am encouraged by the imminence of the publication of the action plan. Can the Minister confirm that “imminently” will mean that it will meet the recommendation of my Committee’s report, to which he referred, which echoes the report of the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, that it should be by May at the latest?

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the Chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee for his intervention. I reassure him that officials are working at pace, based on the recommendations of all the Select Committee Chairs, to ensure that we can get the announcement made as soon as possible. I want to reassure him on that.

Pollinators were raised, and we know that bees and other pollinators play an essential role in our £100 billion food industry. The economic benefit of insect pollination to UK agriculture is estimated at more than £500 million a year. I reassure all Members of the House that we have already taken action. We have announced 20 new nature-based solutions across the country, funded by a £25 million species survival fund, and that is in addition to the 12 nature recovery projects and 54 further projects that we have funded through the landscape recovery scheme. Under the pollinator strategy, we have already established a world-leading pollinator monitoring scheme for farmland that delivers food and fuel for pollinators.

Many points have been made throughout this debate, and I simply do not have time to respond to all of them, but I am happy to meet Members who have raised queries throughout the debate. In closing, in the last few seconds that I have, I reiterate that the UK has strong food security, and we are keen to enhance that. We are not taking that for granted. We are working across the supply chain to maintain and enhance food security across multiple policy areas, but it is worrying that Labour wants to roll out the blueprint it has established in Wales across the UK, should it get to power. I worry for farmers, and I worry how seriously Labour is taking food security, given that not one Labour Back Bencher contributed to such an important debate on food security.

I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate, including the Chairs of the Select Committees, my right hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) and for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who have made their valuable contributions.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 4:48, 21 March 2024

I am grateful to the Minister and all who have spoken for their warm words about the work of my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) from the other Select Committees, and the work that all members of Select Committees put into these reports. I share the Minister’s concern that not a single Back Bencher from any Opposition party contributed to this debate. All the contributions came from those on the Government Benches, but I welcome the remarks made by the Opposition spokesmen, Steven Bonnar and Daniel Zeichner, who both seem to take food security seriously. We will have to see how that is converted into any action.

On the subject on action, I was relieved that the Minister sought to introduce some new definitions to parliamentary terminology. I have not heard a Minister use the expression “imminently” before. The expressions “soon”, “in the spring” and “when parliamentary time allows” are well recognised expressions for general delay and obfuscation, but I hope that “imminently” brings a new urgency. He also referred to his officials working “at pace”, so we look forward to that.

I conclude by congratulating and thanking Conservative Back Benchers for their contributions, in particular my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, who, as a former Secretary of State, brings particular expertise to her contributions. She pointed out that we should not be looking to Wales as a blueprint for future food security, given the devastating impact that the proposals of the Welsh Government are having on farm incomes and food production. My hon. Friend Mrs Elphicke spoke about the importance of the effective border controls for phytosanitary requirements, as we rely on both imports and exports for food businesses and food security in this country. My hon. Friend Dr Hudson brought his considerable expertise in animal health to the deliberations. I rather apologise for having personalised my intervention, but he is able to speak with considerable authority on the challenges of animal health. My hon. Friend Jo Gideon was referring to the challenges of waste in the food supply chain. She made important comments on that, which I hope we will see turn into action with the waste food report, whether that is “imminent”, “soon” or “in the spring”. Again, I thank all Members for participating in this debate.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I shall put the question imminently, or indeed shortly, if not now.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the matter of food security, including the effects on it of environmental change and of insect decline.