My Lords, I am delighted to be able to introduce this debate today, which is timely and important. I especially thank my noble friends on the Cross Benches for choosing this debate out of so many excellent suggestions.
Warren Buffett once said, “When the tide goes out, you can see who’s swimming naked.” Covid-19 has revealed, once and for all, that our food system is no longer fit for purpose. True, it delivers cheap food, but it does so at a huge cost: to the environment, our health and our food security. Environmentally, the impacts are becoming alarmingly clear. Agriculture currently accounts for one-fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Extensive pesticide use is devastating insect populations, fertiliser run-off is polluting our waterways, our soils are depleted, and monocultural production is damaging biodiversity. Our imported food also has impacts globally: agriculture is responsible for about 80% of deforestation worldwide, which reduces our ability to tackle climate change.
At the same time, human health suffers. In the UK, over half of adults are overweight and obese, 5% have diabetes and one-third of five year-olds have terrible tooth decay. An abundance of cheap food masks the fact that healthy foods are three times more expensive per calorie than unhealthy ones. Households in the bottom 10% of income would need to spend 74% of their household income to meet the Government’s own recommendations in the Eatwell Guide plate. This is not the Ritz; it is a very basic diet.
Finally, we have seen that our food security is at great risk. The system which delivers food to UK shelves is really complicated and much more vulnerable than we generally acknowledge. Our retailers rely on complicated global supply chains to deliver food to our supermarket shelves in a “just-in-time” process, leaving them with minimal stocks as a buffer against any shocks. We have simultaneously allowed our domestic food production to languish, particularly for perishable items such as fruit and vegetables—only 16% of fruit and 53% of vegetables are grown in the UK—which provides retailers and, of course, us with less assurance of stable supplies when trade barriers begin to be a concern. The worldwide food price crisis of 2007-08, which we all remember, showed us how easily a serious price crisis can emerge when the nations that dominate production of major global crops impose trade restrictions. It is extraordinary, but for both wheat and rice just five producing nations account for more than 75% of global exports.
Our recent experiences during Covid-19 show starkly what can happen when the system starts to creak. First, the poor health of our nation, and in particular the high levels of diabetes and hypertension—conditions that are absolutely linked with poor diets—have put many of our citizens at risk of Covid-19-related complications. In the USA, 48% of those who have been hospitalised for Covid-19 are obese; the evidence of the links between Covid-19 and obesity is rapidly emerging and can no longer be washed away.
In addition, all of us have experienced, for the first time in most of our lives, the slight alarm and panic that comes from seeing an empty shelf. I suspect that for most of us who are listening and for all of us in the House of Lords, this has been not much more than an inconvenience. We can rustle in the back of our store cupboards and use up long-forgotten tins and jars. But, quite frankly, panic buying is a luxury only for people who can afford it.
For many others, the pandemic has resulted in awful hardship. The Food Foundation—on which I am lucky enough to sit as a trustee—has produced recent figures that suggest that 8 million adults and 2 million children have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. Many households in this country were struggling to afford food even before the pandemic, but the recent widespread job losses have vastly increased these numbers. Attendance at food banks is soaring: up 81% in Trussell Trust food banks and 59% in food banks that are part of the Independent Food Aid Network. If food prices rise in the medium term—and there are lots of reasons to believe that they will—the position of these households will become even more fragile.
Farmers in the UK are struggling without access to migrant workers. Farmers here and in southern Europe, where so much of our fresh produce is sourced, are already delaying and reducing spring plantings due to the unpredictability. As we approach the British picking season for soft fruit, salad and many other vegetables, the labour shortage will almost inevitably have an impact on food prices, especially on the price of those healthy foods that people so much need. Twenty countries have already introduced export bans and restrictions since the start of the pandemic. If these become more extensive, the prices for imported staples and perishables could also start to rise.
In the light of all these problems, we have a real need for government leadership and coherent food policy. It is more important than ever. Though I applaud the Government for the efforts they made to provide those who are shielding with food, much of that food has been, frankly, really unhealthy. I think we have all seen images of donuts being delivered to care homes and the like. They have also made attempts to replace free school meals with monetary vouchers but, as I think many noble Lords will know, the French system that was brought in, Edenred, has had a catastrophic technical failure and a lot of people have been unable to access their vouchers.
There has been good financial protection during the coronavirus pandemic through the job retention scheme and a bit of an uplift to universal credit, but in other respects the response has not been adequate. At such times, we need and expect leadership, effective co-ordination and clear, decisive action. Instead, the Government have made food supply issues the responsibility of the supermarkets—“business as usual”—and food insecurity the business of charities. Support for food producers has been almost completely absent.
The closure of vast swathes of the food service sector has exacerbated the strains on the food system, making it inevitable that consumers would buy more food from retailers—30% of calories are usually eaten outside the home. This has led to things such as the milk surplus, because certain food cannot be diverted at the right time. We needed a massive effort to re-engineer existing food supply chains, but, unfortunately, the retail sector has been gifted an extra £2 billion in sales versus this time last year. That is a staggering amount of profit. An opportunity was missed to make creative use of existing catering and restaurant businesses. Small local cafes and farm shops could have been kept in business, supplying food to the vulnerable. Instead, the Government fell back on engaging almost exclusively with the big supermarkets on food supply issues, which has, in effect, concentrated more power in their hands—although I must say that they have done a pretty good job.
Similarly, the Government have relied on charitable food aid to plug the gaps in their inadequate response to the problem of food insecurity. The frankly heroic efforts of these organisations ought to be applauded every night, but the scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and there is just not enough food or volunteer capacity to feed all vulnerable people through local authority and charitable means.
Suffering from cuts to welfare assistance, in a lot of cases local authorities are able only to send someone to the local food bank. Some local authorities—Bristol, for instance—which had existing strong food partnerships in place before the crisis have been able to scale this up, but, at the moment, people’s experience of support from the state is dictated by their postcode. We must have a national assessment of need and a nationally co-ordinated, ambitious, money-first approach to deal with the ballooning food insecurity problem.
Alongside this, our food producers have been neglected, instead of recognised and supported as the essential sector they are. Our farmers need support and investment to tide them through this period of uncertainty. In the longer term, I hope the Government will recognise the important role that small producers can play in boosting our resilience and seek to deliver for them a more equal playing field.
During this crisis, the smallest of our producers have turned out to be the most flexible and quick on the ground. Some veg box schemes have more than doubled the number of boxes that they distribute, and most now have really long waiting lists for new customers. Horticultural producers have received decades of under- investment compared with other farming sectors. For the record, subsidies make up just 10% of their average farm income, compared with 79% for farmers in the cereals business. Quite modest ongoing government support could transform all these local networks, providing much healthier food and a really good, resilient network.
We need to recognise the underlying flaws in our food system that this episode has revealed. We must build back better, creating more resilient, healthier and fairer food systems for our future. Instead of washing their hands and passing the buck back to supermarkets, charities and farmers, we desperately need the Government to show leadership. We are facing an unprecedented moment, one full of risk but also full of opportunity. We must make our food system resilient to economic shocks and environmental and climate risks. It must be less dependent on last-minute deliveries of vital perishable goods from overseas. We must diversify food retail options to create more vibrant local food economies.
We must prioritise our nation’s health. Food and health campaigners have long known of the terrible effects of bad nutrition—there is nothing new about this—but Covid has brought it into stark relief. I find it astonishing that we still measure our global success in a health sense by just the number of years lived, and that life expectancy seems to be a goal above quality of life and health. People are literally dying—quickly this time, rather than slowly—because they eat bad food. This is a chance to start to change that. We must not go back to the good old bad old days of “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” processed food. We must stop spending 98.5% of all the food advertising budget on processed food. We have to step in and intervene. We have literally proved that our lives, and the quality of our lives, depend on it.
Government should give businesses that promote healthy eating a real head start, rebuild our nation’s horticulture sector and put in place much more robust economic safety nets, so that everyone can afford a diet that protects their health. A recent poll by the RSA suggests that only 9% of people want to go back to normal after the pandemic. The British public are showing a big appetite for change. We should use this opportunity to start fixing what has been shown to be broken.