Food Supply and Security - Motion to Consider

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 14th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 3:36 pm, 14th May 2020

My Lords, thank you so very much for such a wonderful, varied and interesting series of contributions. I learned such a lot from them all and will read everybody’s contributions carefully, because I was incapable of taking enough notes and listening at the same time. I particularly thank the Minister for his continued work in this area. I know that his commitment to all the subjects we have talked about today is real, valid and strong.

As we have seen today, food touches every area of our lives, as well as every corner of our wonderful planet. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, we need to “eat the view”. It might be fanciful to say, but I have always believed that if we could get the food system right, we would live in a happier, healthier, fairer and very much more environmentally just world.

Food is not a commodity, like a T-shirt or cardboard box. It is a magical substance that enables us all, and all our fellow creatures, to live and thrive. Everything in our world begins and happens because of the way we convert sunlight. We do not actually do it; plants do it for us. They feed us to become capable of things. If you think about it, everything begins that way. It cannot really be replicated. But in these dark times, it is really important to remember that if you plant a green bean into the soil and give it some water, it will reward you in a few weeks with an enormous amount of extraordinarily wonderful food. This is a magic that science cannot recreate—and one we should treasure and learn to pass on to our children.

What food is not is a series of images that many of us see. It is not one of the saddest ones I know—workers in China wearing specially adapted vests so that they can pollinate fruit trees, because they have managed to kill all the bees due to the overuse of pesticides. Food is not pathetic chickens living in factories where they are allocated less than the size of an A4 piece of paper to live in. I read yesterday in the New York Times that because of the crisis in America and the fact that the chickens are getting a bit bigger because of problems in the supply line, they are suffocating them with foam because they cannot think how else to get rid of them. Food is not an orangutan dying thousands of miles away from me in order that I can get a cheap chocolate mousse in my local supermarket, because that orangutan’s habitat has been cut down to produce palm oil. Food is definitely not the aisles and aisles of cheap snacks in our supermarkets that, when you look at the ingredients, contain no living product at all.

I have now worked in this world for about 12 years. I think that my aim is quite simple, but it is extraordinarily hard to achieve. I believe we all have the right to have access to healthy and affordable food, regardless of where we live, how much money we have, whether we are old, ill or vulnerable, and whether we are a child or a senior in the last days of our life. It should be a right, in much the same way as we think that education and healthcare are rights. Quite frankly, we now see that if we do not make decent, healthy food a right for all of us, we will end up burdening all those systems. I know, as many of your Lordships probably do, that when children are not fed over the summer holidays, they cannot start off again well at school. This is so important, yet as a Government and as a country—on all sides of the political chain—we have been very happy since the war, when we last had a food strategy, to leave it to private companies to dictate the way we eat. If you are a private company in a capitalist economy, at the end of the day you want to sell more product made from cheaper ingredients, and that is where we are today.

However, there is hope on the horizon. We have the Agriculture Bill, which was debated yesterday in the Commons and, I gather, will be coming to this House after Whitsun. We have a food strategy in Defra. It is slightly on the back-burner now but it will come back. There is now much discussion in the world about the best use of land and about restorative agriculture. It would be a great tragedy if, after all this—if after seeing what Covid-19 has revealed—we returned to business as usual. As my noble and good friend Lord Krebs said, food is the one thing that we cannot do without, but certainly it is the one thing that we can really try to get right in the future.

I hope that, like me, everybody has got a great deal from today’s session. I hugely look forward to having lots of conversations with people—something that I cannot do face to face at the moment but can do online. I hope that, in the days to come, what we have learned from this debate will inform and take the process forward.

Motion agreed.