Health Improvement and Food Production - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 7 July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 4:05, 7 July 2022

My Lords, it is a pleasure to introduce this debate about three things very close to my heart: food, the health of our population and the planet. I do not need to explain the very strong link between these three.

We produce some excellent food in this country, but our farmers and fishermen have had a tough time over the last few years, especially if their markets are abroad and if they rely on foreign workers to harvest their crops. Therefore my first question to the Minister is: what are the Government planning to do about that?

Despite the quality of our food, our national food system is broken. We eat too much of the wrong things and it is making us ill, limiting our years of healthy life and costing the NHS millions. The Government are resisting some of the levers that could help put it right. As in other countries, the resilience of our food security is under pressure because of the illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is one of the world’s biggest wheat and vegetable oil producers; the cost of fertilisers for our domestic farmers is also badly affected. This is one of the factors causing the rise in the price of food. However, the recent national food plan published by Henry Dimbleby set out four objectives for improving our broken food system. They were:

“Make us well instead of sick … Be resilient enough to withstand global shocks … Help to restore nature and halt climate change … Meet the standards the public expect, on health, environment, and animal welfare”.

Those are four very good objectives.

The first questions are: what is a healthy diet and is it available to everyone? Experts agree that it must contain a balance of all the major nutrients, vitamins and minerals in adequate quantities for our age and other physical factors. However, the evidence of obesity in our country and the rise of diseases connected to it, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, musculoskeletal problems and stroke, shows that a healthy diet is not acceptable to many, particularly in the poorest demographic groups. Two out of five children are above a healthy weight by the time they leave primary school and a quarter are obese. Children in deprived areas are twice as likely to be overweight. Some 28% of adults are overweight and 36% obese; again, the risk is higher in the lower demographic groups and certain ethnic communities. This is not because these people are greedy, but mainly because they are poor and are eating the cheapest food they can get hold of. Many in fact do not have enough food and are forced to use food banks to feed the family. It is a disgrace that, in a rich country such as ours, some children would go hungry but for charities such as the Trussell Trust.

Sadly, the cheapest calories are often high in sugar, salt and fat and are the ones that contribute most to being overweight. Fruit and vegetables, and good-quality meat and fish cost more than fast food but highly processed food, manufactured in massive amounts, is sold cheaply on every high street. Henry Dimbleby explained it this way:

“Because there is a bigger market for unhealthy food, companies invest more into developing and marketing it. This in turn expands the market further still. The bigger the market, the greater the economies of scale. Highly processed foods—high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fats, and low in fibre—are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods.”

So, what can we do? Dimbleby suggested that we must escape this junk food cycle to protect the NHS and reduce diet-related inequality by reducing the consumption of HFSS foods by 25% and increasing fibre by 50% and fruit and veg by 30% to reach healthy levels. To reach the carbon budget, we need to reduce our meat consumption by 30%, because 85% of our farmland is used to grow feed or grass for farm animals. If we could make these changes, we could promote a healthy gut—one of the most important organs in the body—save the NHS millions and put some less productive farmland to other, desirable uses. There are various ways in which the Government could contribute.

I agree with Dimbleby’s conclusion that we must get healthy food directly to our children and at the same time save their parents money by expanding eligibility for healthy free school meals. This has now twice been recommended by Dimbleby but twice refused by the Government—can the Minister say why? The Government set up the Healthy Start scheme and the holiday food scheme, on which they should be congratulated, but have not accepted Dimbleby’s latest proposition to expand those schemes, despite their success. The Lords Committee report in 2020, Hungry for Change, also recommended this. Can the Minister explain why it is not being done?

I turn to food production. We are not self-sufficient and probably never will be, but 54% to 60% of our food is grown by our own domestic farmers. We must protect them, but that is not to say that they might not need to change what they do. Only last week the Climate Change Committee issued serious warnings about agricultural policy, but farmers are currently under pressure from many quarters. We ask them to grow more food and, at the same time, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, use less fertiliser, stop polluting watercourses, increase biodiversity, plant more trees, improve their soil, protect carbon sinks such as peatlands, grow biofuels, site wind and solar farms, provide leisure opportunities—and on it goes. The pressure on land use is enormous, and they are not making it any more. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they will produce a land use strategy next year. Can the Minister give us any insights into how health and food production will be balanced with all the other pressures on land in the forthcoming strategy, and what levers the Government are considering using to achieve it?

Farmers have to plan now, and they need help with the environmental land management scheme payments, which are to replace the former support system. It certainly makes sense that farmers should not be paid for how much land they have but for the public goods they provide. However, every farm, and every soil, is different, and there are many schemes to which farmers can apply for support. The large landscape section of ELMS has had 51 applicants for 15 initial schemes—some from large estates, but some from groups of farmers who want to work together to improve the landscape. That is encouraging, so I hope the Minister can assure me that some of the successful schemes will include small farms working together. I know he has received a note about this from Defra, because I asked the department to send it to him, so I hope it is not unfair to ask him these questions.

The local nature recovery scheme criteria will be available at the end of the year. This strikes me as rather slow, because farmers have to plan now how to respond to all these pressures. Can the Minister say how soon the funds for that part of the scheme will become available? The sustainable farming initiative applications opened last week. Farmers can apply online, and new software can help them identify what might be appropriate for them. However, we still have the overlapping countryside stewardship scheme, environmental stewardship scheme and others. I hope your Lordships see where I am coming from: we currently have maximum complexity of schemes—some beginning, some ending—and an alphabet soup of acronyms.

In its recent report on nature-based solutions to achieving net zero, the Science and Technology Select Committee recommended that an independent advisory service—human beings rather than software—should be provided to help farmers increase food production sustainably while also making a living. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in this respect? Many farmers will have to change their business model. That is risky, so they need good advice.

One of the problems we face is the large number of tenant farmers in the UK. Tenants might be reluctant to make improvements to the land if it is their landlord who will benefit in the long term. Soil improvement does not happen overnight—I know that from my own garden—so a farmer with a short tenancy might be reluctant to do it. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, is looking into this for the Government. I hope the Minister might be able to give us an insight into her interim recommendations; otherwise, I will have to ask her.

Our farmers have very high standards, so the last thing we must do is offshore our food production to countries that might produce higher emissions. We cannot police their standards of animal welfare or pesticide use. Then, of course, there are food miles. Since Brexit, there has been a reduced ability to check the quality of food coming in, according to a recent report by the Food Standards Agency. In addition, countries such as Australia and New Zealand have economies of scale in meat production with their enormous farms, which could put our livestock farmers at a great disadvantage. Can the Minister say how the Government will avoid putting farmers out of business or offshoring food production when negotiating trade deals? Will the Government set up a trade and agriculture commission, as proposed by Dimbleby?

The Government have indicated that they will provide more support for horticulture. This is good news, as we produce only 35% of our current supply of fruit and veg, but this will need to increase by nearly 90% if we are to increase our consumption, as advised by Dimbleby. Will the Minister say whether projects that make use of rainwater and renewable energy capture, technology and innovation will attract government support?

In north Wales a couple of years ago, a proposal to use the heat from a sewage works through heat exchangers to heat glasshouses to produce half the tomatoes and cucumbers needed by Wales was turned down by the local planning authority—all that locally produced food, all those jobs, all that energy and water saving lost because of a lack of vision. I hope the Minister can tell me that the Government have more vision than my local authority.

I turn to highly processed food. Not all our food comes straight out of the ground or the water; a great deal of it comes out of a factory. As we have heard, it is cheap and often contains too much salt, sugar and fat. There have been voluntary reductions, but they do not go far enough. Yet the Government resist mandatory measures, such as an extended sugar and salt tax. Can the Minister justify the claim that a small tax on sugar and salt in HFSS foods for manufacture and catering will increase the cost of food for poor people?

The advertising restrictions on HFSS foods before the watershed and online have been postponed. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no further postponement, despite today’s events?

Labelling can help people choose healthier food, but it can be difficult to identify what is really a healthy food. It is not hard for a piece of broccoli, an apple or a piece of fish, but it is a different matter for products with multiple ingredients. The Minister might remember our discussions, led by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, during the passage of the Health and Care Bill about high-protein bars. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, helpfully pointed out that the bar in question was high in salt and sugar and low in fibre, so not very healthy at all.

Since then, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and I have received material from a group of young people called Bite Back. Its report, Don’t Hide What’s Inside, explored the eating habits of 1,000 13 to 18 year-olds and examined the impact that packaging claims have on their perceptions of health. It found that three-quarters of young people think that their diet is healthy, despite the fact that their intake of sugar, fruit and veg, and fibre is nowhere near the Government’s daily recommendations. Almost nine in 10 think that smoothies are healthy, but 76% of juices and smoothies would get a red traffic light label for sugar. Eight in 10 believe that cereal bars are healthy, but 81% of those would get a red traffic light label for sugar. The report gives other examples.

Half of those surveyed agreed that health and nutrition messaging makes them more likely to buy a product. This makes the rules about labelling important but it is too often misleading. To demonstrate this, a fake snack bar was invented. It was made entirely from mud but branded as 100% natural, high in fibre, a great source of minerals and low in fat, which was true but also completely outrageous, since there was nothing in it but mud. It was done to call out big food brands on their manipulative marketing tactics and to make them step up with clear and honest packaging. The Government are being asked to introduce a clear, mandatory labelling policy, including declarations of free sugars, traffic-light labels, a review of where the thresholds should be lowered, regulation to end the use of health and nutrition claims on an unhealthy product and consistent portion sizes across categories. Will the Minister consider the young people’s proposals? If not, I suspect they might send him a mud bar.