UK Food Shortages - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 23 February 2023.

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Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:14, 23 February 2023

My Lords, I refer you to my entry in the register.

The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated throughout the Covid-19 response, and is well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause disruption.

We have seen Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Tesco apply item limits to a small number of fruits and vegetables in response to issues with supply from Spain and north Africa. These have been predominantly caused by seasonal weather hampering production and harvest during December and January. The nature of horticulture and the effect of short-term events such as weather on production can create volatility; any growing forecast is subject to short-term alterations, and Ireland and Europe are facing similar supply issues.

Industry has the capability, levers and expertise to respond to disruption and, where necessary, my department will further support and enable that. UK food security remains resilient, and we continue to expect industry to be able to mitigate supply problems through alternative sourcing options.

In 2021, we imported over £1.5 billion-worth of fruits and vegetables from Spain and £340 million-worth from Morocco. We consistently import over 30,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every month of the year. Through the winter months, the majority of imports are from Morocco and Spain, but in the summer months the UK mainly imports from the Netherlands. Our home production accounted for around 17% of tomatoes in 2021.

We are working closely with industry bodies across the horticulture sectors to better understand the impacts, and we will be meeting with retailers today to understand their plans to mitigate current pressures. My colleague Mark Spencer, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, will be convening a round table of retailers to explore with them their contractual models, their plans for a return to normal supplies, and contingencies for dealing with these supply chain problems.

We know that farmers and growers around the world are facing significant pressures from the invasion of Ukraine and a historic outbreak of avian influenza in Europe. We also recognise the impact of rising food prices as a result of global shocks, including the spike in oil and gas prices, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. That is why this Government have taken steps to offer support with energy costs, cut tariffs to reduce feed costs, improve avian influenza compensation schemes, and have taken a range of measures on fertilisers. Indeed, UK growers were able to access the energy bill relief scheme.

Defra also continues to keep the market under review through the UK Agriculture Market Monitoring Group and other engagement forums.”

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench 2:17, 23 February 2023

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very helpful summary of the situation. I would like to ask him a few questions. There are photographs in the newspapers today of full shelves in Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands; if the problem is bad weather causing a crisis in production in Spain and Morocco, how come these other countries, including other northern European countries, apparently have access to plenty of salad and fruit? That is question one—why are we different? I know the Republic of Ireland is also having problems, but why are we different from many other European countries?

My second question is more forward-looking. The Minister talked about meetings with the industry and what can be done to support them, and I have two points about that. First, the horticulture sector is very energy intensive in this country. Does the discussion that the Minister referred to include the possibility of crucial support for energy costs in the horticulture sector? Secondly, this raises the broader issue of the resilience of our own food system. Does the Minister think that this affects the conclusions of the Agriculture Act 2020 that we should be paying farmers public money for public goods, excluding food production, like farming butterflies and hedgerows, which I am all in favour of? Does it change the perspective we have on trying to increase food production in this country?

I should have declared an interest of mine that is in the register.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. There will also be photographs of full shelves in supermarkets in the UK. We have a multiplicity of different companies retailing food in this country, and they all have their own supply chains. If there are also photographs of full shelves in Spain and Morocco, it may be because the supply chains for those companies favour local produce in the way that we hope retailers in this country will always favour homegrown produce where they can get it and where it can be provided for.

I am not entirely sure of the noble Lord’s point, but there is a serious effort being made to understand how each retailer is managing their contractual models and whether government can and should be involved in that. We do not have a command and control economy here; we do not mandate how supply chains work. Where there is market failure, government can step in. That is why we have created a Groceries Code Adjudicator and why we can have very serious conversations with retailers if we think that they are disadvantaging homegrown producers.

On energy costs, the horticultural sector, particularly the glasshouse sector, is able to access our energy support scheme. There will be ongoing discussions about that in the future. As the weather improves and we get into spring and summer, production from UK sources and those closer to home not so dependent on areas like Morocco and Spain which have suffered these one-off—or, we hope, rare—climatic conditions will alleviate these problems.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this situation is not exactly an exception. Before Christmas, there were empty supermarket shelves and real public concern, and the head of the NFU, Minette Batters, ended up calling out the Government’s inactivity and lack of responsibility. The Secretary of State is saying that the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, but just this morning the former head of Sainsbury’s said that the Government’s lack of energy and support for domestic producers means that we did rather bring this problem on ourselves. Does the Minister agree with Justin King’s assessment? With supermarket shelves apparently fully stocked across Europe, is he really standing by his assertion that others are facing similar supply issues and that the current shortages in UK shops are predominantly caused by seasonal weather in the Mediterranean?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not quite know what Justin King is suggesting. Is he saying that the Government should tell him as a retailer how to construct his supply chain models? No. I think the Government’s job is to step in where there is market failure, support homegrown producers and ease the burdens of what one hopes are one-off events, such as the impact of the war in Ukraine on gas and electricity prices. It is the Government’s job to resolve those sorts of issues. Where we can create diversity of supply for importation through trade agreements, we should.

I would pick the noble Baroness up on one point: this is not just affecting the United Kingdom. There are similar problems in Ireland, including in Tesco Ireland, Lidl and SuperValu, which say they are experiencing availability issues with certain fruits and vegetables. Other than Ireland, there are cases in Belgium, where there are some minor issues relating to tomatoes—there are no empty shelves as yet, but prices have increased. In Finland, there is some short-term reduction in supply because of the same issues relating to Spain.

I repeat: UK growers are able to access the energy bill relief scheme. A planned reduction of government support for energy costs in the UK’s industrial horticultural sector will challenge domestic production for some of the items in question, with a likelihood that domestic yields will fall. I could, if I had time, give a great long list of how we are supporting our agricultural sector and intervening where Governments can. If noble Lords are suggesting that we should have a command and control economy that mandates supply chains, I would be interested to have a debate on that here in the House.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I have no sight in my right eye, and she was in my blind spot.

These global disruptions to food supply chains would have much less impact if we grew more of own produce in this country, especially if we adopted new technologies. What are the Government doing to support small growers to expand and innovate? I have a question, for my clarification. While the Government want public procurement of food to prioritise good-quality homegrown produce, the current move to creating a monopoly called the Buying Better Food agreement appears to threaten these small growers and therefore works counter to the Government’s own policy. Would the Minister please explain this seeming contradiction?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that we must encourage more homegrown food supply. That is at the heart of our agriculture policy, our food strategy and all our policies supporting, encouraging and incentivising producers. The noble Baroness is also right that technology is our friend here. I have no doubt that in 10 years’ time there will be a very different profile of supply chains. Many of the current ones have been disrupted by such activities as vertical farming, which is already producing an increasing amount of leafy greens and certain fruits for our marketplace. There is really good work happening in that field.

In response to the noble Baroness’s question, and one that I did not respond to from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, right at the front of the Agriculture Act, it says that:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

I entirely take the noble Lord’s point that to do this we must be mindful of natural capital and the very important value of such ecosystems as soils in producing food. It is at the heart of government policy to support the production of food and to iron out these occasional issues through a domestic food production scheme. However, we must be mindful that, while this country produces 61% of the food that we need, we can grow 74% of it, and we must increase that through sensible policies.

Photo of Baroness Rock Baroness Rock Conservative

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register and that I was chair of the Tenancy Working Group. Recommendation 11 of the Rock Review is that

“Defra should define food security as a public good alongside other environmental objectives such as clean air, clean water, lower carbon emissions, and improving biodiversity.”

With this in mind, British farmers, including tenant farmers, play a vital role in delivering the Government’s food strategy. Can my noble friend confirm that helping farmers to increase productivity will increase the level of food security in the UK?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It certainly will, and I pay tribute to the work of my noble friend. I entirely agree with what she says in that report in terms of food security. I also agree with what Minette Batters said at the NFU conference:

“Food security is not the same as self-sufficiency – we will always rely on imports to some degree, and it is sensible to ensure diversity of supply. But food security also means ensuring our food is safe to eat, that it can be distributed efficiently, and that it remains affordable.”

Those are the three key pillars of responsibility of any meaningful Government, and to achieve that we absolutely must have a diversity of producers as well—some will be owner-occupiers, some will be tenants, some will be in different forms of tenure and in share and partner farming arrangements, particularly in the horticultural sector—to ensure that we are producing food that is eaten as near to where it is produced as possible.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

For the avoidance of doubt, I remind the House that when there is an Urgent Question repeat it is normal for the Opposition Bench to speak first. I also remind us of the convention, before we move to the Statement, that the first 20 minutes are for the Front Benches and then it is open.