It is partly due to consumer choice; but it is also a question of what is presented to people in supermarkets, and the encouragement to people to get cheap ready meals. As we saw during the horsemeat scandal, it is much easier for people with a very limited income, who are running out of money before their next pay cheque, to buy a ready meal such as a lasagne that costs 99p or a pack of 12 Tesco burgers in the Value range, than it is to buy all the separate ingredients that would enable them to cook a similar meal at home. They just do not have the resources to do that.
That is something that the Food Foundation stresses. It says that if we increase the level of UK self-sufficiency in fruit and veg, production could become more competitive in comparison to pricier imports, and that there are 16 types of fruit and veg that we could grow more of in the UK, which would increase supply and help to protect demand in the uncertain times of Brexit. Last summer there was a sudden shortage of iceberg lettuce in shops because of the situation in Spain. I am sure that the Minister has looked at the Food Foundation report “Farming for 5-A-Day”, but if he has not I urge him to do so.
I want to raise the real threats to UK food and farming from a no-deal scenario and from free trade agreements with the US and countries with lower animal and food safety standards. The most carefully structured subsidy regime could be fatally undermined by the trade arrangements we enter into post-Brexit. The all-party parliamentary group on agroecology highlighted that in our recent inquiry. We found that trade deals post-Brexit could pose the biggest peacetime threat to the UK’s food security, if current environmental and public health standards are not prioritised in the terms of the negotiations. It is vital that agriculture does not become a bargaining chip or something that can easily be traded away during negotiations. We know there is a difference of opinion between the Environment Secretary, who has sworn that he wants to uphold standards, and the Trade Secretary, who has a less acceptable stance on these issues. He does not appreciate how much the public care about protecting these things.
There is a very real danger that when faced with the threat of rising food prices post-Brexit, many will argue for cheaper food through low or no tariffs, but that will come at a cost. The US Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, has made it clear that any post-Brexit trade deal will hinge on the UK ditching its higher EU-derived food safety laws. The debate on chlorinated chicken and hormone-pumped beef is very much in the public domain. That situation could drive out higher-welfare and smaller-scale UK farmers who would be unable to compete on price. It could make it more difficult for British farmers to export to EU countries, with worries that they could provide a back door to the EU for these US imports. There are food safety issues, too, with US eggs and poultry much more likely to have salmonella contamination than UK products. At a recent meeting of the EU environment committee, Which? gave evidence. It said that something like one in six Americans get food poisoning over the course of a year, compared with one in 66 in the UK. That cannot just be down to poorer hygiene standards in people’s homes.
We cannot trigger a race to the bottom on standards. Nor should we seek to compete by copying American mega-farms, cutting costs by becoming ever more industrialised and intensive. One of the recent farming Ministers was very fond of the phrase “sustainable intensification”, but I never quite got him to explain what he meant by that.