I beg to move,
That this House
has considered food security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the importance of food security and allowing this debate. A debate on food security was needed before the crisis in Ukraine, and it is even more urgent now. Before I turn to issues of food security in the UK, I want to address the situation in Ukraine, which remains absolutely critical.
Our immediate focus must be on doing everything possible to support the people of Ukraine and address their humanitarian needs. Russia’s brutal war is now into its second month. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that at least 30% of the Ukrainian population is in dire need of lifesaving food assistance, and early data indicates that 90% of the people remaining in the country could face extreme poverty, should the war deepen even further.
Of course, the humanitarian emergency does not end in Ukraine. We urgently need to get to grips with the real threat of a global food shortage. Russia and Ukraine are ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil and fertiliser. There were already food shortages in parts of north and east Africa, which sourced almost of all of its imported wheat from those two countries.
Ukraine is also the single biggest supplier of food to the World Food Programme, which might be forced to cut distribution in places such as Yemen, Chad and Niger, while taking on the feeding of millions of hungry people in and around Ukraine. According to WFP officials, all of that points to 2022 being a year of catastrophic hunger. Without urgent funding, the programme’s director predicts a hell on earth in some of the most impoverished regions in the world, potentially resulting in famine and destabilisation in parts of Africa and the middle east, as well as mass migration.
There is another thing that exacerbates the issue. If the Ukrainians are to put the harvest in, they have 10 days from now to do it. That focuses attention on where the problems are.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That point very much sharpens our minds.
An immediate reversal of the cut to foreign aid might be an obvious first step to help with all of this, but we need to go even further if we are to prevent the hell on earth that the UN has warned of. At the same time we need to examine how best we safeguard domestic food security by supporting our farmers, producers and consumers while continuing to uphold our commitments to sustainable, nature-friendly food production. Even before the war in Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia, our farmers faced a tidal wave of costs for fertiliser, fuel, energy, seed and feed.
The price of fuel, which continues to play a critical role in UK food production and infrastructure, has risen even further as a result of the war, and farmers who were already warning of increasing fertiliser costs have seen the Russian invasion send prices rocketing even further. Yes, we need to reduce our reliance on artificial fertilisers, pesticides and fuel in food production and agriculture, and tackle the many challenges that, as Nature Friendly Farming reminds us, are the result of
“a global food system that is already in crisis”,
but the transition to sustainable, holistic food systems will not happen overnight.
Ministers recently suggested that there is enough manure and slurry to compensate for the fertiliser price increases, but that suggests a lack of understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Are the Government considering securing the supply of fertiliser for UK farmers, at least in the short term, by subsidising costs and protecting the ability to produce the 40% of fertiliser produced domestically? I am interested in the Minister’s answer to that.
On top of that, as the National Farmers Union of Scotland and others have highlighted, grain price increases will impact on both the costs of livestock production and shop prices for consumers. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently acknowledged that the price of wheat, which the pig and poultry sectors rely on heavily for feed, had already doubled since Russia’s invasion.
Meanwhile, with Ukrainian workers making up around 60% of seasonal agricultural staff, the war is compounding the existing labour crisis in the industry. The Scottish National party has asked repeatedly for immigration to be devolved to Scotland—so far to no avail—but at the very least we want to see immigration policy greatly overhauled, so that we can set up the humane and practical approach that, among other benefits, would see us attract the seasonal and permanent staff that our industries require. Agriculture was already suffering from post-Brexit shortages of such workers, as well as haulage drivers and processing staff. That was the message that the Scottish Affairs Committee heard loud and clear on our recent visit to horticulturists and soft fruit providers in Perthshire and near Dundee.
This all points to the great likelihood of reduced yields, with a knock-on impact on supply. I am already hearing of Angus farmers deciding not to plant wheat this year because the costs do not make it viable any more, and of others forced to reduce their livestock numbers. If that is repeated across the country, there will be far-reaching implications not just for farmers, but for food processors and manufacturers, and ultimately for prices in supermarkets.
Of course, millions of households across the UK were already struggling with soaring food bills long before the crisis in Ukraine. A 2018 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation revealed that 2.2 million people in the UK were severely food-insecure—the highest reported rate in Europe—and the situation has worsened since the pandemic. The Food Foundation reports that the percentage of food-insecure households increased from around 7.5% pre covid to almost 11% by January 2022, affecting nearly 6 million adults and 2.5 million children. That is a national scandal and is set to intensify, with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting the biggest annual fall in living standards since records began in 1956. The Food and Drink Federation reminds us that February 2022 saw the highest rate of food inflation in a decade, with folk on the lowest incomes, who spend more of their household budget on food and fuel, hit the hardest, as seems to happen so often. Worryingly, the forecasts do not yet account for the possible effects of the conflict in Ukraine on food or other commodity prices. The FDF estimates that cost rises could take seven to 12 months to feed into consumer prices.
These cold, hard statistics reflect a bleak reality in which more and more households are indeed being forced to choose between eating and heating. Unbelievably in 2020s Britain, we are hearing of food bank users declining potatoes and root vegetables because they cannot afford to boil them, so it was disappointing that the Chancellor’s spring statement made what I have to describe as very little effort to grapple with food insecurity and poverty. The increase in cash in the household support fund is of course welcome, but I am afraid that it is nowhere near adequate. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, has warned that the failure to bring benefits in line with inflation will drive more people to emergency food parcels. The Chancellor protests that he cannot do everything to help the UK’s poorest households, but uprating benefits is one thing that he could do right now as a lifeline for some of our most vulnerable constituents, and I beg him to do something about it immediately.
Unfortunately, I have to say that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did not seem to recognise the link between the benefit system and food security. At a Work and Pensions Committee hearing last month, my hon. Friend Chris Stephens cited a 2018 study showing that the poorest tenth of English households would have to spend 74% of their disposable income if they followed the Government’s guidelines for a healthy diet, compared with just 6% for the wealthiest decile. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions repeatedly opted not to respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend, deferring to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on these issues.
I was therefore very pleased that the media reported last night that the Minister responding to us today would be chairing a crisis meeting this morning to discuss food prices and related issues. The Minister looks puzzled, but it was in The Guardian last night—I am sure she will be able to address that when she responds. We look forward to hearing more about that, and we certainly look forward to hearing about the outcomes and the actions that the Government will take to address the shocking reality of food poverty and inequality. Those in DEFRA really must work more closely on this issue with their counterparts in the Department for Work and Pensions. According to the Trussell Trust, 47% of people using food banks are indebted to DWP, and yet it has taken until this year to add questions related to food aid to the DWP’s family resources survey. That is a pretty sorry oversight. The response to the pandemic has shown that holistic, cross-departmental action can be mobilised when the moment calls. Given the scale of this crisis and the confluence of threats, we must see a similar approach taken to food security both domestically and internationally.
The Scottish Government issued a position statement on a human rights approach to tackling food insecurity in February 2021. In October, they began a consultation on a national plan to end the need for food banks; they have introduced the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill, which lays the foundation for Scotland to become a good food nation. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that there are similar levels of commitment to similar actions from the UK Government. I also look forward to hearing when their overdue response to the national food strategy can be expected. A Scottish food security and supply taskforce has been set up jointly; it will meet frequently over the coming weeks to identify and respond to disruption to food security and supply resulting from the war in Ukraine. I am interested to hear from the Minister whether an equivalent is being set up by the UK Government.
We really do need to prioritise self-sufficiency once again and support our farmers to sustainably maintain production levels. NFU Scotland and many others have also warned about the domestic impact of what many see as a laissez-faire approach to post-Brexit trade deals and importing cheap foods with lower environmental and animal welfare standards. We should be building resilience in domestic food production, not threatening it.
That point comes to the heart of the matter. With the rising import costs about which the hon. Lady has already spoken, there comes a danger of reduced productivity. That means that there is a gap in the market, which then stands to be filled by those cheaper imports. For that reason, this really is a moment of existential crisis for the UK’s agriculture industry. How does the hon. Lady think that can be avoided?
I am going to make some suggestions shortly, but we are hearing across a number of different organisations in agriculture and the agricultural industry sector that extra support for our farmers must be given—and given very soon.
I promise that this is the last time that I shall intervene. Supermarkets have a crucial role in the setting of farm-gate prices. We have the Groceries Code Adjudicator, but it needs more teeth to do the job that we want it to do.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. NFUs across the UK have been calling for that for some time. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s answer to that point. Another consequence of Brexit is that UK farmers will miss out on access to the EU’s proposed €1.5 billion fund to counter food insecurity. The SNP thinks that food security funds equivalent to what UK farmers would have received as part of the EU should be established immediately; that would certainly go towards helping some of the problems that farmers and agricultural industries are experiencing at the moment. The funds should be appropriately allocated to the different Governments of the four nations.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West pointed out yesterday to the Prime Minister, we must also make serious efforts to cut down on our food waste. Over 2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted on farms and in factories every year. There was a scheme introduced in 2019 to help farmers get food to charities and reach those in need; it was successful but its funding has not been renewed. I am hoping that the Government and the Minister will be able to give us some assurance that they are listening to the calls from Feeding Britain, Good Food Scotland and FareShare that those initiatives be continued.
Many of us have been warning about our food security for years, particularly in the face of Brexit. Frankly, it always seemed like we were being ignored. The crisis in Ukraine has dramatically thrust this issue centre stage. However, we have to remember that there were systemic issues both at home and abroad. We need to build resilience into the farming system for the long term, not lurch from one crisis to the next—as the Sustain alliance rightly says. I am fully aware that this is a very difficult balancing act for all Governments, but the thistle must be grasped. The consequences of failing to act are just too terrible to contemplate.
The debate can last until 4.30 pm. There are seven Members seeking to contribute and I want to ensure that everybody gets in, so we will have a six-minute limit. I will call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 3.58 pm and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and then Deidre Brock will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. So we have a six-minute limit straightaway. I call Neil Parish.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I say to Deidre Brock that it is a great thing that she has secured today’s debate on food security. Like her and many others in the House, I have talked a lot about food security, which is now more necessary than ever. I, like her, want to talk a little about what is happening in Ukraine and about global food security.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put Ukrainian agriculture under threat and issues with food security are being inflicted on the Ukrainian people, who are also dealing with a murderous invading force. Ukrainian farm workers have been deployed to fight on the frontline; infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, has been damaged, making it hard for goods to be transported across the country; and there are fuel shortages, as usually Ukraine gets 70% of its petrol and diesel from Russia and Belarus.
There is also a risk that the conflict may disrupt or stop the spring planting season, which is due to start now. There is shrapnel in the field, which will cause problems for farm machinery, and President Zelensky himself recently said that Russian troops are mining fields in Ukraine, blowing up agricultural machinery and destroying fuel reserves needed for sowing, which is absolutely dreadful. The President has said that Ukraine has access to around one year’s supply of food. That creates problems for food security beyond that time period and has a knock-on effect on global food security, because Ukraine needs to stockpile what it would normally export.
Ukraine produces a sixth of the world’s corn exports, 20% of global maize, 50% of global sunflower oil and 12% of the world’s wheat exports. The Black sea port in the south of Ukraine has now been completely shut down, taking about 12% of global wheat out of the market. Around 400 million people across north Africa and the middle east rely on wheat from Ukraine.
The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly important point and what he is setting out is deeply concerning. Hunger already kills more people than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, even before we got into the current situation. Does he agree that that points towards a need for urgent action?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will go on to make the case that in order to ensure global food security and food security in this country, it is essential for us to produce more food, so that the gap left by Ukraine being unable to export to Africa and other countries can be filled by others and ourselves, if possible. That really is an issue.
Around 400 million people across north Africa and the middle east rely on wheat from Ukraine. Countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya import over 50% of the wheat their people eat every year, and 75% of Lebanon’s wheat comes from Ukraine. These countries are having to take steps to try to produce more wheat at home in difficult conditions, or to find new sources from other countries. In the past 10 days, several countries have introduced restrictions on the export of grain and vegetable oils, including Lebanon, Egypt, Hungary, Serbia, Moldova, Algeria, Turkey and Indonesia.
With millions of people already living in poverty around the world, we could soon face a great humanitarian crisis. The African Development Bank says it is planning to raise $1 billion to boost wheat production in Africa alone and avert potential food shortages. It is going to fund new technologies to try to help African countries to grow cereals, which is normally difficult in those conditions. I hope the Government do what they can to support those efforts.
Fertiliser costs are rising. We all know that the situation in Ukraine is also having an impact on food security in this country. Agriculture relies on specific imports to produce food, including fuel, fertiliser and feed. The cost of those imports varies each year, and farmers are very much at the mercy of the market when it comes to the prices of those imports. We have seen a perfect storm, with all of these spiking at the same time due to global events; when profit margins are already low, big price rises can practically put farmers out of business. The prices of feed and fertiliser are particularly volatile, and represent farmers’ most significant expenses.
The situation in Ukraine has disrupted supplies of potash—a key ingredient in fertiliser and mass produced in Russia and Belarus. That, combined with rising gas prices, is pushing up the cost of fertiliser, with wholesale gas prices up 500% from a year ago and 40% since the invasion of Ukraine. Farmers may face some very difficult decisions about how much fertiliser they use, because £1,000 a tonne—a jump of £245 from a year ago—is not affordable. Those prices cannot be absorbed by farmers, and if we are going to produce more food in this country, the basic fact is that we need to use enough fertiliser.
I welcome DEFRA’s announcement this week that the Government will clarify how the Environment Agency will apply the farming rules for water to allow spreading of slurry in the autumn, and I congratulate the Minister for her work in that area—it is very good news, and long awaited. I also welcome that any changes to the use of urea will be delayed by a year, given the crisis we are in. Over the long term, there is scope for moving towards more organic fertilisers. We can look at other forms of fertiliser, such as using dry leachate from biodigestion plants, but all of this is coming, and we need to deal with ammonium nitrate now. I welcome the decision to put an extra £20 million into the farming innovation programme to come up with new solutions.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and I thank Deidre Brock for introducing this debate. Food security is more important than ever and it is good to see the same old faces in this Chamber debating it, although there should not just be those same old faces—[Interruption.] Those same familiar faces, I should say. This needs to be an issue that all 650 MPs feel they should be speaking about. It is good to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), and Government colleagues who I recognise from debates of old, but we need to make sure that food security is not just an issue for people who bang on about farming, like myself and Neil Parish. We need to make sure it is put into plain English and put further up the political league table of issues; if we do not, we will be talking only to ourselves. We need to make sure that our advocacy and the message we send in this debate is felt much more widely than just by us here, who probably all agree on these issues.
Food security matters more than ever because food is becoming more insecure for so many people in Britain and around the world. Food prices are up, food poverty is up, and the Government’s food strategy has been delayed yet again. I am afraid that this ramshackle approach to food security will not do: we must do better. All of us have walked into supermarkets recently and seen the increase in prices.
Jack Monroe has argued successfully and powerfully that the increase in food prices is greatest for some of the food that costs the least, so it has a bigger impact on the budgets of people who have the least. There has been some progress in that area, but not enough. It is getting harder and harder for people to afford food. I know that the Minister is not solely responsible for this—she might be responsible for food, but often what we are talking about is poverty. However, food prices are now going up. The argument that food poverty was not about food, but about poverty, might have held water in the past, but now it is about food prices going up as well as poverty going up. We need to find a much better way of addressing both those issues.
There are a number of issues I want to speak about in the time that remains to me, now that I have finished ranting. We need to recognise that food security is affecting each and every one of our communities. There are now more food banks in this country than branches of McDonald’s. Let us be clear: each of those food banks—those emergency food provisions, the food larders—is testament to the generosity and kindness of that community, but none of them should exist, because we should have a system in which everyone can afford to feed themselves, the energy to cook that meal, and the housing that goes with it. It is shameful that in the 21st century, we are in a position where so many people in our communities are unable to afford the most basic of food.
We know that from tomorrow, with the Government’s national insurance tax rise and with energy prices going up by £700 for huge numbers of people in our communities, more and more people will be pushed into poverty, and more and more children will be going to bed in the evening not having eaten. When I was volunteering with the soup run recently in Plymouth, I spoke to a gentleman who said, “I am in work. I come to the soup run because I spend my wages giving my kids a meal. I put them to bed and, once I know they are asleep, I come to the soup run so I can get some food.” It is utterly shameful that that is happening in our society. There are some brilliant people working in this space, but it is shameful.
Food security is not just a moral issue; it should be about our national security as well. I would like food security to feature in the Government’s national security strategy. I want a decent mention of it in the revised integrated review—which must come, because the current integrated review is so out of date. If we are to have that, let us have an ambition to rear, grow and catch more food in Britain. We produce only about 60% of our domestic produce. I am not arguing that we should grow food that we do not have the ability to grow; I am arguing that, where we do have the ability to grow and catch food, we should grow and catch more of it. It would be good for not only Britain, but our jobs, rural and coastal areas, cutting carbon and higher standards.
I would like the Government to adopt Labour’s policy of “make, buy and sell more in Britain”, which is about not just British steel in warships, but food. If we do that, we will be supporting many of the farmers who are facing real struggles due to higher input prices and the stagnant prices paid by supermarkets, and who are potentially being undercut by suppliers growing cheaper food to lower standards abroad, which are allowed access to the UK because of really poor trade deals signed by the Government.
We need food security to be a national security issue, but we also need to recognise that there is too much wasted food. We must put greater pressure on the supermarkets—so much food is wasted along the supply chain before it gets to the shelf. We all have a responsibility to use the food we buy to make sure it is not going in the bin, but we must also cut out food waste along the way. Like energy companies, supermarkets have for far too long been getting away with prices that are too high. I would like the Minister to use her powers to address that.
There is a good argument for a right to food and for plans for food security, to grow more food in the UK and to make food and energy more affordable. If we do not do that, more families will slip into hunger and poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I always enjoy following Luke Pollard and, increasingly, hearing him rant. He is right on many of the points he raises and he is a fastidious supporter of farming and fishing in his community and across the south-west. I particularly enjoy working with him on this topic. I congratulate Deidre Brock on securing this hugely important debate.
The two things that have really focused people’s minds about food security have been the situation in Ukraine and the pandemic. The scorched-earth tactics being used in Ukraine will have the knock-on impact raised by Jim Shannon. These horrendous global shocks and events are giving us a moment of pause, contemplation and thought as to how we can improve food security in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is absolutely right: there need to be more faces in this Chamber debating this issue. I hope we will see an improvement from the food security report, as set out in the Agriculture Act 2020, that the DEFRA Secretary will present this autumn. Can the Minister confirm that the report will be presented on the Floor of the House of Commons, and that we will have the opportunity to challenge and question it, as well as discuss the lessons that might be learned from it?
Due to the pandemic, for the first time in my generation, we saw empty shelves and the fact that our global supply chains are incredibly fragile. It is important to say that we were not alone in that. I do not necessarily take the view that it was just caused by Brexit—a number of other countries in Europe found themselves in similar situations. However, it emphasised the need for us to act and to act fast, and to consider that we need more at-home production, fewer faceless suppliers and to talk up what we have.
Food of incredible quality comes out of my constituency in south Devon, in the form of fish and shellfish as well as the meat and dairy that is produced. The quality is extraordinary. There is an abundance of food in our seas and on our land. The high quality of what we produce is known across the world. However, we talk it down so often. We have to change that approach; ending that stigma about British food quality should be a top priority for any Member of Parliament and anyone in agriculture.
At the same time, we also have to think about how we introduce the conversation around food and farming in our schools, ensuring that young people can get on to our farms and on to our fishing boats to understand where food comes from, how we produce it and how we can do so in an environmentally responsible way. These things are incredibly important.
There is also the issue of seasonal variety. At the moment, our food security sits at about 65%. Now, whether or not we have a target that pushes us up to 75% or 80% is for Members of this House to discuss, but it is not something that I am inherently against, because at least we can then have the national ambition to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom are producing food, so that we can be reassured about our food security.
My fourth point is that we spend a lot of time talking about rewilding. I myself spend a lot of time talking about regenerative agriculture and there is much conversation to be had about the intensification of farming. However, we have to find the balance between rewilding, intensive farming and food productivity. My biggest concern is that the environmental land management scheme that is replacing the basic payment scheme says absolutely nothing about public money for public good being about food production. Can we please update it and make sure that farmers in my constituency know that the new scheme is not only about rewilding and biodiversity, which of course are important, but food production, and that they will be supported in producing food?
Many other points have been made already, but I will just make two more quickly. First, I am always happy to bash supermarkets. They have an enormous responsibility. However, the fact that none of the supermarkets in the area of Brixham, the most valuable fishing port in England, stock any fish from that port is staggering. So we need to use the procurement Bill, when it comes before this House, to ensure that supermarkets are incentivised to buy first from local suppliers, in order to support the local economy and create a circular economy so that our farmers, fishermen, local producers, butchers, bakers and greengrocers can all benefit.
Secondly, I sit on the International Trade Committee and I spend a lot of time scrutinising the trade deals that we are making. I understand the reluctance and the hesitancy around the deals that we are striking, but we are making progress and improving how we conduct the negotiations. The agreement that we have come to with New Zealand is significantly different from our agreement with Australia. The intention for what we want to do in the Gulf also provides the opportunity for British producers to export, which is what our focus should be on. All too often, we talk about the import impact; we should talk about the ability to have an export impact. Our producers can achieve that by scaling up exports, which would benefit all our constituencies.
I respect the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for bringing this issue to the House because it is an important one that needs focusing on, and because I think there is commonality across the House about ensuring that we do better on food security and ensuring that we can help those on the poverty line who use foodbanks by producing more food that is healthier and better for people, including for children in school.
I will leave it at that.
First of all, I thank Deidre Brock for setting the scene so very well. I do not agree with all her comments in relation to Brexit, of course; she knows that. However, I understand the importance of this debate. When she said to me, “Jim, can you come down to the debate?”, I said, “Yes, I definitely will, because I want to make a contribution”. That is because my constituency of Strangford is a food producer that produces way above what we use, which I will refer to later.
I am aware that we are perceived as a nation that has plenty of food; unlike some countries, where there is not enough food to go round, we have an ample supply. The UN has a goal of zero hunger by 2030 and produced a report to that effect. The UN has said:
“The latest edition of that report, which was published mid-2021, estimated that between 720 and 811 million people went hungry in 2020. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously. Considering the middle of the projected range (768 million), 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in 2019”.
Those are the figures when it comes to food security, because I believe that our obligation is not just to ourselves and people back home—we have that obligation because we are constituency MPs—but to the rest of the world as well; we have a duty in that respect, too.
Other speakers have already touched on Ukraine; we know what the issues are very clearly. I understand that we want the war in Ukraine to finish as soon as possible, because that will mean getting some sort of normality back—not just in Ukraine, which is important, but to return to the food security we had before.
In Northern Ireland, we export 80% of our products across the UK and the world. I am thinking of Lakeland Dairies—the Minister might know many of these companies by name—which exports many products all over the world, and of Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. Those three companies alone, including those who work in them, probably create somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 jobs in my constituency.
I am aware of the global problem, but I am also aware of the problem in this country and in my constituency. I will give a couple of examples, if I can, to reflect where we are back home as well. One teacher spoke to me recently about getting the threshold of benefits lowered this year, because she was concerned about her pupils. She said that she could see that pupils from working families were under pressure. How could she see that? During covid, she sat alongside her children as they ate their lunch together—that is what they are doing, as they are not yet back in the assembly hall—and she noticed a pattern among a few children, in terms of the amount and quality of their lunch in tandem with the time that wages are paid. She said to me:
“Jim, I believe that some of my children are hungry during school and it breaks my heart.”
That teacher has since taken to bringing in a bowl of fruit for the children. They are allowed to pick a piece to snack on at lunchtime, if they want. The school cannot fund that, but she does it because she is burdened and that is commendable—commendable, but also lamentable. Luke Pollard referred to that, and others will.
No child in Strangford or anywhere across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be hungry, and a proportion of the population are now not entitled to benefits. Some are parents who have to tighten their belt when it comes to the groceries. My mother had four children, including me. She said that there were not enough potatoes in Comber to fill us. In Comber, they plant a lot of potatoes and they sell over Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. I do not now show the excess of eating too many potatoes, but in my younger days perhaps I did—I used to be 17 stone, and am now a very trim 13 stone. I have got it down and will keep it that way, if I can.
This morning on the TV, people were talking about the prices in chip shops; this is an example. I am sure everyone saw it, but if they did not, try to watch it tonight if possible. Fish and chip shops are under incredible pressure. For every £100 they spent last year, they now spend £150 this year. That is a 50% increase, and some chip shops will not be here—that is the fact of it.
I understand that growing children are voracious, but when we realise that it is cheaper to buy four packets of crisps than a bunch of bananas, we understand why children are nutritionally challenged and some have challenging weights. This would not be a debate if I did not mention the Northern Ireland protocol, but I do so because we have special challenges because of it.
Some companies do not want the hassle of the documentation resulting from the protocol, but those that bother charge more per item—not per shipment—to cover it. That has led to less variety and less ability to shop for value. People take what is on offer and scrape the pennies together to cover it, so £1 items are now £1.29—we do not have to be mathematicians to work it out, but that is a 29% increase. Children pay the price of the Northern Ireland protocol with the sacrifice of high-quality, affordable and nutritious food and its availability.
I always ask the Minister, and I ask again: have discussions with Cabinet colleagues to address the issue. In Cabinet Office questions today, a colleague asked the question, and the Minister responded, but whatever the response we want, I believe in seeing the finished article, rather than the words.
Last year, the Trussell Trust provided some 79,000 parcels in total to children and adults in Northern Ireland. In all, 2.5 million food parcels were given out across the UK. I will finish with this comment: yes, we might be able to get access to food security as a nation, but families simply cannot do it all. The hungry child at lunch making do with half a sandwich and a yoghurt, while watching other children tuck into full meals, is a reality in my constituency and others. That needs to change radically. We have the capacity to do that, and we must have the will to do it as well.
Minister, I look to you—I always do, because you are a lady and a Minister who understands the issues—to work with colleagues to do the right thing and to make lives better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. To start with, I have no formal interest to declare but, for transparency, I should put it on the record that my wife’s family are arable farmers and occasionally, for no remuneration, I help out on the family farm. Indeed, in the last summer recess, I thought that I had found a time when I would be able to enjoy the harvest, but, in inclement weather, it greatly amused my father-in-law instead to send me deep into the bowels of the combine to clean it out from the previous harvest—a job that I wish on nobody else.
The debate is important, and I congratulate Deidre Brock on initiating it. I did not agree with every word she said and I expect that she would be pretty appalled if I did, but, as food security is a subject facing our nation, it is absolutely right and proper that we debate it this afternoon. Actually, I have agreed with a lot of points that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have made. I particularly enjoyed the more ranty elements from Luke Pollard. I agree with him: we should be growing and producing more food domestically and we absolutely should be wasting considerably less, if not wasting no food whatever, here in our United Kingdom. Where I think we will probably diverge and disagree is in my belief that trade deals and the outlook of global Britain will be part of the categoric success, prosperity and future of British agriculture. As my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall said, we can export more and drive farmers to a point at which our debates about subsidy will not be relevant anymore, because we will have British agriculture in a place where it is genuinely profitable and sustainable. Subsidy is absolutely essential for the time being, but the end point must surely be profitability in British agriculture.
On the debate on how we produce more food in this country, I will not repeat many of the points eloquently made by other hon. and right hon. Members, not least the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, but my concern right now, which I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to work on across Government, is how we protect more of our agricultural land for food production.
This week, in the Government’s welcome announcements about the use of urea and the farming rules for water, in which they also set out more detail on the sustainable farming incentive, they have shown that they can be flexible and rise to the challenge of global factors and other things that impact on our farming community. That flexibility needs to be shown not just in how we get to the end point of ELMS—the environmental land management schemes—but on the other factors, which are not necessarily in the gift of DEFRA but are in the gift of other Departments, that relate to protecting that land.
My example is solar farms. We had a good debate about large solar farms in Westminster Hall some weeks ago. There are a lot of applications for them in my constituency. The vast majority of people accept the need for the renewable energy sector to develop that technology and get us off fossil fuels. However, that cannot be at the cost of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land—certainly thousands of acres of agricultural land in my own constituency. I must say that I take the planning consultants’ defence that sheep can still be grazed underneath the solar panels with a very large pinch of salt, because of course if the fields have been covered with the plastic, glass and metal that make up the solar panels, I am not sure how they expect grass to grow underneath them. I urge the Minister to work with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in particular to work out a way to ensure that we get the solar technology that we need in this country, but on rooftops, factories and brownfield sites rather than taking away the precious agricultural land in our rural communities.
Very powerful and good points were made on both sides of the Chamber about food poverty. We are doing other things in Government—particularly through some of the provisions in the Health and Care Bill, which is on its way through Parliament—about high in fat, salt and sugar, products, about “Buy one, get one free” offers and about where shopkeepers can and cannot place certain products in their shop and how they may be advertised. We need to acknowledge that that will have a huge impact on the price of food and on the food bill when families get to the checkout. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members want to do something about the problem of childhood obesity. However, we must not do that in a way that, first, will not work, as the Government’s own data shows—the advertising restrictions save only 1.7 calories a day—and will also drive up food bills. If we are to have food security in this country, and have affordable food for everyone, we must be wary of the unintended consequences of other policy areas.
We must look to other sources of meat. In the business statement earlier, I was happy to raise the point that six NHS hospitals are getting more game meat into their menus. I am sure that Kerry McCarthy will be delighted to hear this; we need to get more game meat into the food chain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Deidre Brock for securing this important debate, which has never been more timely.
Neil Parish and I have been banging on about food security for the best part of two decades, as we were both Members of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee. I was looking through the always informative and excellent newspaper, The Scottish Farmer, and came across this quote:
“‘Last week’s events really brought home the fragility of the world we live in and our over-dependence on potentially disrupted…transport links,’ said Mr Smith”—
I am quoting myself here.
It is great to see a fan of my early work.
“I believe the UK government authorities have been far too complacent about the security and stability of our food supplies…assuming that international transit networks and foreign sources of supply will never fail.
Last week was the mother of all wake-up calls.”
I said that in The Scottish Farmer on
I hope that I have proven over the years, that I am cross-party; I believe in consensus, and in working with other parties. I do not fabricate disagreement where there is none, but, damn sure, we disagree on food. We have a different sense of where we want to get to. We also have a food emergency on this Government’s watch, and we urgently need to change course. I implore the Minister to take my suggestions seriously, because they are made in good faith.
Things have got worse in the last 20 years. The latest figures show that the UK’s food self-sufficiency has gone from 80% to below 60%. Of course, we cannot and should not produce everything, but our food supply is under unprecedented strain. I believe that food security should be viewed as our national security is, and given the same urgency and priority within Government. Anything that undermines food production, however well intentioned, should be viewed with extreme scepticism.
Food production must be the basis of the rural economy. Only profitable food businesses can form the bedrock of our rural economy. No amount of tourism, birdwatching or tree planting can replace it. Those are all important, but they are add-ons, not the basis or bedrock of our rural economy.
The points that my hon. Friend is making are extremely important, and really underlie all the reasons why the debate is so important. Is he aware that evidence suggests that in just over six decades, globally, over 30% of arable land has been degraded due to human-induced activities? The point that he is making is one that the Minister and all of us need to focus on.
I am grateful for the intervention. That is a very important point. There will always be conflict over land use; there will always be competing purposes, and we must be aware of the perverse incentives to take prime agricultural land out of food production. That would leave us more vulnerable to international shocks and not more resilient. We must put food production far higher on our agenda.
We have seen action after action that has made farming more difficult because of political decisions. The sector was already reeling from Brexit and covid, and now the dreadful events in Ukraine have every single light on farming’s dashboard flashing red. The input costs for feed have gone up, and supply is becoming more difficult. Fuel costs—red diesel and gas—are all going up. Fertiliser costs are rocketing. Labour shortages are real, and are increasing costs—in fact, I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on the increase in the hourly wage to £10.10 an hour for seasonal workers, because that also increases costs, already, with labour shortages. Finally, UK trade policy—which always puts the interests of farmers first, but it is a shame that those are farmers in other countries—is weakening our food production domestically.
The SNP’s position is clear. It is a discussion for another day, but we have a clear agenda that we want to achieve: we want to get back into the European Union, the single market and the common agricultural policy. We think that would be far and away the best solution to support agriculture. In the last couple of weeks the EU has just announced a €1.5 billion support fund for farmers. The UK needs to match that urgency and priority, but other things need to be done, too.
In Scotland we have maintained pillar 1 payments and the drift of policy in England is regrettable and needs to be reversed. I would like to see pillar 1 payments retained and reintroduced as policy, or, if not as policy, as an emergency measure to get farmers through the crisis. We need to reduce red diesel duty to zero and address energy costs via a price cap on input, and we urgently need to review immigration policy to ensure labour supply. I urge the Government to consider loan guarantees along the lines of the covid support for agricultural businesses that face a short-term—hopefully—crisis in their cash flow. We need to prioritise agriculture in future trade deals, and anything that undermines indigenous food production must be viewed with scepticism. We need to see proper scrutiny of supermarkets and the role of multiples in the supply chain.
My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine. Our interdependence and international solidarity have come into sharp relief lately, but so has our lack of resilience. That lack of resilience and the social consequences of rising food costs are affecting every community that we all represent. If the Icelandic volcano in 2010 was a wake-up call, the events in Ukraine show that our resilience must be prioritised more, and food production must be at the heart of that resilience. There is lots that we can do, and I will work with anybody to help promote that agenda.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Deidre Brock on securing the debate.
I have spent the last six minutes pondering whether to respond to the bait laid by Greg Smith, and I thought, “Why not?” So, just very quickly, it was very interesting that his underlying intention is to remove agricultural subsidies, which is what I have always suspected the Tories wanted.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I did not say that there was a need to remove agricultural subsidy. I clearly said that agricultural subsidy was absolutely essential right now, but we must surely get to an end point where all agriculture is profitable.
Exactly. The hon. Gentleman said that the end point he wanted to get to was the removal of subsidies and to leave everything to market forces. We know there is a need for subsidies—about 60% of farmers’ incomes depend on subsidies. His end point is so far into the future that to have it as an underlying policy objective is not a great idea. I do not agree with him on trade, but I will come to that later. I do not agree with him that the sugar tax or action on obesity would have the impact that he suggests, because we know from the soft drinks levy that what it has led to is the reformulation of products and people choosing to buy other products. If it works, people will not pay more because they will change their diets accordingly.
On game meat, a study that has just been released from Cambridge University showed that 99.5% of pheasants killed contained lead shot. I hope the Government will look at that figure with a view to banning lead shot. I certainly would not want to see that being served in our hospitals. However, all that has taken up more time than I had hoped, but I can never resist.
The impact of the rise in the cost of living and the absolutely desperate situation in which many people find themselves is a really important debate to be had, but I want to talk about food sovereignty and what we grow in this country. According to the national food strategy, we are about 77% self-sufficient in food that we can grow in this country—64% self-sufficient overall. Importing more food, changing diets and eating more exotic foods is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember when spaghetti was considered exotic in the 1970s. It is good that we have far more varied diets and that we can buy fruit and veg out of season, but there is a point at which declining food sovereignty starts to have a significant impact on food security and our vulnerability to global food shocks is exposed. We have heard about Ukraine and Brexit, and we all remember the empty shelves and rotting food caused by trucks getting stuck at borders earlier this year. There is also the ever-present threat of climate change and the impact that it could have on future harvests.
A national food strategy recommendation is that we should have reports to Parliament on food security every year rather than every three years, as specified by the Agriculture Act 2020. Given the vulnerabilities that we have spoken about, it is really important that we do that so that there can be a quicker response. I would also be interested to know whether there is a target to increase food sovereignty in this country and for us to grow more, as several Members have said. That should absolutely be a goal of our policy. Instead, what we seem to have underpinning the policy is an almost desperate touting of ourselves around the world as we try to secure trade deals, which would have the impact of not just lowering food standards in this country but undermining our farmers and, in some cases, putting them out of business—particularly if the hon. Member for Buckingham has his way—further down the line.
In that case, I will not give way.
When I look at the trends in the global food system, my view is that it is broken. It has become incredibly reliant on huge agribusinesses that engage in heavily intensive practices that are massively destructive to the environment. There have recently been reports that the global food giant Cargill has refused to pull out of Russia, and it has repeatedly been linked to deforestation in the Amazon. JBS is another huge agribusiness that is complicit in rampant deforestation and modern slavery on Brazilian ranches. We should not be dependent on global food corporations that churn out poor-quality, mass-produced food that is bad for human health, global security and the planet.
Obviously, one of the solutions is to grow more at home. I was very pleased that the Minister met me the week before last to talk about peri-urban farming. Ideally, the Government will meet their pledge to put more money into county farms, which was made some years ago. I am slightly worried that it has dropped off the agenda, but I am pleased that the Minister is taking up some of the points that we make. The shorter supply chains are, the better, so that we can grow food closer to home and cut out food miles as well. We need to support agroecology, and we also need to tackle food waste, as I have said many times.
The final point I want to make is about supporting some of the sectors that do not get talked about. There is a big focus on red meat and dairy in this country. When I went to meet representatives of Pulses UK, it was the first time they had met a politician for such a long time. We can grow so many pulses and legumes in this country, and we can also use them to make more innovative products. One of the things that that side of the industry is crying out for is support on research and development, so that it can develop value-added products. In the industrial strategy, food barely gets a mention. If the Minister could take one thing away, I would urge her to look at how we can support farmers to grow more here, to sell more here and to flourish.
There has been a consensus—a rare thing indeed—that the UK’s food security is fragile and that the resilience is not what it needs to be. The UK is not self-sufficient in food production; it imports 48% of the total food consumed, and the proportion is rising. Therefore, as a food-trading nation, we rely on both imports and a thriving agricultural sector to feed ourselves and drive economic growth. The fragility of our food security has been shown by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has also heightened fears of a global food shortage, as Neil Parish and others have said. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith reminded us, the UN World Food Programme executive has warned of an incoming hell on earth.
With maize and wheat prices rising in March—soaring by 43% and 82% respectively—and with more rises likely, UK consumers face food price rises of 15%, given that Russia has more agricultural land than all other European countries. That is combined with the fact that Ukraine has the most arable land in Europe, with 25% of the world’s black soil, which is particularly fertile and has helped Ukraine to earn its place as a global agricultural powerhouse. Between them, Ukraine and Russia account for a significant proportion of global crop production, and an even bigger share of global crop exports, as we have heard in some detail this afternoon.
Given the situation in Ukraine, supply chains have been severely disrupted, which has exposed the UK’s food insecurity. Every Member who has spoken today has highlighted that. Farmers across the UK are deeply concerned about surging fertiliser costs, and have been since last year. Now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the situation has worsened further, as prices have increased by almost 50%, from £650 to £1,000 a tonne. That could lead farmers to use less fertiliser and that, in turn, will affect production, which is the last thing anyone wants when imports are threatened.
It is vital that the UK Government step in now to mitigate food insecurity. Brexit means UK farmers will miss out on access to a proposed €1.5 billion emergency fund to counter food insecurity, so we need an equivalent and proportionate UK fund that can be accessed by devolved Governments to be established at speed, to support our farmers and help tackle the food insecurity we have heard so much about today. That could and should have been done by the Chancellor in his statement last week, but sadly it was not.
The EU has pledged to work to improve self-sufficiency of EU food supplies, and we need the same pledge backed by concrete action from the UK Government. We need to end the policy of increasing reliance on imports while at the same time bringing in Brexit checks on food imported from the EU from July this year, even as industry warns that that could further disrupt the flow of food imported into the UK. I am sure the Minister can see that creating disruption to food imports at the very time when global food insecurity is a real threat is both dangerous and self-sabotaging. At the very least, implementing import controls must be delayed until food security can be guaranteed.
Rising costs across the board are weakening food production, even before we factor in the impact of Brexit on food production, as articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. There is no disguising the fact that there is genuine alarm and concern that the UK Government have failed to suitably respond to the imminent global food security crisis, and that has to change. That is what I believe all Members who have spoken today want to see. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling pointed out, this matter is not new but has grown ever more urgent and is now an emergency. The Government must reset the priority of domestic food production, because anything else exposes the UK to continued and increasing risk of food insecurity, as well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith.
Food insecurity is a global concern. Ukraine is a rich and fertile land, but with the current war in that nation it is estimated that 30% of the population is in need of lifesaving food assistance. As the single biggest supplier of food to the World Food Programme, the war also means the crisis is adding to that programme’s food procurement challenges, as it seeks to deliver rations to the people of Yemen, Chad and Niger, but is now also feeding 3 million hungry people in or around Ukraine, as my hon. Friend explained. In that terrible context, the issue of food waste, also raised by my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members who spoke today, must be tackled with renewed vigour. I hope we hear more about that from the Minister when she gets to her feet.
Food shortages from Ukraine will exacerbate existing food crises across the world. As Kerry McCarthy said, this is a world that must also be mindful of the ever-present impact of climate change on food production. G7 leaders have promised to address this global issue but there is no detail on that as yet, despite the fact that this matter is urgent and critical. This Government need to act urgently to protect UK food security and internationally we need urgent action as well on the global food crisis. Astonishingly, it is in that context that the UK Government have cut their international aid budget. That cut needs to be reversed, and the importance of doing so grows more urgent by the day.
I look forward to the Minister setting out the Government’s vision as to what they will do, domestically and internationally, to address this urgent and growing crisis, and what concrete action we can expect DEFRA to take on this most important and pressing of issues. All the participants in this debate have given the Minister much food for thought. Ultimately, our food security is inextricably linked to our national security, and the Government’s policies must reflect that fact.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate Deidre Brock on securing this debate.
Food security is a crucial component of national security, but it has received far too little attention from this Government. As Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, rightly said this week, food security should be a national priority, yet here we are on a Thursday afternoon at the end of the Session in a sparse Westminster Hall, as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard said with such passion. This is par for the course when it comes to food security issues. A lengthy and interesting food security report—I see the Minister has a copy—was sneaked out by the Government on the last day possible before Christmas, with no opportunity for proper scrutiny, and now there have been months of delays in the Government’s response to the national food strategy.
In the meantime, as we all know, the cost of the family food shop is rising week in, week out. The Library’s excellent briefing quotes the Trussell Trust’s latest survey, which found that 17% of people receiving universal credit had to visit a food bank between December 2021 and March 2022. That is extraordinary, because it could mean half a million people visiting a food bank. That report also found that 2 million people went without food on more than one day in the month, which is absolutely shocking. Of course, we have also heard recently about people rejecting food that needs to be cooked because they cannot afford the fuel. I could go on; we are familiar with these issues, and the Minister will probably say that they are welfare issues, not food issues. Yes, the Government’s welfare policies are a disgrace and should be a cause of profound shame in this country, but the impact on food security at a household level is all too clear. It is a real and pressing issue for millions of our people in our country.
Moving on to some of the wider issues, we all know about the disruptive effects on production and trade caused by the dreadful events in Ukraine, but they were hardly unforeseen. While tensions were mounting between Ukraine and Russia in the autumn of last year and analysts were warning about what could come, the Government’s food security report, citing Ukraine as a country with a high market share of global maize supply, said that it did not expect any major changes in world agricultural commodity markets and the top exporting countries of those commodities. Let me put it more precisely: early in December, the US released intelligence of Russian invasion plans, but later in the same month, that report said that
“Real wheat prices are expected to decline in the coming years based on large supplies being produced in the Black Sea region”.
Frankly, that is incredible. Were the Government simply unaware of the potential of the situation to impact our food supply and global wheat prices, or were they just ignoring it? What is the point of a report that is supposed to guide policy choices on food security when the most basic, blatant risks are glossed over?
It is not as if we have not been through these crises before. A similar situation arose at the start of the pandemic, and it is worth going back and reading Henry Dimbleby’s interim report, which talks about that period in its opening pages. To their credit, at that point, the Government did take action. They kept the show on the road, they got unusual levels of co-operation across the food chain, and they kept shadow politicians in the loop. I commend them for that. It was a united national effort, but since those early days, that sense of purpose has fallen away. That is to be regretted, because the situation has become very difficult again, with the carbon dioxide crisis before Christmas—which I will come back to—being one such example.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to reconvene the food resilience industry forum, but it should have been done sooner. In the past month, I have spoken endlessly to representatives across the supply chain who report what seems to them to be a real lack of urgency from the Government, with limited dialogue and communication. On hearing that, I asked the Government why they had yet to reconvene that forum—other countries had already done so, with Ireland’s Agriculture Minister establishing a food security committee three weeks ago in response to the invasion. I got a written answer in which the Government told me they could stand up a food resilience industry forum
“at short notice should the need arise.”
Should the need arise! It arose weeks ago. At last it has happened, and I welcome that, but always slow and always behind the curve.
I also urge the Minister to look at the Food and Drink Federation’s call for a national food security council to ensure this is not just seen as a DEFRA issue, but that there is proper cross-Government co-ordination and a streamlined process for approving substitute ingredients. The supply chain is fragile, and the Government have to help producers and manufacturers adjust. While they may not like it, that will mean working with our near neighbours in the EU, because if they change the rules ahead of the UK, the market moves and our producers risk being disadvantaged.
While we are less directly exposed than other countries on some levels, we cannot be complacent because some of these concerns are international. There is no doubt that many countries that rely heavily on grain from Ukraine will be at serious risk. We know that rising prices lead to hunger and political volatility and that will affect us all, albeit indirectly. It is not just a short-term problem either. The invasion is impacting Ukrainian farmers’ ability to sow and prepare for next year’s harvest. Regardless of direct impacts, the stress on the global system will add a further inflationary pressure to food prices. Of course, it is not just grain; it is fertiliser, fuel costs and labour shortages, which will all have an impact on our producers.
The issue affects everybody. This week’s Fishing News details the impact fleet-by-fleet, with Seafish concluding that the majority of the fleet cannot remain viable as things stand. I understand that Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has requested an urgent meeting with the Minister. I hope she can confirm today that that meeting will be granted— hopefully much more quickly than the frankly insulting delays we are encountering with her colleagues at the Department for Transport over vessel inspections.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that Seafish has gotten rid of its “Love Seafood” campaign that promotes British fish—fish caught in Britain, to be eaten in Britain? Does he agree that the scrapping of that scheme seems like a backwards step?
I always agree with my hon. Friend, but he makes an important point. It is not just fishers, of course; farmers, growers and everyone are still relating those additional costs.
I want to talk briefly about fertilisers because they are directly linked to our food security. We may be able to farm differently, and there is an important opportunity here, which I hope we can explore another day. Our ambition should be, as my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband has argued, to make a sprint for a greener future. Labour’s £28 billion per annum pledge will play an important role. In the short term, the fertiliser shortages are acute, and we know that as the gas prices rise, that creates particular problems. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit estimated that if current prices continue, the cost of extra fertiliser for British farmers will be £760 million, and the NFU is in no doubt that it will affect yields.
I appreciate that announcements were made yesterday, including the establishment of an industry fertiliser roundtable, which is welcome, but it must be accompanied by action. That includes the two fertiliser plants, which need to be back in action, and I ask the Minister to report on what is being done on that. The Minister will be aware that the European Commission has moved to allow direct intervention to get the Romanian plant going. What are the UK Government doing? While clarifications on the farming rules for water are broadly welcome, it is sorting out a mess of the Government’s own making.
In conclusion, Labour is committed to fixing the food system, ending the growing food bank scandal, ensuring families can access healthy food and improving our food security as a country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, we want to see more food grown in this country to a good quality, not the dumping of lower standard food imports, which will undermine our farmers. We want to buy, make and sell more in Britain, and make changes to public procurement so that our schools and hospitals are stocked with more locally sourced, healthy food. We would lead by example by putting high-quality food at the heart of our public buying.
At an animal welfare event yesterday—a Conservative-branded event—I was reminded that McDonald’s has higher animal welfare standards in its supply chains than the Government demand in the public sphere. It is a sobering thought, and I am afraid that it speaks volumes about the Government’s record. This country could do better. We can have a more resilient food system that feeds our people better and sustains, nourishes and protects our environment. For that to happen, it needs a Government committed to making food security a national priority. At the moment, I am afraid that there is precious little sign of that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to attend this important debate. There are familiar faces in the Chamber and, as always, it is good to see them. Some important points have been made from across the House. I thank Deidre Brock, as others have, for securing the debate. It is important that the debate is part of a wider, general and national conversation about food and food security—hon. Members know that nothing is more important to me or the Department. If I do not answer every point—it has been a very wide-ranging debate—Members should get in touch with me, or come and chat, at any point. The issues raised today are difficult and significant, and often there are no simple answers.
I know that many of us felt that war in Ukraine was coming, but I do not think many of us were prepared for the actuality or the severity of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine today. The last month has been truly horrific to witness, and we can only say how very sorry we are and how much the Ukrainian people are in our thoughts. The Government have sent £220 million of humanitarian aid, but we should all be aware that getting that aid to the people in those cellars in Mariupol is not automatic; it is very dangerous and difficult. We must continue to work globally with other nations to facilitate that where we can.
I agree with the points that many Members have made about the situation with planting in Ukraine. I was fortunate to meet the Ukrainian ambassador a week ago, and he spoke to me and the Secretary of State about direct interventions to help with the planting season this year, and we are doing our best to facilitate that. As my hon. Friend Neil Parish said, the planting season starts in the next couple of weeks. The Ukrainians are a very brave people and they deserve our support.
It is also right that we lean into the difficulties that the war in Ukraine will cause for the global food supply. In some of the countries that have been mentioned there will be real shortages of food as a result of the war, given those countries’ reliance on imports from Ukraine. That is a significant concern for the Government. I assure Members across the House that we will very much play our part in the global response to those issues.
I know the Minister is passionate about getting enough food supplies. Are the Government really looking at the amount of food we produce? We are now not only feeding ourselves but feeding the world. We cannot feed the whole world, but if we do not import so much food then there is more food for others who can ill-afford to get it. Where are the fertiliser plants that the Opposition have asked for? I questioned the Prime Minister yesterday, and said that we should open them. If we get ammonium nitrate out there, we can produce more vegetables, beef, sheep, dairy and cereal. It has to be ammonium nitrate, because that is the only quick fix to get us where we need to be.
I will come to fertilisers in a moment. I hope that my hon. Friend has a useful and productive recess planting his crops—I am sure he will. Food is what farmers produce; it is our job. I should have drawn attention to my own farming interests at the beginning of this speech. It is right that we continue to support farmers—be in no doubt about that. The Government have committed to support farmers in the Budget year on year. I think that is very important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton knows, it is my view that food is uppermost in what farmers think about and do. The Government have two other goals—what the EU used to call pillars—bedded into our future farming policies: nature recovery, which I think the whole House agrees is important; and carbon capture. Several hon. Members have referenced that we are going to have to adapt to climate change. Those three factors are bedded into our future farming policies, which are very much about supporting farmers to produce efficiently and productively, and to make the food that we need.
Having said all that, we need to be careful about our tone. There are going to be real problems elsewhere in the world with food supply this year; we are very fortunate in this country in that our import dependency on that area in eastern Europe is low and that we have strong domestic production of food such as wheat, maize and rapeseed. Other nations depend much more heavily on Ukraine and the area around it for those products than we do. We have to be quite careful in the way we have this discussion. What the war does directly contribute to in this country is rising costs, notably energy costs, and wider supply chain disruption. We should not gloss over those facts.
We know that the wider disruption is having a real impact on the supply and the cost of feed and fertiliser. I was very glad to chair our first meeting this morning of the fertiliser group—it was a useful meeting, in which we focused very much on practical solutions. We agreed—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton will be glad to know—that we do need to use fertiliser to produce our crop and we need to make sure that there is enough fertiliser for all sorts of farmers, including livestock farmers, who need to produce the forage crops for next winter and in order to bump the wheat up to milling wheat status. We agreed that we did have confidence in our supply and we will be putting out a statement later today agreed by those at the group this morning—the real experts in this field—that we have sufficient supply and, while there is a cost implication, farmers should not be frightened to buy or to use fertiliser this year.
I would never refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in the terms the Prime Minister used yesterday, as an “old muckspreader”—I believe he is quite happy to be referred to as a muckspreader, but not an old one. I thank him and my hon. Friend Greg Smith for their remarks on the changes on urea in the farming rules for water statutory guidance, which I think are sensible and welcome, and on the supercharging of our efforts on new supplies of biofertilisers rather than chemical fertilisers. That is all welcome; none of it is a complete solution, and we should not pretend for one minute that it is, but it is all good work that needs to be done and I am glad that that is recognised.
On the role of supermarkets, in the last week or so I have met all the major supermarkets to understand the issues they face and to discuss with them what they can do to pass production costs to the primary producers.
On food poverty, we learned during the pandemic—we saw once again—that targeted interventions are the way forward here. From April, the Government are providing an additional £500 million to help households with the costs of essentials. That brings the total funding for that support to £1 billion, which is very welcome. Although only half of food insecurity is in households with children, it is worth referencing the £220 million in our holiday activities and food programme, which goes directly to children.
My hon. Friend has discussed that many times with me and the Secretary of State. On food waste, in which WRAP and FareShare have played such a big part, I would like to recommit the spending that DEFRA has given in the past. We have spent about £3 million on that work and it is really important.
I think we all agree that food poverty needs to be addressed. Where we differ is how we support farmers to do that. The Government are committed to phasing out area-based payments, whereby 50% of the payment has gone to 10% of farmers in the past, and the bottom 20% of claimants get 2% of the total budget.
I listened to what Kerry McCarthy said about pulse farmers. I agree that pulses, pigs, horticulture and poultry have all done badly out of subsidy regimes in the past, and we are keen to put that right. It has never been more critical that we stick with the agricultural transition, because we need to incentivise efficient and productive farming. The new schemes are all about that as well as embedding nature and climate change in the way we incentivise farmers. Food is at the very heart of what we do, and food security is of course a critical national priority. I thank all those who have taken part in this important debate.
I would say this, but I think that was one of the best debates I have ever listened to. It was considered, intelligent and informed. Although I did not necessarily agree with everything that was said, broadly there is a consensus across this place that food security is an incredibly important issue that deserves to be more widely talked about in this place and across the UK.
I congratulate all those who took part in the debate—familiar faces or not. All the contributions were excellent and raised a lot of important points that I hope the Minister will take note of and take to heart when she undertakes further discussions on the subject and makes interventions. From more at-home production to fewer faceless and nameless suppliers, from setting targets for minimum domestic food production and food sovereignty to seeking a balance between rewilding projects and food production, and from the responsibilities that supermarkets must take on to the diversification of food production and the effects on our fishing communities, it really has been a very wide-ranging debate, as the Minister said.
I hear what Luke Pollard said about familiar faces at these debates, although I commend all Members for being here. It is the last day before recess, and I was actually very pleased at the turnout and thank everyone for coming along. However, I feel that the debate has barely scratched the surface. There is a lot more to be said about this issue, and many more people in this place need to be involved in this discussion and to become more aware of it.
I hope it is appropriate to say that I will be seeking to secure another debate on this issue with the Backbench Business Committee, and hopefully we can get it into the main Chamber so that we can open it up for further discussion—hopefully before the Secretary of State comes to talk to us about food security, and perhaps later in the autumn. I thank Members again for coming along today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered food security.