Food Security

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 31st March 2022.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:00 pm, 31st March 2022

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.