Food Security

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 31st March 2022.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:58 pm, 31st March 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Deidre Brock, who has long had an interest in this issue, as has my hon. Friend Alyn Smith.

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.