Food Security

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:05 pm on 31st March 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:05 pm, 31st March 2022

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.