It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson on securing this debate and on his excellent opening speech. I join him in expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Last week, I met a group of farmers in my constituency of Wirral West, along with representatives of the National Farmers Union. I heard from them about the pressures that farmers are facing. We are in a time of severe economic pressure that has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. British farmers have been left exposed and vulnerable to the challenges of rising inflation. The cost of agricultural inputs such as fuel, feed, packaging, transport, labour and energy is increasing.
As the House of Commons Library has noted, the cost of feeding livestock has risen considerably in the past six months, with many farmers dependent on feed prices set on a global market. Feed prices for livestock were stable in the first half of 2021, but increased by 18% between August 2021 and April 2022. Energy input costs for farms increased by 34% between January and April this year. Farm motor fuel costs increased by 30% over the same period. All that means, of course, that the cost of producing food in the UK has increased considerably in recent months, and that affects the availability and affordability of food to consumers.
This period of unprecedented agricultural inflation coincides with the introduction of DEFRA’s agricultural transition plan, under which direct payments, the old support payments to farmers in England under the common agricultural policy, are being reduced. Farmers have already experienced significant cuts to direct payments, with further to come this year.
The Government are in the process of rolling out new support schemes, but farmers have expressed concerns about the timescales for their implementation and whether they will provide farmers with enough support. The Public Accounts Committee has criticised the Department for what it calls its “blind optimism” about the introduction of the schemes and the insufficient detail about how they will make up for the ending of current approaches. Can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take, as a matter of urgency, to address those concerns?
The UK’s food self-sufficiency has reduced significantly in recent years. In 1990, we produced 74% of our food; by 2000, that figure was 67%, and in 2021 it was down to 60%. The NFU is calling on the Government to commit to maintaining the UK’s food production self-sufficiency at 60% and helping to create an environment for farm and food businesses to thrive and compete in the coming years.
The NFU points out that we cannot be a global leader in climate-friendly food if we allow our own production levels to drop. The UK is only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in fresh vegetables and 71% in potatoes. For both veg and potatoes, that figure has fallen by 16% in the past 20 years. While the nation is encouraged to be healthier and eat more fruit and veg, our domestic production of those products falls below our potential. What assessment have the Government made of the UK’s declining food self-sufficiency?
In December last year, the Government published the “United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021”, in which they concluded that
“Global food supply and availability has improved since 2010” and was “expected to recover” from the problems caused by the covid-19 pandemic. Of course, that was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the UK’s food security in the light of that?
As the Minister will know, the UK food security report also listed several factors that threaten the stability and long-term sustainability of global food production, one of which was climate change. The report stated:
“Longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures may have some positive effects for particular crops and regions, but overall risk magnitude is assessed to increase from medium at present to high in future. Increased climate exposure (including heat stress, drought risk, and wetness-related risks) is modifying productive capacity and will continue to do so in future in line with the degrees of warming experienced.”
Over the past few days, we have seen stark warnings in this regard, with record temperatures recorded across the UK, fields and buildings on fire, and emergency services facing unprecedented challenges. I hope the Minister and her colleagues will impress on the new leader of the Conservative party—and our new Prime Minister—the critical importance of addressing climate change as a matter of urgency. I have to say that the lack of concern put on this issue by the leadership candidates in recent days has been extremely worrying. The future Prime Minister bears a huge responsibility in this regard, not only for this generation but for future generations.
It is vital that we build resilience in farming and food production in England and across the UK, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many important points raised by Members in this debate.