War in Ukraine: UK Farming and Food Production — [Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:10 am on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade) 10:10 am, 20th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate Christian Matheson on securing a really important and timely debate on the situation that our farmers are facing just now. This is a time of real pressure for people working in the agricultural industry and the food sector, for lots of reasons. The hon. Member covered some themes that were repeated by other hon. Members: the cost of fertiliser, the cost of fuel, and farmers leaving the business. The theme progressed throughout the debate, and it would be well worth the Minister paying heed to the warnings that have been laid out very clearly in the Chamber. The Government fail to act to support farmers at their peril, given some of the issues that have come up.

Jim Shannon, who is a farmer himself, talked about the investment required by farmers. That is an experience that he has shared with me in conversations about his developments. Farmers have to make choices about investment, and quite often the money and reserves are not there for them to do so. There are ongoing costs. He talked about the importance of farming, which should be underlined: it is an important industry and an important business for people to be in. It supports us. He also talked about the need for investment in training and development, and for policies that take that forward. That is critical. We should look at farming as an essential career. That goes for all the nations of the UK: it should be considered as an essential industry and supported.

Another theme from the hon. Member for Strangford was the gap in world food production caused by the war. That is a pressure we must think about in relation to another recurring theme: food security. In her intervention, Margaret Ferrier talked about the need to think about vulnerable people’s access to food, and she is absolutely correct. When we have these high-level discussions about what is happening, we forget that the issue affects people in houses and homes across our communities, who are now facing previously untold hardship—things that they have not had to face in their lifetimes. That is happening right now. It is all part of the cause and effect that is in place here.

Ben Lake talked about changing dietary habits, and he is absolutely correct. That is a complex matter. We need to talk about what we must encourage people to do; about what kind of healthy eating and supply we must look at in future. Another theme was pressure for raw materials leading to longer-term impacts, which again need to be taken into consideration. There must be a longer-term plan for dealing with that. He talked about farmers making reductions and repeated the theme of farmers leaving the industry.

Thank goodness somebody—Margaret Greenwood—raised the issue of climate change. It is an issue that we do not address enough in this Parliament—when I say “enough,” I am being very generous. It is another impact in the heady mix that we have to pay some attention to. We had record temperatures yesterday and houses burning as a result. This is something we are living with now, and hon. Members should be talking about it all the time. It is another impact that farmers are having to deal with; they are seeing changes to their environments, their farms and their livestock, with different ways of having to manage them. Again, that brings costs and puts pressures on the industry, including whether the farmers have the will to keeping working in it sometimes.

The hon. Member for Wirral West also talked about domestic food production declining—a theme I will come back to—rising prices for energy, feed and fuel; and the significant cuts to support that have been imposed on farmers over the past decade or so of austerity. Those are all important themes.

The Scottish Government are aware and are acting where they can, but the UK Government have a duty to act to safeguard domestic food security by supporting farmers, producers and consumers. I repeat that the Minister should take this warning and speak to colleagues about abandoning the laissez-faire policy on trade deals and protecting domestic food production.

The hon. Member for City of Chester brought up the effect of labour shortages. It seems to have gone quiet but it is a real effect. It is a Brexit-induced problem. We have a mad rush for dodgy deals with New Zealand and Australia, which are going to impact farmers directly. It is not just my opinion that it will harm the farming and food sector; it is also the opinion of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, the National Farmers Union, trade experts, academics and the UK Government’s own departmental advice about the deals. However, they are still going to impose it on farmers on this isle.

We have talked about the cost of fertiliser—which has trebled—the cost of feed and energy, and farmers selling off livestock and cutting production. As a consequence of Brexit, UK farmers are set to miss out on access to a proposed €1.5 billion emergency fund. The UK Government were warned before this crisis that their policies are undermining domestic production of food and forcing reliance on more food imports, and the New Zealand and Australia deals do not help that. As we have heard, UK food self-sufficiency is now below 60%. A couple of decades ago it was 80%. That is a red flashing warning light about what is happening. Food security must not be considered a thing of the past.

The UK Government must now correct their course and deliver a UK food security fund proportional to what UK farmers would have received as part of the EU, to be administered by the devolved Governments. Failure to do so in the face of denying financial powers for the Scottish Government to act, such as simple borrowing powers, only reinforces the glaring need for Scotland to have the full powers of independence in order to protect our own farmers and food sector where this place fails, and continues to fail. Unless there is a change in course, it will continue to fail farmers across the nations of the UK.