Support for Local Food Infrastructure

Women and Equalities Committee – in Westminster Hall at 1:50 pm on 8th September 2022.

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Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 1:50 pm, 8th September 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for local food infrastructure.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. At the outset, I should declare my own interests. For many years, I have been a partner in two family farms in Suffolk, and from this June I chair a community interest company called REAF—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries—which has the objective of reinvigorating the East Anglian fishing industry for the benefit of local communities such as Lowestoft in my constituency. REAF’s objectives very much coincide with the issues that will be raised in this debate.

On the farm where I grew up and still live, we have a pig unit. Forty years ago, pigs were conceived, born, reared and fattened on the farm, with feed milled and mixed there, and when the time came they went to an abattoir that was also in Suffolk. Today, things are very different; the piglets are born on different farms, moved to ours for rearing, then sent to abattoirs that are often a long way away. There is a risk that I will become dewy-eyed and sentimental—yes, the new way of doing things may be more efficient, but it is also of less benefit to local economies and communities, and an enormous number of food miles are generated. In many places local food infrastructure no longer exists. This needs to be addressed, as research carried out by Sustain confirms that local food systems provide better environmental, economic and social returns.

While much of this debate is focused on the long-term structural improvements that are needed to local food infrastructure, it is necessary to highlight the enormous pressures that currently impact all aspects of food production: the dramatic rise in energy prices, the supply and crippling cost of fertiliser and carbon dioxide, and the acute shortage of staff. If Government policy promotes the development of greater local supply, with the necessary supporting infrastructure, then we can embed greater resilience against these punitive outside forces.

It is important to provide some background information on the current state of the food sector. The groceries market in 2020 was worth £200 billion. The nine largest food retailers control over 90% of the market and, on average, farmers get only 9% of the agrifood gross value added. The 2021 Groceries Code Adjudicator survey showed a backwards slide on fairness: some 39% of fish caught by UK boats is landed and processed abroad, with little benefit coming back to local fishing communities such as the one in Lowestoft. To improve the situation, there is a need for investment in food infrastructure, including hubs for collaborative produce marketing, processing facilities, storage and refrigeration premises, abattoirs, dairy and creamery facilities, better signage and promotion of markets, improved digital and IT systems, farmers’ markets and grain and oilseed pressers.

Hubs can be provided at showgrounds, as the Suffolk Agricultural Association and the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association are doing. As the drought persists in Suffolk—but perhaps not at the Oval—it is important to highlight the need for improved water infrastructure.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I wholly support all the very important infrastructure investments that my hon. Friend has detailed, but on water, which is a vital ingredient in the mix, I want to raise my concern about local food partnerships. Because they are not commercially operated, they are suffering in this drought due to the water restrictions. I believe that some water companies are using their discretion, but South East Water is not. Is my hon. Friend sympathetic to my request to South East Water to revisit its policy and provide the relevant level of water support to local food partnerships, such as mine in Eastbourne, so that they can truly take their place and be part of the local food infrastructure?

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Yes, I am sympathetic to that, and I will touch on water infrastructure a number of times during my speech. We probably have not realised its significance and importance up until the past few weeks, when it has become apparent. The harvest on the farm I come from was okay, but as these conditions persist, what will next year’s harvest be like? These problems will not just be here for this season; they may be here for some years to come.

The Countryside Alliance highlights five challenges that we need to address. There is a need for enhanced food security, which is particularly important given the appalling ongoing war in Ukraine. We need to bear it in mind that the UK produces some of the best food in the world, with the highest standards for safety and animal welfare, and we must build on that sound foundation.

A network of local abattoirs is vital, both to shorten the food miles and to enhance animal welfare. There is a need to improve public sector procurement, as highlighted in the Government’s food strategy. Last year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that access to procurement contracts be widened to smaller local suppliers without delay. There remains a need to improve food labelling, as that can empower the consumer. Finally, it is absolutely vital that digital infrastructure be improved in rural areas, as good connectivity allows businesses to find new and local markets and enables customers to access local produce online.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator, into which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently carrying out a review, plays an important role in monitoring, ensuring compliance and enforcing the code, which helps strengthen the food supply chain of suppliers, retailers and consumers. Although that is not a matter directly for this debate, it is vital that the Government retain the adjudicator.

In Suffolk and Norfolk in 2019, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership set up its Norfolk and Suffolk Agri-Food Industry Council, to which REAF is making a presentation next week. The council’s role is to provide a strategic direction for the industry, which has a gross value added in the two counties of £3.1 billion and a workforce of 71,700. It produces 16.6% of the UK’s fruit and vegetables and 17.6% of our poultry.

The local infrastructure issues into which the council believes there is a need for strategic investment from the Government are as follows. As we have heard, there must be investment in water infrastructure to tackle the shortages that fruit and vegetable growers are increasingly facing. Shortages of electricity at key sites are blocking development opportunities. That is a problem at Ellough, on the outskirts of Beccles in my constituency. In transport and logistics, there is a need to improve key infrastructure routes and enhance cold chains—refrigerated facilities right along the supply chain.

The council highlights the need to ensure farmers and rural communities still receive the same level and quality of support, whether financial or through advisory services, under environmental land management schemes and the UK’s shared prosperity fund, as they did before we left the EU. Under the Government’s current proposals, Suffolk will receive less through the shared prosperity fund than it did through the previous EU structural funding. The allocation under the previous regime was estimated at between £18 million and £24 million, while under the shared prosperity fund it is proposed that it will be about £12 million. Anecdotally, there are reports of other areas receiving uplifts. Suffolk MPs have written to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to highlight this iniquity, and anything that my right hon. Friend the Minister in his new position can do to address it will be greatly appreciated.

It is important to showcase examples of good practice, where local initiatives are strengthening local food infrastructure. Three examples that I will mention come from very different backgrounds. First, in 2012, just outside Beccles in my constituency, Josiah Meldrum, Nick Saltmarsh and William Hudson founded Hodmedod to supply grain, pulses, flour and other products from British farms. They wanted to get local food systems working, to challenge the dominant just-in-time distribution systems and to bring more pulses and wholegrains back into the British diet as crucially neglected crops. They work closely with farmers, processors, packers and manufacturers to produce the crops, pack them after harvest and create the ever-growing range of products that they sell to customers online and in shops. The business relies on close relationships between farmers, buyers and those in the supply chain in between to ensure that the system delivers good livelihoods. They have invested in processing machinery to support that.

Secondly, while water companies are very much under the microscope at present, it is important to highlight the work of Anglian Water in providing latent heat from its sewage treatment plants to industrial-scale greenhouses at Fornham near Bury St Edmunds and at Whitlingham near Norwich. It is also making fertiliser from the sewage treatment process.

Finally, last week, the Government committed to making a significant investment in the Sizewell C nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast. Much work remains to be done before EDF can make a final investment decision and work can start on the site; it is carrying out preparatory work that includes the provision of a desalination plant, which in due course could help address the water challenge we have touched on. The energy and agricultural sectors need to work together to provide for our future water needs. That involves ensuring that groundwater is not extracted to such an extent that it exacerbates the biodiversity challenge that we are already facing.

As to how we can deliver meaningful investment to local food infrastructure, to benefit not only local businesses and producers but local people and communities, it is important to mention that the Government are coming forward with initiatives to improve the situation. Those include the fisheries and seafood scheme and the rural England prosperity fund that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced last week. Its launch of the review of the pig supply chain is also to be welcomed, as the industry is currently loss-making and clearly not working in a fair and transparent way. That said, however, my sense is that more can be done. The National Farmers Union highlights the need to improve the planning system. With regard to investment, it points to the need to make the UK the go-to place for investment in agriculture and food production. It proposes a regulatory system that protects consumers and the environment while incentivising innovation and investment, through both planning and fiscal policy.

The Government can take a number of steps to boost local food infrastructure. They include targeted productivity grants, which allow farmers to secure the win-win of more profitable and more sustainable food production that uses resources more efficiently; and investment in research and development and in agri-tech, involving effective two-way knowledge exchange, so that British farmers and growers can have access to the best tools and technologies. The NFU highlights the need to increase procurement opportunities for regionally produced food and prepare local food strategies. The strategies should be developed with LEPs, which have the best understanding of local food supply needs.

Sustain highlights the need to use “all the tools in the box” to promote local growth in shorter supply chains and with innovation at local and national level. It emphasises the need for public money for start-up funding to get new businesses established. That in turn would act as a catalyst for private sector investment. There is also a need for tax relief and low rents on local authority-controlled properties for local SME food businesses to help get them established in those difficult first two years.

Sustain also proposes that the UK Government should use the existing budgets and pots of funding—such as the UK shared prosperity fund and the community ownership fund—to create a £300 million to £500 million local food investment fund to provide strategic support across the UK for investment in localised agrifood infrastructure and enterprise.

Mr Robertson, you will be pleased to hear that I am coming to a conclusion. While these are troubled times and the immediate outlook is very uncertain, there is no reason why, working together, national and local government, public and private utilities, businesses all along the supply chain and local communities cannot bring about a sea change in how we produce, sell eat, and celebrate our food. That, in turn, can build self-sufficiency, embed long-term resilience and enhance community pride. If we do that, we can provide an exemplar, which can be a flagship for global Britain.

I welcome the Minister to his place. He is very much the right person to be answering this debate. I look forward to his reply and hope he will endorse that ambition and commit the Government to working with a very wide range of interested parties to deliver that truly sustainable future.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

So that I can get everyone in, I will ask hon. Members to stick to five minutes, please.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 2:06 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing this debate. As many people in this room are, I am passionate about food, particularly locally grown food. Our relationship with food, and how and when it can go wrong, is also important to me. I am very pleased to take part in this debate on food infrastructure because I think it is a critical point that is affecting many communities up and down the country.

I would like to commend the work of groups such as Regather, Our Cow Molly, which is a great dairy—the last dairy—in Sheffield, and the Sheffield Foodhall. They play a vital role in the local food infrastructure of my city.

Food prices, as we know, are spiralling. It is tempting to blame all of that on the war in Ukraine—Russia and Ukraine are obviously the largest producers of grain in the world—but the instability created by the war has only contributed to an existing problem. The Office for National Statistics figures for the retail prices index on food and catering were increasing way before the war—back in March last year.

One of the key drivers of rising food prices, and the volatility in prices, has been speculation on the international commodity markets. The UK imports just over half of its food, making it even more vulnerable to that volatility. The news that the pound has slumped to a 37-year low against the dollar will only increase the price of imported food, hitting people even harder in their pockets. Yesterday’s Financial Services and Markets Bill, which repeals the MiFID II regulations on commodity trading, will make that situation even worse.

The effects of that international context are writ large in statistics published by the Trussell Trust. Last year, it issued 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels—an increase of 14% since the start of the pandemic, while, according to the Food Foundation, a shameful 13% of households are currently skipping meals. It is therefore vital that we are having this debate on local food infrastructure.

Building resilience to the chaos of international markets will need a concerted international effort to stop speculation—an effort that is currently missing from Government policy. It also means that building up capacity and food security at home has never been so important. A critical part of that must be supporting and expanding our local food infrastructure. We need investment to plug the gaps in local supply chains, to strengthen them, and to expand their capacity. We also need to fund advice and mentoring for farmers on business planning and sustainable farming methods, and, as the NFU has said, much more effort needs to go into encouraging public and private sector businesses to procure local food.

Our planning system also needs to change. It needs to encourage the diversification of food outlets and the growth of infrastructure supporting shorter supply chains, and it needs to safeguard the best land for agricultural use—it is pointless to waste nutrients if we can avoid it. We need to use shorter supply chains to build wealth in our communities. According to Sustain, every £10 spent on a local box scheme results in total spending of £25 in the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket. Changing food procurement guidelines and processes—making them more flexible to support local food suppliers—will be crucial for keeping money locally.

Most of all, however, we need a national strategy that joins up the action on the ground and that guarantees a right to food. During the pandemic I called for more support for people who were not getting access to food, and mutual aid and community organisations sprang up across the country, including Acorn, Voluntary Aid Sheffield and Sheffield Foodhall in my city. They delivered food to vulnerable people across the country, and the Government also stepped in to deliver food directly through local authorities. Just as Bevan saw in the Tredegar Medical Aid Society a blueprint for delivering universal healthcare, we should see in this network the beginnings of an infrastructure to deal with food insecurity. These community hubs should be formalised and given the backing and logistical support that they need to provide affordable food for people who need it. In this collective network, we can see the shape of a national service that would provide food for all and ensure that nobody went hungry. It needs only to have material and logistical support, and co-ordination from the state, and it must be integrated into existing local food infrastructure, which is waiting to be exploited.

A food system that leaves us vulnerable to chaos in world markets, or that results in more than one in 10 households skipping meals in one of the richest countries in the world, is not fit for purpose. The scale of the problems in the system must be matched by ambitions to build a new one. The seeds of the new way of doing things have been sown in the decentralised network of organisations, businesses and community groups that make up our local food infrastructure. We must nurture them and ensure that they grow into the local, democratic and sustainable food systems that we need and that many are crying out for.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 2:12 pm, 8th September 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Like me, he has long championed the vital role of food in every aspect of our health, from the health of our children and communities to the health of our nation and planet.

To solve the current challenges that we face as a nation, growing the economy to create jobs and fund our public services will be essential. In a country where 99% of businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises—5.6 million in total—we need to support our local businesses in every town and city, and in every village and neighbourhood, if they are to survive and thrive. The Government can only do so much; as consumers, we need to do our part by reflecting on how we buy goods and services, and on what impact those decisions have on our local economy.

Many local businesses are food businesses—from our local corner shops that we depended on during covid lockdowns, to the cafes, restaurants and pubs that are the lifeblood of our high streets, and the market stalls that sell us fruit and vegetables, local cheeses or baked goods. I am always pleased to highlight the new food businesses that bring variety to my local high streets and increase the choices that we have in Stoke-on-Trent. In Hanley, recent additions have been the bao buns at Dumpling King, the lamb patties at Hamilton Bay and Asian fusion cuisine at Wagamama. The monthly artisan market that brings local producers into the city centre, and the fruit and veg stall outside the main entrance to the Royal Stoke Hospital, are evidence that there is growing food choice and better access to healthy food in my city. The local economy also benefits from new businesses such as Long Rest and Geek Retreat, which combine entertainment and refreshment by offering gaming alongside food and drink.

Businesses offering food and drink are key in complementing a retail offer that has been steadily shrinking. Changes in consumer buying patterns mean that our high streets are no longer dominated by large retail chains, so the rise of local independent businesses that are personally invested in the local community will be the key driver of the renaissance of town centres. Local people judge the success of regeneration by how their high street looks, and pride of place is vital to residents’ feeling of wellbeing and optimism about their local area. Too many areas are blighted by half-empty high streets, with negative impacts like uncleanliness and antisocial behaviour.

My personal passion for the food agenda has been shaped by two years of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy. While a number of recommendations from the Dimbleby review have been taken up by the Government, the fundamental challenge of how we systematically tackle the many broken elements of our food system remains unsolved. To provide a holistic solution, we need a food taskforce across multiple Departments and a good food Bill to enshrine reforms in law. This year in the UK we have experienced the hottest and driest weather on record. Conditions have caused crop failure and nature loss, making our land less productive. That is a system failure, not the fault of individual farmers or consumers, but we all face the consequences.

There is much to be done, and I am determined to champion innovation and investment in our local food infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent. To that end, I would like to invite the Minister to a food summit that I am hosting at Staffordshire University on 4 November. The theme is

“From Field to Fork—The Future of Food,”

—that is a bit of a mouthful—

“exploring solutions to climate, health and food security challenges”.

I have invited food innovators to showcase their businesses and ideas.

To build national resilience to food insecurity, we need to grow—quite literally—our local food production and enable smaller food businesses to thrive. We also need to back local food manufacturers and retailers, which create employment opportunities, and welcome their engagement in community ventures. More than that, we need to grow community involvement in the redistribution of food, to minimise food waste. We need to encourage more community restaurants and food enterprises—more places that offer low-cost food, such as food clubs and pantries, which ensure that food surplus from the supply chain is not wasted. These need to be organised from within neighbourhoods and communities at the most local level.

We need cookery classes and clubs, as well as community kitchens, to help with the cost of food preparation and to teach new skills. Growing schemes in community allotments are springing up around the city. There is definitely more that can be done to support improving the urban environment, such as planting community orchards on public land that has lain fallow for many years and represents a cost to councils. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should be supported to pilot schemes that develop surplus land and premises for urban farming and sustainable food production, delivering benefits for the public good? Does the Minister also agree that it is time for a major conversation around our food system, with the basic principles at its heart of buying local, supporting British producers and working together to ensure that consumers everywhere have access to good-quality, local food.

Only communities can build a strong and sustainable local food infrastructure. However, Government can help in a number of ways, from setting procurement standards, which ensures that more locally sourced produce is supplied to our public sector, to incentivising urban growing and new community food enterprises or investing in projects relating to diet and public health that promote good food choices. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned the national food strategy report to identify many of these challenges. Now is the time to take forward the solutions.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:18 pm, 8th September 2022

I thank you for giving me the chance to speak, Mr Robertson, and I particularly thank Peter Aldous for raising the issue. He and I have many things in common, including that we represent coastal areas where there is fishing and farming. He has clearly illustrated his depth of knowledge on the subject matter, and we thank him for that.

My five-minute speech will focus not just on all the good things that Strangford has, because it would take more than five minutes to say them, but on the bigger story as well. Can I say how pleased I am to see the Minister in his place? I miss him as Leader of the House, but I am pleased to see him here to take up the cudgels on behalf of farming and fishing. I wish him well and know that we will be able to enjoy and take note of his knowledge of those areas.

The United Kingdom is largely self-sufficient in terms of our food and drink industry. The UK food supply represents some 6.8% of gross value added. It is worth £107 million and provides 4 million jobs, with around half a million people in farming and fishing. In Northern Ireland, food and drink is a £5.4 billion industry. As I was sitting here, I was thinking about beef and lamb because they are significant in my constituency. They are worth £1.3 billion. Some 5,000 staff are involved in processing beef and lamb, and 20,000 farmers are active in that industry. Also, we export 70% of that beef and lamb, because in Northern Ireland we produce more than we eat as the population is only 1.8 million. For us, the UK mainland is so important for our produce for export. Our success is down to pure and fresh manufacturing from local farmers and countryside, right through to our fishermen who provide the local seafood from Portavogie harbour in my constituency of Strangford and down as far as Annalong and Kilkeel in South Down.

Strangford is lucky enough to have numerous food infrastructure manufacturers. We have incredible vegetable suppliers in Willowbrook Foods, and Mash Direct and Rich Sauces. Strangford has one of Lakeland Dairies’ main factories—one of nine it has across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—which distributes dairy products across Northern Ireland and further afield. Newtownards high street has four butcheries, which are all very successful and have their own regulars who dare not go anywhere else. Those four butchers employ some 80 staff. They do a lot of work in their butchers’; it is not just a butcher’s front shop, but more than that.

A thriving food economy supports and brings benefits for local nature and habitats. Financing our rural communities is crucial to securing good food infrastructure. The International Institute for Sustainable Development said that those areas around the globe where people are suffering hunger are fairly rural areas, which lack basic services such as energy, due to a lack of infrastructure. Food security is a global effort—the Minister might wish to reply on that—and we must ensure that we commit our efforts to enabling others to prosper through trade and other food facilities.

Recently, concerns have been voiced—which we all share—over the rise in food prices due to the cost of living. In 2020 to 2021, in the peak of the pandemic, 6% of all UK households were food-insecure. The Trussell Trust, whose first food bank ever in Northern Ireland was in my constituency of Strangford, provided 2.2 million three-day food packages during that period. That was echoed in my constituency, and our local food bank has seen a rise in the number of households getting assistance from the Trussell Trust and other charitable organisations. They tell me that the demand now is even higher than it was way back then; we worry about that. To secure the future of our food security and infrastructure, we must deal with those pressing issues, such as food poverty, which our constituents are facing daily.

In 2022, the national food strategy aims to secure the resilience of our food supply system, so that UK-wide consumers have a choice in accessing healthy and affordable food. Our constituents deserve a food industry that can provide for them. Moreover, we must ensure that access to the market is readily affordable and available, and that praise is given to those in the food and drink sector for assisting in providing decent food infrastructure.

The Government have a food infrastructure strategy for England. I encourage the Minister and his Department to ensure that food infrastructure is given nationwide consideration and that, most importantly, the effects of the Northern Ireland protocol do not have an impact on Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK’s food security and infrastructure. The Minister at DEFRA has always had a close relationship with our Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Edwin Poots. I have no doubt whatsoever that that will continue and it is important that it does. The sector provides so much for all of us, together. I always say this and I do not take away from it: we are always better together. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, all the four regions together and working as one, and those exports, if we can all do them together, mean that we all benefit.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I will impose a formal four-minute limit.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 2:23 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairing, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing this important debate. I also want to welcome the Minister to his place this afternoon. I know he farms himself, so I hope he will listen. He has visited my beautiful constituency and heard of the plight of my 1,400-plus farmers and the more than 90,000 hectares of land farmed in North Devon.

I take the opportunity to sing the praises of my fantastic farmers and to echo the pleas from the NFU:

“We want British agriculture to be the number one supplier of choice to shoppers in the UK and across the world. To achieve this, we stand ready to partner with government to build the British food brand at home and abroad and to ensure that, wherever possible, our schools, hospitals and military have access to fresh, high quality British food.”

I very much hope that the new Administration will ensure that we take further steps to deliver that. As part of that, I hope there will be further support and guidance for our smaller farmers—farms in Devon are nearer 60 hectares, which is smaller than the UK average of 85 hectares—to ensure that those smaller producers are able to optimise their food production in a sustainable way for the future, so that we can go on to enjoy British produce that much more and that much closer to home.

I had the privilege of leading the red meat debate not that long ago. I want to draw on some of those facts, because I think the work that has been done on the food strategy highlights the need for us to have a nutritious diet. However, the rush to replace our meat and dairy products with other items does not necessarily constitute either a healthy or an environmentally sustainable option.

There are currently 278 million dairy cows worldwide. We would only need 76 million if they were all as efficient as a UK cow. Eight litres of tap water are needed to produce one litre of milk, but 158 litres of tap water produce one litre of almond milk. Therefore, before we all rush for some more crushed avocado, we need to think about where those things have come from and the journeys they have made to get to our tables. A good British bacon sarnie might actually be the right breakfast choice. I hope that people will think about those choices, that we can see more red tractors on all our produce, and that we are able to help our fantastic British farmers deliver their fantastic British produce to our supermarkets and shops more readily.

Another factor to look at within British food is the high environmental standards that farmers currently operate to, not to mention the nutrient density of the products that we are eating. The complexities of food and the science around it are sometimes neglected behind the media hype and the current fashions for Veganuary. As we move forward with the food strategy and the evolution of our farming industry to become even more sustainable and productive, I hope that we are able to find a healthy balance between people being able to make their own food choices and helping our fantastic British farmers do what they do best—produce fantastic British food.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley 2:26 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to follow my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby. She is in fact a vegetarian, so I am pleased to hear her talking about the benefits of eating meat.

I am proud to represent a constituency that produces fantastic, high-quality food—a lot of which is already sold through local retailers. The subject certainly resonates with farmers and growers, as I know from my regular discussions with them. Whenever the media comes across some new way of making food more local and more sustainably produced, inevitably one finds that farmers and producers are ahead of them and already doing it. Many of those businesses provided vital support to their communities during the pandemic. I thank them for that, and I promise them my support in what might be challenging times ahead.

In my constituency we have businesses such as Meonstoke Village Store and Westlands Farm Shop, which sell a wide range of locally sourced produce. We have Middle Farm Produce, a fantastic dairy farm in Cheriton, which has a vending machine so that people can buy directly in the most convenient way. We also have Reeve Butchers and Delicatessen in Clanfield, which makes fantastic sausages; Meon Valley Butchers in Wickham; Buckingham’s Artisan Butchery in West Meon; and many others, selling excellent food.

That links with the real issue in local food—abattoirs. My hon. Friend Peter Aldous has already mentioned that. I realise that there are factors such as workforce availability, but the key challenge facing the sector is still regulation and Government support. If we want to reduce food miles and support local food, we must help abattoirs. They are facing increasing regulatory costs, which are disproportionately affecting smaller abattoirs. As the regulations increase, the margins reduce and prevent investment. If abattoirs cannot invest, modernise and update effectively, then the small, local abattoirs risk their entire existence. There has to be some recognition of their work and the role they play within local and small supply chains, because without them we will have no local supply chain. I shall be grateful if the Minister would look into that.

There is a frustrating stereotype that farming is somehow negligent or exploitative in how it produces food or manages the countryside. We should address that through education, as well as marketing in the food and farming sector. Getting the food from the farm to the fork with fewer stages and miles between the two points is not only environmentally beneficial, but an insurance against national or global supply chain disruptions. At present, I am hearing from everyone involved in food production, food service and retail about the increasing costs that they are facing. The global challenge resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has direct and local consequences for everyone, but I can assure everyone who is involved in food production in Meon Valley that they have my support and my thanks for everything that they have done to rise to the difficult challenges of recent years.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 2:30 pm, 8th September 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing this debate and I congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Mark Spencer, on his appointment. It is one of those rare beast occasions when we have a round peg in a round hole. I am sure that he will be a Minister for agriculture.

In Thanet, we have Thanet Earth, which is probably the prime example of sustainable crop production in the United Kingdom. It is the largest greenhouse complex in Europe—at present, it is the size of about seven football pitches—and grows a variety of tomatoes under glass. It is highly successful and I think that it is blazing a trail, but—this is the “but”—most of the agriculture in the “Garden of England” and most of the agriculture in Thanet is still out in the open fields, or what is left of the open fields. That is my problem and the point that I will discuss.

We have two issues. One is the spread of solar farms on agricultural land, which is unsustainable and in my view unforgivable. There are acres of rooftop, acres of carparks and acres of public space on which solar farms can and should be put. They should not be put on agricultural land and I hope that practice will stop forthwith under the new Administration.

The second issue is agricultural policy. Our desire to be sustainable in food production is simply not compatible with our housing policy. I raised with the previous Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time some months ago the need for a moratorium on house building on agricultural land. In Thanet, we have grade one and grade two alluvial soil. It is some of the finest land in the country, but we are smothering it with houses.

The issue of water supply has also been raised today. The more we smother our agricultural land with housing, the more our aquifers, such as the Thanet aquifer, will dry up. Actually, that might not matter very much, because if we do not have any land to grow crops on, crops will not need watering.

All I want to say, and this really is all I want to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister today, is this: please can we get back to the days when the Ministry for Agriculture, as it then was, had a veto over change of use on agricultural land, and can we have a moratorium on building on agricultural land, so that we can grow the food that this country needs?

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 2:33 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale. I agree with absolutely everything he said. The Campaign to Protect Rural England talks about there being 1.3 million acres of brownfield sites across the UK, which plays well to his point that we should look at those sites and at buildings for solar panels rather than using green fields.

It is also a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Aldous on securing it. It is a timely debate, because of covid, the supply chain problems that we have had and the cost of living, and also because support for our farmers and our fishermen is absolutely essential. I pay tribute to the previous Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, for his work on this matter in the reports published by the Committee late last year. The work of that Committee has been absolutely tremendous and it has made a number of good suggestions.

I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Mark Spencer, to his place. It is really welcome news that we have a farmer in that role; I know that my farmers are delighted he is there, and I hope that he will come down and visit us.

The subject of this debate cuts through to the very heart of localism in terms of our approach to and support for local businesses. Dare I say that I think we ought to be a little bit more French? It is not often that I am supportive of some of the measures that the French Government put in place, but one thing that can be seen in local communities across France is how they support local farmers and local producers within their communities —indeed, there are not as many supermarkets in the surrounding areas as are found elsewhere.

That French appetite for, interest in and manner of operating with their own farmers and fishermen must be replicated in the UK. We have been talking about localism for the last 12 years and we now have a real opportunity to implement it. My hon. Friend Jo Gideon discussed how we talk about food and how we encourage people to learn how to cook. Actually, an extraordinary number of opportunities for people to learn have already been provided by the private sector. There is a small group called Cookable, which helps people in schools and in workplaces by giving them better lessons on how to cook and how to have better engagement with the food they eat. On top of that, we have to think about how we educate people about the food they eat and where it comes from. What programmes can be put in place in schools to get children on to farms and fishing boats to ensure that people are more aware of the fact that the good-quality food we produce in this country is worth supporting and eating?

I will spend most of my time today talking about the south-west food hub. In 2014, David Cameron launched a plan for public procurement. The plan was that £1.2 billion worth of food should be bought by the public sector, improving standards. In response to that plan, the Crown Commercial Service committed to introducing a dynamic purchasing system to allow SMEs to register for Government contracts. In 2016, that was successfully piloted in Bath and north-east Somerset. The pilot demonstrated that food costs did not increase when buying from local SMEs, and it generated cost savings of 6% in the first year due to increased transparency and shorter supply chains.

Due to that pilot, the south-west food hub was selected by the Crown Commercial Services to do a scaled-up pilot. Unfortunately, the CCS has now reneged on its agreement with the south-west food hub and the hub has been dropped. That is a real mistake, because there is an opportunity here, with an organisation that is already set up, to build on two successful pilot schemes to ensure we get better local homegrown food into the stomachs of our constituents and on to the shelves of our shops. We have to have a long-term strategy about that. We are doing it for oil and gas and we are doing it for our energy infrastructure. Let us think about how we can do it for our food production and how we can support our farmers and fishermen.

It is interesting that in the Agriculture Act 2020 there is a requirement for the Secretary of State to come forward and talk about food security. I really hope that is going to happen this autumn—the time is now. It is a perfect opportunity for us to talk about how we can improve the self-sustainability of the United Kingdom, and our own food security. It is levelling up in the perfect form. It will not even cost us money.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Thank you to everyone for sticking to time. We come to the Front-Bench contributions. I would like to leave two minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to sum up.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26) 2:37 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I commend Peter Aldous for securing this debate. His passion for the subject has always been clear in the time I have known him in Parliament. He started with some quite startling facts about the nine largest retailers controlling over 90% of the market in food, and the huge percentage of fish caught here that is processed off-shore and the impact that has. He also expressed some concerns about local food partnerships. We heard from other Members about the planning changes that are needed, and how £10 spent on a local box scheme means much greater spend in the local area. That point was well made. The need for a wider conversation about our food system was another important point.

I thank Sustain for its very useful briefing ahead of this debate. Much of it reflects what is going on in Scotland, where food policy is devolved. As I often do, I will share with Members some of what is already under way in Scotland. One of Sustain’s recommendations is for all local authorities that do not have a food partnership to aim to start one, in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Places Network, by 2025. Scottish councils are well represented in that network; half of all our local authorities now have a food partnership and are members of Sustainable Food Places—with more to follow in the next few years.

Last year, the SNP Scottish Government ran a consultation on a local food strategy. It had three main themes: connecting people with food, connecting local producers with buyers, and harnessing the buying power of public sector procurement. Nearly 300 people participated in 18 workshops designed and co-ordinated by Nourish Scotland in partnership with Scotland’s Sustainable Food Places Network and the Scottish Government. There was broad support from everyone for local food, but a number of barriers were identified, some of which we have heard about today. They include a need for suitable infrastructure and short supply chains, for local food to be affordable and accessible for all, and for more land to be made available and accessible for those who wish to enter the market. There was also acknowledgment of the value of dynamic purchasing systems and the need to extend public sector procurement for local food to all publicly owned settings, which I note is one of Sustain’s key recommendations. Work is now under way to address the key challenges identified, building on the ideas and suggestions made at that time, as well as relevant Scottish Government strategies and policies.

Underpinning that action is the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that Act, which begins to lay the foundation for a transformation of Scotland’s food system. It requires the Scottish Government and a range of public bodies to produce good food nation plans that are geared towards ensuring that high-quality, locally sourced food is affordable, accessible and a practical, everyday reality for everyone. An independent food commission will also be established which will scrutinise and make recommendations on those plans and give progress reports.

Alongside that, the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture, published in March, aims to transform how we support farming and food production to deliver nutritious food that is local and sustainably produced. Work is under way now with farmers, crofters and land managers to ensure that they have the right support to continue delivering high farming standards and to create more localised supply chains, enhance producer value and cut food miles. That ties in with the consultation on the forthcoming agriculture Bill at Holyrood, which covers a range of areas including promoting quality and sustainable food production, and ensuring a fair income for farmers and crofters, which is crucial.

Another tangible way in which the SNP Government are investing in and boosting the profile of local and regional produce is through the regional food fund, which awards projects grants of up to £5,000. Since its launch four years ago, the fund has supported an incredibly eclectic range of collaborative initiatives from all over Scotland. This year, 24 projects have been granted awards, from food and drink festivals and events to food tourism collaborations, and from online and physical markets to e-commerce. Regional food groups will deliver projects such as a “buy local” campaign from Eat and Drink Dundee, and a food heritage project by Lanarkshire Larder.

A number of hon. Members have made the point that harnessing local food is all the more crucial in the context of the cost of living crisis and the need to bolster our food security. This summer, the annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 1982, and perhaps even before. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were 12.6% higher in the year to July 2022. The research firm Kantar forecasts that the average annual grocery bill will rise by £380—a shocking figure. We know that low-income households are hit the hardest by price increases, as they spend a higher proportion than average of their income on energy and food.

Supply chain challenges, rising energy, fertiliser and transport costs, as well as labour shortages, have contributed to escalating prices. Although those problems have been exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, our food security was already under threat. Recent years have seen an unfair burden placed on community organisations such as food banks, as Jim Shannon highlighted very effectively. The folks running those services do an utterly incredible job. I have to commend those operating food banks in my own constituency—they are providing lifeline support—but food banks are a symptom of a dysfunctional food and social security system.

The Scottish Government intend to incorporate the right to adequate food in Scots law. A draft national plan has been published to end the need for food banks as a primary response to food insecurity. Achieving that means focusing on tackling the causes of poverty holistically, through fair work, social security and helping to manage the cost of living. For instance, the SNP Government have used their limited powers to increase Scottish social security payments by 6%, and have just announced that they are increasing the Scottish child payment to £25 per child for those who are eligible. We urgently need a similar raise in reserved benefits. Another reserved area that we are greatly concerned about is the UK’s pursuit of post-Brexit free trade deals, which is a subject that was well aired in the debate on the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill earlier this week.

I hope the Minister has heard the very sensible suggestions that Members have made, as well as their commitment and passion for local food production and the benefits it can bring. I hope he will take that forward in his new post.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 8th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. For the second time today, I welcome the Minister to his place. His predecessor, Victoria Prentis, always dealt in a thoughtful and dignified way with the constant questioning and assault that came her way, generally from her own side before I started. I wish her well in her new post.

I commend Peter Aldous, with whom I have worked on many issues relating to the east of England. I hope I am not doing his career prospects too much harm by saying that I agreed very much with his introduction and many of the points he made. I associate myself with his observations about the shared prosperity fund, which I suspect we shall return to on other occasions, the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator and the review of GSCOP.

I thank the organisations that have provided briefings. It is always dangerous to give a list in case somebody is missed, but I was particularly struck by the contributions by Sustain, the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and the 3F Group in the south-west.

We are having this discussion at a time when many of our constituents are suffering great anxiety about the food bills they face now and will face in the winter. There are no two ways about it: the situation in terms of rising costs is serious. There is nothing more serious than the increasing number of people facing food poverty in the UK. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Olivia Blake for setting out the figures, and I make no apology for repeating them. The Food Foundation told us that, as of April, 7.3 million people, including 2.6 million children, were in food poverty, and in 2021-22 the Trussell Trust supplied 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels to food bank users. Just yesterday, the Trussell Trust released a statement with details of a survey in August that estimates that more than 2 million people skipped meals across the previous three months to keep up with other essential costs.

Those are sobering numbers. With the cost of the family shop rising week by week, I fear that the number of those experiencing food poverty and relying on food banks will increase. Although we are all extraordinarily grateful to our local food banks—I pay tribute to all the volunteers and supporters in Cambridge—it cannot be right for the Government of a rich nation like ours to rely on them to feed people. As many others have observed, our role must really be to put food banks out of business by ensuring they are no longer needed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to meet Cambridge Sustainable Food and other local food poverty charities from across the county, which shared with me a public statement voicing that very concern. They said:

“Our member organisations are experiencing a perfect storm of increases in the numbers of people seeking help with food, often people who never expected to find themselves in this position, whilst donations of food and money are reducing as people are tightening their belts. We feel that the voluntary sector is plugging gaps in state provision for vulnerable households and worry that we will not be able to cope with rising demand”.

I wholeheartedly share their concerns.

Part of the solution will be supporting local food infrastructure, as other hon. Members have described well. Labour strongly supports such initiatives. On food security for local economies, there have been a number of reports showing that money spent on local food produce results in money staying in the local area and creates more jobs per pound than if that money were spent in the supermarket. The Sustain report in July 2021 found that for every £10 spend with a local food box scheme resulted in total spending of £25 in the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket.

On environmental concerns, we have heard a number of excellent examples of local food infrastructure working well in constituencies up and down the country. It has been a pleasure to hear details of those schemes from colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam.

In my constituency, CoFarm, run by founder and chief executive Gavin Shelton, is another great example. Established in 2019, it has since been successful in delivering several remarkable benefits to our local community, from tackling food insecurity to supporting the rebuilding of local biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as reducing health inequalities in an area of my city where life expectancy is 10 years lower than in the most affluent parts. I have been a regular visitor, and it is really impressive.

We know that the model of local food production works. We saw during the pandemic how local farms and local food infrastructure were able to respond to the needs of their local communities, and did so really well. Of course, that local food production will always sit alongside the wider food production system. It is not a replacement; it is complementary. It works for local economies, for the environment, and for people whose health is improved partly by the very act of participating—it really helps mental health. We want that model to be supported with Government investment, to ensure that more food can be sourced and eaten locally. As the agricultural support system is changing, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that many of those small, local producers have never been supported by the systems that excluded those under five hectares. It may be time to revisit that.

There are many other things I could refer to, but in passing, I would like to pick up on some of the points made about local abattoirs. For instance, when one talks to people who want to return to mixed farming, it becomes pretty clear that it is very hard to do so without the local ability to raise livestock in the way those people would like. Sadly, I see from reading this week’s Farmers Guardian that another one has just gone—Glossop-based Mettrick’s.

Turning to the fishing sector, I very much associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Waveney, and strongly commend his work with REAF. In my time as the shadow Fisheries Minister, I have been struck by the amount of fish that is driven around the country because we do not have local processing facilities, and how much more we could do—particularly with small fishers—to develop an important premium product that people would really like to have access to if we had the support to improve those facilities.

I am sure the Minister is aware that Labour’s mantra has been to make, buy and sell more in the UK; I suspect he will hear more about it—endlessly—in the coming months. It has been very well received. The future Labour Government will ask every public body to give more contracts to British firms, and will pass legislation requiring them to report on how much they are buying from domestic sources with taxpayers’ money, which we believe will help British farmers and local food producers.

We welcomed the Government’s indication in their response to the national food strategy that they were moving in a similar direction; although we were, in general, disappointed with the response to the national food strategy, that was a glimmer of hope. However, that was the previous Government. Maybe today, the Minister can confirm to us whether that is still the intention, because in the Prime Minister’s final hustings with the NFU on Friday, she rather suggested that she did not approve of top-down targets. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the current thinking is.

We are committed to fixing the food system, in order to meet the health and environmental challenge identified by Henry Dimbleby in his national food plan; end the growing food bank scandal; ensure that all families can access healthy, affordable food; and improve our food security as a country. We want to buy, make and sell more here, and to make changes to public procurement so that our schools and hospitals are stocked with more locally sourced, healthy food. Local food infrastructure will play a vital and important role in achieving all those things.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:53 pm, 8th September 2022

Mr Robertson, am I correct that I have until 3.08 pm to try to catch as many of those comments as I can?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I apologise now if I do not manage to respond to all the points that have been made.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing the debate. It is clear from the number of people who have taken the trouble to be in the Chamber today that lots of colleagues across the whole House are interested in this topic; it is a demonstration of how important this issue is, not only to Back Benchers but to the Government. I also thank Daniel Zeichner for his kind words. That is twice he has given me kind words today—I am very much enjoying this honeymoon period. [Interruption.] I am sure it will not last too long.

First, it is worth pointing out that the food and drink industry is a vital cornerstone of our national economy. It contributes about £139 billion annually across all the agrifood and seafood sectors, and employs 4 million people. We are determined to have a productive, secure and resilient domestic food and drink sector, and we are supporting businesses to ensure that that is the case. We are rightly proud of our food and drink sector. We will always champion our farmers and producers and support them to grow, innovate and thrive. We have heard in the debate today various suggestions for how innovation can take place and how we can assist companies that operate in that sector to innovate.

The food strategy published earlier this year sets out how we can make the food we eat more sustainable and healthier for consumers, while maintaining the resilience of the supply chain and creating a prosperous environment for food and drink businesses across the whole country. The UK has had a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated when we responded to covid-19 as a nation. It is worth pointing out that although there was enormous pressure on some food supply chains, at no point did the UK run out of food. Our food security report in December 2021 highlighted that. We are well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause of disruption.

Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, including strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes. We produce 61% of all the food we need, and we can grow 74% in the UK for most of the year. That draws me to the comments made by my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, who talked about education and getting kids in schools to understand our food networks and how food is produced, and seasonality has a huge part to play in that. I know that some people in the food retail sector will be frustrated by customers that turn up on Christmas eve and say, “Why is there no UK asparagus?” Education of our consumers will play an important part in food resilience as we move forward.

Although the food supply chain is under some strain owing to multiple concurrent pressures, the sector has proven itself capable of keeping supply strong. We can expect that to remain the case over the winter months. However, it is worth pointing out that Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has had a massive impact on energy and food supplies across Europe. We are part of that global network and are feeling the winds of pressure from that invasion.

The Government have already taken action to support farmers. This year we pulled forward the basic payment schemes, so 50% of the payment has already gone out. There is a £37 billion package of support for households. The Government are determined to tackle the cost of living, and of course the House heard earlier from the Prime Minister as she set out further plans to support people through the coming months.

We have introduced a set of questions into the family resources survey to measure and track food bank usage, and DEFRA is working with delivery partners to tackle barriers to food redistribution. DEFRA continues to use regular engagement, working with retailers and producers to explore a range of measures so that they can ensure the availability of affordable food.

We are giving support to local food. SMEs are at the heart of the sector. My hon. Friend Jo Gideon said that 98% of small businesses are food and drink manufacturers. Such businesses often use local supply chains to source ingredients, with low food miles and championing sustainability. The Government are focused on helping these businesses grow, including through exporting, selling direct to consumers, accessing public sector procurement opportunities, and promoting their products at a regional level. That point goes right to the heart of the debate and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney. Clearly, the infrastructure required to support that is vital.

Several colleagues mentioned the lack of abattoirs or fish processing in certain locations, but there is a reason to be optimistic. There are companies that are exploring mobile abattoirs as one concept that might be able to assist local markets to thrive and expand. As part of our support for these businesses, the Government hosted a regional food and drink summit in Birmingham in March. The summit successfully brought together SMEs and regional organisations to share best practice and access help to grow their businesses.

Following on from that, we are continuing to empower businesses and regional organisations to leverage growth opportunities, champion their regional food identity and develop links with local tourism, which will be holding a workshop later this year in the east of England—we would be delighted if my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney could attend and celebrate the fantastic food and drink from businesses in Suffolk and in his own constituency. My hon. Friend Selaine Saxby referred to tourism and to the beautiful landscape of North Devon—I had the privilege of taking my wife to the South Molton sheep sales—that probably says more about my performance as a husband than as a Minister—which was a recognition of those supply chains and how important they are to that local economy.

We recognise the importance of local sourcing. This was reflected in the Government’s hospitality strategy published last year, which included a commitment to develop a blueprint for hospitality-led regeneration. Street food venues will be encouraged to connect with local food producers and reduce food miles and waste, boost employment, and grow local economies.

In addition to the Government’s work, we recognise the role that local organisations play in supporting local food and drink. For example, the New Anglian Local Enterprise Partnership has funded a food enterprise park just outside Norwich. This is part of a plan to develop a food and drink cluster between Norfolk and Suffolk to facilitate growth in the agrifood sector and encourage food and drink production across the area. It is also vital that we work as united nations, that we co-operate with friends in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that those food production networks are easy to access and to celebrate. The food that is produced in those other parts of the United Kingdom will be vital to keep us all fed and healthy.

[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

It is clear that local partners will continue to play a key role in growing local food, and we will be supporting and promoting food and drink businesses as we continue to work with these organisations to support local businesses and grow local economies. Supply chains form a crucial part of our local food infrastructure. The Government want all farmers to get a fair price for their products and we are committed to tackling contractual unfairness in the agrifood supply chain. There is a lot of debate about the Groceries Code Adjudicator—I sat on the original Bill that introduced it—but it has had an impact in making sure those in the retail sector conduct themselves in the right way.

We recognise the role that small abattoirs play in supporting local, rural economies. Representing a Nottinghamshire constituency, I can tell the Chamber that there is now no longer an abattoir in the whole county; farmers have to travel to access that sort of facility, and I know it is the same in many other counties. We are working with the Food Standards Agency and the Rural Payments Agency to streamline our administrative burdens, and our DEFRA industry small abattoir working group is engaging closely with the industry to ensure we take a strategic view of the issues facing the sector.

I raise the point of skills and labour. We know that labour is a critical part of our mission to support food producers, both nationally and locally. As announced in the Government’s food strategy, we have commissioned an independent review to tackle labour shortages in the food supply chain. The review will continue, and will consider how automation may help. New technology may well be able to assist us as we move forward, and of course that brings its own economic opportunities, as we are able to develop new technology and market it around the world if it is proven to be successful. The food strategy also announced that we will release an extra 10,000 visas for the seasonal workers visa route, bringing the total to 40,000 visas for 2022.

There were a few comments made about land use, not least by my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale. Land use is going to rise up the political agenda. My right hon. Friend, and other Members, will have heard the Prime Minister talk about the siting of solar panels on agricultural land. I share his view that the first priority should be to put solar panels on warehouses, schools and leisure centres before we take agricultural land out of food production. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes who referred to the large amount of brownfield sites around the country that should be used first for housing developments or those sorts of schemes.

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. There are lots of opportunities for us as a nation to support our great food producers and lead the world in some of the technology that is available; we should certainly promote that around the world. I am hugely proud of our food and drink sector and I recognise the important role it plays up and down the country in rural areas. We will continue to engage with the industry to develop strong local food infrastructure and ensure that British food is recognised at home and abroad for its high quality and welfare. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for bringing this debate and look forward to his concluding comments.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 3:06 pm, 8th September 2022

It is great to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. We have had a wide-ranging debate, so I will quickly go through some of the issues we have discussed. Olivia Blake took me back nearly 40 years to one of my favourite films, “Trading Places”, which is all about speculation on the commodities market. That might have been funny, but she raised a serious point. With local supply chains and local food, we can insulate ourselves against such speculation.

My hon. Friend Jo Gideon reminded us that supply chains extend right into urban areas—they go a very long way. My hon. Friend Caroline Ansell reminded us of the importance of water as an ingredient in the food infrastructure that we must provide for. Jim Shannon in his own passionate way set out the importance of supply chains, reminding us how far those supply chains extend, and highlighted both the worries and distress caused by food insecurity and the great work of the Trussell Trust.

My hon. Friend Selaine Saxby promoted the importance of the British bacon sarnie—as a pig farmer, long may that continue. However, when we have that bacon sarnie, I sense that it might not be British bacon in there at the moment. We need to make sure we get back to that. My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond reminded us of the support the food industry provided during the pandemic. Indeed, the industry is now very much stepping up to the plate so that we are well prepared for the cost of living crisis and the challenge over this coming winter.

My right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale, who is probably the Member I have known longest in this House, very much welcomed the Minister as being a round peg in a round hole. My right hon. Friend also reminded me that—Father, I have sinned—we do have a solar farm on our farm, but he made his point well. I was a surveyor before I came to this place; in those days, it was much clearer cut. We knew what we could put and where. I sense that the planning system has got blurred at the edges, and we need to address that.

My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall went all French, which I never thought would happen, but he made a good point. Deidre Brock emphasised the importance of short supply chains; her point was made well, too. Daniel Zeichner, with whom I work very closely in an East Anglian environment, highlighted that local food production is a model that we can and should build on. He emphasised the environmental, economic and health reasons for that. He also reminded me of something I omitted: the great work done by care farms. In my constituency, we have the Pathways Care Farm; just outside it is the Clinks Care Farm. They are doing great work—in not only food production, but supporting people and getting them back on their feet.

Finally, it is great to see the Minister in his place. Let us swap the South Molton sheep sales for next year’s Suffolk Show.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for local food infrastructure.