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Food Industry

Volume 449: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

The food industry has a major impact on the environment, accounting for 14 per cent. of energy consumption by UK business and 7 million tonnes of carbon every year. The Government have implemented a number of measures under the food industry sustainability strategy to reduce negative impacts. I can tell the House that I am meeting the supermarkets today to discuss progress.

Tesco is trying to build an 88,000 sq ft supermarket just outside my constituency near to Chorlton town centre, which would lead to even more congestion and pollution in the area, as well as impact on the viability of local shops. Will the Secretary of State commit to urgent discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government with a view to protecting our local centres from these environmentally damaging developments?

The way in which the hon. Gentleman poses the question suggests that he knows that planning policy is not something that falls to DEFRA, but I am happy to say that I will look into the case, consistent with the important principle that Ministers do not interfere with planning decisions.

My right hon. Friend will know that some supermarkets, including Tesco, are slowly moving towards a much more positive environmental stance. Will he encourage them to take that aspect much more seriously and to put some serious money into local communities to improve the quality of the environment? Supermarkets are good in one area, and that is transport logistics. If Tesco’s transport logistics expertise could be used, for example, in the waste industry—8 per cent. of truck movements in our country are waste being hauled on our motorways—we could quickly reap some serious economic and environmental benefits.

When I meet the supermarkets later today, I shall certainly ask Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s whether they agree that Tesco provides a model of good practice and see what reaction I get. I take my hon. Friend’s point about transport logistics and waste. I was surprised to find that the supermarkets are on track, following the EU packaging directive, to reduce packaging by between 55 and 80 per cent. It is also worth mentioning—other hon. Members may raise it—the commitment in the energy review to ensure that some 5,000 medium-sized public and private sector organisations are part of a UK emissions trading system to deliver 1.2 million tonnes of carbon reduction every year. That is a major step forward, which I hope will command support throughout the House.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the policy of supermarkets importing cheap food from other regions of the world, such as south America, particularly in respect of the impact on the environment in those regions?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I think that I am right in saying that about 76 per cent. of food bought in the UK is domestically produced, though that is down by 5 or 6 per cent. over the last decade. Ensuring that local supply chains are strong and that local food producers are able to get their goods to market efficiently and effectively while securing a fair price for what they produce is critical. The hon. Gentleman also made the important point that global trade can benefit developing countries, or countries from which we import food, and be an important part of their standard of living. That can be done in either a more or less environmentally sensitive way. From our point of view, it is imperative that it is done in a more environmentally sensitive way.

The Isle of Wight is not entirely devoid of natural resources, but two Tesco-size lorries cross the Solent every year for every man, woman and child on the island to serve its supermarkets. At the same time, we produce a huge amount of agricultural produce ourselves. What can the Secretary of State do to reduce the food miles, to which the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) referred, that severely damage the environment?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to say that he was one of the natural resources of the Isle of Wight, which would be a point of more contention than the need to reduce food miles. The most important thing is for the Isle of Wight to maximise its agricultural production in ways that local consumers want to buy. In the end, local food producers rather than the Government will be the key to the supply chain. Having said that, it is an important part of our strategy to help support local farmers to diversify and ensure that they are able to serve local markets in the most effective way.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State saying those words, but I remind him that three years ago his predecessor launched the Government’s public sector procurement initiative, saying:

“Sustainable food procurement isn’t just about better nutrition, it’s about where the food comes from, how it is produced and where it ends up.”

Three years later, his Department has said that it does not know how much publicly procured food is of British origin. Given that the Secretary of State is rightly seeking to atone for many of the failings of his predecessor, may we now expect him to get to grips with the whole issue of public procurement? There is £1.8 billion worth of publicly procured food bought in this country: surely that is the way for the Government to set an example to supermarkets and the food industry on how to reduce food miles.

I am trying to build on the successes of my predecessor in a range of important areas, including agriculture and the environment. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Sims report, because the issues of public procurement that he raises are very important. The report was published just two months ago and was an independent study by an experienced and respected business figure, who examined the whole £150 billion of public sector procurement and how it could be done more sustainably. I am also sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the commitments made not only by me, but by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to see the report and its recommendations through and deliver some of the gains that the hon. Gentleman wants to see.