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Climate Change (Food Security)

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

In 2006, DEFRA published a study on food security that concluded that the UK, as a rich and open economy, has a very robust and diverse food supply. However, the study also recognised the need to manage the various risks, including climate change, that are associated with modern food chains, as well as the food security challenges facing developing countries.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench. Corn prices have started to rise because land is being used for biofuels, although that might be a welcome development. However, climate change could lead not only to an increase in food prices, but to a reduction in the world’s food stocks. In that context, is she satisfied that the models on which DEFRA is working are robust enough to allow us to cope with whatever climate change produces globally?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Nothing is absolutely certain when it comes to climate change, although we believe that our models are robust enough. Global self-sufficiency should not be taken for granted. We will continue to monitor trends, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s analysis of trends on global food production and demand. Climate change is certainly making patterns of world food production more volatile. In those circumstances, international trade can help us to pool risks and enhance food security.

I remind my hon. Friend that the UK sources food from 34 countries, with no more than 13 per cent. of imports coming from any one of them, so our risk is carefully balanced. He would be right in thinking that the risks are at their most acute in developing countries. I am delighted that DEFRA is working in both India and China to try to increase the capacity to mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change on agriculture.

It is estimated that 600,000 people in the world today are either underfed or undernourished. By 2050, there will be another 3 billion people—a 50 per cent. increase in the world’s population. Given that the stocks of wheat and other food commodities are low, certainly compared with those in recent years, will the new Minister undertake to examine DEFRA’s approach to food security and to ensure that UK farmers play their full part in feeding not only this nation, but the world? A hungry nation is not a happy nation.

Indeed. We have to make a distinction between this country’s food security and global food security. Given what I said in answer to the previous question, I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are pretty confident about the position here because of the diversity of sources from which we draw our food supplies and our very effective international trade. Europe as a whole is 90 per cent. self-sufficient in food. However, he is right to point out the plight of people in developing countries. The Government’s record, through the Department for International Development, is second to none in giving support to developing countries, especially on agriculture, water and other ways in which we can help them to secure their future food supplies. He will know that the provision of food and the periods of hunger in developing countries are not always directly linked to food production—poverty is an enormous factor. It is for other Ministers to discuss the complexities of the situation, but we must play our part, as I believe DEFRA is doing.

It is a pleasure to see that my hon. Friend, an environmental campaigner, is now an Environment Minister. Does she agree that, whether we are considering food security or the G8 and World Bank meeting today and tomorrow in Paris on deforestation, there is a feeling that although climate change is very important, the response is fragmented? There is no cohesive and focused response globally, internationally, or even in this country. Will she work with her colleagues in her new job to ensure that we have an overarching and focused response to climate change?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Through the Climate Change Bill, which the Government expect to introduce in the autumn, we will attempt to take a comprehensive approach for the first time, at least in this country. It will concentrate primarily on mitigation, but of course we will also consider adaptation. This country has played a leading role in the international community, but my hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that many people have still not grasped the absolute urgency of the issue and the fact that it is global, that we are all in this together, that the blame game does not work, and that we have to work internationally. We must put our own house in order; otherwise, we cannot possibly expect to get the international agreements that we seek.

Does the Minister accept that it is an ill-conceived policy to subsidise the production of biofuels, as that forces up the price of agricultural land and so forces up the cost of food at home? That requires us to import more food from overseas. Is it not a ludicrous policy, and is it not based on a failure to understand that climate change is essentially a natural phenomenon?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman completely ruined his case with his final remark. He must know that the vast majority of the world scientific community is now united in believing that the effects of climate change are primarily man-made. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said repeatedly, it is a question of balance: we need biofuels until we can, for example, move to a new generation of vehicles that allow us to bypass the use of fossil fuels. There is a need for biofuels, and we will have to act in a sustainable way. Under the renewable transport fuel obligation, we will require obligated companies to report publicly on the life-cycle carbon savings and wider sustainability impacts of their biofuels, taking into account biodiversity and previous land use. In this country, we will ensure that we take account of all the effects of biofuels. Of course, many biofuels, such as those derived from forestry, are not alternatives to food crops. The issue is complex and it is a matter of balance, but we do need both biofuels and food crops.

I sincerely welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. We look forward to her future ministerial pronouncements on issues such as genetically modified food and nuclear power, on which she has a track record of robust opinion. I detect that her heart was not entirely in the line on food security that she read out at the beginning of her answer to the question. In 2003, her Department issued a statement that said:

“National food security is neither necessary nor is it desirable”.

In 2005, the joint DEFRA-Treasury document “A Vision for the CAP” stated:

“domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security”,

implying that if we run out of British-produced food, we can simply import it from abroad. A couple of months ago, the former Secretary of State reiterated that position, but in the light of the fact that around the world deserts are growing, droughts are increasing, food crops are being replaced by fuel crops, and the global population is rising sharply, does she not think it is time to have another look at whether Departments should be so casual about our ability to feed ourselves?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; they were a bit mixed, but I can handle that. He spoke about food security, but food security is about ensuring that consumers have access to a stable and adequate supply of food. The issue of where that food comes from is not necessarily the key to food security. I accept entirely what he says about risks; as I said in previous answers, we are conscious of risks, and we must always be conscious of them. We are evaluating risks, and we remain in touch with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, but the point on UK food production is that self-sufficiency is best seen as a broad indicator of UK agricultural competitiveness, which he knows is actually extremely good. In criticising the Department, the hon. Gentleman is on the wrong foot. Food security is about ensuring that consumers have a supply. We are confident that that is the case, as I explained in my previous answers.