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Food Supply

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for the security of the UK’s food supply of recent changes in world food prices. (210307)

The UK’s food security depends on a strong UK agricultural sector, diversity of supply and good trading links, particularly with our EU partners. We are currently more self-sufficient in food than we were 50 years ago, but we do need to respond to changing circumstances. I therefore intend to publish in the near future a consultation paper on ensuring Britain’s food security.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. The 2006 DEFRA study of food security relied essentially on the fact that the UK is a rich and open economy, and talked about reliance on world markets. The world is changing, however, and food prices have gone up, with the poorest people in the world and in Britain suffering most. Some of the world’s producers are beginning to consider restricting exports of food stocks. In that changed environment, is it not vital that we consider what technology can do domestically, and the possibility of self-sufficiency or at least increasing local supply to guarantee security, particularly for the poorest people in our country?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As circumstances change, we must be prepared to respond in the right way. Ultimately, it would be difficult to close ourselves off entirely from the rest of the world, because it is not just a question of the supply of food but of inputs such as fertiliser and oil to plough the fields and do lots of other things. The House will welcome the fact that our self-sufficiency rose slightly last year from 59 to 61 per cent. for all foodstuffs, and from 72 to 74 per cent. for food that we can grow. We need to take into account all my hon. Friend’s points.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be mindful of the need for food security in the medium and long term when he enters further discussions on common agricultural policy reform? Until such time as farmers in the UK can trade on the world market at reasonable prices, it would be very foolish to cut away the financial assistance that they currently receive.

We want the farming sector to be strong and profitable and to produce for the market. We should welcome the recent rise in prices for a number of products, albeit that some sectors have had difficulties because of the increased cost of grain. We are seeing the market respond to increased prices with increased production. That might mean that the recent big spike in world prices will decrease in the years ahead, but not come down to the previous level. We need to ensure that the common agricultural policy supports that process. Europe is 90 per cent. self-sufficient in food, and we import no more than 30 per cent. of our food imports from any one European country. Therefore, we have a diversity of supply, which puts Europe in a strong position to support itself.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but does he see an important role for local food chains now, and particularly for the idea that people should produce food at home as well as purchase it? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the importance of the garden, which has been underestimated, and in particular about reassessing the role of allotments, because many people would grow their own produce but have not had the opportunity to do so?

I agree completely. The year of food and farming is in part about doing precisely that, not least encouraging some of the younger generation to understand that food grows not in supermarkets but in fields, allotments and elsewhere. I think that there is a growing interest in where food comes from—the point raised in the earlier question—which can be seen in the growth of farmers’ markets and the efforts that some supermarkets are making to link the products that they sell with the farmers who have produced them. We should welcome that.

The Secretary of State gave a relatively reassuring response to the lead question, but does he not agree that the lesson to be learned is that we still should produce more of the food that we need here in the United Kingdom? In that regard, will he ensure that the Government do not penalise the farming industry through increased taxation, not least increased vehicle excise duty, because vehicles such as 4x4s are essential for farmers to transport livestock? Will he further encourage the superstores not to increase their profitability but to ensure that they treat the farming community in this country more fairly?

On the first point on farmers’ resources and the fuel that they use in their vehicles, of course they benefit from red diesel, which currently provides a significant amount of support. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about vehicles. On supermarkets, farmers want a fair price for the product that they produce. That is why I think that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have seen an increase in prices relating to milk, beef and sheep in the past few months, which is one reason why many in the farming industry are looking at the future with greater optimism than for some time.

With a growing world population, growing world per capita consumption of food, the adverse effects of climate change and the pressure from biofuels, are the UK Government going to rethink their position on genetically modified crops?

The Government’s position remains that we should follow the science, and that is what we have done throughout. One particular issue that I raised at the recent meeting of the Environment Council is the speed at which the European Union gives approval for new varieties of GM products to come into the EU. That is highly relevant when it comes to animal feed. A considerable amount of GM soya comes into the country and is fed to animals already. One concern is that prices are higher than they might otherwise be because of the slow approval process in the EU. We should go with the science and the advice on safety, but it is important that, acting in the light of those two things, we provide support to farmers who want to purchase those products to feed to their animals.

If the Government are finally taking food security seriously, I am genuinely looking forward to the paper that the Secretary of State says he is going to publish.

Recently Lord Rooker admitted that Ministers took their eyes off the ball as far as the imposition of the integrated pollution prevention and control charges was concerned, on pigs and poultry in particular. What assurances can the Secretary of State give us that his eyes are firmly on the ball as far as two imminent issues are concerned: the proposed gold-plating by his Department of the nitrates directive and the proposed regulation of plant protection products, currently in Europe, which by his own officials’ estimate could reduce yields of domestic food production in this country by up to 30 per cent.? Will he tell us quite clearly not only that his eyes are on the ball, but that he will stop those things happening?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my eyes are very much on the ball. In relation to the second of those two issues, I raised that very point at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council. The problem at the moment is that not enough of the other member states of the European Union seem to have woken up to the implications of what is being proposed. The United Kingdom is in exactly the right place in arguing the case that we have put and to which he refers.

On the first issue, we have had a consultation and will be responding in due course. We are very mindful of the implications of the nitrates directive for farmers, but I am also very mindful of the report just published by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says what I think we all know—that the rest of Europe has done it and we need to get on with it.