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Food Security Strategy

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

The vast majority of Members in the House have a lot of respect for the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) and his colleagues for the knowledge and strategic vision that they bring to their roles. The last year has shown a marked difference from previous years, with agriculture policy being based on fact and experience. My right hon. Friend has also been clearly focused on the issue that I intend to raise in this debate—UK food security.

I do not come from a farming background; to be frank I know little about agriculture per se, but I know about rising food prices. This year we have seen a 4.9% rise in food prices, and that impacts on my constituents as much as on those of my right hon. Friend. I believe that food inflation could seriously undermine our growth targets and have an impact on consumer spending in the wider economy. Although I doubt whether there is anyone up at this time of night in the Treasury, there might be one insomniac who is taking food inflation as seriously as we are.

I recognise that food security has risen up the Government’s agenda. It was given prominence in the defence and security review. In the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs White Paper, the Minister announced that a group would be established to look at food security, and the Government Office for Science published an exceptionally insightful Foresight report on food security globally. I was also pleased to see DEFRA’s announcement, following the G20, which pledged to give greater transparency to commodity markets through the establishment of an agriculture market information system.

However, I propose to the Minister that we can and still need to do more to ensure long-term food security, to provide greater resilience of supply and greater ability to hedge this country against shocks and price volatility. I would like to highlight to the Minister the fact that some policy measures that are being used to build greater energy security might be a useful guide to ensuring greater food security.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She has identified the importance of energy, but does she agree that modern technology has a role to play? I hope she will join me in encouraging the UK Government to embrace new technology and allow UK farmers to produce more food so that we are all well fed.

Indeed. There are four key planks in energy policy that we should be looking to adopt in food policy, one of which, is innovation and new technologies. From an energy perspective, security of supply, price and affordability, tackling demand and, as my hon. Friend said, the introduction of new technologies are fundamental. We should examine the same suite of policies when we look at food security.

Security of supply is critical to this country. We import more than 50% of our food, and we are extremely dependent on international markets working. Fair trade, transparent markets and secure shipping lanes are all important, but in the past five years these norms have been severely challenged by international developments, climatic changes and population increase, as well as changing food expectations globally. As in the case of energy, we are facing the increased politicisation of the trade and greater uncertainties globally.

Does the hon. Lady share my concern and that of many others in the House about regulations in Europe and other parts of the world? Here at home we provide a top quality product that can sell anywhere, whereas in other parts of Europe and of the world, similar legislation does not exist. That puts producers there at an advantage over us, as we try to do the best we can in every case.

I welcome the intervention. That is particularly key in animal welfare matters. Yes, there are issues in relation to international standards and we need to ensure consideration of food safety and market equity. Perhaps I will come to that later in the debate.

In 2008 the food crisis that occurred started a trend towards something very worrying for a country that imports 50% of its food—protectionism. Indonesia, India, Egypt, Russia and the Ukraine all curbed their rice and wheat exports in response to domestic food inflation. What was most concerning was that those countries were able to mitigate domestically the price hikes that others faced around the globe. This has become an incentive for exporting countries to adopt further restrictions in the future. Although we might want to trust in global food markets, we must recognise that exporter countries will find it almost impossible to export food if their domestic populations are starving. I do not believe that our food supply is secure, and it is becoming more and more unstable.

With our level of import dependency, has there been any assessment of what impact an increase in protectionism would have on domestic costs, and is that seen as a strategic threat? The National Security Council has incorporated food security in its key priorities. Can the Minister give me an update and outline the work that is going on through that channel? Most importantly for both his Department and my interest, are there as many officials in the Treasury examining the impact of food insecurity and food inflation as there are looking at the global energy sector?

In order to mitigate some of the impacts of global insecurity in the energy sector, we have decided that increasing domestic resilience and domestic production is important. Do we have a similar strategy for food? Although I am most certainly not suggesting that we look to become self-sufficient, are we happy to be so dependent on international and more volatile imports?

The second point relates to price and affordability, which is extremely pertinent to all Members as it impacts on each and every one of our constituents. We all recognise that food prices will rise, but we must also be clear that that will have significant social implications, including impacts on nutrition, health and education. Are we thinking strategically enough about the impact of food price increases on young people and the elderly, for instance? In the energy sector we look at capacity mechanisms that help us hedge price volatility, such as increased storage to secure supply at times of global price rises and shocks. Such mechanisms could help us to manage the price volatility that has such an impact on our constituents and cushion us from protectionism and the politicisation of food exporting countries.

I urge the Minister to look again at issues relating to the food poor in the same way as we look at fuel poverty. An individual is classed as fuel poor if more than 10% of their income is spent on fuel. Does DEFRA have a similar measure to indicate food poverty? Those on low incomes will be worst affected by food price rises. I had a constituent come to one of my surgeries a couple of weeks ago. He is on jobseeker’s allowance and had a heart attack about a year ago. He has been told specifically by his doctor that he must eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day, but there is no way that he can afford to do so. Just as our constituents have campaigned for the Treasury to help shoulder the burden of rising fuel costs, we will see a similar response to food price rises if we do not take action to reduce volatility and control price.

The third point is that we also have the power to use food better and ensure that we get better value for the food we produce. We currently waste 30% of the food we produce, so much more can be done to get better value from the food we grow. This will take a cross-Government effort to tackle supermarket procurement, supermarket products and food labelling, such as the sell-by dates that make customers feel anxious and throw food away far too early. On of my bugbears, which I know the Department shares, is fish discards, which we must also tackle. I urge the Department to have constructive conversations with the Food Protection Agency, which many feel is too risk averse.

We also need to focus on other Departments and look, for instance, at education in schools on how to use food more effectively, explaining that we can use all meat products, including offal. The Department of Health should use its procurement power to demand better use of food. We cannot go on ploughing food into the soil because it does not look pretty enough, or discarding large parts of carcases because we have forgotten how to cook certain meat cuts. We as consumers must learn again how to keep food fresh and stop chucking good food in the bin.

Will the Minister give a commitment that we will address food waste and look at a cross-Government programme to ensure that the 30% we currently waste is reduced? I would also be delighted to set up with the Minister a little company that I have thought up, called Ugly Foods Ltd. I think that we could do rather well, and perhaps even create a profit centre for the Government, by selling all the food and produce that the supermarkets reject.

My fourth point is about innovation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) referred to earlier. We should be looking at food production and technology as one of the most exciting growth areas for this country. I know that the Minister shares this belief, so why is agriculture, agronomy and food production not included as a growth sector in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? Why do we consider careers in the food sector to be careers of the past? I believe that they are the careers of the future. I would also like him to examine what food technology assets we have that can be exported, because that seems to be an important trigger for getting the Treasury and BIS interested.

Food insecurity is almost never raised in this House. We have delegated to global markets and domestic supermarkets the responsibility to deliver cheap food to our constituents, but I am not sure that that will be enough in the future, because inflation targets are at risk and food poverty will increase. I urge the Government to look again at an holistic approach to food security in which we start to see that in the food production sector we have real opportunities that could contribute to a more secure and profitable food sector in the United Kingdom.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) on securing this debate. In many ways, it deserves a longer time span than she has achieved, because this subject is hugely important, and I congratulate her on choosing it. I hope that in the next few minutes I can reassure her on a number of her points, and in passing I also thank her for her kind personal remarks to me.

The Government believe that food security is a vital strategic issue for this country, so the opportunity to spend a few minutes discussing it is very welcome. My hon. Friend will be aware that a few weeks ago the Government’s chief scientific adviser published the final report of the Foresight future of food and farming project, and it identified the scale of the challenge that food security poses—the very points that my hon. Friend made. The food system in this country is consuming the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and the report also highlighted the most important challenges that we face if we are to balance the competing pressures and demands on the global food system in order to ensure that we can feed ourselves.

My hon. Friend also referred quite rightly to our domestic food industry, and I want to reassure her that we believe that farming and food are very important to the UK economy. The whole food chain contributes some £88 billion per annum, or 7% of GDP, and 3.7 million jobs—no small contribution on anybody’s measurement. As a sector, it contributes to the delivery of the Government’s long-term economic objectives on trade, green jobs, and growth and development, and, slightly contrary to my hon. Friend’s remarks, the UK food and drink industry was highlighted in phase one of the Government’s growth review as an important area for growth. I passionately believe that that is the right place for it to be.

I understand that in the United Kingdom 20% of agricultural land is not in agricultural use today. Does the Minister have any intention of using that land for agriculture and food production?

I am afraid that I have no idea where the hon. Gentleman has got his statistics from; they are completely strange to me. I will certainly look into them after this debate, but I have no knowledge of a significant area of land having been taken out of agricultural production in the United Kingdom.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs worked very closely, and continues to work, with the industry to ensure that our views are captured by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I assure my hon. Friend the Member that we certainly intend that to continue.

We will concentrate—particularly within the growth review—on the rural economy, and one of our main themes will be realising the value of natural capital. That includes a strand concentrating on the potential to increase competitiveness in the agri-food sector. We will ensure also that food and drink is included in other areas of the review, such as logistics, skills and mid-sized businesses.

The Government are also taking action to support British farming and to encourage sustainable food production by helping to enhance the competitiveness and, as my hon. Friend said, the resilience of the whole food chain while minimising our impact on natural capital. The Government have been keen to lead, and on the sustainable procurement of food, for example, our recently announced Government buying standards will help to ensure that food procured by central Government meets sustainable standards of production equivalent to the UK’s requirements, when that does not lead to an overall increase in costs. Full details were provided in the recent announcement.

Steps have also been taken to improve market information and transparency by establishing an agriculture market information system to promote greater shared understanding of food price developments. My hon. Friend rightly said that UK food security cannot be delivered merely by a narrow, self-interested national protectionist stance or by recommending self-sufficiency. She rightly reminded us that that is not unique to the UK but should apply to every country. Several countries around the world have adopted protectionist measures. Argentina did so a few years ago with the beef sector, as did the Russians, more recently, with grain, although they have recently relaxed their measures, and there are several other examples. I firmly believe that they are doing their own consumers down by taking that approach, which, in the long term, does not help the global market.

International trade has an important role to play in providing food security not only in the UK but elsewhere. We are a trading nation in a global market. The UK is a significant exporter of wheat, lamb, dairy products, breakfast cereals and beef. Our food security depends on access to the world market, and it is important to emphasise that our domestic food industry needs to be able to compete on the world stage. In 2010, 25 countries together accounted for 90% of our food supply, and 49% of it was supplied from within the UK; we could not produce some products because they are not suitable for our climate. Currently the UK produces the equivalent of 72% of our indigenous foods and 59% of our food overall; we then export 10% of it, hence the 49% I mentioned. Supporting exports of UK food and food products will contribute to rebalancing our trade position. Reform, not subsidy, will achieve these goals.

In the recently published natural environment White Paper to which my hon. Friend referred, the Government made a commitment to bring together Government, industry and the environmental partners to reconcile how we will achieve our goals of improving the environment and increasing food production. I assure her that I believe passionately that that is possible. I do not believe—some farmers challenge me about this—that it is an either/or situation; we can do both.

My hon. Friend referred to food waste, and she was right to do so. We recognise that addressing that across the entire food chain will be critical in building a sustainable food supply. As part of our commitment to a “zero waste” agenda, three weeks ago DEFRA published a review of waste policy that highlighted various actions to be taken to reduce food waste, including developing a responsibility to deal with the hospitality and food service sector, with a strong focus on preventing food waste; tackling food waste across the public sector; and exploring further the role of incentives in reducing food waste and ensuring that it is managed in the most sustainable way possible.

We will also continue to work with the food industry and others in areas such as improved supply chain management; improved product design, including simple things such as resealable packaging; and providing the right advice and information to help consumers, including clear information on matters such as portion sizes, freezing food and using leftovers. We believe that through these actions, we will help industry and consumers to waste less food and save money—but I must emphasise that this is not something that Government can do on their own.

Does the Minister agree that it is also important to encourage local authorities to provide areas for allotments so that members of the public can not only grow their own food there but use them to understand food production and add to their own education?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We want not only to encourage local authorities to provide allotments—and there are massive waiting lists across the country for them—but to encourage other organisations, such as charities and those in the private sector, to provide land for them, whether as part of permanent or temporary arrangements. There are plenty of pieces of disused land in our inner cities. Although the land itself might not be appropriate, it could be used for mini-allotments based on containerised soil, so that people can start to grow some of their own food. Such food is more wholesome and fresh and, as we all know, contributes to people’s health and their environment.

I am concerned about the number of people, particularly young people, who are going into farming. We must do something to stem the tide of people who are leaving farming, particularly dairy farming in my area. Does the Minister have any ideas about how we could encourage more people to come into farming, particularly given the sale of the county farms?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I do not have much time to answer it, but I am happy to do so privately. I believe that the most important way to encourage young people into farming and food production is to ensure that the industry is respected and recognised as a vital part of our economy. No Government can turn the economics of agriculture around in the ways that my predecessors could. We do not fix prices or intervene in those ways, and quite rightly. However, we can ensure that the industry is recognised as a vital part of the British economy, and that it is a worthwhile career choice. I am happy to discuss that matter further with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) referred to allotments. I was just coming on to the issue of growing food in our schools, which is equally as important. We need to ensure that our schools are part of this project. The Secretary of State recently launched the food growing in schools task force. The task force, which is led by Garden Organic, will make recommendations on the need for a food growing area to be integrated into every school in the UK. I have had many dealings with schools that are twinned with individual farms. Pupils not only go on physical visits but, through DVD technology, the farm can go to the school. Such twinning arrangements allow for children to be frequently updated on how the crops or livestock are progressing, so that they can learn more about how food is produced.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet was right to refer to food prices. Of course we acknowledge that some people struggle to afford a healthy diet. The Government provide a means-tested nutritional safety net for extremely low-income families through the Healthy Start initiative, which offers vouchers that can be spent on milk and plain fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables at participating retailers. It supports more than half a million nutritionally vulnerable pregnant women, babies and young children. We are trying to help.

We also routinely monitor trends in the affordability of food through domestic retail food price inflation and movements in the drivers of domestic retail food prices. It is important to recognise an issue that this House often does not understand. Since the removal of production-linked support in 2005, after decades of politicians across the political spectrum demanding an end to the common agricultural policy propping up prices, farm crops and livestock have been traded in a global marketplace. It is those markets that dictate our food prices, along with exchange rates, oil prices and wider commodity issues.

My hon. Friend also referred obliquely to the meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers. The issue of international trade and price volatility was central to that meeting. I assure the House that the UK will take global leadership on this issue. We are committed to promoting better functioning of agriculture markets to help mitigate future price spikes, and that commitment is demonstrated through the important steps taken towards the development of better-functioning markets at the first ever meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers.

My hon. Friend referred to the link between food and energy. We, too, recognise the strong dependency of our food supply on energy supply and transport infrastructure. As she suggested, the Government have a co-ordinated approach to the supply and resilience elements of food security. I will not go into great detail about it tonight, but I can assure her that my officials work closely with colleagues in all relevant Departments in response to the risks to our food security and other parts of our national infrastructure. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also continues to build an evidence base on all aspects of the food supply chain.

The Government have made a sustainable and profitable food and farming sector the No. 1 business objective of DEFRA. We believe passionately in the industry, which, as I have said, is a vital part of the British economy and British life, particularly in rural communities. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on her contribution to it, and I hope I can reassure her that the Government are totally committed not just to British food and farming but to British food security, which is of interest to us all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.