[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I should apologise for being late: I have been reshuffling on my own and it took a little longer than planned. I call Derek Thomas to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered food security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. This is my first Westminster Hall debate; I will try to follow all the correct procedures.
I requested this debate because the past year or so has been particularly difficult for most farms, big and small, and specifically those in the dairy sector. Since securing this debate, I have been encouraged by the fact that so many MPs share my concern about food security. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has given me some insight into the difficulties faced by farmers in her constituency. She is unable to attend as she has Select Committee responsibilities.
Farming remains an important part of the economy. That is particularly true in my constituency, St Ives, which includes west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I grew up among farms and live today at the bottom of a farm lane—do not get that wrong: I live in a house, but at the bottom of a farm lane—so I see first-hand the hard work that is put in and the challenges to which farmers are exposed, year in, year out. Living in a rural area such as west Cornwall brings home the contribution that farmers make and the vital role that they play. They preserve, maintain and protect our countryside, and create jobs not only in farming but in sectors such as food processing, engineering and tourism. Most importantly, they feed the nation.
Maintaining food security has long been a concern of mine. We must take it much more seriously. Conflict around the world affects food security, and population growth leaves more mouths to feed. Food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as
“when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
I recognise that imports are included in the calculation when food security is measured, but for the purpose of this debate I would like to concentrate our minds on the ability of British farmers to produce the lion’s share of the food we need and to ask what more can be done to ensure that they continue to feed our nation. That is important, because it would be unwise, and there would be moral implications, were we to assume that whatever we cannot produce for ourselves can simply be imported. As the world’s population grows, and taking into account growing unrest and conflict that threaten some regions’ ability to produce food, we should not assume that affordable imports will always be readily available. Indeed, we must not, because every tonne that we import is a tonne less that is available to other nations that might not have the ability to produce as we can.
As a parliamentary candidate of eight years and an MP of eight months, I have had ample opportunity to meet local farmers and gain an insight into their industry. I am grateful for the time that farmers have taken to explain their work to me. I have learned that the challenges are considerable and the solutions complex. Having seen how hard farmers work, I would never claim that their business has ever been easy or straightforward. Nevertheless, 2014-15 was a particularly difficult period for British farming. Farms have been more productive, largely as a result of investing heavily in technology and machinery, but farmers are having to work harder for their money and, in some cases, getting less for their product than 20 years ago. That is particularly true in the dairy industry.
Dairy prices hit the headlines last summer. The price of milk continues to fall, and the diary sector in Cornwall has a particular problem because of the limited markets available. Basically, there is Dairy Crest for cheese, Arla, which includes Rodda’s, and Trewithen. The latter two pay between 22p and 24p per litre.
Cauliflower growers have had a terrible winter—admittedly because of the warm weather. They tell me that they need to be paid 48p per head to have a future that they can invest in, but prices have been between 18p to 22p per cauliflower.
My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties with dairy prices, which the House has been discussing for more than a decade. Will he join me in pressing the Minister for an update on the concrete steps that the Government are taking to support dairy prices?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I first met him at a farming industry event at a conference many years ago—probably when I was first selected as a parliamentary candidate. I will certainly continue to press my hon. Friend the Minister on that matter.
Income figures for 2014-15 from throughout the UK show the harvest down by 9%, with a 24% drop in general cropping, a 25% drop in income for pig farmers, a 20% drop for poultry farmers and a 29% drop for mixed farms, so the situation is bleak. Basic business sense says that no one will invest in a business when they have no idea what the return will be from one month to the next, and no one can expect a business to survive if they are consistently paid less than the cost of production. Yet that is the daily reality for large parts of the British farming industry. They persevere when any other business would pack up and go home. We cannot afford for British farmers to pack up. We must not ignore the threat to British producers.
For many farmers, the price they are being paid does not cover the cost of production. If that continues, we will see farms disappear and less food produced—indeed, we already have. We need to create an environment in which farmers are consistently paid a fair price so that they have the confidence to invest in their businesses, employ the workers they need and produce food and drink to meet UK demand and beyond. Why is that so important? Because British farmers play such a vital role, as I said earlier. They protect, maintain and preserve our natural environment. They provide jobs in farming, processing, engineering and tourism—some 3.8 million jobs in food and farming alone. They contribute £10 billion to the UK economy. In rural Cornwall, it is primarily our farmers who keep our Methodist churches open. Most importantly, our farmers feed the nation.
It is difficult to establish exactly how much of the food and drink that the UK needs is produced by UK farmers. The widely accepted figure currently stands at around 62%, but a recent National Farmers Union report suggests that as things stand, taking into account predicted UK population growth, it will drop to just over 50% when my children reach retirement age. The UK does not want to be in a position where we rely on exports for nearly half the daily food and drink we need. It does not have to be like that.
It is widely acknowledged that there is an opportunity for the UK to import less indigenous fruit and vegetables. The UK supplied only 23% of the fruit and vegetables it needed in 2014, yet frustration exists in the industry and further afield with what appears to be an inability to tackle the issue and maximise the potential of our food industry for the future. The National Farmers Union has done some very useful work in that regard, which the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), reinforced in January 2014 when he said:
“By buying seasonal fruit and veg we can improve the nation’s health, help the environment and boost the economy…As British farmers and food producers, you know that we grow some of the best food in the world here, so why is 24% of the food eaten in the UK imported when it could be produced here? We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8 billion of fruit and veg in 2012.”
It is in our interests to produce as much food as possible. If we want to ensure that good quality food continues to be available to us at a reasonable price, we must support our farmers.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. Is it not the case that we need to be absolutely clear with our food labelling? My local paper, the Yorkshire Post, has a “Clearly British” campaign to label food. Clear labelling will obviously help the whole process and help our hard-hit dairy industry at the same time.
I am glad my hon. Friend raised that point, which I will come on to. Clear labelling is a powerful tool for consumers, because they know exactly what they will get when they buy their produce.
The NFU’s recent “Back British Farming” campaign, carrying the slogan “Want great British food tomorrow? Buy great British food today”, makes it clear that the time for action is now. With a growing global population, there is every reason for us to produce more. We have the opportunity to grow because there is a huge international demand for food, and we want to be part of the solution.
Earlier I referred to complex challenges that require equally complex solutions. I am grateful to be speaking as a Back Bencher; I do not envy the position of my hon. Friend and colleague the Farming Minister, who is required to respond to this debate. However, there is some capital we can build on, which I believe is ripe for the taking—I hope Members will excuse the pun. If we get it right, it will help the British food industry no end.
UK farmers enjoy significant levels of good will from the British public. Recent research shows that 88% of the UK public think that farming is important to the economy and are concerned that we have a secure and safe domestic food supply. The British shopper wants to support the British producer. Over the recess—this takes me on to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—I wanted to see how easy it was for shoppers to support producers. I visited five supermarkets with two simple questions in mind: can I be sure that I am buying British produce, and can I be sure that the farmer is receiving a fair price?
To the credit of the Government, suppliers, retailers and, most importantly, consumers, the issue of labelling and country of origin has largely been resolved. Although legislation only requires the country of origin to be shown for products from outside the EU, we can often see the county of origin as well as the country of origin when buying fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat. It is clear that the industry has responded favourably to consumer demand. However, I did find some butter that simply stated it was produced in the UK, whereas all others stated they were produced using British milk in the UK. I also found some salmon that was labelled as being from “Scotland or Norway”, which I found curious, as I had not previously met a salmon with such an identity crisis.
Despite various claims on packaging, I left each of the five supermarkets unsure whether the farmer received a fair price. I am not suggesting that they did not, but I found the packaging confusing. What consumers need, as they seek to support British producers, is absolute confidence that the product is British and that the farmer is getting a fair price. Unless we can provide that assurance, consumers will not be able to fully support the British farming industry, especially if they are being asked to pay a little extra.
We have seen consumers demonstrate that they are willing to pay more for milk and dairy products once they have complete confidence that the product is British and the farmers are getting paid a fair price. If they do not have that, they will continue to buy cheap milk. No noble-minded British person wants to give more money than they must to the supermarket bosses, but they would to the farmer, because they value British farmers and are concerned about food security. The truth is that we do not necessarily need to pay more. If I had purchased a Cornish cauliflower before Christmas, I would have parted with £1, knowing full well that the grower was getting just 18p for the cauliflower. It is possible to pay a fair price to the grower without hiking supermarket prices on many of the goods that the UK produces.
The great advantage of being a Back-Bench MP is that I have the space and privilege to do some blue-sky thinking. My blue-sky thinking is this. With such solid support for our producers from British consumers, with increasing concern about future food security and in the light of the torrid time our farming industry is enduring, is this the time for the Government to establish a UK fair trade brand, giving the consumer a rock-solid guarantee that when they choose to buy British, British farmers will get a fair price for their products? We need to remove all confusion and empower consumers to support the British farming industry further.
My objective is clear: to support British farmers and producers by encouraging consumers to buy locally farmed and produced food and by enabling them to easily identify genuine domestic products that have rewarded the farmer fairly. I want to see a Government-backed initiative to deliver that objective.
To conclude, I would like to ask the Minister to address a few short questions—which I gave him in advance, to allow him time to prepare. [Laughter.]
How very generous.
Well, I have got to see the man on the train every week.
What can the Government do to give consumers confidence that when they buy British, British farmers are getting a fair price? What can the Government do to ensure that the public sector is playing its part and is buying as much British produce as it can to feed our children, our armed forces, our patients and others in its care? What can the Government do to support the NFU’s “Back British Farming” campaign to enable consumers to choose to buy great British food today, so that they can continue to buy great British food tomorrow?
We do not expect farmers to tolerate a price below the cost of production, but as consumers we quite often expect to pay half the price for a pint of milk than we would for a pint of bottled water. What can the Government do to quash the myth that milk is cheap to supply and should always be cheap to buy? What can the Government do to reassure consumers that buying British produce has the added benefit of supporting good welfare of livestock and achieving the highest standard of food hygiene and production? What can the Government do to create an environment in which British farmers are consistently paid a fair price, so that they can invest in the future of their farms, attract new blood into the industry and weather the storms, whether they are Russian, Chinese or just wet and warm? What can the Government do to help the nation to celebrate the great British food and drink industry and to provide food security strengthened by increased self-sufficiency?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sure we can avoid a time limit and get everyone in if Members observe a bit of discipline.
I am ever mindful of your guidance on time, Mr McCabe, and I will keep to it. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is nice to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), whom I thank for bringing this very important debate to Westminster Hall. I declare an interest, first as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the sister organisation of the NFU, and secondly, as the chair of the all-party group for eggs, pigs and poultry.
It is only recently that food security has become a point of discussion again within the United Kingdom. Between the end of the second world war over half a century ago and the end of the last Labour Government, this was not even a talking point. It is sad to think that what we thought we had put to bed is now raising its head again in the 21st century, especially in an advanced country such as ours.
My constituency of Strangford is mostly rural-based, with certain urban concentrations in the towns of Comber, Newtownards and Ballynahinch. Down the Ards peninsula, in and around Ards, over towards Comber and further on towards Ballynahinch is some of the most exceptional land in Northern Ireland. We have the largest milk production in the mid-Down area in the whole of Northern Ireland, as well as excellent produce. We have some of the best beef cattle—I say that in all honesty, because we do—and a very active, strong Strangford co-operative for lamb. The pig industry has felt some pain over the years, with reduced staff and fewer people producing pigs, but some of the guys who are in it are massive, which has probably compensated for that. Down in Portaferry we have a 1,000-sow unit, which is quite large for Northern Ireland. We also have a very productive egg sector, and cereals and vegetables are produced there as well.
To whet the appetite, I could suggest nothing better to any Member in this Chamber than to start off their meal with vegetables from Killinchy. They could follow that up with the Comber spud—the name, “Comber potato”, is guaranteed and secured under EU legislation—and what would go better with Comber potatoes than a bit of Strangford lamb? And they could finish it off with a third course—not from my constituency, of course—of Armagh apples. There we have it: all three courses—two from my area and the third, unfortunately, we have to bring from Armagh. I say that a bit in jest, but it does illustrate clearly what we have.
In Northern Ireland, as 70% of the production line in Northern Ireland for agriculture is exported, we depend to a great extent upon the export industry and it is highly important to us. In my constituency we have Rich Sauces, which exports and has to do so. We have Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. At Kiltonga we have Pritchitts, which takes its powdered milk all over the world—as far as the far east and down into south America, as well as across all of Europe and Africa. These are key factors for us in my constituency; we need to export to survive. Some 20,000 people are directly employed in agriculture and the agri-food sector is worth £1 billion per annum in Northern Ireland. It is a massive industry and its importance cannot be underlined enough.
With the instability across the world and the links between food production and climate change and extreme weather, we cannot take food security for granted. Even when we are enjoying food security across the nation, we should be taking steps to reduce waste. A proactive rather than reactive approach is what is needed to ensure that we prevent food security being affected by influences such as climate change.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already considered all aspects of UK food security in its reports and has highlighted that as a key issue. I understand that the Committee met yesterday with health officials to discuss this matter. If the Minister is in a position to do so, I would be keen for him to give us some idea of how those discussions went and what took place. The positive situation with regard to food security will not last unless the Government plan for the future and allow for future changes in UK weather and global demand for food.
“Buy British” is what the hon. Member for St Ives said. As a member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I look upon myself very much as British. I want to be part of that “Buy British” campaign and I ask the Minister whether it is time, as I believe it is, to do joint initiatives for promoting the food that we produce in Northern Ireland collectively. In the past I have said the same thing to my Scottish colleagues on my right, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). We can sometimes do this better if we do it together. I am of course a great believer in doing it better together—[Interruption.] I am not sure whether these two men would agree we should do everything together, but I think we should, because I am very much committed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The NFU and the Ulster Farmers’ Union have also stated that.
I want to put this point in Hansard for the record. I understand that there have been some discussions with the farmers union about the need for a market-led, not production-led, strategy. I would like to hear the opinions of the Minister and shadow Minister on that. I think we need to be market-led, when the contract and business is there and then the production comes in behind that. However, we need to know perhaps how that works. Some discussions may have taken place with the NFU and I hope that the Minister is in a position to respond to that point.
Although the UK does not have the growing conditions to produce all types of produce, or some produce, as cheaply as other nations, we need to take the opportunity to import less non-indigenous fruit and vegetables. That will be good for the economy, reducing our already huge fruit and vegetable trade deficit, which amounted to some £7.8 billion in 2014. Again, perhaps the Minister has some ideas about how that can be addressed. We could, we should and we must do more.
I understand that the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has been helping UK farmers to extend their growing seasons for cherries, strawberries and asparagus, and I hope that we can see a similar approach to improving our self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables.
The UK food security assessment from 2010 noted that UK food security depended on being able to source food from a variety of countries, and that that diversity of supply enhanced security by spreading risks, widening options and keeping prices competitive. One production farmer in the agri-food industry in my area told me one day that it is actually cheaper—I find this impossible to comprehend—to import some vegetables from south America to use in his salads in Northern Ireland. I do not understand how that works economically, but he tells me it is cheaper. We need also to have the checks, because we are very conscious of “farm to fork”, and we need to be able to track the movement of food so that its history is traceable, from where it is produced to where it ends up. We need to know whether there are any problems; we need food security. Where does food security come in when it comes to importing food from other countries? Ensuring that in addition to backing local producers, we have an array of different producers in different countries will ensure that food security is not too adversely affected by any extreme or unusual weather in the UK.
Just last year, we saw throughout the UK mass protests by dairy farmers over milk prices. We had farmers across Northern Ireland and farmers in my constituency suffering because of abusive monopolies driving prices below the costs of production. Although it is not a topic for this debate, we also have the EU bureaucracy and red tape that choke and strangle the farmer and make it very difficult for them to produce. Of course, everyone wants to pay less for things and milk is no exception, but should a debate like this ever come up again, we need to make sure that we are on the side of the everyday, normal, hard-working people in our food sector who produce the food and continue to give our great nation a comfortable and secure level of food security.
What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administration, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in particular with the Minister responsible, on how we can have that food security across the whole United Kingdom and how can we promote our food much better?
UK food is, on the whole, the cheapest in the world after the United States and there are some positives to take from that. Inflation is as low as it can go. Food prices, along with fuel prices, have played their part in that and it is making life easier for many of our citizens. We cannot ignore that; it is important that people do not pay too much. Too many are still dependent on food banks, but we are moving in the right direction.
In conclusion, with the right support and long-term strategic thinking, we can ensure that the United Kingdom enjoys food security for generations to come, regardless of what the climate or global economy may throw at us. Only by taking a proactive approach and addressing concerns head-on, rather than reacting to preventable problems, can we ensure that our citizens are secure when it comes to their access to food. Thanks again to the hon. Member for St Ives for giving us the chance to speak on this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate. When I was first elected 10 years ago, we set up the all-party group for dairy farmers, given the perilous conditions that they were facing in Shropshire—all the difficulties that they were facing with supermarkets and the prices that they were getting for their dairy products and milk. An extraordinary number of MPs—290—joined the all-party dairy group, which made it the largest all-party group in that Parliament, and we had a very good secretariat.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative at that time. Does he agree that we still need the good measures that were introduced in the last Parliament to help farmers to combat bovine TB with a roll-out of the badger cull, so that they do not face such hardship as in the past?
I agree with my hon. Friend and I will come to that.
It is worrying that, despite all the work that has taken place over the last 10 years, we are still receiving anecdotal evidence from farmers that they are under strain from prices. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives referred to the pressure on milk prices. I am keen to hear from the Minister—I have come here specially—how the Groceries Code Adjudicator is getting on. When we set up the all-party group, we spent a year preparing a report on the critical issues and the measures that needed to be implemented to help dairy farmers. We came up with two solutions. One was a groceries adjudicator to regulate and control the supermarkets and to make them realise they could not continue with their pernicious actions towards farmers and suppliers. We also called for a limited badger cull to control bovine tuberculosis.
When we took those proposals to the then Secretary of State, David Miliband, we were laughed out of his office, being told that both were ridiculous and not feasible. I am pleased that under the Conservative Administration we have seen progress on them, but I am keen to hear from the Minister what additional powers he will give to the Groceries Code Adjudicator, how the adjudicator is getting on and what further needs to be done to ensure that supermarkets comply with the important proposals that we set out.
On bovine tuberculosis, which my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) mentioned, in 1997 we slaughtered 47 cows in Shropshire as a result of bovine TB. Last year, that figure was over 2,000. I have been with some of my dairy farmers—I have referred to this in previous speeches—on their farms after their entire herd has been taken away. One farmer and I sat together at his kitchen table and cried unashamedly together, such is the raw emotion of what happens to farmers and their families when herds are taken away for slaughter and such is the extraordinary pressure they face with finance and devastation of their herds after all the work to create them. It is important to take action to deal with bovine TB.
Interestingly, what is the biggest organisation in Shropshire? It is the Shropshire Wildlife Trust with 5,000 members. What is the trust’s symbol? The badger. Some people in the trust would like me hanged from the nearest lamp post—they would have difficulty as I am so tall at over 2 metres—because they believe it is appalling that any Member of Parliament could advocate a badger cull. It is a polarising issue and they feel strongly about the need to protect badgers.
I have sat on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, taken hundreds of hours of evidence from scientists and professors from around the world and heard how bovine TB has been eradicated in France and many other countries with a cull of badgers being part of that process. It is extremely important that it is considered. I would like the Minister today to give an update on the badger cull trials and, if they have been successful, to say, when they will be rolled out in other parts of the country and whether he will consider Shropshire as one of the next places for the cull to be implemented.
I am passionate about British exports and pay tribute to a colleague, Martin Oxley from UKTI. I have worked closely with him in exporting Shropshire dairy products to Poland. I want the Minister to be aware of the tremendous success of UKTI in exporting not just Shropshire dairy products, but many British dairy and agricultural products to Poland. It may be like selling coal to Newcastle because Poland is an agricultural country, but we must not forget how strong the British brand is. The international perception of animal husbandry and its excellent quality in this country, which is unsurpassed, and the quality of the British brand are why marketing attempts to sell British agricultural products abroad have been so successful.
I would like to hear from the Minister what is happening in UKTI to continue to prioritise British exports. I recently met Lord Maude, who has taken over the strategic management of UKTI. I would like it to have a dedicated team supporting the export of British agricultural products, and I would appreciate further updates from the Minister on collaboration between his office and UKTI.
I have asked the Secretary of State to visit Shropshire this year and she has promised to visit either the Shropshire show or the Minsterley show, which are our two main shows. The Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee came last year and went down extremely well. It is very important that farmers have the opportunity to meet politicians and the people at the head of DEFRA who make the decisions. I am still waiting to hear which show the Secretary of State will visit, but she has promised to visit Shropshire this year and I would be grateful if the Minister will pass that on to her and ensure that she—or indeed he himself—comes to one of the main agricultural shows in Shropshire this year.
If the remaining speakers take between six and seven minutes each, we will be able to accommodate everyone, including the Front Benchers, and give Mr Thomas a moment to reply.
I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on bringing forward this debate. I agree with most of his comments and particularly liked his suggestion of a fair trade logo for UK produce. The title of the debate, “Food Security”, allows a wide-ranging debate and I may have a scattergun approach—I will see what I can do.
The World Health Organisation has defined food security as existing,
“when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.
That definition means that food security will not exist until the wider world population has access to a sufficient and nutritious diet. That means an end to conflict, true implementation of the Paris COP 21 agreement, control of climate change, greater land reform, the ending of harmful deforestation, and more crops grown seasonally for domestic markets. I do not have any answers but we are a wee bit away from that utopia, so—like most of the previous speakers—I will concentrate on UK issues, including Scottish ones.
At present, just over half of the UK’s food is produced in the UK so greater consideration should be given to reliance on the wider EU single market against the benefits of greater self-sufficiency. The farmers’ unions would certainly like to see the latter, and it has come out in previous contributions. I agree with that philosophy.
We all accept that the UK will always import some produce; indeed, some of our favourite meals rely on imported ingredients. Imports can also help to provide better balance in diets overall, particularly in the winter months. However, nearly 20% of the food eaten in the UK comes from just four EU countries, and the UK supplies only 23% of the fruit and vegetables eaten here. I suggest that the upcoming EU referendum could provide a further risk to food security, and the Minister needs to make contingency plans with regard to the risk of a leave vote.
As we have heard, it makes sense for the UK not to import such quantities of indigenous fruit and vegetables, and that was flagged up in the EFRA Committee’s 2014 report on food security. If we are to maximise the amount of indigenous fruit and vegetables produced here, farming in this country must, first and foremost, be more profitable. This year, I have met Scottish farmers and heard first hand that farmers across all farming sectors have suffered, even where they have diversified. Measures must be put in place to encourage continued diversification so that the wider industry can survive and, I hope, produce greater amounts of indigenous fruit and vegetables for the domestic market.
Growing more produce in the UK for UK consumption clearly reduces our carbon footprint, which is a must in terms of wider climate change issues. As I have suggested, those pose a risk to food security around the world.
The continued promotion of domestically grown produce in supermarkets will clearly help when done in conjunction with wider country of origin labelling. I therefore welcome the Farming Minister’s recent comments that the Government will continue to pressure the European Commission on country of origin labelling for dairy products. The high percentage of country of origin labelling that is already undertaken voluntarily shows that it can be done and that it should not be too cost-prohibitive to do it more widely, and I would certainly like to see it introduced on an EU basis.
For some customers, budget considerations will, of necessity, override considerations of origin. However, there is no doubt that proper, true labelling would encourage people in this country to buy British or, in some cases, regional. I would also like to see the Scottish brand promoted.
I echo the call for a Government commitment to take up the EFRA Committee’s recommendation to extend the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. We cannot have another dairy farming crisis, and it would be good to see what the Government are doing about the issue with regard to the long term.
On the wider issue of farming sustainability, there are two clear issues for farming in general, and these particularly affect Scottish farmers: common agricultural policy payments and continued membership of the EU. CAP payments account for an average of 70% of Scottish farming profits. The Scottish Government have rightly identified that farming needs to be more profitable and sustainable, but the hard fact is that those payments are literally the difference between survival or otherwise.
Also on CAP payments, Scottish farmers feel they have missed out on the pillar one convergence uplift that was given. That amounts to €230 million, which should have been allocated to Scottish farmers up to 2020. If we have an EU exit, and the UK Government maintain the equivalent of CAP support for farmers, it is vital that we have a clear policy position from them.
I would go on, Mr McCabe, but I realise that I have to draw to a conclusion. We all agree that more support needs to be given to farmers, and I again applaud the hon. Member for St Ives for bringing the issue forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I am proud that we have quite strong Cornish representation here today, but we are also joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), so the debate is not entirely Cornish led.
I was part of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when it did an in-depth study into food security. The report was published in June 2014, and I have a copy here—I would be happy to furnish my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives with one if he has not seen it. During the production of the report, we received 50 written submissions and undertook five oral sessions. We left the House to conduct visits, and I was pleased to welcome members of the Committee to the world cheese award-winning Cornish Cheese Company in my own constituency. The report was very timely, as is this debate. It is incredibly important that we have enough for the people of the UK to eat. We must look at the changing global demand for food as population increases, at the impact of weather changes on production and at the dangers of disease.
The world and UK populations are growing. With the world population likely to hit 8 billion in 20 years, even on the lower UN projection, and the UK population likely to hit 70 million over the same time span, we have to prepare for extra demand. It is simple: production must increase, or people will go hungry.
I do not need to say today that the weather in the UK is changing. As we have all seen on our television screens, many people have suffered over the festive season, and my thoughts are very much with them, given what they have had to endure. However, with flooded fields and destroyed crops, we need to take these issues into account in any future plans.
We do not have to go back to Ireland’s potato famine to see the dangers of disease. We can all remember the haddock—sorry, the havoc—that BSE caused and that TB is still causing today. We can also look abroad to new threats. Only this week, a 26-year-old woman died from a strain of bird flu, and another woman is reportedly in a serious condition, according to health authorities in southern China.
I am keen that we back our farmers and fishermen and assist them by coming forward with solutions. That includes backing British production and the important Red Tractor labelling scheme. It is important to know that the food we buy comes from a trusted source. All products that carry the Red Tractor mark meet responsible production standards and are traceable back to independently inspected farms. The mark is the easiest way for consumers to be sure of the provenance of the food they buy.
We must do what we can to protect our producers. We must take steps to ensure that our route to production is disease-free, and we must take steps at our borders to help to limit the possibility of disease entering this country.
We must recognise the importance of food production when we look at flood defences—a priority that seems, possibly, to have been overlooked in the past. We must also look at the regulatory framework that our food producers operate under, much of which comes from Europe. I want to work to ensure the best deal for farmers under the CAP.
I want, however, to limit the rest of my remarks to supporting those other food producers—our fishermen. Speaking as an individual, and not as the chairman of the all-party group on fisheries, I would like to raise my strong concerns over the common fisheries policy and the disappointing result for my fishermen in south-east Cornwall of the latest round of quota negotiations.
If we are to have food security in terms of our fishermen, we must now vastly reform the common fisheries policy or pull out altogether. That is why I said at the start of my remarks that this is indeed a timely debate. I believe in the importance of food security; for our fishermen, that means fundamental change in the way that the rules under which they operate are put in place. It is vital that the Prime Minister recognises that in his negotiations with Europe. If that does not happen, we should vote to leave the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for calling this important debate. As he said on his website,
“we take future food security seriously, given that we are an island nation”.
Food security is a subject that lends itself to a focus on agriculture, but—rather neatly, as I am following the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray)—I feel that as an island nation we should not forget in this debate the vital role played by our fisheries industry in providing food for Britain.
Fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein and a rare source of essential fatty acids, but fishing also sustains a significant industry, which employs thousands of people in coastal communities and at food processing sites across the country. To take perhaps a slightly different perspective from the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, people in the industry in my patch, Great Grimsby, tell me they are cautiously optimistic about the current state of the sector.
Not only does the fisheries industry feed people in Britain; fish exports are worth £1.6 billion a year to our economy. The industry has proved itself able to operate in a sustainable way. Fish stocks are up 400% in the last decade, allowing a welcome increase in quotas for 2016. This year fishermen will be able to catch 47% more haddock in the North sea, twice as much plaice from the channel and 20% more Celtic sea hake. While consumers have understandably been concerned about declining stocks in the past, people can now have their hake and eat it too. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I know—but the hon. Member for South East Cornwall had a “havoc” and a “haddock”.
Many colleagues have rightly raised the challenges that agriculture and farmers face, but there are very few workers who have it tougher than fishermen. I would like us to regard them as the farmers of the sea. They can be out at work and away from their families for weeks at a time. The task itself is tough, dangerous and often not well paid. It is not surprising that it can be a tough sell to get young people to consider it for a career. The workforce are ageing, and there is a risk that the skills in the industry today will be lost. I have asked the Minister before, and I will ask him again, how the Government plan to address that. The industry needs a proper strategy to secure its long-term future.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the Seafish training authority does a lot of training for young fishermen, and in particular people who want to move into the industry? Perhaps she would like to contact Seafish to ensure that those courses are run in her constituency.
I believe that that was mentioned in the debate on fishing before the December break, and I feel that it needs to be expanded and heavily publicised, although the hon. Lady is certainly doing her part and assisting with that. I shall take her advice.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s predecessor, Austin Mitchell, who I knew well over 10 years as a Member of Parliament. He was a great advocate for fishermen and I would like her to take our tribute to him, if she is in touch with him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I am sure that I will be able to tweet him. I believe he is in New Zealand, but he remains a strong advocate for the fishing industry and the fishermen of Grimsby and the surrounding areas. In particular, he played a strong role in ensuring that appropriate compensation was delivered to those fishermen when trawler owners were being given significant compensation but the people doing the work were not so lucky. I entirely concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).
What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department of Health, for instance, about promoting healthy British food such as seafood? As the Government look to tackle obesity and unhealthy eating, surely fish has a role to play as a nutritious, local and environmentally sustainable alternative to other foods. What are the Government doing to encourage supermarkets to act responsibly when sourcing and purchasing fish products? That should be a top priority in securing the sustainability of this major food source. Does the Minister believe that public procurement has a bigger role to play in supporting the industry, as the hon. Member for St Ives mentioned? Does he believe that the public sector, starting with Whitehall and the parliamentary estate, does enough to support the UK’s fishing industry?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my Cornish colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), on tabling this important debate. I agree wholeheartedly with everything that he and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) have said in the debate. In view of the time restraints, I will not repeat everything that has been said that I wholeheartedly agree with; I will pull out a few of the main points that I believe are worth reinforcing.
It is clear, and I am sure we all agree, that food security is increasingly becoming one of the most important issues that the country will face. As we have heard, the increasing population in our country and globally, the rapid growth of the middle classes in developing countries, and world security issues mean that food security for the UK will become very important. Climate change will also increasingly be a factor. I recently visited Kenya and saw for myself the impact that the changing climate is having on food production in that part of the world. When all those things are put together, it is clear that we will not be able to rely as certainly on food imported into the country as we have in recent decades.
That is why I believe it is important for us to do all we can as a country to become as self-sufficient as possible in food production. Various figures are bandied around, but I believe the most reliable is that we currently produce about 65% of the food we need. We need that figure to go up. It is unlikely ever to be 100%, and I am not sure we would ever want it to be, but we certainly need it to move nearer to that.
The food supply chain is a complex matter, but our farmers and, as other hon. Members have been saying, our fishermen are at its very foundation. We need to do all we can to support them. I should probably declare an interest at this point, by saying that I married a farmer’s daughter 30 years ago this year and that at the moment her father, my father-in-law, is still—in his mid-80s—to be found every day in the fields on his farm on the Isles of Scilly; and a great inspiration he is. Our farmers are facing some of the most challenging times that they have faced for many generations. We have already talked about the downward pressure on prices both from supermarkets in the UK and from global markets. The increasing costs and bureaucracy in farming are making it harder than ever for farms to remain viable and sustainable businesses. We need to understand those challenges and do everything we can to give support, and to address them.
Farming is viable in this country only because of the significant subsidies that farmers receive, but I think we need to be clear.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that there was nothing in the EU negotiation about reform of the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy?
Absolutely—I agree wholeheartedly. It is a point that I want to come on to. I am very disappointed that there is nothing in the renegotiation in our relationship with the EU on seeking to reform either the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. I believe that they are things that need to be reformed, and that is one reason why I am quite likely to vote to leave the EU. We need to recover our own powers over those aspects for this country and not to be so reliant on the EU for them.
We also need to be clear that the subsidies paid to our farmers are, in effect, subsidising not farmers but British households. They are there to keep food prices down. We need to kill the myth that somehow farmers are subsidy junkies. They receive those subsidies only because of the downward pressure on prices. Virtually every farmer I know and speak to would say that they would rather have a fair and sustainable price for the food they produce than to be so reliant on subsidies.
In the recent crisis involving milk prices, we saw that the British consumer is willing to pay a bit more when they know that a product is local and the farmer will receive a fairer price for that product. That is particularly true in Cornwall. The Cornish brand for locally produced food is incredibly strong; there is a very strong feeling in Cornwall that people are willing to pay a bit more if they know that something is Cornish and that local farmers are getting a fairer price for it. The Government would do well to push that further. We have already talked about better labelling for locally produced food. The Red Tractor scheme has been mentioned. That is a very good label, but we need to do more to promote such schemes so that the British consumer can know for certain that they are buying local food.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives did not intend the debate to become dominated by the issue of TB, but we cannot avoid the subject. When I go out and speak to local farmers in my constituency and ask them, “What is your No. 1 concern that you would like the Government to do something about?”, the most common response is, “Address the issue of bovine TB.” I congratulate the Government on the steps they have already taken to address the issue, despite strong opposition, but I firmly believe that we need to allow those who live off the land to manage the countryside. They know best, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government to press ahead and do everything they can to rid our farms of that awful disease. I can assure him of my full support in any steps he takes to do that. We need to make no bones about it. Again, as we have heard, this is not about just saving a few badgers. Hundreds of cattle are slaughtered every week as a direct or indirect result of TB. We must address the impact that that is having on the sustainability of locally produced food.
To sum up, we need to do everything we can to support British farmers. I know that I do not have to twist the Minister’s arm to do that, but I encourage him to take the clear message back to Government that we want to see a very strong positive message from the Government about supporting British farmers and getting behind them in every way we can.
This feels like a visit to the Celtic Connections festival. We have the Irish, the Cornish and the Scots; we just need a few more Welsh. I do not know where—[Interruption.] Does Grimsby count? Not really!
Thank you, Mr McCabe, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. He kicked it off superbly well by emphasising how important rural farmers are to the rural economy in many ways. It is not just about the food that they produce, but about the way they contribute to the land and the communities in which they live. The hon. Gentleman also outlined the severe pricing challenges, which has been a common theme throughout the debate.
I am acutely aware of the importance of labelling—not just the labelling of products but how they are sold in supermarkets. I wrote to the chief executive of Tesco about its selling of New Zealand products under a Scottish banner and received a fairly poor response, which I have had to follow up on. Supermarkets need to be clear in their practices when selling as well as in their labelling. There may well be salmon that have been to Scotland and Norway, but we need a lot more clarity than just lumping different geographical locations together.
I always enjoy having the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) here. I will not even try to compete with the number of products that he referenced from his constituency—he wins hands down.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I will come on to the issue of the Groceries Code Adjudicator; I agree that it is important. Bovine TB is clearly a big issue down here, but less so north of the border. I agree that it should be at the forefront of our minds lest it spread and become an issue for other parts of the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) focused on the need for farming to be profitable. I will return to a couple of the themes that he raised.
It is always a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall with the hon. Members for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who fly the flag or rather sail the ship for the many fishermen around the country.
It is also a delight to see the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). Taking part in this debate also serves the purpose of making me more familiar with my many wonderful fellow MPs. He can now visit his father-in-law safe in the knowledge that he has referenced him in a debate in Parliament, so I congratulate him on that.
Has it convinced you of the need for the Union?
There are many unions, so it depends on which one the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I personally would prefer to stay in the European Union and I look forward to the Westminster Hall debate on Cornish independence as well.
Food security is vital. That is why food supply is classed as a critical national infrastructure sector and DEFRA assesses it annually. Of course, large elements of this area are devolved to Scotland, and last June the Scottish Government drew up their own agricultural discussion document, setting out a vision for Scottish agriculture, which includes contributing to global food security, with a particular focus on Malawi, where the Scottish Government have an involvement.
International interdependence is critical. More than half the food in the UK is home-grown and on the whole, as we heard, our prices are the lowest in the world after those in the US, but we still need to maintain strong supply chain links to other countries. There will always have to be imports, as the UK does not have the growing conditions to supply all the types of produce for which there is demand, but that also offers an opportunity in terms of the capabilities for exports.
I am particularly interested in branding—national or regional branding—for both food and drink. That is particularly important in Scotland, where the sector has promoted itself to great effect with its reputation for high-quality, distinctive and environmentally sustainable produce. We have just finished promoting our Year of Food and Drink and it has been a great success story. Turnover has risen by more than 24% since 2008 to more than £14 billion, and the industry is on target to reach next year the figure of £16.5 billion.
Before raising a couple of specific points on agriculture, I would like to mention fishing. When we talk about food security, it is easy to forget about fishing, yet it is a fantastic contributor to food security and the Scottish economy, with exports worth £600 million. Fishing takes a lot of pressure off land production. Of course it has to be sustainably managed, which presents some challenges, as we heard from the hon. Member for South East Cornwall, but when done well, it is a very profitable and successful source of food.
Let me now talk from a farming perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has already raised a couple of the old chestnuts that the Minister is very used to. However, it is worth emphasising again that the CAP is critical. I think that as Members of Parliament we have to be very careful with our language in this area, and I welcome the comments about getting away from the idea of subsidy. Our farmers need support. Most farmers in Scotland would be underwater financially if it were not for the CAP payments. As we go into a debate on the EU referendum, which has been mentioned several times, we have to be very careful on and clear about what an EU exit would mean for this industry. For farming in Scotland, without a comparable payment system, it would be a disaster.
The supply chain is well established, but I totally agree with the comments about the importance of addressing the inequalities in the supply chain. That affects all areas of farming, but in particular the dairy industry. It is of course important that we have reasonable prices, because lower income households are hit disproportionately hard by higher costs, but farmers have the right to a fair price for their quality product. We need to do more in terms of regulation in this area. I appreciate that it may not be a DEFRA area of responsibility, but it is clearly an area in which the Minister takes a keen interest.
The office of the Groceries Code Adjudicator was set up in 2013 to oversee this area, but the powers do not go far enough and she cannot respond adequately to the failures in the supply chain. The adjudicator can deal only with retailers with a turnover of more than £1 billion and with direct suppliers, and can act only if a complaint has been received. Those are things that need to be visited and addressed so that we can reduce the inequalities in that area. When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she told me that she seeks an adjudicator that will operate across the EU, and better transparency in the European supply chain. Regardless of that, I am keen for efforts to be made and clarity to be achieved in this area as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun raised the convergence uplift, and I appreciate that I am something of a broken record on that subject. Slowly, elements of progress have been made on the timescale, but we need to push the Minister harder on the matter, and I look forward to future discussions with him. We have a meeting coming up at which I will seek clarity on the process and some timescales for achieving a resolution in this area, where we feel that Scottish farmers have been badly let down.
Overall, we need longer term thinking, and strong, durable, fair, safe and secure supply chain relationships. As the NFU has pointed out, those are key to success. Farmers in Scotland and the UK are the primary source of our food security, as well as being major economic contributors, hugely important sources of rural employment and guardians of our landscape. They support us, and we need to support them in return. Let us ensure our food security and sustainability by doing so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for introducing the debate, and I thank the many colleagues who intervened and made contributions. The hon. Gentleman raised important concerns about the dairy sector and spoke with real energy about supporting British producers. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) showed his usual deep rural knowledge, and suggested three courses of home-produced food for us; his serious point was about reducing food imports. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) raised important questions about the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and sought visitors to his great county’s shows this summer. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked about the importance of consumers buying more fruit and veg. He spoke in support of country of origin labelling and, unsurprisingly, Scottish branding.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) reminded us about the impact of climate change and flooding in recent weeks on people around the country, and she expressed strong support, as we would expect, for Cornish fishermen. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said that her fishing industry was optimistic, and she gave us the best pun of the afternoon when she suggested that we could have our hake and eat it. She was making an important point about public procurement and eating our great fish from this country.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) talked about the impact of climate change on food production in Kenya, and made a powerful point about how it is reducing the certainty of food imports from that country. He also spoke with real vigour in support of the red tractor label. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) gave a great round-up of the debate, and warned everybody about the loss of EU funding for farming across the country.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser said in 2013 that food security in the UK was dependent on two things: well-functioning markets and a vibrant farming and food industry. I celebrate every penny of the contribution that agriculture makes to this country, and the millions of jobs and the billions of pounds in exports that it creates. Against those factors, however, I see not a job well done, but a job that should be done better. I see farmers at the mercy of a supply chain where they hold none of the cards, gaps in research funding in areas that are vital to enable us to compete on a global scale, and a market where the food that we can and do grow is supplanted in the supermarket aisles and at the tills by billions of pounds worth of imports. All the while, the Government, who rejected a Labour plan that made food security a priority, have dragged their heels over an alternative.
The problem cannot be solved with quick fixes—although with the heavy cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I doubt that quick fixes will be possible anyway. Instead, we need to tackle the issue of food security properly. The difficulties that farmers have faced over farm-gate prices are one area in which real differences could be made. Despite the price boost to some producers, the average farm-gate price for milk is lower than it was in October 2014. Lamb prices are under pressure, and even wheat has fallen 9% since January last year.
Although organisations such as the NFU recognise that such problems are among the perils of farming, they put at massive risk the sort of investment that is needed for farmers to grow and thrive—that is, for the farmers and businesses that are lucky enough not to go under as a result of the price drops. Unfortunately, as has been said several times today, when policies have been suggested such as increasing the powers and scope of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to give producers more bargaining power, the Government have poured cold water on those ideas, because they would require legislation. Why is that too great a hurdle to clear, if such action would protect our food producers across the country?
I turn to the question of the food that fills our shelves. Like many colleagues, I have delighted in the range of foods from around the world that we can now buy in our supermarkets and shops. Of course, there always will be food imports, but why does the UK supply just 23% of its own fruit and vegetable needs? The £7.8 billion trade gap between exports and imports in that area is shocking. The Government will soon embark on their “Great British Food” campaign. Promoting our foods to be sold around the world is a good venture, and to be applauded, but can the Minister assure us that the campaign will include efforts to promote British fruit and veg on our shelves?
I note that the Department has made little headway with convincing Europe on country of origin labelling for the likes of dairy products. Instead, it has “encouraged” retailers in Britain to use the voluntary country-of-origin labelling scheme, even though 86% of shoppers want to buy more traceable food that has been produced on British farms—and in Scotland, too. Will the Minister ensure that the supermarkets play ball and give British producers a chance to stand out?
Although such measures can help to ensure well-functioning markets and a vibrant industry, food security is something that will play out over decades and centuries, not just over years. Climate change, which has come up a number of times this afternoon, and the rapidly increasing population of the UK and of the world may stretch, or even render obsolete, current farming methods.
We need a long-term strategy that ensures sustainable gains in economic growth while replenishing the natural environment over which we hold stewardship. Top agri-tech research will be required to meet that challenge, but both the Committee on Climate Change and our all-party group on science and technology in agriculture have noted Britain’s stagnation when it comes to research and development. In a global market in which other countries are surging ahead, the NFU predicts, as the hon. Member for St Ives has pointed out, that by 2080 we will be forced to import more than 50% of our food unless we do something now. We have finally had a commitment from the Government for a big investment in agri-tech support, but my question is simple: why, when organisations across the spectrum have called for it, has that taken so long? Valuable time has been wasted.
It would be remiss of me, in a debate on food security, to ignore the plight of the more than 1 million people who now use food banks in the UK. Food bank usage increased by 18% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Any food security policy must be about not just producing more food but giving everyone in the UK access to safe, healthy and affordable food. The previous Labour Government knew how important food security was for the UK; in our “Food 2030” strategy, we reckoned that it was as important as energy security to the country’s wellbeing. That strategy would have been the start of a consumer-led, technological revolution, with the aim of producing more food in a sustainable manner with a smaller environmental footprint. Instead, 2010 saw this Government consign those plans to the scrapheap. I believe that they are playing catch-up to this day, and our food and farming industries have paid the price.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate? His constituency neighbours mine and I know that he champions the interests of farmers in his constituency. Indeed, we often jointly attend west Cornwall branch meetings of the National Farmers Union, and in the autumn I had the pleasure of speaking at a village called Madron in his constituency, which ran a series of events on the future of farming.
I worked in the farming industry for 10 years. I care deeply about the industry, and the Government value the role of agriculture and our food industry because it is the biggest industry in the country. Food manufacturing is our biggest manufacturing industry—bigger than the aerospace and automotive industries put together. It is worth about £100 billion a year throughout the supply chain and employs about one in eight people. That is why we made a manifesto commitment to put in place a 25-year food and farming plan, which is currently under development and will be published in the spring. It will look at how we attract new skills to the industry, how we use technology to improve productivity and use of resources, how we open new export markets, and how we develop risk management tools for the agricultural industry.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out, there is growing consumer interest in food provenance. People want to know where their food comes from. There is a growing interest in local sourcing and local brands, particularly in Cornwall where we have some strong local food brands. We are keen to develop that, so 2016 will be the year of great British food. Our Great British Food unit will champion those artisan food producers throughout the course of the year.
We are also doing a huge amount on exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked about that. At the end of last year, the Secretary of State went to China and was successful in opening new markets for British barley and for pigs’ trotters. In fact, we have been opening about 100 new markets a year over the past two or three years. Our food exports are now rising to £19 billion a year.
We have made some very good progress on exports, but I do not deny for a moment that farming is going through an incredibly tough and difficult time, due to a number of factors. The exchange rate of the pound against the euro is not favourable to farmers; the weakness of the euro has put pressure on all commodity prices for British farmers. Set against that, there has been a global oversupply in many areas and some key markets have been disrupted. In Europe, milk production has risen by about 10% due to very good weather and favourable conditions for production. That has had a downward pressure on prices and, as many hon. Members have said, many farmers are experiencing prices that are well below the cost of production.
There has been difficulty in other sectors such as pig production, where the market in Russia has been disrupted, exacerbating the problems. There has also been difficulty with lamb. New Zealand lamb has been finding it more difficult to get access to the Chinese market, so there has been a surplus of New Zealand lamb on the world market. Despite those short-term pressures, my message is that the long-term prospects for our farming industry remain good. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said, there is a growing world population. It is set to reach about 9 billion by 2050 and many projections suggest a rise in demand for food of about 60%. That brings me to the issue of food security.
As the shadow Minister said, we are clear that there are two key elements to delivering food security in the world. One is that we must have open markets and the second is that we must have a vibrant, profitable and successful food production and supply system. The reason that self-sufficiency and food production alone is not enough to guarantee food security is that farming is always at the mercy of the weather. If there is a severe weather event in one part of the country, we need to be able to move food around the world, so open markets are crucial to ensuring food security.
Although our self-sufficiency is lower now, at about 64%, than it was at its peak in the late 1980s, we should recognise that then there was an incredibly distorting common agricultural policy. It was an era of grain mountains, butter mountains, wine lakes and so on. That had a distorting effect. Against historical standards, we are still producing far more of our food than we have done in the past. Indeed, in the 1930s just before the second world war, our food self-sufficiency was only about 30% to 35%, so things are not as bad as some would suggest. However, if the Government do what we want to do—produce more, sell more, export more and import less—over time I hope that our current self-sufficiency will improve.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives posed a number of questions. He raised the plight of cauliflower growers in Cornwall, many of whom are in my constituency. That situation is wholly driven by weather. The autumn has been warm and many of the varieties have come in simultaneously, which has caused particular problems. I agree with him about country of origin. The UK has been at the fore of arguing in the EU for mandatory country of origin labelling—successfully when it comes to beef, pork, poultry and other fresh meats. We have been arguing tenaciously for country of origin labelling to be mandatory on some dairy products. I have to say that the Commission is pushing back on that at the moment, but we will redouble our efforts to improve the voluntary code in that regard.
My hon. Friend also asked what supermarkets are doing. It is important to recognise that and to give credit where credit is due. For instance, Morrisons has its “Milk for Farmers” brand. Many people scoffed at that when it came out, but it has actually been very successful. It pays an extra 10p a litre to farmers and its sales have well exceeded expectations, which shows a consumer interest in helping British agriculture. The other thing is that many of the main supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S and the Co-op all have aligned contracts with virtually all of their liquid milk suppliers. The farmers supplying some of those supermarkets with liquid milk in particular are still quite often getting somewhere in the region of 29p to 32p a litre. There is a wide spread of fortunes in the dairy industry currently and we should recognise that some supermarkets are supporting farming through aligned contracts. Tesco is experimenting with the idea of an aligned contract on cheese, although that is more difficult because it is more exposed to commodity markets. M&S has also experimented with aligned contracts in other sectors, such as lamb.
On the other questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, public sector procurement is an important issue. We set up the Bonfield report to set out a balanced scorecard so that more locally sourced food is bought by the public sector. He asked what we are doing to back British farming. We have our Great British Food campaign and we will be working with organisations such as the NFU. He is right to highlight the benefits of animal welfare that we have. In fact, World Animal Protection rates the UK as top in the whole world for farm animal welfare. When it comes to getting a fair price, we are doing things to try to improve risk management so that farmers can mitigate the price volatility that they experience.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the issues in Northern Ireland. There has been a particularly difficult situation with dairy in Northern Ireland and we have recognised that by arguing for an increased share of the support fund from the EU in November. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked about the Groceries Code Adjudicator. That will be reviewed later this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have now put in place the ability for it to levy fines of up to 1% of turnover. In fact, looking at the survey data, the number of complaints about supermarkets has gone down slightly and Christine Tacon reports that more buyers and more suppliers to supermarkets are using the code in the way that they should.
The hon. Members from the Scottish National party mentioned convergence uplift. I am meeting NFU Scotland later this week. I have committed to reviewing that once everybody is on an area-based payment system, and we will continue to do that. Finally, a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, made a very important point about fisheries. I completely agree with that, although I do not share the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall that it is all bad news. We have seen big uplifts for plaice, haddock and cod this year, which shows the benefit of sustainable fishing.
In conclusion, we have had a very good debate in which lots of interesting points were raised. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing the debate.
Mr McCabe, thank you for chairing the debate so well. I thank all Members for contributing and I especially welcome the support of my Cornish colleagues. It has been good to hear such a wide range of issues covered and addressed. I thank the Minister, who is extraordinarily patient with me and my constant pestering regarding farmers and fishermen in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. He probably gets tired of that.
I welcome the Minister’s words and look forward to the publication of the 25-year food and drink strategy, but I ask that we step up our efforts to back British producers in any way that we possibly can. I am genuinely concerned for the future of many farms because there is considerable pressure on farmers to look at alternative uses for their agricultural land. There are only so many green fields that can be lost to house building and solar farms before we seriously compromise our ability to feed ourselves in the future. I hope the debate has served to empower the British consumer to support British products further and I hope that it is something that we continue to look at closely throughout this Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered food security.