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Sustainable Food Supply and Cultured Meat

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022

I will call Sir Roger Gale to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as that is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sustainable food supply and cultured meat.

Thank you, Dame Maria. I apologise for subjecting you to myself twice in one morning. I thank the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for being here during an incredibly busy week for her. I know how hard she has been working, and I am deeply grateful for her presence. I would also like to thank the Good Food Institute, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and Ivy Farm Technologies for opening my eyes and stimulating this debate.

It is a fact of parliamentary life that we go to a lot of receptions. Outside this place, people think they are a waste of time, but if we look and listen, we learn from them. The Ivy Farm presentation stimulated my interest in a subject that, frankly, I knew very little about until I was briefed. I am not starting from a conclusion; I am hoping to open an ongoing debate.

I will first place on record some quotes from the Government’s food strategy, which was published this week. The primary objective is:

“A prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the levelling-up agenda through good quality jobs around the country.”

The second objective is:

“A sustainable nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all.”

The next point follows on from what we were talking about this morning and relates to Ukraine.

“The conflict in Ukraine has shown us that domestic food production is a vital contributor to national resilience and food security. Domestic food production can reduce the offshoring of food production to countries that do not meet our high environmental and animal welfare standards.”

In the foreword to the document, the Secretary of State writes:

“Technological solutions are developing at pace. Our future farming policy will support innovative solutions to the environmental challenges we face.”

The final quote leads directly into what I want to briefly discuss this morning.

“Innovation will be a key component to sustainably boost production and profitability across the supply chain. We have committed to spend over £270 million through our Farming Innovation Programme and are supporting £120 million investment in research across the food system in partnership with UK Research and Innovation, in addition to other funding packages.”

That is the key and why I am standing here this morning. The potential, as I understand it, for cultivated meat is huge. Cultivated meat, scientifically, is meat processed and produced from tissue. It is not, and never will be, a replacement for fillet steak, a pork chop or a leg of lamb. What it can do is augment and supplement meat production in a way that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and the number of animals required for slaughter, which is an objective that most of us would like to see followed through.

I was astonished to learn that 18% of CO2 emissions—more than all CO2 emissions from transport globally—are caused by animals. As I understand it, the cultivation of meat can obviate a significant portion of those CO2 emissions, and I believe that to be a desirable objective.

I wish to comment on one by-product of this issue. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister launched a “grow for Britain” plan in Cornwall; I simply say to the Minister, and through her to Downing Street, that it is an admirable objective, but if we are to grow for Britain, we need the farmland to grow crops on, which means not sacrificing our prime agricultural land to development in the way that “Builder Boris” is seeking to do at the moment. It has got to stop.

Let me come back to the issue of cultivated meat, on which I can be brief. Ivy Farm briefed me to indicate that, frankly, research in this whole area is lamentably underfunded in the United Kingdom and is therefore slow. Singapore approved the consumption of cultivated meat in 2020. In 2021, the United States approved a major research programme into the development of cultivated meat. China has put cultivated meat on its development road map this year. Canada and Israel are investing heavily indeed in this area.

My plea to the Minister is quite simple. As I said, I do not start from a conclusion, and I do not know what contribution cultivated meat can make in totality to our demand, consumption and sustainability, but I believe the potential is very significant indeed. If that is so, it seems to me that if we in the United Kingdom are to get ahead of the game—sadly, we too often remain behind the curve—we have to examine carefully our investment in research and development, and make sure that our regulation does not get in the way of the introduction into the market of cultivated meat.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I sense that he may be drawing his remarks to a conclusion and waiting for the Minister to respond. Before he does so, could he perhaps also comment on the importance of a proper public sector food procurement strategy that backs British-produced food, be that cultivated meat or meat and other agricultural products that are farmed in this country? That is something we have not seen to date, and there is every opportunity, now that we left the EU, for the Government to take this issue forward.

That is slightly wider than the scope of this debate, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that we need a co-ordinated initiative to ensure we deliver sustainable foods across the board. I know that the Minister will tell us we are largely sustainable and self-reliant with regard to meats and grains, and that there is a shortage in vegetables and fruit. I think we can go further. I know, because I happened to discuss this issue with the Minister only last night—I am sure she will answer my hon. Friend—that the Government have an initiative that may not be entirely Conservative but is certainly valid. It does not try to direct farmers on what they should grow but seeks to ensure properly that the right needs are met in the right places and at the right time.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Ivy Farm had a reception here that I visited with some apprehension, to be fair, but I understood the issues and I understand what the right hon. Gentleman suggests and the necessity of it. He referred to the Nature Friendly Farming Network, which is going to have a reception today. One of my constituents, Stephen Alexander, will be there. He is involved with Dexter cattle, and he is showing great initiative to bring about a better product for use across the whole of Northern Ireland. As well as the Ivy Farm example that the right hon. Gentleman referred to, we should encourage the Nature Friendly Farming Network that Stephen Alexander is part of.

I believe nature-friendly farming is completely compatible with the other objectives—a point that was made to me by the network. They are not mutually exclusive. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, to which I also referred, is not vegan or vegetarian but it is about animal welfare. The more we can do to utilise science and technology to improve animal welfare standards and minimise the number of animals we actually use, while maintaining our self-sufficiency, the better.

What I want from the Minister is simple. It is a commitment to endeavour to invest in research and development. As I said, I am not committed to this idea, but I do not believe we are talking about frankenfoods or putting livestock farmers out of business. I think the development of cultivated meat is completely compatible with the maintenance of a live animal sector. They should be complimentary to each other. I am not seeking to foist yet another job on the Minister, but if it is not too big an ask, it does seem to me that what we really need in this field is a designated champion to take this project forward and to put us in the vanguard of development, rather than the tail end of the train.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing a debate on such an interesting issue. In the Government’s food strategy, which we published on Monday, we acknowledged the opportunities for growth in the alternative protein sector. The sector covers a wide range of products and technologies—from cultured meat to the use of insect-derived protein in animal feed—that, as my right hon. Friend said, could be complementary to traditional animal systems.

On that point, protein from different sources has different qualities. Humans need protein that is as close as possible to the protein in our own bodies. That is why the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made about cultivated meat are particularly relevant if we are looking at developing the sector. Quorn and other forms of protein do not necessarily have all the amino acids that humans need. Will my hon. Friend the Minister take that point back to the Department after the debate?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I politely refer him to the Government’s food strategy, published on Monday, which carefully makes the case for a healthy, sustainable and, above all, balanced diet that takes into account all the nutrients we need as the complex beings we are. Our food system is broad and complex, and the way we regulate it affects many different Government Departments. The way we talk about food is incredibly personal to the individual making food choices on a daily basis.

It is important that we as a Government do not stand here telling people what to eat but enable them to make healthy and sustainable choices. That is why it is important that we are having this debate today and looking at new forms of alternative protein that have not previously been available to us. The strategy identifies new opportunities to make the food system healthier, more sustainable, more resilient and more accessible to everybody throughout England.

I would like to give my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet the commitments about investment and regulation that he has asked for. On investment, the UK has been at the forefront of innovative protein development, and we will continue to financially support research and innovation in that area. Indeed, we are already doing so through our partnership with UK Research and Innovation, investing more than £130 million in research across the food system. We will continue to work with UKRI, industry and consumer groups to develop joint priority areas for funding, which will doubtless include alternative proteins.

On regulation, the Food Standards Agency is using the freedoms offered by Brexit to review our novel foods regulatory framework. Whenever anyone wants to put a new food on the market, they have to do so under the aegis of those regulations.

The food strategy commits the Government to developing dedicated guidance materials for those seeking approval for new protein products. A great deal of cross-Government work on alternative proteins is already taking place, with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs collaborating with the Food Standards Agency. The Cabinet Office is taking a very close interest in this issue, and cross-Government meetings are taking place with the Department for International Trade and the Department of Health and Social Care. A group is starting to form that will take forward the regulatory basis for alternative protein development, if that becomes sensible.

It all sounds very exciting, although it is fair to say, as my right hon. Friend did, that not everyone agrees on the extent of the predicted benefits of the development of alternative proteins. However, it is clear that cultured meat presents a number of fascinating and promising opportunities for the future, and that this innovative technology may well present real economic growth potential. Though some market predictions are perhaps over-optimistic, there is clearly a willingness among private investors to invest in this exciting new industry.

There are significant challenges, specifically around scaling up the new technologies to make them commercially viable and taking steps to address any concerns about consumer acceptance. Government officials from across Whitehall will continue to work together on this matter. I am not going to tell people what to eat, but I want our consumers to be presented with a wide range of clearly labelled options. Not starting from a conclusion is a very good attitude to take towards new forms of alternative protein.

I refer all Members to the Government’s food strategy, which we published on Monday. It sets out exciting new policy ideas and a determination to support our farmers and producers to help us with our food security. It sets a goal of national production, and it also includes the new and quite brave idea of a land use strategy, which I think will address some of my right hon. Friend’s concerns about where we build, where we grow, and where we let nature thrive without growing. The most important takeaway from the strategy is that the Government are committed to supporting farmers to produce the food we need for our national food security—an issue that has rightly gone to the very top of the political agenda.

There are also exciting points in the strategy about public procurement, including the fact that we now have a 50% goal for sourcing locally, and exciting announcements about innovation and technology, which will help to address the matters that were covered in the debate. It makes important points about sustainable farming—regenerative farming, which we will hear about in the nature-friendly farmers meeting that many of us will be attending—and makes it clear that farming, the environment and nature are not exclusive, but can and must go hand in hand. In helping our farmers to produce the food we all need, we have to make sure they do so in an environmentally sensitive way.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.