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UK Food Security

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2022–23, Food Security, HC 622, and the Government response, Session 2023–24, HC 37.]

I will call Sarah Dyke and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK food security.

It is an honour to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins, and to open this important debate. The most widely accepted definition of food security is when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. That definition is built on four pillars: supply, access, supply stability and nutritional value. Food resilience is a critical aspect of ensuring food security and sustainability in the UK, and it needs to be incorporated into our agrifood systems.

The UK may score well on supply, with the Government food strategy observing that we produce about 75% of what we consume, but that number hides a range of self-sufficiency levels and some of the future problems that we will encounter. For example, the UK produces only 53% of the vegetables and 16% of the fruits that we consume. That makes our fruit and veg supply vulnerable to outside factors, as seen when a shortage of tomatoes hit the UK last February. When we consider that we import most of our fruit and veg from southern Europe, a region that will be heavily impacted by climate change, it is essential that we focus on putting in place the necessary measures now.

Food security is paramount to our national security. It is crucial that we take a holistic view of our food supply chain.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Coincidentally, back home in Northern Ireland, Ulster University has just revealed that one in 10 UK adults live in households classified as marginally food insecure—10% are reported as living in households with moderate or severe food insecurity. She is right to bring this matter to Westminster Hall. Does she agree that more could be done in our schools, to extend free school dinners universally, to ease off on parents and, more so, to ensure all children have access to one healthy and nutritious meal each day?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I will come on to that later in my speech.

We must ensure sustainability in our food production, which encompasses the nutritional quality of food, its accessibility and the stability of supply. When we talk about the sustainability of food production, we must first look inwards at food being produced at home. British farming is facing a crisis. I hear daily from members of my own family, neighbours and friends about the challenges that they are facing, and their concerns and anxieties regarding their business.

For that reason, I feel honoured to work alongside organisations such as the Farm Safety Foundation, which campaigns to raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing farmers and farm workers. The immense pressure that the industry has faced over recent years is taking its toll financially, physically and mentally. Many farms across the country are on the precipice, with 110,000 farms having closed their farm gates since 1990. Many farmers do not know whether they will survive the next 12 months.

The Environmental Audit Committee has said that the food system globally and in the UK has become too driven by price alone. That race to the bottom for the cheapest food results in a squeeze on farmers’ incomes and results in the mental pressure the hon. Lady is talking about, as well as undermining food security. Does she agree that the Government must do more to ensure that UK trade policies support fair terms of trade for farmers here and abroad, rather than driving the import and export of cheap food?

That is my very next point—the hon. Lady makes a very good one.

Unfair supermarket buying practices are leaving family farms teetering on a cliff edge. The current groceries supply code of practice is inadequate and rarely enforced. Nearly 70% of British fruit and veg farmers agree that we need tougher regulations to address the imbalance of power. Although our food system is structurally resilient, it is functionally non-resilient and it is not sustainable in the long term.

British farmers are receiving incoherent messages from the Government. On the one hand, they are told to engage more on sustainable practices, which is welcome, but on the other hand, this Conservative Government sign irresponsible trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that undercut our farmers on welfare practices and food standards. Good food security needs a trade policy that protects British agriculture.

We also need proper scrutiny of our trade deals. Even the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), did not have a positive opinion of them, stating that the UK’s free trade deal with Australia was

“not actually a very good deal for the UK.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]

We need to support the production of sustainable food at home and allow parity in the market. We should allow the system to put more emphasis on localism to provide a food system that is resilient and delivers a vibrant, cyclical local economy. I represent a constituency in rural Somerset, where people live next to local food suppliers, but their food is not always available to buy locally, despite the wishes of those producing it.

Polling by the Sustain alliance states that 75% of farmers indicated that gaining access to alternative, local markets gave them opportunities to demand a more competitive price for their produce, while keeping revenue local to create local jobs, and incentivise further investment on their farms. The current market limits those opportunities, whether that be difficulties with planning applications, stopping the construction of farm shops, for example, or the restrictions with buyer contracts that prevent farmers from shortening the supply chain.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I agree entirely that if we are to protect the consumer, we also have an interest in supporting and protecting the long-term sustainability of our food producers. On the point of planning, one of the biggest challenges we face is that, although we welcome the ability of farmers to diversify with farm shops or support renewable energy production on their land to some extent, there is a lot of pressure from developers to develop prime agricultural land for housing. Does the hon. Lady agree that more could be done, at national and local level, to support prime agricultural land for the production of food, rather than for housing development?

I agree that there needs to be a balance between food production and housing supply. My view is that we need to ensure that housing is developed.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Further to the point that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made, many farmers in my constituency feel that, although rewilding is a fashionable concept, perhaps it goes a little too far, and we need to be more imaginative when deciding what can be rewilded and what should be kept and maintained in the same way, when not used for housing, for growing excellent British food.

I agree that we need to balance food production with ensuring we protect our precious environment. Farmers obviously have a key role to play in that.

Before my hon. Friend leaves this topic, I think this comes to the heart of the matter. One of the biggest barriers, particularly for red meat producers, to putting produce into a local supply chain is the inability to get it slaughtered close to the point of production. Does my hon. Friend agree that ending the ever-increasing move towards larger, centralised abattoirs would allow a regrowth of smaller abattoirs closer to the point of production, which is better for animal welfare, carbon emissions and, ultimately, for producers being able to access that much more diverse range of markets?

Fine Shetland sheep, indeed. I do understand the challenges of accessing a local abattoir, not only a local one but one able to help with the services that small producers require. I will cover that in a minute, but I would like to make some progress.

I want to see changes in the public procurement system that provides schools, such as King Arthur’s School in Wincanton or Ansford Academy in Castle Cary, Frome College or Huish Episcopi Academy with the flexibility to source local produce, whether that be food or drink, and ensure that local provenance. Many schools do not have the flexibility to do that. That particularly resonates with regard to the 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals as their households are in receipt of universal credit and have in excess of a £7,400 post-tax income.

Building awareness among children of where their food comes from now can sow the seeds of good food habits for life. The Liberal Democrats believe it is crucial that we extend free school meals to all children in primary education and all secondary school children whose families receive universal credit, but there is a threat to that. There has been a 12% increase in the number of large-scale industrial farms in the UK from 2016 to 2023. The intensive nature of those farms means that accessibility to local food and drink is likely to be diminished. Environmental standards will decline and the custodians of our countryside—the small family farm—will disappear.

I am sorry to interrupt and am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in her excellent speech. Does she agree that one of the threats to the family farm is the fact that we have a range of new schemes being put out by the Government, many of which are commendable in themselves under the environmental land management schemes heading but which fail to protect tenant farmers? Baroness Rock’s review includes 70 excellent recommendations, including that of a tenant farmer commissioner, which should be put in place to protect tenant farmers before many of them are kicked off their land by landlords exploiting new schemes. Is that not just morally wrong but extremely stupid because it reduces our ability to feed ourselves as a country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which I wholeheartedly support.

It is critical for long-term UK food security that we employ sustainable agricultural practices, which focus on appropriate food production that helps protect the environment, conserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring an adequate and reliable food supply to meet the demands of the population. The Government’s food strategy was described as “a waste of trees” by Professor Tim Lang. The Government should now not baulk at producing a robust land use strategy, which has been promised for more than a year but has yet to be seen. Can the Minister provide an update on that this morning? The Liberal Democrats will develop a comprehensive national land strategy, including a horticulture strategy to encourage the growth of the horticulture sector and effectively manage the competing demands on land.

I thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its recent report on insect decline and food security, which raised an important issue. The loss of biodiversity and pollinators will have a heavy impact on our ability to grow food in future. Around 40% of all insects are at risk of extinction. They are an integral part of our ecosystem and without them, we simply would not survive. Dung beetles, for example, fertilise and aerate soils, helping to maintain pasture that livestock is fed on. Indeed, it is estimated that dung beetles may save the UK cattle industry a whopping £367 million a year through the provision of ecosystem services.

One of the many things for which Somerset is famous is our cider. Pollinators are crucial to apple production, yet we have already witnessed their decline. Buglife’s South West Bees Project report in 2013 focused on 23 bee species considered most at risk in the south-west. Twelve of the target species are found in Somerset. Sadly, however, six target species have already been lost.

The national pollinator strategy is due for renewal this year, and the Government must take the opportunity to redress our biodiversity losses. However, I do not have confidence that they will do so, because this is the fourth year in a row that the Government have authorised the emergency use of neonic pesticides, despite knowing the harmful effects on our wildlife. The Liberal Democrats oppose the use of these damaging pesticides and recognise how important it is to protect our wild pollinators, to stop further damage to our biodiversity and to protect UK food security in the long term.

That point brings me on to UK household food security. A resilient food system can help to stabilise food prices and minimise market volatility. According to the Food Foundation, the poorest 20% of households would need to spend half of their disposable income on food in order to afford the NHS’s recommended healthy diet. That is clearly impossible for those people.

Food-related ill health is a growing issue in our society. Unless we take action to improve our food system, it is estimated that 40% of British adults will have obesity issues by 2035. That would mean increased costs, not just for our NHS but for our economy as a whole, given that we already have 3 million people out of work due to long-term sickness. We must therefore stem the tide of junk food, unhealthy food and processed food that is currently flooding our supermarkets, our screens and our high streets. Instead, we must actively work to promote locally grown whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. That is best for our health, for our economy and for our planet, but also for our farmers, who want to sell their produce to local people. That is how we can create a thriving food culture of which we can all be proud.

Household food security can be a particularly prevalent issue in rural areas such as my constituency. Rural communities are less likely than urban areas to have a glut of supermarket choices. They are therefore more reliant on smaller local supermarket stores. Research by Which? has found that those stores almost never stock essential budget-line items, which may result in higher food costs and household food insecurity. The major unfairness is that these communities are often side by side with those that are growing food.

As I have pointed out, farmers want to sell their food to local residents, but the food system prevents that. We must act now to make that a reality, as we will soon face a time when climate change disrupts our system with increasing regularity. If we are not prepared and ready to adapt, our farmers will suffer, and as consumers we will all suffer. By taking a holistic view of UK food security, we can ensure that we have a sustainable future that supports British farmers, supports our environment and biodiversity, and supports the growth of a healthy nation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) for securing today’s incredibly important debate. It has also been a pleasure to hear the interventions from right hon. and hon. Members.

UK food security is vital to our national security. Strengthening it by supporting our farmers and food producers is a top priority for this Government. Our high degree of food security is built on the supply of food from diverse sources—from domestic production as well as from imports through stable trade routes.

We produce 63% of all the food we need, and 73% of the food that we can grow or rear in the UK for all or part of the year. Those figures have changed little over the past 20 years. UK consumers have access through international trade to food products that we cannot produce here, or at least not on an all-year-round basis. This supplements domestic production and ensures that any disruption from risks such as adverse weather or disease do not affect the UK’s overall security of food supply.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has well-established ways of working with the industry and across Government to monitor risks that may arise. The key forum is the F4, which is chaired by a DEFRA Minister and comprises the National Farmers Union, the Food & Drink Federation, the British Retail Consortium and UKHospitality; it covers the interests of the sector from farm to fork. This extensive, regular and ongoing engagement helps the Department to quickly prepare for and respond to issues that have the potential to cause disruption to food supply chains.

We also continue monitoring of the market through the UK agriculture market monitoring group, which monitors price, supply, inputs, trade and recent developments. We have also broadened our engagement with the industry to supplement our analysis with real-time intelligence as required. Domestically, the Government have committed to maintaining, if not enhancing, the level of food that we currently produce. That includes sustainably boosting production in sectors in which there are post-Brexit opportunities.

Food production and environmental improvement can and must go hand in hand. We are already seeing the benefits of our environmental schemes, which are supporting food production domestically and are delivering environmental benefits. For instance, actions through the sustainable farming incentive support the creation of flower-rich buffers that help pollinators, which in turn help to produce a better yields. Our soil management actions ensure that farmers are supported in the foundations of food security, such as the health and the resilience of soil.

The Agriculture Act 2020 imposes the following duty:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

We are seeing that through the roll-out of the environmental land management schemes.

Farmers in my constituency have made the point that when a carbon capture audit is done of a farm, the value of grassland in holding and storing carbon is underestimated. That should be looked at again in the overall audit of these farms, which could help in turn to support the growth of excellent beef on our farms.

Having been involved in the agriculture sector for my whole life before entering this place, I know just how important pasture and grassland are to carbon sequestration. When we are rolling out environmental land management schemes, it is important that the benefits of pasture land through carbon sequestration are taken into account. That is why the reforms that we have introduced, through coming out of the common agricultural policy, are so important to supporting a highly productive sector that is environmentally sustainable.

In addition to the sustainable farming incentive, the farming investment fund and the farm productivity innovation funding will further improve farm productivity. Our schemes will ensure our long-term food security by investing in the foundations of food production, such as healthy soil, water and biodiverse ecosystems. Backing our farmers is so important, which is why the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary announced a range of measures at the National Farmers Union conference to boost productivity and resilience in the sector, including the largest ever grant offer for farmers in the coming financial year, which is expected to total £227 million.

The Minister mentions the rolling out of the grant offer, which can be very valuable to many farmers. Is he aware that tenants cannot make those grant applications themselves? Does he agree with his noble Friend Baroness Rock that tenants and landlords should be able to make joint applications for capital grants so that our farmers can thrive and our tenants can remain on the land?

Baroness Rock’s review produced a fantastic report with many excellent recommendations. My DEFRA colleagues and I are in close interaction with Baroness Rock and are working our way through her many recommendations. If we are rolling out schemes, it is vital that any innovation or productivity grants, along with any sustainable farming incentive schemes or others that fall under the environmental land management schemes, are available to all applicants to ensure that we can get the best out of the land that they farm.

Building on the recommendations made, the £427 million of funding for measures announced at the National Farmers Union conference doubles the investment going into productivity schemes, growing the grant offer from £91 million last year to £220 million this year. We have already awarded £120 million in grant funding to farmers through the farming investment fund and have committed £120 million to 185 projects as part of the farming innovation programme. The Government will also provide £15 million in funding to stop millions of tonnes of good, fresh farm food going to waste, by redirecting that surplus into the hands of those who need it. Together, these funds will support innovation and productivity and will improve animal health and the environment.

We will continue to work across Government to ensure that we carry out the commitments made in the UK food strategy and at the farm-to-fork summit in respect of the national planning policy framework. We want to ensure that this fully reflects our shared food security and climate and environment ambitions. The national planning policy framework sets out clearly that local planning authorities should consider all the benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land when making plans or taking decisions on new development proposals. This point builds on the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Where significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, planning authorities should use poorer-quality land in preference to a higher quality.

Food supply is one of the UK’s 13 critical national infrastructure sectors. DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency are joint lead Government Departments, with DEFRA leading on supply and the FSA on food safety. We work closely with the Cabinet Office and other Departments to ensure that food supply is fully incorporated as part of emergency preparedness, including consideration of dependencies on other sectors.

In the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government made a commitment to produce an assessment of our food security at least once every three years. The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, and the next food security report will be published in December 2024. To ensure our continued food security, the Prime Minister has also announced that a food security index will be published annually—that has been welcomed by the sector—and will complement the three-yearly UK food security report. We are currently developing the content of the index, but we expect the index to present the key data and analysis needed to monitor how we are maintaining overall food security. Productivity, resilience and environmental sustainability are incredibly important to domestic food production and are a key element of our food security.

At the National Farmers Union conference, the Prime Minister also made an announcement about ensuring that we are giving internal drainage boards more support. We know how important lowland farmland is for producing food, which is why the £75 million of funding announced by the Government during the spring Budget and earlier at the NFU conference is so important to ensure that we can give our internal drainage boards the support that they need to mitigate flooding downstream as well as possible.

On health and wellbeing, I want to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made about the Farm Safety Foundation. I know that James Chapman, the chair of the trustees, is doing an excellent job; he has been involved in the organisation since 2014, I believe. I wish him and his team well with the Farm Safety Foundation, as I know just how important that organisation is to improving not only farm safety, but the general health and wellbeing of our farming community.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the land use framework. I reassure her that the Secretary of State wants to ensure that food productivity is at the heart of the land use framework, which is why we are scrutinising it before it is released. Not only does it have to cover energy security, biodiversity offsetting, net zero and other measures, but we want to ensure that food security is at the heart of it before it is released. Our food security is strong, but we are not taking it for granted; we will continue to work across the supply chain to maintain and enhance it.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I assure them that the Government consider food security to be incredibly important and will keep it as a top priority for the DEFRA ministerial team.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.