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Food Supply: Sustainability

Volume 764: debated on Monday 14 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the sustainability of the United Kingdom’s food supply.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Our world-leading food and farming industry is worth £100 billion per year. The Government are developing a long-term plan which will boost productivity, enhancing business resilience across the food chain. Food security depends on access to diverse global markets and, of course, domestic production. Public procurement export plans which lead the way for Great British food producers, clearer labelling and investment in agricultural technologies will all contribute to a sustainable food supply.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Despite the flexibility given us by last week’s emergency EU summit, which related to early payments under the basic payment scheme, there is a real concern that the Rural Payments Agency will not be able to undertake the necessary checks in time to take advantage of that scheme. Bearing in mind that late autumn and early winter is always a drastic time for farmers’ cash flow, there is likely to be a huge problem in the coming year with the collapse in prices, particularly of milk but also of lamb and beef. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to ensure that farmers have access to financial assistance and relief, given that they will not get through the winter otherwise?

My Lords, I was at the emergency Agriculture Council last week and spoke on behalf of the United Kingdom. One of the things that we pressed was for the Commission to ensure that some of the checks required on CAP subsidy payments should be removed or changed for this year to enable prompt payment to be made so that there are immediate effects, but, of course, we have a longer-term plan as well.

My Lords, building a sustainable food chain requires thought at every stage of the process. Will the Minister explain what is being done in Defra to improve the transportation of the UK’s food supply? The Minister will be aware that 70% of our food chain is chilled at one stage or another, so it would be helpful to know whether we have sustainable cold chains which can be monitored for their impact on pollution.

My Lords, of course the department is looking at a range of ways of ensuring that we have a stable supply of food and we want to ensure that the environmental impact of our food supply is also addressed. That is why we have a 25-year plan for food and farming and, alongside that, and complementary to it, a 25-year environment plan.

My Lords, this century, our nation was almost starved to death. Today, the largest proportion of our food comes by sea. Seventy-three years ago today, half a convoy full of foodstuffs was decimated, and at that stage we had 800 escorts. When I joined the Navy we had over 100 escorts; today we have 19. Does the Minister not agree that all parties should agree that this nation needs more escorts for the Navy?

The noble Lord should be congratulated on weaving in his very strong support for the Navy and all that goes with it. It is important to know that 76% of indigenous-type foods come from the UK, as do 62% of all foods. Interestingly, that is by no means low in the context of the last 150 years, and in fact between the wars, the proportions were much lower. However, I am of course very keen on British production.

Does the noble Lord agree that if we are to have sustainable food production, we must ensure that our soils are in good heart? Can he say what he is doing to protect the soil and to improve its condition?

My Lords, new national standards for agricultural soils under cross-compliance were introduced only on 1 January this year. Clearly, it is essential, if we are to be even more productive, to ensure that our soil is in good heart and that we improve it wherever we can.

My Lords, my noble friend may be aware that, globally, up to one-third of all food produced is wasted. Here in the UK, the equivalent of £60 a month is wasted by individual households. Will my noble friend tell the House what the Government are doing to bring down these figures, both across the supply chain and among retailers and individual householders?

My Lords, this is a very serious issue, and the Government have been working successfully with industry under the Courtauld commitment to reduce food and packaging waste in the supply chain. It has been reduced by 7.4% since 2010, and clearly this is a continuing process. The amount of food we all waste is disgraceful.

I declare my interest as a farmer receiving EU funds. Sustainability could well be enhanced through local procurement along shorter supply chains. Does the Minister agree that this could increase the supply of fresh, healthy food, reduce farming’s carbon footprint, support UK agriculture and more closely connect the consumer to the producer? If this is the case, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to enhance the supply of local food?

My Lords, this very much goes to the heart of public procurement. Only last Monday, the Secretary of State announced that Defra is reviewing buying habits across the public sector and working across Whitehall to improve transparency when government catering contracts are due for renewal. Following the launch of Dr Peter Bonfield’s plan for public procurement, there is much more to be done on this.

My Lords, will my noble friend tell us what has actually gone wrong with the Rural Payments Agency system and what is being done to put it right?

My Lords, I know that my ministerial colleagues are working with the RPA on this. We are seeking to ensure that all payments are made promptly and we are working to that effect.

My Lords, I am so sorry to interrupt but if we are doing it in turns, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has done any studies of the effect on the strategies he describes of withdrawal from the European Union. If his department has done any, could he share them with the House? It is surely necessary that we should be in full possession of these facts.

My Lords, I have not been a party to those discussions but regarding the UK food supply, it is clearly essential that we are able to have diverse global markets. We are increasing our exports around the world, both in Europe and outside.