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Imports: Vegetables

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure a guaranteed supply of vegetables in the United Kingdom, in the light of restricted availability from Spain and other European countries.

My Lords, the UK has a highly resilient food industry with effective supply chains providing wide consumer choice. The diversity of food supply from domestic and international sources allows for alternative products to be used when required. Retailers work with suppliers to ensure optimum availability, sourcing from alternative places if availability is restricted from usual suppliers. There are also many other fresh vegetable products fully available from seasonal UK production and international sources.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but he will have seen the news reports of empty shelves in supermarkets, with the crisis expected to last until the spring. Meanwhile prices have trebled, in part because it costs more to fly vegetables from the USA and Egypt than to bring them overland from Spain. Given the public health implications, is the department confident that there are sufficient alternative sources of vegetables, particularly in schools and hospitals? Is the department monitoring the prices to ensure that profiteering is not taking place? Finally, what lessons can we learn for future trade negotiations about the comparative price advantages of importing foods from the EU compared with, for example, importing from the US?

My Lords, my officials have been discussing these matters with retailers and New Covent Garden, and the situation is improving. Climate conditions in Spain and the Mediterranean are enabling the situation to improve, and goods from other sources of supply, such as the Americas, are coming in. But this is a time when we should be reflecting on using our own wonderful nutritious British vegetables. In the last few years, food prices have fallen by 7.4%—I think that may deal with some of what the noble Baroness might have been implying.

My Lords, would not any rational man or woman think that to describe a shortage of lettuces in the supermarket as a crisis shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of the words in the English language?

My Lords, I was seeking to be courteous to the noble Baroness—but there is certainly no crisis. The only shortage will be of iceberg lettuce, which we think will last for a few months, and there is a wonderful variety called cos which is even better.

My Lords, half the vegetables we eat in this country are imported, including native crops such as cauliflowers and onions. Is it not time that the Government’s forthcoming Green Paper on food and farming tackled this decline in home-grown veg?

My Lords, I thoroughly endorse the wish we all have to produce more home-grown veg. That will precisely be at the heart of the forthcoming Green Paper. I was pleased only this morning to hear that cauliflowers from Cornwall are coming on to the market, so we again have a great opportunity to buy some British vegetables.

My Lords, I come from Worcestershire, where the Vale of Evesham was once known as the garden of England. When I was young, field after field was of smallholders growing vegetables. Since we joined the Common Market, they have been outpriced or undercut by imports from the continent. Vegetable growers do not get subsidies like farmers do. Will Her Majesty’s Government look at ways to bring back growing our own vegetables with some sort of support?

My Lords, the intention of the Green Paper, and all that will come through it, is that we want ideas about how we increase production of vegetables. I endorse that we have great nutritious vegetables in our midst, so please let us cook some.

I give huge thanks to the Leader of the House. Back in 2008, at the request of the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, I produced a report on how to make London’s food supplies more sustainable. Part of that was shortening supply chains. Would the Minister like me to forward a copy of my report for the Government’s use to contribute to the Green Paper?

I would like to see a copy. I am sure the paper endorses the importance of having lower food miles—which means food comes from this country.