Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider food supply and security in the United Kingdom in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
Good afternoon, my Lords. The Virtual Proceedings on the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will now commence. The debate is time- limited to three hours.
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to introduce this debate today, which is timely and important. I especially thank my noble friends on the Cross Benches for choosing this debate out of so many excellent suggestions.
Warren Buffett once said, “When the tide goes out, you can see who’s swimming naked.” Covid-19 has revealed, once and for all, that our food system is no longer fit for purpose. True, it delivers cheap food, but it does so at a huge cost: to the environment, our health and our food security. Environmentally, the impacts are becoming alarmingly clear. Agriculture currently accounts for one-fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Extensive pesticide use is devastating insect populations, fertiliser run-off is polluting our waterways, our soils are depleted, and monocultural production is damaging biodiversity. Our imported food also has impacts globally: agriculture is responsible for about 80% of deforestation worldwide, which reduces our ability to tackle climate change.
At the same time, human health suffers. In the UK, over half of adults are overweight and obese, 5% have diabetes and one-third of five year-olds have terrible tooth decay. An abundance of cheap food masks the fact that healthy foods are three times more expensive per calorie than unhealthy ones. Households in the bottom 10% of income would need to spend 74% of their household income to meet the Government’s own recommendations in the Eatwell Guide plate. This is not the Ritz; it is a very basic diet.
Finally, we have seen that our food security is at great risk. The system which delivers food to UK shelves is really complicated and much more vulnerable than we generally acknowledge. Our retailers rely on complicated global supply chains to deliver food to our supermarket shelves in a “just-in-time” process, leaving them with minimal stocks as a buffer against any shocks. We have simultaneously allowed our domestic food production to languish, particularly for perishable items such as fruit and vegetables—only 16% of fruit and 53% of vegetables are grown in the UK—which provides retailers and, of course, us with less assurance of stable supplies when trade barriers begin to be a concern. The worldwide food price crisis of 2007-08, which we all remember, showed us how easily a serious price crisis can emerge when the nations that dominate production of major global crops impose trade restrictions. It is extraordinary, but for both wheat and rice just five producing nations account for more than 75% of global exports.
Our recent experiences during Covid-19 show starkly what can happen when the system starts to creak. First, the poor health of our nation, and in particular the high levels of diabetes and hypertension—conditions that are absolutely linked with poor diets—have put many of our citizens at risk of Covid-19-related complications. In the USA, 48% of those who have been hospitalised for Covid-19 are obese; the evidence of the links between Covid-19 and obesity is rapidly emerging and can no longer be washed away.
In addition, all of us have experienced, for the first time in most of our lives, the slight alarm and panic that comes from seeing an empty shelf. I suspect that for most of us who are listening and for all of us in the House of Lords, this has been not much more than an inconvenience. We can rustle in the back of our store cupboards and use up long-forgotten tins and jars. But, quite frankly, panic buying is a luxury only for people who can afford it.
For many others, the pandemic has resulted in awful hardship. The Food Foundation—on which I am lucky enough to sit as a trustee—has produced recent figures that suggest that 8 million adults and 2 million children have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. Many households in this country were struggling to afford food even before the pandemic, but the recent widespread job losses have vastly increased these numbers. Attendance at food banks is soaring: up 81% in Trussell Trust food banks and 59% in food banks that are part of the Independent Food Aid Network. If food prices rise in the medium term—and there are lots of reasons to believe that they will—the position of these households will become even more fragile.
Farmers in the UK are struggling without access to migrant workers. Farmers here and in southern Europe, where so much of our fresh produce is sourced, are already delaying and reducing spring plantings due to the unpredictability. As we approach the British picking season for soft fruit, salad and many other vegetables, the labour shortage will almost inevitably have an impact on food prices, especially on the price of those healthy foods that people so much need. Twenty countries have already introduced export bans and restrictions since the start of the pandemic. If these become more extensive, the prices for imported staples and perishables could also start to rise.
In the light of all these problems, we have a real need for government leadership and coherent food policy. It is more important than ever. Though I applaud the Government for the efforts they made to provide those who are shielding with food, much of that food has been, frankly, really unhealthy. I think we have all seen images of donuts being delivered to care homes and the like. They have also made attempts to replace free school meals with monetary vouchers but, as I think many noble Lords will know, the French system that was brought in, Edenred, has had a catastrophic technical failure and a lot of people have been unable to access their vouchers.
There has been good financial protection during the coronavirus pandemic through the job retention scheme and a bit of an uplift to universal credit, but in other respects the response has not been adequate. At such times, we need and expect leadership, effective co-ordination and clear, decisive action. Instead, the Government have made food supply issues the responsibility of the supermarkets—“business as usual”—and food insecurity the business of charities. Support for food producers has been almost completely absent.
The closure of vast swathes of the food service sector has exacerbated the strains on the food system, making it inevitable that consumers would buy more food from retailers—30% of calories are usually eaten outside the home. This has led to things such as the milk surplus, because certain food cannot be diverted at the right time. We needed a massive effort to re-engineer existing food supply chains, but, unfortunately, the retail sector has been gifted an extra £2 billion in sales versus this time last year. That is a staggering amount of profit. An opportunity was missed to make creative use of existing catering and restaurant businesses. Small local cafes and farm shops could have been kept in business, supplying food to the vulnerable. Instead, the Government fell back on engaging almost exclusively with the big supermarkets on food supply issues, which has, in effect, concentrated more power in their hands—although I must say that they have done a pretty good job.
Similarly, the Government have relied on charitable food aid to plug the gaps in their inadequate response to the problem of food insecurity. The frankly heroic efforts of these organisations ought to be applauded every night, but the scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and there is just not enough food or volunteer capacity to feed all vulnerable people through local authority and charitable means.
Suffering from cuts to welfare assistance, in a lot of cases local authorities are able only to send someone to the local food bank. Some local authorities—Bristol, for instance—which had existing strong food partnerships in place before the crisis have been able to scale this up, but, at the moment, people’s experience of support from the state is dictated by their postcode. We must have a national assessment of need and a nationally co-ordinated, ambitious, money-first approach to deal with the ballooning food insecurity problem.
Alongside this, our food producers have been neglected, instead of recognised and supported as the essential sector they are. Our farmers need support and investment to tide them through this period of uncertainty. In the longer term, I hope the Government will recognise the important role that small producers can play in boosting our resilience and seek to deliver for them a more equal playing field.
During this crisis, the smallest of our producers have turned out to be the most flexible and quick on the ground. Some veg box schemes have more than doubled the number of boxes that they distribute, and most now have really long waiting lists for new customers. Horticultural producers have received decades of under- investment compared with other farming sectors. For the record, subsidies make up just 10% of their average farm income, compared with 79% for farmers in the cereals business. Quite modest ongoing government support could transform all these local networks, providing much healthier food and a really good, resilient network.
We need to recognise the underlying flaws in our food system that this episode has revealed. We must build back better, creating more resilient, healthier and fairer food systems for our future. Instead of washing their hands and passing the buck back to supermarkets, charities and farmers, we desperately need the Government to show leadership. We are facing an unprecedented moment, one full of risk but also full of opportunity. We must make our food system resilient to economic shocks and environmental and climate risks. It must be less dependent on last-minute deliveries of vital perishable goods from overseas. We must diversify food retail options to create more vibrant local food economies.
We must prioritise our nation’s health. Food and health campaigners have long known of the terrible effects of bad nutrition—there is nothing new about this—but Covid has brought it into stark relief. I find it astonishing that we still measure our global success in a health sense by just the number of years lived, and that life expectancy seems to be a goal above quality of life and health. People are literally dying—quickly this time, rather than slowly—because they eat bad food. This is a chance to start to change that. We must not go back to the good old bad old days of “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” processed food. We must stop spending 98.5% of all the food advertising budget on processed food. We have to step in and intervene. We have literally proved that our lives, and the quality of our lives, depend on it.
Government should give businesses that promote healthy eating a real head start, rebuild our nation’s horticulture sector and put in place much more robust economic safety nets, so that everyone can afford a diet that protects their health. A recent poll by the RSA suggests that only 9% of people want to go back to normal after the pandemic. The British public are showing a big appetite for change. We should use this opportunity to start fixing what has been shown to be broken.
My Lords, I will focus on horticulture, a vital part of our country’s food production. I am in Sandy, Bedfordshire: the heart of horticulture. Our horticultural show is 150 years old.
Two aspects arise from Covid-19, on top of Brexit. The first challenge is that the workforce is seasonal, with 70,000, or thereabouts, needed every year. Thankfully, the Government have produced a short-term scheme for 2020, but this industry needs a long-term scheme and to know that these workers—who are absolutely vital to the success of horticulture—will be able to come through our immigration scheme. The immigration policy has to reflect this. I thank the Government for the temporary situation, but the industry needs some future help and to know what is happening.
The second issue is that horticulture needs energy to heat glass-houses. Some 30 years ago, we lost out when the Dutch found cheap oil and gas from the North Sea. Energy costs are therefore a key element. We will never revive the glass-house industry as long as it has to pay the current market prices. As I look around Bedfordshire, I see that its glass-houses that once prospered are in disrepair.
Those are the two issues. To ensure our food production, we need 70,000-plus seasonal workers, and a highly competitive energy supply for the glass-house industry to succeed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for introducing this debate and I declare my interest as someone running a dairy farm business which includes a farmers’ co-operative and a farm shop. Ever since food from our own resources, the answer has not resulted in more self-sufficiency or a greater food supply being needed. Can this pandemic be different and the food supply be re-engineered? While recognising the huge inequalities that have resulted in more food banks, the supply resilience of food has not been a problem in our rich western democracy. However, we must not overlook the increasing problems of food poverty in modern Britain. Shorter local food chains are needed.
The pandemic led to an immediate shutdown of the food service sector. Some 50% of food is consumed outside the home, and the supply chains of supermarkets and the retail sector displayed great resilience after the initial disruption of the switch. Online demand and supply increased rapidly, but underlying food issues remain. In the short term, the Groceries Supply Code of Practice and the adjudicator have embedded food supply governance in the reputational risk management of the retail supply chain. As in health, where the contrast has been between the NHS and the care sector, retail contrasts with the multifaceted disparities in food service, where bad behaviour has pushed supply chain risk down into the farming sector. How will food chain service behaviour be made to respond, become Covid 19 -compliant and adapt to social distancing?
The overriding answer lies in food nutrition. The health of a nation is determined by the quality of the food it eats; the answer does not lie in even more poor-quality food becoming ever cheaper. Nor is it to do with exports. The emphasis must be on increasing food quality standards, as displayed yesterday in Labour’s amendment to the Agriculture Bill. Can people become obese through eating only highly nutritious food? Where is the Government’s food policy document? Another problem relates to competition law. If this law has had to be put aside during this crisis, is it really fit for purpose?
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for introducing the debate. My admirable Lib Dem colleagues will cover the whole breadth of the topic. The broader issue in one part of the UK which is perhaps greater than any other is the fact that two-thirds of total Northern Ireland imports and exports are in bilateral agri-food and intermediate trade, so the pressure of the Covid-19 impacts are major. However, added to what the Government propose from January 2021, it should make us pause. For the first time in our nation’s history, United Kingdom businesses in Northern Ireland will operate under foreign laws, regulations and standards set by a body that we are not a member of and over which they have no say. Also for the first time in our history, one UK business buying from or selling to another UK business will have to do so through a customs border control post, with foreign tariffs applied as a default and checks decided by the EU being carried out. Animals and animal products going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain will be treated as if they have come from a foreign country.
We found this out through details in letters going to Brussels which have been disclosed to the Northern Ireland Assembly, not through information given to us here. Last November, Boris Johnson said that of course there will never be checks. That was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, during consideration last year of the Trade Bill, and the fact that that was still the position was repeated to me directly on two occasions by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan. Moreover, in a feat of redefining the words “unfettered access”, the noble Lord, Lord True, said in a rather sleekit way in the same paragraph during a debate last Tuesday that there would be “administrative measures”, while today the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said, without a hint of a blush, “There were always going to be checks.”
My question to the Minister, who is an honourable man, is this. When will we see the legislative proposals for these new checks and the burdensome procedures at the new customs and regulatory border within the UK, so that we can scrutinise them fully and give them proper accountability, which so far these proposals have lacked?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Boycott on her persistent pursuit of this important issue, including obtaining this debate, which she introduced so comprehensively. I declare an interest as president of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, whose main interest is healthy nutrition.
Currently, farmers rely on 70,000 seasonal workers, mostly from eastern Europe, to pick vegetables and fruit in particular. The Countryside Alliance, which I thank for its excellent briefing, draws attention to farmers’ lack of certainty in both the 2018 White Paper on immigration and the current pilot scheme, which runs out at the end of 2020. Vegetable and fruit farmers say that they cannot meet the demand without these foreign workers. In response to my noble friend’s Oral Question on 30 April, the Minister said that the Government were “mobilising a British workforce”, which they have palpably been unable to do thus far. I have one suggestion, based on the pioneering work of last year’s High Sheriff of Suffolk, George Vestey: have the Government considered using prisoners on day release, or making use of the numbers on probation requiring unpaid work in the community?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for this debate and I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. It is often said that the primary duty of government is the defence of the realm: equally important is the need to feed the population. When a crisis hits, we can survive for a considerable time without importing computers and machinery, but without food we last only a few weeks. Fortunately, during this pandemic the food chain has held up relatively well, although a number of shortages in the early days of the lockdown acted as a salutary warning. Within days of the lock- down, many of our churches here in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire had set up food banks or parish pantries, not just in poorer areas such as Stevenage or Farley Hill, but in wealthier villages such as Flamstead and Ponsbourne.
Farming is different from other industries, because you cannot keep land in reserve and bring it back into production at the flick of a switch; you cannot keep milking cows in storage to bring out when there is a shortage. Our farmers are some of the best in the world and need our support, not just for their own livelihoods but because they provide an essential public service—that is why we need to help them get the workers they need to bring the harvest in. Will the Minister support the idea that we should dedicate one of our Thursday evenings to outdoor applause for British farmers and food producers? Will he commit Her Majesty’s Government to increasing the level of food security in Britain, both now and to protect us in the future?
I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate. All parts of the economy have been hit hard during this Covid crisis, with customers not spending in cafes and restaurants, resulting in a dramatic loss of income almost equal to the spend on food and drink through our retail stores. We have seen the demise of our dairy processing capacity during the pandemic, with 2 million litres of milk produced per day which would have gone to the food-service market. Spikes and drops are difficult to manage, with risks being passed down to farmers and growers. Taps cannot just be turned off and on. With a total UK grain crop of about 24 million, the collapse of maize demand from the ethanol market risks a deluge of feed grain on the world market in a prolonged price depression. Living in Lincolnshire, a very diverse county, labelled “the breadbasket of the UK”, growing Maris Piper and Cara potatoes to supply our chips and crisps sector, we have been hit very hard. The south of the county has one of the largest horticultural sectors, so I am pleased that restrictions have now been eased.
We must learn from Covid-19 regarding our approach to the domestic agricultural policy and international trade policy post Brexit. A focus on food security and food resilience during this epidemic is, and must be, financially supported. We must see the gradual phasing out of CAP direct payments and move to a welcome system that: rewards farmers and growers; increases farm productivity while delivering fairness along the food supply chain; includes a duty to support our environment; instils confidence for the long term; and builds capacity to increase our export markets. Post Covid, to see UK agriculture operate again in an increasingly global market, agriculture must not be left behind.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Oh, her sound quality is so poor that we will move on to the next speaker and come back to her later. We are having great difficult hearing—apologies. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Janke.
My Lords, the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus highlights weaknesses in the food system and will exacerbate issues relating to food poverty and diet-related ill health, particularly for those in the lowest income groups. The Food Foundation described this as a “crisis on a crisis”. In Britain, too many people already struggle to afford sufficient nourishing food. Citizens report skipping meals, going without so that their children can eat, reducing portion sizes and cutting back on the quality of the food that they buy.
Household food insecurity has been widely documented and measured by civil society and government for some time. Many food-insecure households resort to using food banks. Last year, an estimated 3 million food parcels were sent out by the Trussell Trust and independent food banks, but these amount to only a small proportion of those who struggle to afford and access adequate diets. According to the Trussell Trust, the main reasons for food poverty and insecurity are:
“Income not covering the cost of essentials … Benefit Delays … Benefit Changes”.
The evidence of the long-term effects of poor diet on health is well documented.
The worst levels of food poverty and hunger are symptomatic of the wider problem of poverty. Food poverty and insecurity will be addressed only by tackling the root causes of poverty. The current crisis has shone a light on the holes in the social safety net. Many families and individuals have suddenly found themselves with zero income. Children are not receiving free school meals. The five-week wait for universal credit, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the automatic sanctions all hit the poorest the hardest.
Going forward, there must be a review of social insurance systems and the scandal of in-work poverty. We must ensure that people earn enough and that we have a system of social insurance to give realistic support in times of hardship, so that all our citizens live healthy and sustainable lives.
My Lords, I will concentrate my brief comments on the long-term impacts of the pandemic on UK food security. Harper Adams University and POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, of which I am a member, have produced well-researched papers on the subject.
If the UK food system is to be resilient and sustainable, it needs that planning now. In times of uncertainty, data, analysis and expertise become important in decision-making. Now is the time to start collecting data related to factors affecting food supply disruption, costs and changing consumer choices, et cetera. Who in the Government is doing this now? It is also time for researchers, agribusiness and farmers to work together to understand better how food supply chains can be made shorter, more resilient and sustainable. How are the Government helping to do this?
There are many other areas where attention is needed, such as the technologies needed to produce food; identifying foods that could be produced closer to home, and products where holding big inventories makes sense; and areas where the diversification of the supply chain is beneficial. The pandemic has disrupted the UK food supply system. It has also created an opportunity to build a more resilient and sustainable system, through better policymaking and regulations which promote co-ordinated action. In this context, does the Minister think that an independent body for food, rather like the Committee on Climate Change, to help drive the Government’s policy on sustainable food could be a way forward? If he does not, can he tell the House how else the Government intend to do this?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on her tour de force in introducing this debate. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, on his forensic analysis of the situation that will exist between Northern Ireland and Great Britain following the transition period.
In a recent Parliamentary Answer to me, the Government said that they had no plans to introduce any import substitution units to secure our businesses in the post-EU position. Can the Minister say why they will not do that? Given the lessons that we are learning from Covid-19, surely the supply of goods—food in particular—has been shown to have significant vulnerabilities. I hope that he and the Government will not rely simply on hiding behind the forthcoming report from Henry Dimbleby on the national food strategy. It is perfectly clear that these matters relating to the environment of food security require a national response across Whitehall, not focused on one single department.
Will the Minister address why the Government will not consider introducing an import substitution unit so that we can guarantee food security in the future and have wider benefits for business generally? We have heard from noble Lords about horticulture and related businesses. Why can we not do better? We have to have greater ambition, and surely we must learn the lessons of the current crisis not only to secure the food supply but to deal with the health and environmental issues that arise.
My Lords, the House will probably be aware of my horticultural and agricultural interests in the register, which I declare. I am fortunate to live at the heart of my family business; the last eight weeks have been an opportunity to reconnect with my roots after a long spell of time spent in government and the House. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for leading this debate and I hope that she enjoyed a very happy birthday yesterday. Of course, yesterday was also a birthday for gardening and horticulture with the reopening of garden centres. I thank my noble friend the Minister for all he did to make that happen. We are very lucky to have his commitment to farming and the countryside.
Growing is about excellence. If we have learned anything from Covid-19 and the importance of food security, it is that we should back farmers and growers to regenerate our industry. As with medicine, we have excellent science in ag and hort—NIAB, Kew, John Innes, Rothamsted—and there really is no conflict between efficient farming and the environment. The only flowers now blooming in our daffodil fields are specially drilled field margins for bird life and pollinators. In the Lincolnshire silt lands, we have the most intensive agricultural production in the country, but you will also find trees, hedges, spinneys and owl boxes, which were not there a generation ago. Good can come out of this terrible time and the Agriculture Bill—likely to shortly come before us—gives us a real opportunity, post Brexit, to release this huge economic potential and build a prosperous industry for the future.
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, both for this debate and for her campaigning work on food poverty and food insecurity.
I will raise two issues where I think the Government need to rethink their policy. The first is immigration, which has been mentioned. As well as maximising the job opportunities for our own citizens, we need a much more flexible immigration policy, particularly for the agricultural and food industries, where a range of skills is needed, from fruit picking to specialised vets. Our rigid approach ignores many of the real needs of our economy. Indeed, last night on the BBC news we saw the case of a hospital cleaner, currently doing absolutely vital work but facing an unaffordable bill for her visa extension. This is crazy. We need more flexibility and humanity in our immigration policy.
Secondly, we need to rethink our trade policy. We seem to be prioritising trade deals far beyond Europe but, for agriculture and the food industry, EU trade is vital. In the post-Covid world, and to meet environmental goals, we need to trade more, not less, with our nearest neighbours.
We have to get those important EU trade negotiations right for our economy’s sake, and because of the complications for Northern Ireland that we have heard about. The Government seems to have ruled out any alteration to the timetable, whatever the circumstances. I put it to the Minister that we have been plagued by unrealistic declamatory self-imposed deadlines for political reasons rather than economic or common-sense considerations. Can we please, from now on, make decisions based on what is best for our economic recovery, not on political dogma?
My Lords, I was privileged to be a member of the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee when it produced Brexit-related reports on agriculture, and on food prices and availability. The two key vulnerabilities in our food system that the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare were highlighted in those reports: first, the UK’s dependency on the rest of the world, given than half our food is imported; and secondly, the gaping labour gap left by EU workers who do so much of the heavy lifting in all aspects of food manufacturing, in both skills and stamina. Can the Minister say what progress has been made by the Feed the Nation campaign to fill the 80,000 vacancies for this harvest season?
The British Veterinary Association states that 95% of official veterinarians working in abattoirs come mainly from the EU. These OVs are essential to ensuring compliance with food standards and regulations, as well as upholding levels of animal welfare. A reduction in their numbers will seriously compromise the FSA’s ability to sustain a sufficient service. How has the food safety inspections regime been coping with reduced personnel, the difficulty of maintaining social distancing measures in food production settings, and a shortage of PPE? Essentially, is enough being done to safeguard the public against the risk of food-borne disease? Lastly, what advice have scientists given about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 jumping the species barrier from humans back to the animal kingdom—to, say, chickens?
My Lords, Covid-19 has shown the importance of having a resilient food industry. It is obvious that our food security needs to be under constant review. We do not need dodgy imports that undercut our own agriculture, and, as we move away from the cosy security of the CAP, we must ensure that our own high-quality domestic agriculture remains the foundation of our nation’s food security policy.
For instance, we need to train farmers and encourage the higher production of pulses and vegetables from our own resources. We must ensure that all government institutions buy local, as in France, and with the people’s new love of their local countryside, we must encourage them also to buy the food whose production creates that countryside—we must teach them to eat the view.
That brings me to my main point. In looking at agriculture, we must step back. We must never look at our food production in isolation or in a food silo. It is rural resilience that we seek. Our countryside provides many benefits: landscape, biodiversity, energy, timber, health, spiritual health and, of course, food. We must encourage the best management of our countryside to produce all those benefits.
It is currently hard for a family farm to survive on food production alone, so, particularly in remote parts of Britain, we must help them diversify. Also, we must help the farming household to find cash wages from jobs off the farm to ensure the survival of the farm itself.
The importance of the wider rural economy to the resilience of family farms and all they produce, including food, cannot be overestimated. The further you go from urban centres, the more and more that rings true.
My Lords, I will touch on the people involved in food supply, on the technology associated with it and, briefly, on the super- markets’ protected delivery list
First, I thank all those involved in food supply in this country, not least those on the front line in our supermarkets. They deserve our enduring gratitude. I take my hat off to Marks & Spencer, which has offered 15% bonuses to its staff in those situations. Is the Minister assured that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure the safety and protection of all our workers in these situations? Have the workers had access to testing, as promised? How many working in our food supply chains have taken up the option to be tested?
Turning to technology, Covid has clearly demonstrated that our supply chains have failed the challenge. Does the Minister agree that we need much more resilience in our supply chains and that that can be provided through new technologies, not least distributed ledger technologies, the internet of things and other elements of the fourth industrial revolution? Is he aware of the proof of concept project by Chainvine, which clearly demonstrates this and which HMRC, other parts of our government and the Australian Government have been involved in? Having such technologies in our supply chains would also help to prevent massive levels of fraud occurring in our food supplies. Is he aware of the recent study carried out by Queen’s University Belfast, showing that over 42% of the fraud found in the beef supply was counterfeit? Distributed ledger technology would eradicate such problems. Does he agree that the Government need to push distributed ledger technology further to enable supply chains to give us the resilience that we need but which we clearly do not have at this time?
Finally, will my noble friend consider extending the protected list of those who can gain supermarket online delivery slots to blind people, who are currently particularly vulnerable, not least in their inability easily to police social distancing? That would make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people right now.
My Lords, I declare my interests in the register and also declare that my youngest son is a poultry farmer in Lincolnshire. I pay tribute to all those involved in British agriculture and horticulture, who are doing their absolute utmost under challenging circumstances to keep the nation fed.
A recent article in the Grocer magazine stated that, since the onset of Covid-19, retail demand for shell eggs has increased significantly, with egg sale volumes up almost 20%. While UK supermarkets have largely stocked only UK-sourced shell eggs since the 1988 salmonella outbreak—an event which led to the creation of the British Lion accreditation scheme—it is reported that Lidl, the supermarket chain, has been importing cheap Dutch eggs, citing shortages of UK product. Such imported eggs are not produced to the same high food standards as UK eggs which bear the Lion mark. The industry does not recognise such shortages, stating simply that it has experienced some logistical problems—as have many foodstuff suppliers.
I understand from the British Free Range Egg Producers Association that it is extremely rare for imported eggs from any production system to be stocked in supermarkets. However, a considerable source of frustration to producers currently is that the discounters, Lidl and Aldi, drove down the price of free-range eggs by 18 pence a dozen at the end of last summer, leading to many producers receiving around 75 to 80 pence per dozen compared to £1 and more some two to three years ago. The result is that many producers have gone out of business and others simply have not stocked their sheds. Such behaviour does not show the discounters in a good light and it certainly does nothing to support British farming and food production.
With the Agriculture Bill due to arrive in your Lordships’ House shortly, I shall bring this matter to the Minister’s attention in much greater detail at Second Reading. In the meantime, I ask that his officials contact both discounters as a matter of urgency to express the producers’ concerns.
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, who, like me, farms down here in sunny Somerset.
I will make three very short points. First, at the production end, the acute labour shortage is being temporarily patched by students and furloughed workers. However, long term, it cannot be met from domestic labour. The details of a long-term agricultural visa scheme must be rapidly finalised and rolled out, and rolled out beyond just horticulture, as other parts of the land economy need it too. The numbers must be dictated by the needs of the industry, not some government target, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, just said.
Secondly, the bottom fell out of the market for not just milk but beef and lamb too. Producers are trying hard to find new markets with direct sales to the public both locally and online. Small and medium-sized local abattoirs are essential for this, but few remain. The giants are often distant and do not cater for small, private kills. The benefits of short supply lines are now apparent to us all, as are the public benefits of reduced food miles and local food from known provenance. In relation to future funding, local abattoirs need to be recognised as a public benefit by local enterprise partnerships, the shared prosperity fund—which we are all looking to—and local authority planning applications.
Lastly, small, local shops, whether in a village or on a street corner, have often stepped in when supermarkets have failed to cope, especially with services for the vulnerable and those in most need. They are the heart of the community at this moment. We must continue to use them more in future and support charities such as the Plunkett Foundation, which helps to set up community shops and enterprises.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for the chance to have this debate. In my view, the Government have done exceptionally well in this crisis. We have not suffered any major outage in food supply; there were a few wobbles to begin with, naturally, but we are in a pretty good place now. We have learned a lot about resilience over the past year, with all the planning that went into no deal, the actuality now of dealing with Covid and, possibly, further planning ahead to deal with the chance of no deal this December. We must preserve this expertise; the Civil Service naturally disperses it as the people who have developed all the learning, the archives and the understanding get moved on to other jobs.
That must not happen this time. There will be another crisis like this: a wheat disease that proves difficult to resist or some much more lethal infection, meaning that travel and indeed trade between countries gets closed down to preserve populations. We need not only to rehearse the possibility of these crises regularly and keep our systems intact, but to adopt policies that make us more resilient over time. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, the idea of “government by local” is really important, ensuring consistent demand for small-scale producers. We must embrace the science on GM crops so that we can broaden our supply without having greater impact on the countryside. We must work when we are building power stations to use all that spare heat to grow vegetables, because that increases our resilience.
There are many things that the Government can do over time. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will set us on the road at the end of this debate.
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s word “supply” brings to my mind my brief time in the Army when on National Service in the 1950s. An army marches on its stomach, as everyone knows. That depends on supply and, as every regimental quartermaster would say to the Minister, supply, in turn, depends on two crucial things: information and logistics. Information is about who, what and when—who wants it, what they want and when. Logistics are about how to get it there. These questions are absolutely on-point in the present crisis.
Access to farm labour is my issue, as the supply of seasonal workers from eastern Europe has dried up. I believe there is a place for much more highly organised and urgent government action than we have seen so far, preferably along with the skilled advice of the military. Defra’s Pick For Britain campaign—introduced too late, just over three weeks ago—was a start, but there is no organisation from the centre. It is left to individuals to take up the invitation and get to where they are needed, if they are willing to take up an offer. The initial response was not encouraging and many deregistered themselves when they were given the facts. An individual living in London, for example, was offered a place in Tayside, over 450 miles away. It was in the fruit-growing areas in Tayside in the 1960s that I saw what could be done. Buses toured around Dundee in the early morning, picking up workers, taking them to the farms where they were needed and taking them home in the evenings. That was logistics in action. The Minister might perhaps study and follow that example. It shows that this can be done.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for opening the debate and covering a wide range of issues for us to discuss. I want to focus on a couple of points. First, given noble Lords’ understanding of the importance of nutrition, maybe we need to think about reintroducing classes in domestic science and cookery so that children can understand the value of food and what goes into a meal. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will consider speaking to colleagues in the Department for Education to explore the idea of bringing good-quality food and local produce to children from an early age.
I agree with the noble Baroness that buying local is important, as is ensuring that we support our local small shops and farming communities. However, as we come out of this pandemic and continue to import our foods from export markets in the developing world, will the Minister also ensure that we work closely with those farming communities, signing up to fair prices so that their economies can also grow fairly and ensuring that their working practices are in line with the value systems and value chains to which we attach great importance in this country?
No one should be a loser from the pandemic. My concern is that, while we are supportive of our own industry, others who need this growth in their economies do not miss out.
I start by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for taking me back to my student days in Dundee and reminding me of the fruit picking I did across Tayside. The shortage of labour, both migrant and domestic, during the current health crisis is causing a shortage of workers on farms. Farmers have warned that up to 80,000 positions need to be filled, or we risk a large proportion of British produce going to waste. With 1.6 million people having to rely on food banks, it would be shocking if the Government allowed a large amount of produce to go to waste, especially when there is such a need for it. The lack of labour has put the British farming industry at serious risk. As one industry expert recently said, this will finish off farms: there will not be the fruit and veg in the shops.
A shortage of fruit and vegetables will have severe consequences. It also carries the risk of the further spread of Covid-19 as a result of malnutrition and people’s immune systems being weakened, increasing the likelihood of infection. The Government need to do all they possibly can to avoid that with initiatives to mobilise people and to support farmers and farms of all sizes. As someone who grew up on a smallholding on the west coast of Scotland, I am working with Ayrshire potatoes and delivering them to local suppliers and local families. The benefit of having small farmers producing locally and supplying locally should not be underestimated. If the Government fail in this regard, they will put the health of millions at risk as well as the future of the agricultural industry. That needs to be avoided at all costs. What plans do the Government have in place to make sure that does not happen?
My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the staff of supermarkets and small shops who have worked throughout this crisis. They did not expect their jobs to become dangerous. The past eight weeks have highlighted the vulnerability of our reliance on food imports, which form 47% of the food we eat. Twenty-eight per cent of our food comes from the EU, and until now we have been able to rely on that as a steady supply. If the Government fulfil their aim of ending the transition period in October, the UK will be open to greater food insecurity as EU imports will be hit by border checks.
I see in the news today that the Government have at last admitted that there will be border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium estimates that this will add £100,000 a lorry of additional cost—the last thing Northern Ireland needs as it tries to recover from the pandemic.
Food supplies were already facing disruption because of a likely shortage of pickers—several noble Lords have referred to this. It is another key link in the supply chain because so many EU nationals left after Brexit. That problem is now magnified by the lack of available flights for temporary workers wanting to come here just for the picking season.
Finally, there is the distribution network. Airlines and airports are glad to step in to provide more cargo flights. Haulage companies have faced practical problems operating across countries in lockdown. If the transition period comes to an end, they will face major additional problems due to delays at the border. Ferry companies have been losing money and have asked for financial help. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that issue in particular.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott—a true champion of sustainable and affordable food production. I have just two points.
One is the need to create a positive out of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have all woken up to the delights of clean air, almost no aeroplanes and few cars. One way is to reduce food imports and to grow more food locally. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, pointed out, at present the UK supplies only about 53% of the food we consume. This means that 47%—in particular fruit, vegetables and meat—comes on planes and ships from overseas. We would surely all welcome a policy to drive down our dependence on food from across the world, but this means all of us being willing to eat seasonal fruit and vegetables and less meat. If ever we are to make such a shift, surely now is the time when people will be willing to do it. Do the Government plan to provide incentives to achieve that sort of change at this strategic moment?
My other point, closely related, is a plea that the wonderful Capital Growth programme of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, growing food in London, be extended to the rest of the country. Again, if ever there was the right time to do that, it is surely now.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for this important debate and her comprehensive introduction. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in thanking our farmers and agribusiness for adapting so quickly and keeping food available to us all at a still remarkably low price? It is a sadness that some farming businesses, particularly dairy and ornamental businesses, have not survived or will not survive.
As Covid-19 is a worldwide problem, food imported from overseas will affect our food supply later this year. Some countries, such as Russia and India, are restricting exporting some foodstuffs, while the USA will dump surplus grain on the market. When considering this trade, however, we must remember how important our own food exports are to our industry.
When looking at any food system, one needs to look at health, the environment and food security. Perhaps more challenging to our farmers than Covid-19 has been the weather of the last nine months. Clearly, climate change will alter what we farm and the way we farm it. Our farmers are adapting to this and to the need to improve our biodiversity. In the past they have done what the Government requested, and they will continue to produce top-quality food—but much of this will then be processed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, told us. No one would put diesel in a petrol vehicle. Given the harm this food does to us and the cost to the NHS and the economy, what plans does my noble friend have to stop us being the processed food capital of Europe and eating so much poison?
Lord West of Spithead. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter.
My Lords, we know that if we are to help our bodies, we need to eat well and to eat sufficient fruit and vegetables. We must therefore as a priority pick the harvest that needs to be picked at the moment. As my noble friend Lady Sheehan said, the Government have introduced a Pick for Britain scheme, but no collated statistics have been provided yet. Can the Minister provide those today to show how successful we are in getting in the UK workers we need?
We will need skilled pickers to come in from other countries. On our local farm, which is one of the biggest employers of fruit pickers in the country, 77% of those have come from eastern Europe in the past. The Government have increased the seasonal workers pilot scheme to 10,000 workers, but how many are actually getting here? I understand that 2,000 are currently waiting to get their biometrics done in countries including Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia, but the visa centres are closed. What steps are the Government taking to address those blockages?
As my noble friend Lady Randerson said, flights are being chartered—difficult though that is—but has Defra spoken to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the opportunity that repatriating Britons from other parts of the world could provide in bringing in some of those seasonal workers? My understanding is that, in the last two weeks, 80 people from Barbados could have come in, but the repatriation flights took off without discussions with charities bringing in seasonal workers to help pick our harvest.
The fruit and vegetable harvest is short, and those products have a short shelf life. We need those workers now, so that farmers do not make the difficult decision that the more cost-effective option is to plough those vegetables back into the field, and so that we do not lose those health-giving fruits and vegetables.
My Lords, I recognise the role of farmers and the food industry in putting food on our plates, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on bringing this debate and putting local food production front and centre. Ideally, local food, locally distributed and bought in local shops should be what we are aiming for, and it complies with the essential requirement of traceability. Food and drink are part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and the ability to feed ourselves is essential and should be at the heart of any government policy.
In addition to sourcing more food locally, I make a plea to my noble friend the Minister that we should now avail ourselves of public procurement policy that is no longer bound by EU policy. Will the Government issue guidance to ensure that schools, hospitals, prisons, local authorities and other public bodies source more domestically produced food?
Imports of fruit, meat and vegetables are higher than what we currently produce, so will the Government take action to ensure that we have greater self-sufficiency by boosting home production? That is not to say that exports are not important, particularly in areas such as pig-farming—pig parts are appetising to the Chinese and provide a great export opportunity for somewhere such as the Malton bacon factory. Will the Minister ensure that we do more to improve our self-sufficiency, by taking more home-produced food, and that animals are moving through the chain, through livestock marts and abattoirs?
My Lords, I have two minutes and two questions; one on seasonal workers and one on food waste. To ensure that food is picked and harvests are brought in, can we please look again at the overly rigid, target-focused December 2018 White Paper and remove the 70,000 seasonal workers from net migration figures, creating a separate category? Will the Government also urgently look again at relaxing work prohibitions on asylum seekers who are resident in the United Kingdom, enabling them to help in this year’s harvesting of crops?
On food waste, it is a scandal of epic proportions that a throwaway culture can trash nearly a third of all food produced, while nearly 800 million people do not have enough food to eat to lead healthy, active lives—that is around one in nine people on this earth. As my noble friend Lady Boycott eloquently reminded us in her speech introducing this debate, food inequality in the United Kingdom is growing too. Some 30% of food produced globally is currently wasted. That is an economic and ethical outrage.
Reports from the institute of engineering and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine say that 6% to 10% of greenhouse gases are produced by food waste. In the course of one recent year, around 100 million tonnes of food was dumped in Europe. Wasted food would feed the estimated 1 billion people who are without food or hungry today, while another 1 billion could be fed if we curbed overeating and obesity, which was referred to by my noble friend. It has been calculated that if the world’s food waste mountain was piled up, it would be the third largest emitter of green- house gases, after only the USA and China, accounting for 10% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Staying close to the land, farming sustainably, tackling waste and changing patterns are long overdue. That would bring many environmental and health gains. In Chinese calligraphy, the word “crisis” can also be read as the word “opportunity”. I hope that the Government will indeed turn this crisis into an opportunity.
I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate and for her comprehensive and deeply sobering introduction. I associate the Green group with all the concerns that she expressed. I do not know whether in recording this debate, Hansard plans to put the phrase “cheap food” in scare quotes, but it certainly should. So-called cheap food is costing us the earth and our health.
I know that when farmers hear criticism of the food system, they often feel that it is directed at them, but many noble Lords have rightly focused on the over- weening, enormous place of supermarkets in our food distribution system. The National Farmers’ Union has highlighted how farmers get just 6% in the food chain. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, focused on how supermarkets advertise, promote and push highly processed food that is disastrous for our health. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, rightly said that government procurement should look to support local food-growing and distribution systems rather than supermarkets. Here in Sheffield, I have been lucky enough to get great Yorkshire cheese from local suppliers, and just this morning I got a fruit and veg box from a local cafe. These should be supplying schools, hospitals and prisons.
We also need to think about how food is grown. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, referred to European workers doing the heavy lifting. In a report in the Times, an asparagus grower was quoted as saying, “British workers just won’t do 12 hours a day of back-breaking work”. But I think that no one should be asked to do that. That means that we need a different kind of food system: small, market garden, biodiverse crops, which pretty well anyone could work on. That also means that we need reform of our land ownership. We need tens, even hundreds, of thousands of small businesses around our towns and cities, growing healthy food and supporting horticulture, building a different kind of food system that works for people and planet.
My Lords, the pandemic has caused severe disruptions in our agriculture, fishery and dairy sectors, as well as the processing of foodstuffs. Furthermore, it has created difficulties in regard to the importation of food and beverages from abroad. We import about 47% of our food supplies from different parts of the world. The pandemic has been worldwide, and a lot of countries have been affected. In addition, international transport systems have been severely impaired. However, we must give credit to our companies, which work hard to import food by cargo planes. We should also appreciate the efforts made by Heathrow and other airports.
Millions of people in the country are vulnerable, while others are in self-isolation. Given the undoubted difficulty for those people in going to shops, we must appreciate that supermarkets and other suppliers have put into practice ways of getting food to them. We should also pay tribute to a number of charities, organisations and individuals who have helped to provide food and provisions to people who are in need of assistance.
The farmers have problems in getting fruit and vegetable pickers. Can my noble friend the Minister say what help can be provided to farmers to find staff? I would like to see some revision to our Immigration Rules regarding this problem.
Finally, as someone who is particular about what he eats, I would like to see steps taken to encourage people to eat sensibly. That needs to be looked into further. Unfortunately, we have problems with obesity and illness, in both children and adults.
My Lords, one farming subject that comes up regularly is the picking of crops and migrant workers—or the lack of them. The UK needs seasonal workers, and the permanent agricultural workforce relies heavily on EU Labour. Brexit, minimum wages and the fall in sterling have already challenged this model of reliance, added to now by the coronavirus pandemic. There are sound business and environmental reasons to maximise self-sufficiency in food production, and within that, it is important to stress greater self-sufficiency in harvesting, which we know is difficult to do with UK workers.
The fourth industrial revolution offers exciting opportunities for farmers to increase productivity, protect the environment and make farming safer, but there is still hesitancy in the UK through a lack of technology training, a lack of capital finance and waiting for the next generation of development—alas, too often meaning development in other countries.
Robot picking technology has moved a long way already. In Spain, octopus-like robots pluck strawberries. In the US, machines vacuum apples off trees. Last year, UK trials on raspberry and strawberry pickers began, but the refrain remains that large-scale deployment, including to small farms, is 10 years away—the same as was estimated four years ago. With Brexit and the pandemic creating the perfect storm, will the Government make self-sufficiency in harvesting and mechanisation a priority, and bring down that 10-year horizon? This fits with investment in future-oriented technology and British high-tech manufacturing.
I thank my noble friend Lady Boycott for securing this debate.
We can survive without many things, but food is not one of them. I want to talk about hunger. After housing costs, 12.9 million people in this country, including 3.7 million children, live in absolute poverty. In a rich country like ours, this is a shocking fact. Many of these people live in what is politely called “food insecurity”—in other words, they cannot afford to buy enough to eat. Remarkably, the Government do not measure this. They have no idea what the real number is, but it is almost certainly in the millions. As a result of Covid-19, that figure has almost certainly increased. As we have heard, the Food Foundation estimates that more than 8 million adults and 2 million children have gone hungry since lockdown.
One cause of food insecurity is the five-week delay in universal credit. This was acknowledged by Amber Rudd in February 2019 when she was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Further, and incredibly, the amount of money given out in benefits takes no account of the cost of buying food. According to government figures, since the lockdown, the number of applicants for universal credit has increased fivefold to 1.8 million—and the numbers are expected to rise still further. So, apart from all its other effects, Covid-19 will increase hunger and poor nutrition in this country. Can the Minister please explain what the Government plan to do about this totally unacceptable state of affairs?
My Lords, as always, I declare my agricultural interests as detailed in the register. This debate is extraordinarily timely because the Agriculture Bill passed the other place last night.
We should learn from Covid-19. Having left the European Union, now is a good moment to reconsider the strategic importance of food security. The coronavirus crisis has taught us to value more highly a number of essential parts of the nation’s life. During lockdown, only purchases of pharmaceuticals and food have been considered absolutely necessary. We now—correctly —consider farmers, farm workers and those who process and distribute food essential workers in a way that we have not done since the war.
We will never be self-sufficient in all food products, but it is surprising that we have a net trade deficit in meat products of £6 billion a year. It is precisely the livestock farmers who feel the most anxious at the moment. Our lamb producers, particularly in Wales and Scotland, need tariff and regulation-free access to the European market. Livestock farmers will suffer badly if we leave in December without a deal.
At the same time, the farming industry faces the prospect of a free trade agreement with the United States of America. The price for this may well be free American access to our food market. Present government policy is to support farmers for so-called public goods, but is not the provision of home-grown, quality food a public good? To increase food supply and food security in this country, the taxpayer should be prepared to support more home-grown, sustainable food production. Food security should now be a national priority.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this debate and on her excellent introduction. I also congratulate my noble friend the Minister and his department on the rapid and unprecedented support for food retailers around the country, particularly in our most isolated communities. It is vital that our domestic food production capacity is supported over the long term to boost self-sufficiency.
Will my noble friend consider increased protection for food producers against oligopolistic or monopolistic practices, given recent evidence, for example, of possible profiteering by dominant suppliers during this crisis, suddenly altering terms of business or forcing farmers to accept prices below production costs? Will he consider security of food supplies for isolated, housebound elderly people who have sometimes struggled during the pandemic to obtain sufficient food, despite heroic efforts by volunteers, charities and neighbourhood groups who will not always know where the vulnerable people are? Therefore, will the Government consider encouraging, for example, the reintroduction of local meals-on-wheels services, which councils have withdrawn in recent years? Not only could this mean local authorities would readily know where the most vulnerable elderly people live in future pandemics, but delivery of meals would prevent some older people’s health deteriorating, which could reduce the numbers needing NHS services or being forced to move into a care home.
Finally, I echo the words of other noble Lords that the Government should exempt agricultural workers from post-Brexit immigration restrictions, permitting short-term agricultural workers to enter the country freely in order to bolster our food self-sufficiency and help control rising food costs.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on her excellent introduction. I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, about teaching young people more about food production and about cooking, and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, about procurement and the need for more local sourcing and procurement rules and regulations. I shall make two points this afternoon. First, I think the last 10 days have shown us how a lack of co-ordination and proper decision-making between central government and the three devolved Governments of the UK can inhibit decision-making at a time of crisis. What progress has been made on setting up proper systems of decision-making involving the devolved Governments in agriculture and the environment, now that powers are being returned from Brussels to the United Kingdom?
Secondly, it is also important that we look at the vital importance of local, decentralised supply chains that would build more resilience into our food system. We also, of course, need to protect ecosystems and biodiversity and to ensure that the economic impacts of recession on households do not make the current situation worse. I believe that the sustainable development goals give us a framework in which the UK, internally as well as externally, can address these issues. What progress has been made on ensuring that the sustainable development goals, which are universal and not just for the developing world, can inform British decision-making in these vital areas and make sure that we have a more resilient and economically productive food system in operation in this country in the future?
My Lords, during the current crisis, people have become very focused on food. Families have been relying on food parcels from voluntary groups and food banks, which are particularly important for people whose children are not receiving free school lunches. They have very little food security, especially if they cannot go shopping because of having a vulnerable person at home. Others are realising that the best way to ensure food security is to grow your own, which also has the advantage of reducing food miles. Of course, this is available only to those with some outdoor space.
We are very reliant on our farmers and the horticultural industry. Both have been experiencing extreme difficulties during the lockdown. Many horticultural businesses which supply plants for garden centres lost their customers until this week, and their vegetable plants have been left to die. These losses have been disastrous for them. Can the Minister say what proportion of the industry has qualified for help under the Government’s business support schemes and who is responsible for ensuring that we still have an industry after the pandemic crisis is over?
Farmers and salad growers had problems before the current crisis because, since we left the EU, workers from Europe have not been coming here in sufficient numbers to pick, pack and process the crops. No clear commitments have been given to these workers and no trade deals have yet been negotiated, so the security of homegrown fresh food is in a perilous state. Many Brits who volunteered to do the jobs left after a day because they found the work too hard and there is a limit to what can be done through automation, which of course also requires investment. Does the Minister agree that farmers will need a whole season to recover their businesses, so we need to extend the transition phase before they have to face the consequences of its end, and possibly tariffs?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate and for her excellent introduction. I fully concur with the content of her speech. As other noble Lords have said, there are challenges and opportunities for the food supply chain in the UK as a result of the measures associated with dealing with coronavirus that have been taken.
First, many shoppers have had to substitute for goods imported from abroad those that have been produced in the UK. For example, in my own local supermarket these include lamb from Cornwall and yoghurt made in Devon using British milk, which were previously available only in small local shops. However, this may well be because our producers are having difficulty exporting and are therefore supplying goods at cost.
Secondly, significant concern has been expressed in rural areas that the very welcome school food vouchers to the value of £15 a week must be used largely in supermarkets and that the Government should have developed a system that would enable them to be spent buying from small local producers. It can be costly and difficult to get to a supermarket when you live, as I do, on Dartmoor in Devon. In principle, the vouchers could be used in local farm shops and stalls selling fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs and dairy products. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government would be willing to consider these localised options for the use of school food vouchers, which may well assist not only the families and children in receipt of them but local agricultural food producers?
Furthermore, the lack of tourism is challenging local industries. Can the Minister explain how support will be increased to suppliers who have traditionally supplied to hotels and restaurant chains?
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as a director of Gusbourne Estate and as chairman of Electricity Resilience. My remarks will be devoted to panic buying. People have come in for a lot of stick for it, but panic buying is the perfectly natural consequence of two things: the just-in-time supply system combined with our refusal to contemplate the fact that bad things happen. That refusal is itself the natural result of decades of security, prosperity and, I am afraid, complacency and short-sightedness.
Just-in-time supply was introduced by Toyota to improve efficiency, and it has done so across the world—but at the cost of resilience. We need to strike a better balance between efficiency and resilience and to stop living on the edge of things going wrong. I do hope that the coronavirus has taught us that lesson.
Second, we must contemplate and discuss bad things happening. Here we can learn a lesson from Sweden. A Swedish brochure, If Crisis or War Comes, sent to all five million households in Sweden advises citizens to store staples such as potatoes, eggs, pasta and canned beans. If we did that, there would be no panic buying and no need for it. I am delighted that our Government in the UK is now talking to its citizens about the risks they face, and I look forward to seeing more of it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on her very comprehensive overview of the situation in relation to food security and food resilience. However, for me, this debate poses the question: how secure was our food system prior to Covid? There are many challenges and opportunities, and our food system has been impacted by several factors, including Brexit, climate change and, now, Covid, which have changed our landscape, no more so than over the last five years.
However, there are some warning signals for the Minister. I urge him not to close off other European markets—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. We are dependent on those markets for the fruit and vegetables that are not available in the UK and Ireland in winter because of our temperate climatic conditions. We rely on France, southern Spain and Italy for salad-type vegetables.
The other issue that I want to refer to was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Purvis—Northern Ireland export/import issues to do with the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol. We in Northern Ireland rely on imports and exports across the Irish Sea, so it is important that there is no border there in terms of Brexit and Covid, as that would present us with difficulties and challenges. Therefore, will the Minister ensure unfettered access for our food suppliers and food supplies? Finally, can the Minister see whether it would be possible to amend the Agriculture Bill, which is currently before us, to ensure that it reflects good standards and good public health standards?
In 2014, the EU Sub- Committee which I was chairing at the time held an inquiry into food waste, the first ever such inquiry in Parliament. It was very much a reflection of our concern that around a third of the food that we produce for human consumption ends up being thrown away. Since then, the issue has certainly come up the agenda, but it has remained a very difficult nut to crack.
For UK households, the problem is intention. People recognise that it is a problem, but they say that they have a lack of knowledge, their shopping habits perhaps encourage food waste, and the behaviour of retailers almost certainly does.
The leader in this field, WRAP, has just reported after two weeks of lockdown. It has found that people are shopping much less because they do not want to risk going into stores, but they are buying more, and of course people are eating out very much less than they were before. Therefore, the incentive now is not just time and money; it is people’s safety. They have begun to do all the things that we have advised, such as planning meals, checking stocks and making lists, managing portion sizes and using their freezer. WRAP has found that one in three households is now throwing away less and only one in 25 is throwing away more. Crucially, WRAP has found a clear correlation between those throwing away less and those who recalled seeing information from campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste.
Therefore, I now ask the Government to work with WRAP to really ramp up practical advice that will help households save money now but also, crucially, will help to instil a lasting behaviour change going forward. In this way, we can reap the environmental benefits of reducing the emissions and water footprint of the food that we throw away. This is a one-off chance to change behaviour for good, especially in younger people, and we should not miss it.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but I want to focus on the physical supply chain for much of the nation’s food. Defra estimates that 50% of our food and feed arrives by sea ports. If noble Lords started their day with a cup of tea or coffee, or a glass of orange juice, it came by sea. The role of shipping and our ports is absolutely fundamental to our food supply. Here I should declare my interest as a council member and former chairman of Maritime UK.
Despite enormous challenges, the industry has done an incredible job in maintaining food deliveries to the nation and, along with others, to the supermarkets. Despite profound difficulties to do with crew changes and the collapse of passenger traffic on ferries, the shipping sector has delivered, keeping the country supplied. However, the crisis and the wider disruption to international trade has resulted in a large number of sea ferry and shore staff being furloughed.
The port sector has demonstrated magnificent operational resilience during the crisis. It has been operating with social distancing so far as possible since the earliest days, with absences in the low single-figure percentages, and impressive flexibility in ways of working, much of it helped by management and local trade union reps working together constructively.
The sector has been very fortunate in the help it has received from the Government, and I pay tribute here. Key-worker status was of course critical and furloughing a lifeline. Financial support for some shipping companies has eased the pressure, and the UK Government have been at the forefront of trying to assist in easing crew change problems. These measures have been deeply appreciated, but this is a fast-moving crisis and we now need to look to the future if we are to retain the ability to supply food and other essentials under all conditions.
The ports are now experiencing falling activity, with vessel calls down 25% to 30% as the initial surge for goods such as food has eased and industrial and consumer demand has fallen. The financial challenge for them is compounded by the difficulties of customers and tenants struggling to pay bills. The ports want to return to their previous high levels of investment and the Government can play an important role at zero to low cost to the public purse through adjusting regulations in areas such as planning and capital allowances.
My Lords, this is a timely debate and I echo the thanks that noble Lords have expressed to the noble Baroness. I was struck by the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, when he spoke of the berry bus that toured the estates in Scotland. I too was a victim of its pursuit—although in my case it was a berry van—and many was the morning I woke up praying for rain and being disappointed by sunshine.
Picking raspberries is never a pleasure, I am afraid. It is a serious job. Over the last few years, we have relied on the migrant workers who come to do it. Latterly however, even before Brexit reared its head, it was becoming harder and harder to bring people across the water to pick those berries. The principal reason was competition from countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain, which were offering incentives for migrant workers to do exactly the same thing, with not berries but hops, grapes or other market garden products.
We had a challenge and we now have a new challenge, namely the Covid virus. The test we therefore have to meet is how we will harvest into the future. We have a trial run this year because of Covid, but the simple questions remain: who will pick our raspberries in the future and how will we ensure that they are harvested well? It is no longer enough to rely just on hope and wish; we need to pull together a plan. This plan must encourage people to undertake labour in this area and recognise the value that it has to local communities. It will not be an easy plan, because some of these tasks are simply not as pleasant as they might sound to those who occasionally pick a raspberry for a nice spot of lunch. For those who do it all day, it is a seriously challenging endeavour. Will the Minister give serious thought to how we might achieve such a strategic plan to help harvest this area?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for such an all-embracing and spirited introduction to this debate. I greatly sympathise with the Minister’s having to endeavour to reply to all the contributions that have been made. I declare an interest as patron of Sugarwise, a charity committed to reducing sugar in food and drinks and encouraging manufacturers to produce healthy foods within the World Health Organization’s sugar guidelines.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised obesity, diabetes and hypertension as issues that have been brought to the forefront as underlying causes of Covid-19 deaths. When we come out of this, we must return to the inadequacy of policies linked to obesity and diabetes and seek ways in which we can strengthen them and encourage our population to move away from what is causing those difficulties.
Much of it comes back to what we eat and drink. A major factor there, which only reluctantly have the Government moved towards addressing, is sugar. I am grateful that they eventually introduced the sugar tax, recognising that there was a significant problem, particularly as it affects children through fizzy drinks. But it affects the whole population, and we need a review to look in a wider way than we have ever done before and address the problems that arise from sugar consumption. My question is a simple one: will the Government review their attitude to sugar and recognise that it is a major factor causing significant problems? Many people would not have died had they not suffered from diabetes and obesity, which come from eating sugar over their lifetimes.
My Lords, as we have heard, food security is a global issue as well as a national and local one. The Covid crisis has exposed the fragility of global supply chains and the importance of investing in resilient supply chains to help meet future global shocks. At the local level, councils have been working hard supporting vulnerable people to access food throughout the pandemic, and we have heard a lot about supermarkets but should not overlook the essential role of local shops, providing an estimated 600,000 deliveries per week in their communities.
Food insecurity has become a way of life for far too many of our fellow citizens. The Food Foundation estimates that 8 million adults have experienced food insecurity since the start of lockdown, 5 million people in the UK households with children were experiencing food insecurity after just one month, and more than 200,000 children have had to skip meals. Prior to the pandemic, a significant minority of households were struggling to access healthy food and were relying on food banks and other community-based food projects. The Trussell Trust estimates an 80% increase in the number of people supported by emergency food parcels in its network compared with last year. Food banks have had to make changes to the way in which they work to stay open and stay safe while coping with a large increase in demand. I spoke yesterday to a local vicar who had witnessed a fourfold increase in food parcels at her food bank, but where volunteers had been queueing in supermarkets because they have been unable to make bulk purchases of essential items online. Surely supermarkets could make special arrangements for food banks, as for other vulnerable groups.
These food banks are doing an excellent job, but surely our aim should be that no one needs to rely on one. Anti-poverty charities have been calling for a time-limited coronavirus emergency income support scheme to prevent people from falling into serious financial hardship. Building on the welcome increase in the universal credit standard allowance, that could include temporary measures to lift the benefit cap, including the two-child limit, suspending the five-week waiting period for the first payment, and repayment of advances. I join the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in asking the Minister what steps the Government are taking to ensure that people most in need are supported to put food on the table during this crisis.
My Lords, there are 1 million people on the Government’s clinically vulnerable list but nearly 14 million people living with disabilities. That is 21% of the UK population. They fall outside high-risk categories, yet need, and are entitled to, support in accessing the food that they require.
The current legal action of more than 300 people against major supermarket chains suggests that they are not receiving this, and that these problems are systemic, not a series of one-offs. Examples cited include difficulties in accessing delivery slots; visually impaired shoppers being refused support from sighted guides and wheelchair users being denied help; long queues excluding people with mobility issues or chronic pain conditions; and the impact of purchasing limits on people with autism, who often experience rigidity around foods. Doing without our usual brands might not be a problem for many of us, but for people with autism it can make the difference between eating and going hungry.
The collective action argues that supermarkets are obliged under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, but the British Retail Consortium has said that its primary aim is
“to ensure clinically shielded groups identified by Government could easily access food without added risks to their health.”
This excludes disabled people, contravening rights and leaving them unable to access the food that they require.
The kindness of neighbours and strangers may well define these times as we look back in years to come, but although home deliveries from government, charities, family and friends are welcome, people with disabilities have a right to independent living. I acknowledge the efforts of supermarkets and their staff to keep the nation fed during this pandemic, but can the Minister commit the Government to supportin them in ensuring that temporary procedures in place during this extraordinary period are fair and inclusive to all?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this important debate.
I have no worries about food security in this country. We will always have more than enough—except fish, possibly—but we might not get what we want all year round. I do not particularly want a choice of 20 different lettuces in January, nor Moroccan strawberries for Christmas. I believe in eating UK-produced food in season when it is a delicacy and a treat. Nothing from anywhere else in the world can beat it for taste, not to mention food miles. In that regard, will my noble friend the Minister give all his encouragement and support to those excellent initiatives to create massive glasshouses near sewage plants, where they can get cheap heat? We have the capability to supply a huge range of more produce grown under glass in this country. I look forward to the report from Henry Dimbleby on a food strategy, which should address these issues.
Will the Minister also give encouragement to agricultural innovation and technology, as articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles? This has had a huge boost in the USA because President Trump has curtailed cheap foreign labour from planting and picking crops. We must go this way in the near future too, rather than toward a permanent supply of cheap EU labour.
I come to fish, where I am worried about supply. The common fisheries policy is quite evil and destructive of this finest of natural resources. I want a cast-iron assurance from my noble friend that we will not sell out our fishermen, that we will take back full control of our fishing waters, that we will impose our own catch limitation so that we conserve and increase stocks, and that any deal with the EU will be on an annual basis.
Finally, in these dire times, let us raise a glass to the English wine industry, which is a superb example of innovation. English champagnes and white wines are beating the French in international wine tastings. What is more, vineyards are excellent for wildlife in that they are not being ploughed up every year—a good example of not digging for victory.
I thank the Deputy Speaker for letting me have a second go after I sounded like a Dalek the first time round. I thank the House broadcasting staff for their help.
The Covid crisis has revealed how fragile our food supply chains are in this country and how we need to increase our food self-sufficiency. I guess we will never be able to grow pineapples in Kent, but climate change will make food supply chains even more fragile, as the climate change committee recently reported. Before we make decisions on producing more of our own food, we need to consider the other demands for land: for carbon sequestration; to reverse the biodiversity crisis; for built development; for energy; and for access and recreation, which we all now know is so vital for physical and mental health.
The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership found that, to meet a growing UK population’s land use needs, we require a third more land than we currently have in the UK, so any policy of more home-produced food needs to be in the context of a land use strategy for England to set the framework for how we will optimise these competing land use requirements. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have such strategies but the Government in England are very late to this issue. Gosh, that rings a bell, does it not?
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity post Brexit to shape our own agricultural policy to be fit for a new, post-Covid future. Central to that must be food produced sustainably, working with the environment to make food production more resilient, rooted in local economies and produced to high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards—not Trump’s trade deal standards. The Agriculture Bill needs to embed these principles. I commend to the Minister the reports of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, of which I am a commissioner. They well demonstrate the case for restorative agriculture and a land-use framework for the future.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for raising this debate and for her wise words at the beginning.
Covid-19 has brought into stark relief a number of things that we had taken for granted. One of them is food supply. It is extraordinary that our nation should need reminding about the strategic significance of food supply: in two world wars we fought long and hard to ensure that we had enough food in this country because we could not produce enough. Luckily, our merchant marine and the Navy managed to keep us supplied. In the First World War, part of the reason for the German collapse was that we stopped them getting food supplies and their nation collapsed.
There is a very real need for us to be self-sufficient in food in this country. A number of measures are needed to ensure that we achieve that. Noble Peers have addressed a number of those issues and they are very important. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, raised the issue of fish. I agree with him but, my goodness, if we are to protect our waters for fish—noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say this—we actually need more ships. That is the only way that we will be able to achieve it.
I know that the Minister feels strongly about this and he has been very helpful in the House on a number of these issues, but we need to focus on self-sufficiency in food. What are all the measures we can take to ensure that we achieve that? We also need resilience in the supply chain, which is not as strong as some people think. I am reminded of the ice storm in Montreal in the late 1990s, when power cuts stopped cash machines and so on being used. There were then riots because people could not get to food. Food is an absolute necessity for our people; we must get it right.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this vital debate and agree with all her comments. The number of speakers is an indication of the concern felt by the House over the security of food supply. We have had a wide-ranging debate; it is clear that there are real problems with the production, harvesting and distribution of food during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The Government have expressed confidence in the resilience of the UK food supply chain. As many Peers have mentioned, only 53% of the food consumed in the UK was produced here, with 28% coming from the EU. The import and export figures for 2017 demonstrate that we were wholly reliant on imports for all vital foods. It is only in beverages that our exports overtake our imports, solely due to Scotch whisky. It is not wise to be so dependent on imports for our basic food.
Food distribution is fragile as a result of the pandemic. Air freight mainly containing food continues to be flown into the UK on cargo planes. During normal operations, Heathrow Airport usually handles 47 cargo-only planes per week. In contrast, on 31 March, the airport was forced to handle 48 cargo-only planes in a single day. The food miles involved here are horrendous. Can the Minister say whether the Government are considering a review of our just-in-time supply chain? Are they considering using supermarkets to buy more food from local suppliers? This would reduce food miles, be better for the environment and involve less processing.
We have heard from many contributors about customer access. Data from the Food Foundation this month shows that approximately 500,000 children entitled to free school meals have received no substitutes since March. This is 31% of entitled children. Food poverty is a terrible scourge. Vouchers for food, concentrated on large supermarkets, have been spasmodic and in some areas non-existent. Government departments apparently had insufficient capacity to widen the number of retailers participating. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, this has left many children in rural areas without access to food. Only two supermarkets will take vouchers online. Can the Minister say why smaller, local shops were excluded from the voucher scheme?
I regret to say that, in my own area, the experience of schools was that the Department for Education was in chaos and teachers were tearing their hair out, with it taking three weeks to issue vouchers. In the end, Somerset County Council came up trumps and produced boxes of food to the same value of the vouchers and delivered them to the homes of the vulnerable entitled children. Given that schools are not returning to full attendance immediately, can the Minister say whether the capacity in government departments has increased to distribute the vouchers efficiently and whether the Government intend to widen the variety of retail food outlets where vouchers can be exchanged?
As others have said, local shops operate at the heart of our communities and across every type of location: villages, housing estates, petrol forecourts and high streets. Some 38% of local shops are located in isolated areas with no other businesses nearby. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, only 12% of convenience stores were providing a home delivery services for groceries. A recent survey found that 38% of local shops had introduced a home delivery service in the light of the outbreak. It is now estimated that this sector is making 600,000 home deliveries per week. This proves that our more local facilities are capable of stepping up to the challenge.
Supermarkets have also sought to increase food availability for consumers by introducing extended operating hours for over-70s and key workers and by increasing the number of delivery slots available. However, the vulnerable are still struggling to get online delivery slots. An elderly couple I know could not get a slot for three weeks. There was no local shop in their village and, because of their age and health, they were isolating.
Since the start of the outbreak, as others have said, food banks have seen a surge in demand, the Trussell Trust noting an 81% increase in demand in the last two weeks of March. While the Government are to be congratulated on their efforts to provide food parcels to the most vulnerable residents, there has been criticism that they do not contain healthy items, as mentioned by many noble Lords.
Independent Age conducted a survey of extremely vulnerable groups. Some 29% of respondents who get food parcels felt there was insufficient food included to sustain them until the next delivery. Some 23% felt that their dietary needs were not being met, as issues concerning medical, dietary and religious requirements were not considered. Does the Minister consider that working with local authorities to better co-ordinate distribution of food parcels would be more efficient and prevent people at risk having to skip meals or go hungry until their next delivery? Will he investigate the composition of the food parcels to ensure a healthy mix of food, including fresh produce, and ensure that food parcels meet individual medical, dietary or religious requirements at no extra cost to the recipients?
In dairy, the AHDB estimates that overall demand for dairy products is currently running at around 2 million litres per day lower than before the lockdown. In poultry meat, pre-lockdown the estimated weekly demand from McDonald’s, KFC and Nando’s was collectively in the region of 2 million chickens per week. Farming systems are biological in nature; they cannot be easily turned off and on. I welcome the Government’s announcement on 6 May of new funding to support dairy farmers, who will be able to access up to £10,000 each to cover 70% of their lost income during April and May. Will this additional support be continued beyond the end of May?
The Agriculture Bill is a vital step towards a more resilient system. The proposed move towards “public money for public goods” at the core of the Bill will enable farmers to restore the natural environment alongside and through the production of healthy, sustainable and nutritious food. It will also improve animal health, minimising the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks of disease, and enhance people’s access to green space, the importance of which has come into even sharper focus through the lockdown.
I turn to highly-seasonal farm labour. It is estimated that around 70,000 workers are needed this year—many noble Lords have referred to this. According to the NFU labour survey, the majority will arrive between April and September. On 6 March 2019, the Government implemented a pilot scheme to allow fruit and vegetable farmers to employ migrant workers for a period of up to six months. The scheme was capped at 2,500 workers as part of a two-year trial. In February, the scheme was extended to 10,000 workers. As of 1 January next year, the distinction between EU and non-EU seasonal worker migrants will cease and the current 10,000 figure is far short of the 70,000 seasonal workers currently deployed. January 2021 is only eight months away, with no clarity as to how the seasonal workers scheme is to be expanded. Are there plans to extend this scheme beyond January 2021?
Through the Covid-19 crisis, we are seeing the UK used as a dumping ground for agricultural products from other countries that have lost their own markets. Goods produced to much lower standards than would be allowed in the UK have a distorting effect on the domestic industry. What are the Government doing to prevent this continuing and what is their long-term strategy for food security, to move towards healthy food and away from processed foods?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for tabling this debate today. She has set out in stark terms the immediate and longer-term challenges facing our food supply in the UK, and other noble Lords have added considerable knowledge and expertise to the debate.
Since the outbreak was confirmed, our Front Bench have been in regular contact with farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets, unions and food charities, which have all had to take emergency action to respond to the challenge before them. Tremendous progress has been made in keeping supply chains moving. I pay tribute to everyone who has played a part, particularly the front-line staff who have worked in difficult and, often, potentially dangerous environments.
Inevitably, with change on such a scale, potential problems remain. I want to highlight some of those this afternoon. As many noble Lords have pointed out, food poverty remains the number one challenge. The lockdown created two categories of those needing help: the shielded vulnerable, who were instructed to remain at home because of health concerns, and the economically vulnerable, whose loss of income left them unable to feed their families. It is this latter group who still need urgent help. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, pointed out, the recent Food Foundation report high l ighted a sorry state of affairs where 5 million people were experiencing food insecurity, including 2 million children —many of whom are skipping meals. Polling undertaken since the lockdown suggests that as many as 8 million adults are struggling to access food.
Local councils are doing their best to reach out to the most vulnerable, and I pay credit to their work. Food banks are doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. They are desperately working to plug the gap and have switched much of their resources to food parcel deliveries to those in financial hardship. We obviously welcome the Government’s latest announcement of £16 million to support the food charity sector and get help to those most in need.
However, does the Minister accept, as many noble Lords have said, that the solution lies in resolving the welfare benefit crisis, such as the five-week universal credit wait, that is causing such financial hardship in the first place? Can he explain what is being done to solve the school meal voucher fiasco, where the Edenred scheme seems unable to provide families with their promised vouchers efficiently? There are reports that schools and individual teachers have been calling on families in hardship, with food parcels paid out of their own money. That cannot be right.
Secondly, there have inevitably been problems with food production and distribution. Thankfully, some of those have now been resolved as people have stopped panic buying. But the unions continue to report problems with staff in food manufacturing and supermarkets being asked, for example, to work without appropriate PPE or on production lines with inadequate social distancing measures. What engagement has Defra had with the food sector unions, which would be able to describe first hand the unacceptable experiences that some of their members still have to face?
The crisis has also highlighted some more fundamental problems in the supply chain. We have been reminded by a number of noble Lords that the UK is only 53% self- sufficient in food and drink, and over a quarter of our food is supplied by the EU. While most of those imports are still getting through, our reliance on food and vegetable trucks coming across from Europe reminds us of the importance of striking the right Brexit deal.
The lockdown has highlighted the need for more local food production but, as many noble Lords have highlighted, there is a real challenge in recruiting UK seasonal workers, which means that we are in danger of relying more, not less, on imported goods. The Government have sought to reassure us that our crops will be harvested, but the press are reporting a very low take-up of jobs via the Pick for Britain scheme and an understandable reluctance of potential recruits to sign up for seasonal contracts—some of which are many months long—when they might be expected back at work with their prime employer. Can the Minister update us on how many UK recruits have signed up via this scheme; what proportion of pickers this year are expected to be eastern European, and what arrangements are being made to ensure that they can travel here safely; and whether there is indeed any danger of crops being left to rot because of a lack of workers?
Meanwhile, the crisis in parts of the dairy industry showed how vulnerable farmers were to a drop in milk demand, and the control of powerful processors such as Freshways to drive the price down. The Government’s initial response was to encourage a voluntary, market-led solution, which turned out to be inadequate in the face of all the evidence. While we welcome the fact that a new government bailout scheme for dairy farmers was announced last week, does the Minister accept that it took far longer than was necessary to provide some reassurance for the sector? Can he explain how the adequacy of the scheme will be monitored and adjusted as necessary? Does he recognise that dairy farmers need better contractual protection in the longer term to avoid similar crises in the future?
There is an irony in the current crisis that while many people are feeling particularly patriotic, many of the supermarkets continue to import cheap dairy, meat and poultry products from abroad, at the expense of the quality products grown by British farmers. Does the Minister accept that government and retailers could do more at this critical time to promote British food, which would in turn support the livelihoods of British farmers? Could the public sector procurement policies be amended to give priority to locally sourced produce—for example, as people have suggested, in prisons, hospitals and schools—as happens in many other countries?
Today, we are addressing short-term pressures, but this crisis gives us a real opportunity for a radical rethink of our food supply and security priorities going forward. We very much look forward to debating the Agriculture Bill, which I hope will come to the Lords shortly. It is as clear as ever that the country’s food system is broken and in need of urgent reform. There is an opportunity to put environmental good practice, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a local food strategy at the heart of the Bill.
We support the notion of farm payments rewarding the delivery of public good. A strong UK farming sector, based on sustainable farming, will give us the opportunity to reverse the declining percentage of UK-grown food consumed in the UK. A legal guarantee of future high animal welfare and environmental standards would protect UK consumers, while protecting British farmers at risk of being undercut by poor-quality imports. It is of considerable regret that the Government did not support our amendment to this effect in the Agriculture Bill yesterday, but I am sure we will return to this when the Bill comes to the Lords.
In the meantime, strategies to encourage changing diets and less food waste will help us to meet our climate change adaption obligations, as well as help people to live healthier lives. The Fisheries Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, will provide the opportunity to revitalise the UK fishing sector, with sustainable fishing and marine conservation also at its heart.
We have been facing up to some difficult challenges in our food and farming sectors today. These problems will undoubtedly remain with us for the foreseeable future. But I hope we can also recognise that there is an alternative future for our food system that can give us some hope and optimism. I hope we will be able to debate that in fuller terms when the Agriculture Bill comes before us in due course.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Food supply and food security are of the greatest importance at all times; in the context of this current unprecedented challenge, they are extremely critical. I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate.
As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, said, it will not be possible for me to address now all the points that noble Lords have made during this thought-provoking three-hour debate. I shall of course pick up on all the points that have been made and reply fully.
I join noble Lords, in particular my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lord Holmes of Richmond, in paying tribute to all those across the food industry for their momentous efforts to help feed the nation. They are providing a vital service and the response has been remarkable. They have been working hard to keep food flowing into stores and people’s houses. We can be enormously proud of, and grateful to, all those businesses, large and small, and their employees, who have stepped up to create innovative solutions to ensure that people have the food they need. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Mallalieu and Lady Randerson, for raising small shops, and indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for mentioning delivery services from not only shops but pubs and takeaways, which many of us have witnessed. I am also most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for recognising the work that civil servants and officials have undertaken, and for emphasising the importance of the experience they bring.
This has been a very difficult time for many, particularly vulnerable people. The Government have been working extremely closely with industry and across civic society. Industry has adapted quickly to changes in demand. Food supply into and across the United Kingdom remains resilient, and the general supply situation for most goods is returning to normal.
The Government have worked quickly to introduce new measures to make sure that businesses can continue to keep food supply flowing. These measures include extending delivery hours to supermarkets and flexing rules on drivers’ hours to allow a higher frequency of deliveries to stores. We have temporarily relaxed elements of competition law, allowing retailers to co-operate in the national interest to keep shops stocked. We have also designated employees involved in food production as key workers. These interventions give the sector the flexibility it needs to ensure that food reaches people in a rapidly changing situation. On competition law, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that the CMA has created a dedicated Covid-19 task force to identify any of the sorts of issues he mentioned. I would be happy to pass on any particular points for him.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and many other noble Lords raised the issue of the crisis falling hardest on certain parts of society. I want to emphasise this because I have witnessed it: the Government are working extremely hard with others to ensure that everyone can safely access nutritious food. With reference to the economically vulnerable, on 8 May we announced £16 million of funding from DCMS to ensure that food is available to critical front-line services supporting vulnerable people. This includes a food charity grant scheme to provide food to some of the most economically vulnerable people. Applicants must confirm they will aim to use food funded under this grant to provide or contribute towards—I emphasise—nutritionally balanced meals in alignment with the Eatwell Guide. We work with FareShare, WRAP, other charitable organisations, DWP and MHCLG to help at least 5,000 front-line charities—a point that the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Tyler, made.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that schools can make food parcel or gift voucher arrangements with any local or national supplier that they consider appropriate. I will take back the points that have been made so that I can have a discussion with the Department for Education.
To address the needs of clinically and economically vulnerable people who do not have a wider support network to help them secure food or who are unable physically to go to supermarkets, we have developed a shielding scheme. We have so far identified more than 2 million clinically extremely vulnerable people in England. Where they do not have a support network, we are ensuring an uninterrupted supply of food. Wherever shielding individuals let the Government know that they are having trouble accessing food, their details are passed on to supermarkets, which put them at the front of the queue for online delivery slots. We are arranging for them to receive packages of essential supplies delivered directly to their doorstep. They are designed to deliver the nutritional requirements—I emphasise this issue as the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Bakewell, raised it—of one person for one week and have been reviewed by nutritionists. To date, more than 1 million food parcels have been delivered in England. It is the biggest effort to deliver supplies to those in need since the Second World War. I am grateful for what my noble friend Lady Altmann said in this regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, raised this point, and I want to emphasise that we are working to support others who need help with food supplies, including the elderly, the disabled, blind people, people self-isolating, people with pre-existing health conditions following enhanced self-distancing and people who normally rely on food deliveries by supermarkets or support networks. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that we are working closely with local authorities, businesses and charities to help this group access food through food deliveries from local retailers, wholesalers and food businesses. We have also worked with supermarkets to increase access to priority delivery for click-and-collect slots. This group can also refer themselves or a family member to NHS Volunteer Responders. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the almost 600,000 people who have come forward and are working on shopping for food and essential supplies on behalf of vulnerable people.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to food waste. There is much on this that I would wish to discuss, but we should record that during this time WRAP has said that food waste has been reduced by nearly one-third. That is a lesson to be learned. I also endorse what my noble friend Lord Caithness said about hard-working farmers—I want to mention the fishing industry here, too—who maintain the supply of products which form an essential part of many household diets.
My noble friend Lord Shewsbury mentioned eggs. I say to him, and I will take this back, that it is a requirement to include the country of origin and farming requirements on eggs. We welcome all parts of the food chain when they promote and source British products. I am aware of WTO matters but I am happy to say to your Lordships, and more widely, that I always seek to buy British and will always encourage others to buy British food and drink. My noble friend Lady Redfern was joined by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach in championing not only Lincolnshire but food production at home.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, raised the new fund to help support those dairy farmers who have seen decreased demand due to the loss of market in the food service sector. The new fund will provide support for those most in need. Eligible dairy farmers in England who have lost more than 25% of their income over April and May will be entitled to up to £10,000 each, to cover 70% of their lost income during those months. I will take back the points about any further months thereafter.
I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra raised fishing. A £10 million support package for England’s fishing and aquaculture sectors was announced on 17 April to secure the sustainability of the English fishing industry. It is also important to say that Defra and Seafish are working closely on the “Sea For Yourself” campaign to promote seafood species caught in UK waters. I emphasise to my noble friend Lord Blencathra, and reaffirm, our intention to be an independent coastal state with all that that commands. Other support includes the business interruption loans and temporary competition law exemption, allowing the dairy industry to share information and work together.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh has been a champion of our farmers and producers and we ourselves continue to champion them. We are supporting them to grow more great British food and to provide a reliable, sustainable and nutritious food supply to the British public.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, raised the importance of improving the productivity of agricultural and horticultural activity. The Agriculture Bill will allow us to provide financial assistance in these matters. This includes support to increase the productivity of fruit and vegetables.
On a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we want the entire supply chain to help deliver healthier food and encourage healthy eating. This point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Our National Food Strategy will build on the Agriculture Bill to help ensure that our food system delivers healthy and affordable food for all, built on a resilient and sustainable agriculture sector. This point was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lord Caithness. We will also ensure that the Bill sets out our plans to reward farmers for, among other things, safeguarding the nation’s high welfare standards.
I say to my noble friend the Duke of Wellington and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we are leading on different initiatives to promote British produce. This includes Defra’s “Food is GREAT” campaign, while the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board recently launched a new marketing campaign to increase supplies of milk, funded jointly with Defra, the devolved Administrations and Dairy UK. We also have campaigns under way to promote beef and pork, with a further campaign on lamb to come.
I endorse my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s words on the importance of innovation. On another point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, anyone going to Harper Adams will see the extraordinary work going on there, for instance. Since 2013, the Government have funded an agri-tech strategy with £160 million and the recent industrial strategy challenge fund with £90 million, transforming food production. Defra is now developing an ambitious industry-driven R&D package.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, raised a really important point. Farming, the environment and rural resilience are a complete jigsaw puzzle. It is not about separate silos; all of it is absolutely intrinsic—another point that my noble friend Lord Lucas raised.
Seasonal labour was raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Naseby. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, also mentioned prisoners: Defra is working with the MoJ on the temporary release licence scheme for agricultural work. I am most grateful to the noble Lord for raising that. It was also raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Baronesses, Lady Quin, Lady Parminter and Lady Sheehan, and many other noble Lords.
There has been a strong response from thousands of British people expressing their interest in agricultural work in the coming months. Work is currently in hand on the government/industry digital hub “Pick for Britain”. We think that, for some of the early weeks, labour has been covered, but we are conscious that from the end of this month and beyond we need ever more people to come forward. We are working on the promotion of the website. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that there will be students. My noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, know very well that this is hard work and we are very conscious that we will need to encourage British people to come forward. That is what we intend to do and we very much hope that those who are able to come from overseas can do so as well.
On the issue of self-sufficiency, obviously self-sufficiency does not equate to overall food security, however important increasing British production is. My noble friend Lady Verma and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referred to communities across the world—many vulnerable communities—where we will want to import from, and sustainably. We continue to monitor closely the impacts of the outbreak on international supply chains, including any disruption to freight transport, borders, production and trade. At present, all short-term risks have stabilised and we have a free flow of goods along the international supply chain. We will continue to co-operate with international partners to ensure that the UK continues to receive vital supplies of food and other critical goods. We are working with the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that we maintain close ties internationally and monitor any risks that may arise. I believe that we will have a very close relationship with our EU friends and partners. This is work in progress and I am confident that there will be a successful result.
The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, raised shipping, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Ritchie. On 24 April, the Government announced a financial package to keep freight flowing on routes into and across the four nations of the United Kingdom. I am conscious of the importance of food flowing into Northern Ireland—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised this. Although routes are currently running without significant disruption, the package is designed to help avoid future disruption or delays. In the interest of time, I will, in my letter, write in full on the situation of Northern Ireland, because I think it is absolutely critical. We wish and intend to have no difficulties in our trading arrangements across the United Kingdom. Indeed, we want to have very good trading relationships with the EU and across the world as well. As my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot—I think—and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others raised, there are undoubtedly going to be lessons from this crisis and for the longer term as well.
We have included in the Agriculture Bill a new requirement for the United Kingdom Government to report on food security to Parliament at least once every five years. The report will analyse a wide range of data and will contain information on food supply, including the role of strong domestic production alongside diverse sources of supply. It will cover a range of issues, including global food availability, supply sources for food, the resilience of the supply chain, household expenditure on food, food safety and consumer confidence. The five-year frequency was set because we need to allow sufficient time to observe key trends, but I emphasise that these matters are under constant consideration.
Our engagement with businesses and representative bodies in the food sector has been extensive; I have seen that for myself. Food businesses have responded swiftly and responsibly to ensure the supply of food and have worked with us to make sure that those most in need have continued access to food.
Throughout, we have wanted to highlight the crucial role the food and farming sectors have played, now more than ever. While we remain confident in our supply chain, we must not be complacent and will continue to work with industry to ensure that there is food—and great British food—on our shelves and in our kitchens.
I thank the noble Baroness and all noble Lords, particularly those I have not been in a position to mention. I am very conscious of all that has been said and am taking back all the comments made. I will write fully and am very grateful for this debate. As I said at the beginning, it has been extremely thought-provoking —not only about the current crisis but most definitely for the longer term.
My Lords, thank you so very much for such a wonderful, varied and interesting series of contributions. I learned such a lot from them all and will read everybody’s contributions carefully, because I was incapable of taking enough notes and listening at the same time. I particularly thank the Minister for his continued work in this area. I know that his commitment to all the subjects we have talked about today is real, valid and strong.
As we have seen today, food touches every area of our lives, as well as every corner of our wonderful planet. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, we need to “eat the view”. It might be fanciful to say, but I have always believed that if we could get the food system right, we would live in a happier, healthier, fairer and very much more environmentally just world.
Food is not a commodity, like a T-shirt or cardboard box. It is a magical substance that enables us all, and all our fellow creatures, to live and thrive. Everything in our world begins and happens because of the way we convert sunlight. We do not actually do it; plants do it for us. They feed us to become capable of things. If you think about it, everything begins that way. It cannot really be replicated. But in these dark times, it is really important to remember that if you plant a green bean into the soil and give it some water, it will reward you in a few weeks with an enormous amount of extraordinarily wonderful food. This is a magic that science cannot recreate—and one we should treasure and learn to pass on to our children.
What food is not is a series of images that many of us see. It is not one of the saddest ones I know—workers in China wearing specially adapted vests so that they can pollinate fruit trees, because they have managed to kill all the bees due to the overuse of pesticides. Food is not pathetic chickens living in factories where they are allocated less than the size of an A4 piece of paper to live in. I read yesterday in the New York Times that because of the crisis in America and the fact that the chickens are getting a bit bigger because of problems in the supply line, they are suffocating them with foam because they cannot think how else to get rid of them. Food is not an orangutan dying thousands of miles away from me in order that I can get a cheap chocolate mousse in my local supermarket, because that orangutan’s habitat has been cut down to produce palm oil. Food is definitely not the aisles and aisles of cheap snacks in our supermarkets that, when you look at the ingredients, contain no living product at all.
I have now worked in this world for about 12 years. I think that my aim is quite simple, but it is extraordinarily hard to achieve. I believe we all have the right to have access to healthy and affordable food, regardless of where we live, how much money we have, whether we are old, ill or vulnerable, and whether we are a child or a senior in the last days of our life. It should be a right, in much the same way as we think that education and healthcare are rights. Quite frankly, we now see that if we do not make decent, healthy food a right for all of us, we will end up burdening all those systems. I know, as many of your Lordships probably do, that when children are not fed over the summer holidays, they cannot start off again well at school. This is so important, yet as a Government and as a country—on all sides of the political chain—we have been very happy since the war, when we last had a food strategy, to leave it to private companies to dictate the way we eat. If you are a private company in a capitalist economy, at the end of the day you want to sell more product made from cheaper ingredients, and that is where we are today.
However, there is hope on the horizon. We have the Agriculture Bill, which was debated yesterday in the Commons and, I gather, will be coming to this House after Whitsun. We have a food strategy in Defra. It is slightly on the back-burner now but it will come back. There is now much discussion in the world about the best use of land and about restorative agriculture. It would be a great tragedy if, after all this—if after seeing what Covid-19 has revealed—we returned to business as usual. As my noble and good friend Lord Krebs said, food is the one thing that we cannot do without, but certainly it is the one thing that we can really try to get right in the future.
I hope that, like me, everybody has got a great deal from today’s session. I hugely look forward to having lots of conversations with people—something that I cannot do face to face at the moment but can do online. I hope that, in the days to come, what we have learned from this debate will inform and take the process forward.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 4.30 pm for the Question for Short Debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bird.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.