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Food Prices: Agricultural Policy

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on food prices of the changes to agricultural policy set out in The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024, published on 30 November 2020; and what plans they have to mitigate any such impact on lower socio-economic groups.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and take the opportunity to declare my farming interests.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Our assessment is that consumer food prices are not likely to be significantly affected by farming reforms. The main drivers of food prices include import costs, exchange rates and domestic production and manufacturing costs. We regularly monitor prices, and the food security report will inform any appropriate policy responses. The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his valuable response. With action necessary to address climate change, biodiversity, food waste, diet, trade issues and much more, it all points to higher food prices, which have a disproportionate effect on the poorest, largest and elderly households. Ensuring a safety net is essential. Who in the Government will be accountable for co-ordinating the actions of departments to achieve the desired but sometimes conflicting outcomes around food, health, farming, land use and trade?

My Lords, that is one reason why, since the Covid outbreak, the Department for Work and Pensions has established a working group on the cost of living, where food vulnerability is discussed alongside other issues by all Ministers whose departments have a role in ensuring food security. I accept that farming will have to do many things, one of which is to produce very healthy food. There has been £280 billion of support since March 2020 to families and children, which I think is a good record from the Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of concern about the impact of potential trade deals on food prices and quality. Is my noble friend aware of a recent Sustain LSE report which showed that obesity rose in both Mexico and Canada following their trade deals with the United States? Does he agree that, if the Government were tempted to solve the problem of rising food prices by importing cheap, poor-quality food, it would nudge lower-income families into buying it, thereby exacerbating the obesity problem?

My Lords, the Government are very clear that our trade deals will not compromise our food standards. All food, regardless of agreement, will have to meet our import requirements. Clearly, obesity must be addressed. The Government’s strategy of July last year took forward actions of the childhood obesity plan, setting out measures and ambitious targets to halve by 2030 the number of children living with obesity and to get the country fitter and healthier.

My Lords, the level of home production could well have an impact on food prices. Can the Minister confirm what assessments the Government have made of the effect that their current policies will have on the level of self-sufficiency of homegrown food? What efforts are the Government making to increase the volume of homegrown food in public sector procurement?

My Lords, clearly it is important that there is strong domestic production. We currently produce 66% of our national supply and 77% of indigenous foods. Food production is extremely important and, with Section (1)4 of the Agriculture Act in particular, we will be working with farmers on that as well as on the environmental enhancement we want.

My Lords, 8.4 million people in the UK live in food poverty. It is no coincidence that those worst affected are precisely those who were most hard hit by Covid—minority ethnic communities and older and disabled people. Research by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, of which I am a commissioner, makes it clear that future agriculture needs to deliver food, particularly fruit and vegetables, that is healthy, environmentally sound and affordable. How will the Government amend the agricultural transition plan, which is strangely silent about food, to prioritise not cheap food but healthy food grown in agroecological systems and ensure that this will be widely available at accessible prices?

My Lords, noble Lords will remember, and as I have said, Section 1(4) of the Agriculture Act is precisely to ensure that financial assistance schemes are within that context, and it is the duty of the Secretary of State to consider food production. Our purpose is to ensure that there is healthy food for all to eat at affordable prices.

My Lords, the Government’s ambitious plans to move farmers from direct farm payments to a system whereby they manage their whole business differently to deliver profitable food production and the recovery of nature must be a step in the right direction. However, as other noble Lords have said, we are currently seeing the queues at food banks increasing as people struggle to feed their families. Surely food prices are likely to rise and increase the cost of food for those on low incomes. The Government say they have strategies to deal with this but give no details. Can the Minister give some detail on how feeding those on low incomes will actually happen?

There are two points. In the last year, food prices have fallen by 0.8% and, as I mentioned, there is the £280 billion of support. Obviously with a successful economy, recovery from Covid and more people returning to work, matters will improve. There will always be a safety net and that is why I mentioned that £280 billion has gone towards supporting the vulnerable.

Does my noble friend agree that every grain of evidence, from the Corn Laws onwards, shows that free trade and innovation provide more plentiful food, of a higher quality and at a lower price—thank you Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and all the others—and that systems of trade protection in the past have led to higher prices and shortages for poorer families? Does he agree that, once we have sorted out the inevitable adjustments that we face in leaving the protectionist common agricultural policy, British consumers can expect to feed themselves better and for less, rather than paying higher prices to subsidise inefficient farmers in other countries? For the many, not the few, you might say. Do not we all have a great deal to look forward to?

My Lords, we will champion free and fair trade and lower barriers at every opportunity. There are great opportunities for British food to be exported. In all the trade agreements that we negotiate, we will stand up for British farming and we will always ensure that the UK FTAs are fair and reciprocal. There is great opportunity for our domestic producers to export as well as have very strong production. Yes, I agree that free trade has been a great success over the centuries.

My Lords, as we know, the sustainable farming proposals are for England only. The devolved nations are drawing up their own proposals for reform, which could lead to differential food prices across the UK. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of the joint working group set up to carry out market surveillance and ensure that the UK internal market does not end up with winners and losers in the food price sector?

My Lords, we have set up the UK agricultural support framework precisely to ensure that there is non-legislative collaboration and co-operation on agricultural support between the four UK Administrations. We will continue with this effective co-ordination and dialogue, so that the internal market of the UK is secure.

Does the Minister agree that a low- wage economy is one reason why we have food poverty? If we look at the agricultural industry, we see some of the lowest wages in the UK. How are we going to square that one? We want cheap food, but we want it by having cheap labour in the countryside.

My Lords, agricultural innovation will make a considerable difference to the qualifications and skills of the next generations of agricultural and horticultural workers. This is going to be an area of great expansion.