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Food and Farming: Supply Issues

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the supply chain issues in the food and farming sector identified by the National Farmers’ Union and the British Retail Consortium at the Food Security Summit on 14 December 2021; and what plans they have to prepare a long-term solution to these issues.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The UK’s food industry sectors operate highly resilient supply chains, as demonstrated throughout the Covid-19 response. The Government have well-established ways of working with the industry on preparedness for, and in response to, issues with the potential to cause disruption to food supply chains. Our production-to-supply ratio remains high in comparison with historical levels: we produce 60% of all the food we need. These figures have changed little over the past 20 years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. We are facing a serious supply chain crisis, with an estimated 500,000 labour shortages and rising costs. There is a shortage of seasonal workers to pick our fruit and veg and of lorry drivers to deliver them. There is a lack of produce on supermarket shelves and a rise in imports as a result. We are seeing a mass cull of pigs because we have no butchers, while the import of pork products from the EU is rising. Does the Minister accept that short-term fixes and three-month temporary visas will not solve the labour shortage? We need a long-term plan for this. Does he also accept that we should have a target of at least 60% food self-sufficiency in the UK, and that this should be underpinned by specific support to put British farmers and businesses first?

The noble Baroness is of course right that we should not be concerned just with short-term fixes. However, if she will forgive me, I think that she is a little out of date. We have agreed, through to 2024, to allow 30,000 people to come from outside the UK into this country under the seasonal workers scheme. In addition, we have people under the EU settled status. We are also trying to encourage more domestic employment and innovation through automation. All these things will ease the pressures that existed last year—and still exist, to an extent—but the situation is better. We are not complacent and it will continue to improve.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what action is being taken to improve the facilities available to long-distance and other delivery drivers on the motorway network? Together with the long hours that these drivers spend waiting, the lack of facilities is a main concern in the recruitment process. It is not about pay and, in some ways, it is not about quotas for foreigners to come in. The concern is about the facilities.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. We have worked with other departments, including the Department for Transport and the Home Office, in the development of our scheme to encourage more drivers, to ease the difficulties caused mainly by the pandemic but also by our withdrawal from the EU, which have resulted in a shortage of drivers. The noble Lord is right: it is the quality of their lives that we need to look at, alongside all the generous incentives that we are giving to encourage people to come here and fill this gap.

My Lords, what measures are the Government taking to prevent the scene of edible vegetables being ploughed in rather than being harvested and entering the food chain?

My noble friend raises an important point. Vegetable producers will always try to produce slightly more than the demand because that is better than being short of supply to the next stage of the food chain. Every year, some vegetables are ploughed in, but it has increased recently, for reasons that we are all aware of. We are very mindful of encouraging a much more stable supply chain. That is why we have increased the number of drivers and brought in a variety of different skill sets through the seasonal workers scheme. We hope that this problem will ease in the coming months.

My Lords, looking more widely in the farming industry, what are the Government doing to help farmers reduce their methane emissions, which are an extremely large source of carbon emissions?

We are taking a number of measures to tackle this pernicious greenhouse gas. It operates very differently from other greenhouse gases; it has a much more damaging short-term effect but is a short-term problem. There is enormous progress in technologies around what we feed cattle and in husbandry. We can offset the effects of methane through other measures we are taking through our environmental land management schemes.

My Lords, I speak as the chair of Feeding Britain. All the problems that noble Lords have referred to are impacting on the price of food. One measure we have is the Healthy Start vouchers, and I congratulate the Government on increasing this; it really helps poor families. However, we have just learned that the uptake is only just over 51%. What are the Government doing to extend the reach of these things? Will they consider making an opt-in scheme the de facto way of becoming a member of this important scheme which helps low-income families?

I will relay the suggestion to colleagues in the Government. The Healthy Start food vouchers scheme, which has been raised from £3.10 to £4.25, should be seen as part of a wider array of measures that we are providing to target families on lower incomes. The £500 million household support fund is another example, but the noble Baroness makes a very important point which I will relay.

My Lords, I refer to my horticultural interests. What success has the department had in negotiations with the Home Office on extending temporary worker schemes to non-edible horticultural products—for example, nursery trees, nursery products, flowers, and other such things?

This is an incredibly important part of our economy, particularly our rural economy. I am delighted that we have managed to get the addition of ornamental and other non-food-related measures as part of the seasonal worker scheme, and it is quite right that we do so. But we are reliant on the industry telling us in advance, as much as it can, about where it thinks the pressures will come from in the future. We have the ability to increase the £30,000 by another £10,000, and we want to encourage much more training in the sector.

My Lords, the national food strategy has met with criticism from ITV, which is keen to continue advertising fast, unhealthy food. Given the rise in obesity and diabetes, why are the Government not promoting local, healthily grown fruit and vegetables which can then go into the free school meals system, to both improve the health of our children and support our farmers?

My Lords, we are. We want to encourage local food chains to operate more effectively; it is of course much healthier for the environment and the quality of the food is better. We want to disrupt highly centralised food chains where we can. We also want to make sure that we are encouraging as stable a food chain system as we can, because we rely on the just-in-time measures to get food from the field to the plate.

My Lords, we are seeing a rise in the number of farm shops up and down the country, but what is the department doing to ensure that large supermarkets sell British products?

The best pressure on supermarkets does not necessarily come from finger-wagging of the Government or measures from Ministers but from the customer. We must encourage people to shop locally; for example, if they are concerned about the effects of their diet on climate change, eating grass-fed, locally produced meat means they are probably doing more to help the environment than when buying products that have been brought from the other side of the world, under circumstances that are much below our standards in this country.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, wishes to speak virtually. I think this would be a convenient moment to hear from him.

My Lords, how do the new trade deals with Australia and New Zealand help with the aims of maintaining Britain’s food production self-sufficiency level at 60% and creating an environment for farm and food businesses to thrive and compete in the coming years?

There is good news on a variety of different measures in trade deals, not least on the point of the noble Lord’s question. We are about to see the end of the ban on UK lamb being sold to the United States. Free trade is important; it benefits us all. We have incorporated into the two trade deals that the noble Lord talked about the absolute determination to protect our standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. That is the best protection that we can give to the high-quality produce that our farmers produce in this country.