Skip to main content

Food Security

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer to my entry in the register of interests.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. UK food security remains consistently high, and the Government continue to strengthen it by supporting our farmers and food producers. Underlining this commitment, at the NFU conference we announced the introduction of an annual food security index, underpinning the three-yearly UK food security report. The next report will be out before the end of the year, with the first draft of the index set for the second UK Farm to Fork summit this spring.

My Lords, will my noble friend join with me in paying tribute to and celebrating the work of our farmers in putting food on our plates, in particular the livestock producers on the hills, and tenant farmers especially? Will my noble friend take this opportunity, against the backdrop of increasing challenges to self-sufficiency, to give farmers and consumers alike an undertaking that any imported food and agricultural products will meet the same high animal welfare and environmental standards as those produced in this country?

I thank my noble friend and entirely agree with her on the issue of supporting our farmers and congratulating them on the work they do. I quite accept the premise that a significant change is going on in the agricultural sector. It was clearly signalled when we transitioned away from the common agricultural policy and focused farming on delivering both food production and environmental goals through ELMS. It is entirely understandable that farmers have concerns about this transition, as it requires them to reappraise how they use the entirety of their land. We are guiding and supporting farmers with new technology, new science and improved productivity to not only produce and maintain high quality food but to enrich our soil, reduce pollution and help reverse biodiversity loss.

My noble Lords, the food security report identifies climate change and biodiversity loss as the greatest threat to UK food security. Therefore, will the Government’s upcoming Farm to Fork summit include representatives from environmental organisations working on climate change and biodiversity?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As she will know, the upcoming Farm to Fork summit is the second one we have held, and the National Farmers’ Union requested that we implement this as an annual event. I forget the exact statistics but at the last one, over 70 representatives from the wider industry, across the entire supply chain, were in attendance, along with food producers from across the whole UK. The intention is to grow that at our next summit, which is in the spring.

My Lords, with respect, the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, are living in a parallel universe. Did the Minister not see 120 farmers driving their tractors up Whitehall, honking and protesting? Were we not told that when we left the European Union everything would be okay for farmers? What has gone wrong?

The noble Lord raises a good point, and I was a little surprised that I did not see him out there when I went to visit the protesters last night. He is entirely correct; they did make a lot of noise. The Government are supporting farmers across a whole range of areas, be it technology, science, financial, or productivity gain. But it needs to be understood that we are going through a transition at the moment, in order to recalibrate and rebalance our food production and environmental benefits in the countryside. The Government are being crystal clear that food production comes first and foremost in that battle.

My Lords, further to the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, may I press the Minister a bit further? In negotiating free trade agreements, will His Majesty’s Government set minimum environmental and animal welfare standards which imported animal products must meet, equivalent to those we demand of our own farmers, so that we do not put our farmers at a comparative disadvantage and undermine our food security?

The noble Lord is absolutely right about this issue. Both Defra and the Government have been crystal clear that agriculture is at the forefront of any trade deals we negotiate. We reserve the right to pause negotiations with any country if progress is not being made. We recently did this with Canada, which the president of the NFU welcomed as a relief for farmers. All imports need to meet our food safety requirements, and free trade agreements do not change our protections for food safety, animal welfare and the environment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we are serious about food security, we should do all we can to stop large solar arrays being put on high-quality agricultural land? Does he also agree that the way forward is to ensure that solar panels are put on warehouses across the country and located alongside motorways and railways?

My noble friend is correct. There is a presumption against planning on grade 1, grade 2 and grade 3 land. He is entirely right that solar energy and any other developments need to be appropriately sited to achieve the right result.

My Lords, the NFU has asked the Government to identify opportunities to increase our market share of foods we can produce sustainably, including a commitment to source 50% of food into the public sector from British farms. Public procurement can support our food producers, so what are the Government doing to support farmers through procurement?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. This month the Environment Secretary appointed Will Quince MP as an independent adviser to support our ongoing work to improve food procurement in the public sector. His review will look at how we can increase the impact and reach of the existing government buying standards for food and catering services and promote our high standards in places such as residential care, hospitals and schools.

My Lords, I indicate my interests as listed in the register and pay tribute to farmers. As the Minister has said, the priorities are food production and environmental quality, including rebuilding biodiversity, restoring clean air and water and prioritising the rebuilding of healthy soils. What ongoing assessment is being made of the current ELMS and SFI programmes to meet these aims?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. Defra has a large outreach programme with its constituent members, particularly its farming community. We monitor a lot of this work most of the time. Through ELMS we can assess the impact we are having on improving the environment.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made, since the introduction of the precision breeding Bill, of the risk to the environment of releasing into it genetically modified plants?

The noble Lord raises a serious question on a serious subject. The Government are in the process of assessing this impact, and I hope to write to him shortly with the answer to his question.

My Lords—for the third time—can the Minister answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell: at the Farm to Fork event, will there be people from the environmental lobby who are well-informed about how to preserve nature?

My Lords, I would be most grateful if the Minister wrote to my noble friend Lady Bakewell and answered her question. My question is about food waste. There is far too much of it, and there is strong support in the food industry for making reporting on food waste mandatory. Yet, in response to a recommendation of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, the Government have decided, against all the evidence, to delay doing anything for another four to six months. Why is that, and are the Government content to leave it to the next Government?

No, I am not content to leave it to the next Government. I cannot furnish the noble Baroness with a date, but I will write to her and, indeed, to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, shortly.