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UK Food Shortages

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on UK food shortages.

The United Kingdom has a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated throughout the covid-19 response, and is well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause disruption.

In the last few days, we have seen Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Tesco apply item limits to a small number of fruits and vegetables in response to issues with supply from Spain and north Africa caused predominantly by seasonal weather hampering production and harvest during December and January. The nature of horticulture and the effect on production of short-term events such as weather can create some volatility, and any growing forecast is subject to short-term alterations. We know that Ireland and other parts of Europe are facing very similar supply issues.

Industry has the capability, levers and expertise to respond to disruption and, where necessary, my Department will further support and enable that. I wish to reiterate that UK food security remains resilient, and we continue to expect industry to be able to mitigate supply problems through alternative sourcing options.

In 2021, we imported over £1.5 billion-worth of fruits and vegetables from Spain and £340 million-worth from Morocco. We consistently import over 30,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every month of the year. Through the winter months, the majority of imports are from Morocco and Spain, but in the summer months, as more production comes online, we also import from the Netherlands. In 2021, our home production accounted for around 17% of tomatoes.

We are working closely with industry bodies across the horticulture sectors to better understand the impacts. Officials have already met retailers, and there will be further meetings to understand their plans to mitigate current pressures. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries will be convening a roundtable of retailers to explore with them their contractual models, their plans for a return to normal supplies, and contingencies for dealing with these supply chain problems.

We know that farmers and growers around the world have been facing significant pressures caused by the invasion of Ukraine and the historic outbreak of avian influenza in Europe. We also recognise the impact of rising food prices as a result of global shocks including the spike in oil and gas prices, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. That is why the Government have taken steps to offer support with energy costs. We cut tariffs to reduce feed costs, we improved avian influenza compensation schemes, and we have taken a range of measures on fertilisers. Indeed, UK growers were able to access the energy bill relief scheme.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue to keep the market under review through the UK agriculture market monitoring group and other engagement forums.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. You will have seen coverage of this issue all over the front pages of the papers and all over the TV, because there is genuine public concern about the availability of food. Given her responsibility for our food security—let us bear in mind that food security is national security—this is mission critical for the Secretary of State. Frankly, I found her response to be completely detached from the reality being faced on the ground, whether in our supermarkets or by our farmers.

There is this idea that, somehow, the issue is all down to external forces. Of course, we understand the impact of covid and the spike coming out of that, we understand the impact of Brexit, we understand the impact of Ukraine and we understand the impact of energy prices. We understand all that. The question is, what is in the Government’s control? What levers do they have to make the situation better today? They did not have to make changes to direct payments that undercut farmers. They did not have to agree to international trade deals that undersell UK farmers. They could have made sure that farmers and food producers had access to the energy-intensive support scheme, but they decided not to do that. They could have made sure that the labour quotas were sufficient to ensure that food was not rotting in the fields. All those levers were available to the Government.

When I met Lancashire farmers who had fallen victim to avian flu and were struggling to find ways of recovering and rebuilding their businesses, they told me that there was not a single DEFRA scheme to help them restart. There are 1 billion fewer eggs on our shelves this year than there were before the pandemic. On pancake day earlier this week, people could not buy eggs to make their pancakes.

This is the result of the Government’s indifference and dithering. If they do not understand that food security is national security, and that we need to end sticking-plaster politics and have a long-term plan, there is no hope for the nation.

I think I set out pretty clearly what is going on right now. [Hon. Members: “Nothing is going on!”] It sounds to me as if the shadow Secretary of State has abandoned the agricultural transition plan, which conflicts with what the Leader of the Opposition said the other day. That is interesting: we are seeing a Labour split already, within 48 hours. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman is trying to play politics with such a serious situation.

The House should bear in mind some of the support that has been provided, such as the changes that we made to the avian influenza compensation scheme. It is true that the number of hens fell by about 4 million last year, but there are still between 36 million and 38 million laying hens in this country. It is important that we continue to have that discussion.

The retailers have had a pretty reliable supply chain, but what has happened in southern Spain and Morocco is unusual, which is why we need a resilient farming industry and a resilient supply chain. [Interruption.] I hear someone mention greenhouses. We are seeing the industry evolve, but I am not aware that any greenhouse owner benefits from any basic payment scheme. The energy bill relief scheme continues to be available to various parts of the sector, although I am aware that that will not necessarily be the case from April onwards, and that there may be a significant reduction.

I think the hon. Gentleman needs to be careful when it comes to the question of ensuring that we retain confidence in the food supply chain. Supermarkets have decided to stop a lot of the buying so that everyone still has access to enough fruit and vegetables. I am led to believe by my officials, following discussions with the industry and with retailers, that this situation will last for another two to four weeks. We must try to ensure that there are alternative sourcing options, which is why the Department has had those discussions with retailers, and there will be further discussions led by Ministers so that we can try to get over this and to avoid similar situations in the future. Even if we cannot control the weather, we can and must try to ensure that the supply is not frustrated in quite the way it has been owing to these unusual weather incidents.

If only I had been told before I voted for Brexit that it was going to cause frosts in Morocco, I could have made a different decision—couldn’t I?

One of the joys of being the Secretary of State for this Department is having the environment and agriculture in the same portfolio, which leads us to take a sensible, careful, long-term approach to considering the factors that can help both our farming sector and the environment. We took that approach when designing the environmental land management schemes, and we are now on a careful journey as we move people away from a very rigid element of what was the basic payment scheme under the common agricultural policy, when more than half the subsidy went to just 10% of the farmers in this country. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) wanted to go back into the European Union, I believe. That decision was made by all the EU countries, so he clearly does not know his history or know anything about the CAP. What he should be doing—unlike the shadow Secretary of State, who now seems to be undermining the environmental land management schemes—is recognising some of the initiatives we have been funding, the various grants we have provided, and the way in which we have tackled, for instance, tariffs on imports. It is by adopting approaches of that sort that we can help our farming industry.

Importantly, the retailers are working to provide alternative sourcing so that those restrictions on consumer consumption will not be in place for much longer.

The Secretary of State’s response shows that she and her Government refuse to take any responsibility for their own shortcomings. Farmers across the UK have been warning of the risk of food shortages for some time as a result of rising costs and Brexit trade barriers. Why did the Government not heed those warnings? Who would have thought that, in 2023, the UK would be facing the problem of food shortages which, despite what we have been told, is uniquely affecting the UK? We are the only European country with empty supermarket shelves. The reality is that food shortages are due to low food production, which is in serious decline under this Government’s watch.

In addition, the supermarket sector has been “hurt horribly” by Brexit, according to the chief executive of Sainsbury’s. The chair of Save British Food has accused the Government of “absolute negligence”, of not caring about food production and of shattering food security. In all honesty, is the Secretary of State not embarrassed and ashamed that, under her and her Government’s watch, the UK is poorer, has less food, and has a declining agricultural sector and higher food costs because of Brexit failure and the empty rhetoric of taking back control?

I do not recognise a lot of what the hon. Lady said about food production. It might be true in Scotland, but that is a devolved matter—she might want to take a look. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady does not seem to take any ownership of what the SNP Government are doing in relation to farming policies. As we set out in the Government’s food strategy last year and in our manifesto, we want to maintain, if not increase, our domestic food security, which is what I said to the NFU yesterday. However, as she will know, there are a number of products that we cannot grow in this country and we also have a season. One of the main differences between our supermarkets and those in Europe is that our supermarkets often have a fixed price contract. In other countries, there is often a trend towards variable price contracts. We recognise that and will be going into that in detail with the supermarkets.

As I have said, there has been unusual weather in Morocco and south Spain, which has led to a temporary restriction—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) continues to chunter from a sedentary position. As I have said, it is for her and her Government in Scotland to decide what they are doing about food production. This Conservative Government back our farmers. We want them to grow food—that is the main purpose of farmers—and to make a good living out of it, and we will continue to support them in that. The £2.4 billion a year will go towards a combination of basic payments and the initiatives to make sure that we have a resilient, sustainable and profitable food industry for many generations to come.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the supermarkets are still importing far too much produce for us and that we should be eating more seasonally and supporting our own British farmers. If we were to move to a seasonal way of eating, many of these problems would be avoided. Great food products are available from local farmers at this time. May I take the opportunity to thank the Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for joining me yesterday at the Taste of Exmoor event where we met some of those farmers vital to our food supply.

As ever, my hon. Friend shows that she is a great champion for her constituents by bringing the Taste of Exmoor to Parliament. I do not know whether you had the opportunity to attend that event, Mr Speaker. I am afraid that I did not, because I was returning from the NFU conference. It is important to make sure that we cherish our specialisms in this country. Many people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about lettuce, tomatoes and similar. However, I am conscious that consumers want a year-round choice, and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.

I always knew that the Conservatives were a bunch of bean counters, but this is off the scale—our supermarkets have had to impose a form of food rationing, while the chief bean counter comes to the Dispatch Box and says, “Crisis? What crisis?” Does the Secretary of State agree with the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, who has accused the Government of a “dereliction of duty” for failing to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose post-Brexit set of border checks on agricultural imports? That was not what we were promised before the Brexit vote?

I think the hon. Gentleman should withdraw the words and phrases he used, because I did not use those words at the Dispatch Box. We recognise this particular issue, right now, which is why the Department is already in discussion with retailers, and why the Minister will meet retailers. This incident is driven by aspects of the supply chain, and the primary source for goods right now is an area that was affected by very unusual weather before and after Christmas. To have snow, and the amount of heat that was there, and adverse weather, is pretty unusual and something that the supply chain has to try to manage. Right now supermarkets have chosen a particular way. That is why we will continue to meet them, and I am hoping that this will be a temporary issue. This volatility is unwelcome, but I am conscious that our supply chain is resilient and that we will continue to invest in our farmers for generations to come.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right in pointing to the factors that she has in answering this urgent question. May I push her a little further on the question of energy, and urge her to work more closely with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to see whether we can reclassify what is energy intensive industry within our support schemes? Agriculture and horticulture are incredibly energy intensive, yet they have not had the same support as some manufacturing sectors. That could revolutionise British farming and keep businesses afloat.

I am conscious of what my hon. Friend says. Industrial glasshouses in particular are an emerging industry, not a long-established one, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will always be looking to consider who should be eligible. We will continue to make the case for why we think this is an important sector. I am conscious that there is a significant scaling back, recognising other issues, such as the wholesale price of gas which has fallen, and we expect to see a reduction in energy prices coming through.

I am concerned that these food shortages will impact on school meals. Should we be looking to give free school meals to far more children in England, just as Scotland and Wales already do?

Free school meals is a policy for the Department for Education. I am conscious that due to the Barnett formula, the Administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales get a lot more funding per head. I do not anticipate that will change, but those Administrations have the freedom to make policies that are relevant to their local demographics. We want more people to be in good profitable work so that they do not need to rely on free school meals, and that is the intention of the Government going forward.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that retailers have taken the right strategy to avoid panic buying? As we know from a couple of years ago, any perceived or real shortage leads to panic buying—we recall the situation with toilet rolls a couple of years ago. Fruit and vegetables are perishable and have a short shelf life, and panic buying would not only exacerbate the shortage but would lead to a lot of food waste.

The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable in this area, and consumers must be able to buy the products they want to buy. Supermarkets normally have a very resilient supply chain, but we have a particular issue right now, which I believe they are trying to fix, and some supermarkets are taking that approach to ensure that every customer can access those products. It is important to reflect on the fact that sometimes words are said—before Christmas a particular industry person talked about a shortage of free-range turkeys; consumers heard, they moved their things, and we ended up with a glut and prices fell. People need to be careful when we are talking about the resilience of the food supply chain—we have that confidence. I know this is temporary—I believe it to be temporary—and I am confident it will be fixed within the next two to four weeks.

The Secretary of State will have heard the leader of the Labour party announce at the NFU conference this week that he wants 50% of all public food procurement to be locally and sustainably sourced, as France has done for a long time. DEFRA had a consultation on public sector food procurement that closed on 4 September, nearly six months ago. I have not heard any Minister mention it since. Is the consultation still live? When will we have a response? This will be hugely influential in supporting food sovereignty in this country.

We set out our commitment to British food in our food strategy and our manifesto. It is a welcome compliment that the Leader of the Opposition is following a Conservative Government policy. We will act on the response to the consultation, and the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) will be aware that we need careful consideration across Government of how to take certain policies forward. We also need to be mindful of things like World Trade Organisation rules, but I will continue to champion British produce and local procurement. The public sector can make those choices now if it wishes; it does not need Government clearance.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that 170,000 tonnes of fresh produce is wasted each year in this country? Does she think the current crisis will encourage consumers to value their fruit and veg, and their five a day, more highly?

It is very important that consumers have that choice, but we are also committed to trying to reduce the amount of food waste. It is a shame for any food to be wasted. We are also concerned about the carbon emissions that arise from food waste, and we are trying to reduce them on our pathway to net zero.

Despite claims that this is a Europe-wide problem, there are no reported food shortages in France, Germany and other European net food importers. Is it not the case that this problem was created by inward-looking little England and this British Government?

It is 2023, and there are crops rotting in the fields because there are not enough people to pick them, there are kids going hungry in all our communities and now we have rationing in our supermarkets, and it is not because people are stockpiling and panic buying salad, although a lettuce lasted longer than the last Prime Minister. I want the Secretary of State to have more grip, control and leadership on this issue. Her responses so far have been complacent. Unless she wants to go down as the Secretary of State for sewage, food shortages and rural poverty, what is her plan to properly address the food shortages we face? This is a serious issue for families across the country.

This is a serious issue, but I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s question shows his lack of knowledge and his bandwagon jumping. He suggests that there is nobody picking vegetables in our fields, but that is not the case right now. We have a supply chain that brings in food from around the world. I would love to hear about the farms in his constituency that are short of people to pick tomatoes or lettuces. It is probably as rare as—[Hon. Members: “As what?”] I was about to say that it is as rare as his wanting us to be successful. [Interruption.] What is the best way to put it? It is as rare as gold at the end of a rainbow. Perhaps he believes in fairy tales. He certainly does not know how the food supply system works. He jumps on a bandwagon, and he must be embarrassed. I hope his constituents reflect on the fact that he knows nothing about how their daily lives are affected by this.

I know the Secretary of State to be a decent, good-hearted woman, but I say to her that this is a national emergency. Lower-income children and families in my constituency are struggling to afford basic food such as eggs and milk—all the basics a family have to have. There is a national emergency; it is not just the shortages, but the high cost of basics. Will she take action?

This urgent question is about food shortages and I have set out pretty clearly to the House what has happened in the supply chain, what the Department is doing about it, what the sectors are doing about it and my expectation that this will be a two to four-week element.

The hon. Gentleman talks more broadly about food prices. This country has for a long time enjoyed the competitiveness provided by the supermarkets, but I am conscious of the fact that that has also had impacts on some of the contracts that have been signed by farmers; a lot of them have involved fixed prices. However, it is important that we continue to support our domestic food production, which this Government clearly do. It is important that we continue to try to support people with the cost of living, which this Government are absolutely doing. It is important, as the Prime Minister set out in our top priorities, to be halving inflation. We are taking short, immediate approaches as well as longer-term approaches, such as getting energy security. Those are the ways not only to get sustainable inflation, but to act on the food strategy we set out last year. We will continue to make sure that farmers produce in this country and that there is no reason why people do not have food on their dinner plate every night.

Declining self-sufficiency over the past 30 years has left the UK increasingly exposed to shocks to global supply chains. Brexit trade barriers hinder attempts at sourcing alternative supplies and the Government’s own food security report identified that climate change is likely to have a significant impact on production in the countries from which we import a lot of our fruit and veg at present. What are the Government going to do to support and incentivise greater domestic production to avoid a repeat of these shortages?

The UK Government have already set out their approach. We also have a strong trade agreement with the EU. I am very conscious that some of this is connected to a particular shortage of supplies that come into most of our supermarkets, in a part of Morocco and southern Spain. I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman represents a Welsh constituency and this is a devolved matter, so he might want to ask the Labour Government in Wales what they are doing to provide support.

The Secretary of State was booed this week by farmers at the NFU conference for talking down to them and claiming that she knew better about the cause of food shortages. She is telling us today that this is an EU-wide problem, but we can see that there are not the same shortages EU-wide, including in other European net food importers. Does she think that adverse weather really only affects the sunny uplands of Brexit Britain? Does she not see that her continuing to be wedded to the failure of Brexit is one reason why we are seeing less food, a poorer country overall and higher food costs?

No, that is not the situation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) could have been in the Chamber earlier if he wanted to ask a question. What we have particularly now is an issue that has affected a supply chain of certain products and the supermarkets are acting. It is happening in other European countries, although not in all of them. As I have explained to the House on more than one occasion, sometimes, the contracts are different, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is convening a meeting with the retailers directly. We have already been doing that as a Department and we will continue to do so.

The Secretary of State keeps dismissing the concerns of the farming industry about food shortages, yet supermarkets are restricting food to customers—clearly, her Department is out of touch with the real world. Does she agree that the Prime Minister should call a Cobra meeting because this is now a national emergency and out of the control of her Department?

As I said to the NFU yesterday, farmers are here to feed the country. That is why we support them and will continue to support them in a number of different ways. We are going through a transition away from a financial support system of direct payments, the basic payment, where more than half the money was going to just 10% of farmers because it was based on how much land people had. That is part of the journey we are on, but there are still significant amounts of basic payments going in. That is why we still want, as our manifesto set out and as I said to the NFU yesterday, to at least maintain the amount of domestic food production, if not increase it. We will continue to try to support that, to ensure that our farmers are there for generations to come.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answers and for trying to be constructive in those answers, as always. Having heard examples of shoppers turned away from shops for trying to purchase vegetables for their family of seven—I was told that story just yesterday—it is clear that steps must be taken to secure our produce. Can she outline the steps being taken to ensure that paperwork for importation is a smooth system, allowing new suppliers to be found and easily facilitated at this time of shortage and need?

I am conscious that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are still working on issues involving the Northern Ireland protocol in terms of exchanges between parts of the UK. It is important to recognise that suppliers are proactively working with supermarkets—that is what we have been told. We have been told there is an issue for potentially up to four weeks, and I am keen that the sector gets on with alternative sourcing options. Meanwhile, we will continue to encourage and boost food production. That has always been set out in our food strategy and our manifesto commitment, and I am determined we will try to deliver it.