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Food Security and Farming

Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

[Relevant documents: e-petition 611113, Ban development on agricultural land to increase food self-sufficiency, and e-petition 606663, Produce a Farmland Protection Policy to regulate the loss of farmland to solar.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered food security and farming.

I thank the Minister and my hon. Friends who are present for joining me for this rather short debate. We will cover as much ground as possible. It is a little disappointing that there is no Opposition spokesperson, and a distinct lack of people on the Opposition Benches. Why does food security matter? There is a war in Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. There is global inflation. There are global supply chain challenges, and climate change. There is the challenge of rising prices and the cost of living. We all need food; it is a basic need. So as I said, I am very disappointed that no one from the Opposition is present.

In this place, energy security rightly is firmly on the agenda, and the Government are taking action, but I believe that we must take food security equally seriously. Food security has many dimensions, including availability, affordability, nutrition, the state of global agriculture, logistics and food safety. The journey from farm to fork has never been more complex than it can be today.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this very important debate, short though it is. With food inflation at 18%—which hits poor people particularly hard, because staple foods are going up the most, not luxury foods—does she agree that it makes no sense to take grade 1 and 2 land out of production here, only to fly in food from all around the world, increasing the carbon footprint?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point, which I will touch on a little later.

Much of the journey from farm to fork is unknown to our constituents until they see gaps on the shelves of their local supermarket, or read of shortages in the media. Overall, we produce 61% of all the food that we need in the UK, a figure that has been broadly stable for the past 20 years. The food strategy commits to keeping it at the same level in the future. I acknowledge that the work that the Government are doing is putting significant investment into the food system, but I will challenge my good friend the Minister, who knows more about food and farming than many in this place, by saying that investment and innovation are great, but they can take time. We need to be addressing the challenge and delivering today.

The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, but I am sure that we would all agree that much has changed significantly since then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and global energy and inflation pressures. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) alluded to, today’s figures report that food inflation is running at 19%. Many of us, when we go into our local supermarket or shop, often see that reflected in the basics that we buy, whether that is bread, milk, butter or whatever.

I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this debate. On food security and farming, Strangford is an important constituency for beef and dairy farming. They are prominent exports and a major part of our economy. We all want to go forward together, as the Minister understands and knows very well. But one of the changes that we are experiencing in Northern Ireland—I say this respectfully to the right hon. Lady and the Minister—is that, as DUP colleagues have stated before, exports face a delicate issue when it comes to the small print of the Windsor framework, which disadvantages my beef and dairy farmers. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we must move forward together?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we continue to look closely at regulation and some of the bureaucracy around food production and farming, and ensure that the journey from farm to fork, and from one market to another, is as smooth as possible.

The production-to-supply ratio of food in the UK has been declining since it peaked in the mid-1990s. For me, the question is not so much why, although that is important, but what we are doing about it and what more can be done. We can start by recognising the dual role that farmers play as both food producers and custodians of the countryside. I am a farmer’s daughter, so I have a bit of experience in this, although it is a few years since my dad gave up farming. We need to get that important balance right, because farming must be viable and economically sustainable, as well as environmentally sustainable.

The right hon. Lady is being very generous, and I thank her for bringing an important debate to this House. Like me, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has demonstrated that, while the official Opposition may not be here, the unofficial one is deeply concerned about the future of farming across our great family of nations. In Westmorland, and indeed across the rest of England, 100% of farmers will lose more than a third of their basic payment by the end of this year. Less than 10% are in the sustainable farming incentive so far, so there is a real gap in farm incomes. I can tell the right hon. Lady, just from my own experience of talking to farmers in Westmorland last week, that that is forcing some farmers out of business and some to intensify farming. Would it be wise to address that, so that we can continue food production?

Order. This is only a half-hour debate. It is not normal to have many interventions in this sort of debate. The Back Bencher produces his or her argument and the Minister replies.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes a crucial point. Farmers in my constituency have highlighted to me the challenge they face in getting the balance and the mix right. For me, it comes down to how we keep farming sustainable while producing the food we need and looking after our environment.

May I make a point about viability, very briefly? I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on this debate and on making such important points. I appreciate that she may not have time to go into the international aspects, but does she agree that we need to have a much more ambitious food and wine export strategy that promotes brand Britain, and that we must genuinely address the legitimate concerns of farmers in relation to food standards and cheaper imports?

I am a passionate supporter of British farming and produce. In recent years, we have seen a greater focus on exports of British food, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there is an international angle to all this. Alas, I doubt that I will have time to cover it, but I will see how much progress I make. The situation in Ukraine—the breadbasket of Europe—has highlighted just how important global markets are when it comes to food and food security.

We also need to do more to tackle food waste, which is another of my pet hates at home. It is important that we do all we can to help people to reduce food waste. Food waste is bad for landfill, and it goes right down to the household level. I am interested to hear what the Minister might have to say on that.

I particularly want to mention two other key areas: first, land use, the environment, land for food production and solar farms; and secondly, support for our farmers. I will take support for our farmers first, because a number of Members have alluded to its importance. In my constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, we have only a small number of farmers, but they are very important to the local economy and the national production of food. Local farmers tell me that the cost of fertiliser has gone up by 161%. I spoke to farmers who have had to find an eye-watering extra £200,000 just to cover the increase in costs. When they produce a crop or a product on contract, they cannot just put their price up because prices are fixed. Red diesel has doubled in price. I think we all appreciate and understand that there is volatility of energy costs. Whether they need heat for greenhouses or refrigeration for the storage of potatoes, farmers are being hit in a number of ways. The cost of growing a tomato, as we realise when we go into a supermarket or a shop, rose by 27% between 2021 and 2022.

The environmental land management scheme has seen a reduction in basic payments, and by 2028 will be no more. In 2022, it was recorded that £22 million-worth of fruit and veg had been wasted due to a workforce shortage for picking. I appreciate that the Department is working on that, but something is not quite right when we have to waste food because we cannot pick it and process it, particularly when some are struggling to afford food. It was highlighted to me this morning that the UK horticulture sector alone needs around 70,000 workers each year to harvest fruit and veg. What more is the Minister’s Department doing to address that issue? Our farmers and our farms need support.

There will always be pressures on our land—farming versus housing and development. I know that particularly because my constituency is on the edge of the west midlands, close to the urban sprawl of Birmingham. Land use has to be about balance. I am sure that the Minister is aware of two recent petitions to the House of Commons: one to ban development on agricultural land; and another that calls on the Government to consider the cumulative impact of solar farm developments on the availability of agricultural land.

My good friend the Minister knows that I talk a lot in this place about protecting the green belt and developing a brownfield-first policy approach to housing and development. That is the right and sensible way to protect our countryside, our food supplies and our farms while also delivering the homes that local communities need.

I might be straying off the point a little here, Sir Edward, but I will bring it back to the debate. With the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities recently undertaking a consultation on the national planning policy framework, and with the Levelling-up Bill passing through the other place, it would be remiss of me not to press the Minister and ask him if he could explain a little more about the position of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it comes to the balance between development and protecting our green spaces.

I am very lucky to be able to go to the local supermarket and buy the apples that have been farmed in my constituency, but, sadly, nearly 7,000 hectares of greenfield in my constituency are up for residential development. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the competing issues of being able to buy locally sourced food, house building and the value of our farmers’ fields need to be resolved so that we can protect locally grown products?

My right hon. Friend re-emphasises the point about balance. It has to be a good thing, where possible, to make the most of local land that can produce food and to buy food locally, but it must be affordable. It reduces the carbon footprint and supports local farms and shops. I agree wholeheartedly with her; she is fortunate to have so much local produce on her doorstep in her constituency. It comes down to getting the balance right, and I do not think we are quite there yet.

Agricultural land is a finite resource. It is important that we never take food security, farming or our farmers for granted. I want to spend a couple of minutes on the international aspect, although I will give the Minister plenty of time to respond. I have mentioned the war in Ukraine. It is a sad fact that we have the need of a UN-led Black sea initiative to get grain out of Ukraine to some of the most needy countries. That situation highlights the importance of global markets and the global food chain.

Taken together, Russia and Ukraine account for one third of the global wheat trade, 17% of the global maize trade and 75% of the global sunflower oil trade. It is critical to consider that perspective, and important to recognise that weaknesses in global security impact on not just us in the UK, but elsewhere; they often constitute a humanitarian crisis in some parts of the world. That can equally have a knock-on effect back here in the UK. Drought in Somalia displaced more than 1 million people. Almost 2 million people have been displaced amid the worst food crisis in a decade in Burkina Faso. We know that those are some of the factors that also contribute to migration.

The UK can be a leader in producing climate-friendly food, but we must not let our own production levels drop. We should be maintaining and increasing our domestic food focus and production, and helping our farmers, because then we can help at home and help some of the world’s poorest populations as well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing the debate.

Farming is the lifeblood of our communities. As a farmer myself, I know at first hand the invaluable work that farmers do, putting food on our plates and caring for the environment and for nature. As we all know, farming in England is now going through the biggest change in a generation. It is an exciting time, but it is important that we get those changes right. We are phasing our subsidies so that we can invest the moneys in policies that work for farm businesses, food production and the environment. We have a unique opportunity to shape our policies to the needs of our farmers. I pledge that we will do exactly that, making sure that farmers are at the heart of everything that we do.

Here in the UK, we have a highly resilient food supply chain. We are well equipped to deal with disruption. However, farmers are facing challenges as a result of the global economic situation to which my right hon. Friend referred, including the illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is of course driving up the costs of fuel, fertiliser and agrochemicals, and that is why we have taken action to support them.

We have already split direct payments in England into two instalments each year to help with cash flow. We have committed to spend around £600 million on grants and other support for productivity, animal welfare and innovation over the next three years. We have provided 10,000 farmers with help and advice through the future farming resilience fund. We have moved the 25% tariff on maize imports from the US to help with animal feed costs and we have now passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 to help farmers become more productive and to feed the nation.

Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources—strong domestic production as well as imports from stable trade routes. Recently, we saw in supermarkets some disruption to a small number of fruit and vegetables due to poor weather affecting the harvest in Spain and north Africa, where a high proportion of the produce consumed in the UK at that time of the year is grown. In that instance, we met the industry to assess the severity of the disruption. Item limits have now been removed, so we are in a much better place than we were at that moment in time. DEFRA has a collaborative relationship with supermarkets, retailers and suppliers, to get involved and to help minimise any disruption.

The Government recognise the importance of food security. We certainly did in the Agriculture Act 2020, and we will carry on monitoring that and ensuring that we monitor food security every three years. The first UK food security report was published in December 2021. We have committed to at least maintain current levels of food production under the food strategy, which set out what we will do to create a more prosperous agrifood sector.

When it comes to self-sufficiency, which my right hon. Friend referred to a number of times, we produce about 74% of the food that we can grow in the UK. Thanks to our farmers, we are almost 100% self-sufficient in fresh poultry and certain vegetables, and close to 90% self-sufficient in eggs. Further to that, we are 86% self-sufficient in beef, fully self-sufficient in liquid milk, and produce more lamb than we consume.

Sectors such as soft fruit, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) referred, have seen a trend towards greater self-sufficiency in recent years. However, we do recognise the huge pressure on the sector. She has done a lot in this place to highlight the challenges faced in the soft fruit and food production systems, particularly in the county of Kent.

Let me turn to getting the balance right between the environment and food. Ultimately, putting food on the plates of people across the nation is the primary purpose of farming in this country and always will be, but if we want farming and food production to be resilient and sustainable over the long term, farming and nature must go hand in hand. Indeed, our new farming schemes invest in the very foundations of food security, from good soil health and water quality to climate resilience and an abundance of pollinators.

This will be a short intervention—I apologise for being overly long before. In this transition period, where we appear to be phasing out the old subsidy scheme but trickling in the new ones, is the Minister seeing in his communication with farmers, as I do in Westmorland, some who find it hard and are thinking of giving it up all together, and some who feel that they cannot access the environmental schemes and therefore must increase their intensity of farming? I am sure it is not just happening in Westmorland. What can he do about that?

The hon. Member will be aware that last week I was in Cumbria talking to those very farmers. I think it is fair to say that with the sustainable farming incentive in particular, we have been through a trial period where we have been talking to farmers directly and taking their direct feedback on how those schemes work. We will roll out the latest phase of the SFI this summer and, as he has identified, as we move away from common agricultural policy payments and direct payments to this new phase, we want to make that as accessible as possible.

We continue to have conversations with farmers in order to support the very people he talks about. We can do that in a number of ways, such as, as I said, supporting farmers’ soil quality, improving their grassland and trying to help them to reduce their input costs. We can also give them access to capital grants to help make them more productive and efficient in their farming. It is an ongoing process. This is not a presentation saying, “Here are the new schemes and this is how it will be for 20 years.” Outside the EU, we now have the flexibility to listen to the industry, to work with the sector and to ensure that we can respond to its needs, so that we can keep ourselves well fed while continuing to look after the environment.

Let me turn to what we have done this year. We have provided farmers with extensive detail on the new schemes; increased payment rates in countryside stewardship to reflect the increases in costs; and introduced new, additional management payments for farmers taking environmental work through the sustainable farming incentive. We have accelerated the roll-out of SFI, with six new standards coming this summer—three more than originally planned —and we have announced that we are expanding our existing countryside stewardship scheme, adding about 30 actions to the 250 that are already available.

We will continue to broaden our offer and support thousands of farmers up and down the country with the schemes. We will continue to do everything we can to meet our three main goals of supporting viable farming businesses, maintaining food production at its current level, and achieving high environmental and welfare outcomes. My door is continually open to those conversations and discussions. We will continue to support our great British farmers and we will continue to ensure that our constituents are well fed with beautiful British food.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.