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Ukraine War: UK Food Security

Volume 821: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current state of food security in the United Kingdom as a result of the war in Ukraine.

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

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register. I start by paying tribute to Lord Plumb. He had an extraordinary influence on British agriculture and on this place, and his voice needs to be the voice in our heads as we consider Questions such as this.

The UK’s food import dependency on Ukraine and Russia is very low, so the conflict is expected to have limited direct impact on the UK food supply. However, Russia and Ukraine are major global exporters of food commodities, so increases in international commodity and fuel prices are putting pressure on food supply chains. The Government are engaging with industry to understand and mitigate any impacts of the conflict on individual industries and supply chains.

I join my noble friend in paying tribute to Lord Plumb, who gave me my first job in politics in 1982 in the European Parliament.

Given the increasing threat to food security, and the fact that the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act were passed before the hostilities in Ukraine and the rising cost of inflation, will my noble friend promise to keep the phasing out of direct farm payments and the introduction of environmental monies for public goods under review to ensure that food production remains the top priority for farmers, to boost our self-sufficiency? Will he promise to keep market and supply chains under review, and will he take this opportunity to inform us about the programme for seasonal workers, particularly those in fruit and vegetables?

I absolutely understand people’s concerns about the current situation and its effect on farming. The basic payment scheme and area payments have had their day and are indefensible. Some 10% of landowners got over 50% of the BPS budget, and the smallest farmers—one-third—got less than £5,000. What we are proposing is different and it offers farmers much more choice to support their businesses. My noble friend raises a very important point about the market, and we are working very closely through the UK Agriculture Market Monitoring Group, which monitors UK agricultural markets, including price supply inputs, trade and recent developments, and we have increased our engagement with the industry. There is much we can do to support farming at this difficult time, and we will continue to do so.

On seasonal workers: we have 30,000 visas agreed and that can be extended to up to 40,000. Our current negotiations with the industry suggest that this is enough, but we are keeping it under review.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer, as set out in the register. In view of the current inflation figures of between 24% and 28% for farming inputs, and the considerable uncertainty of being able to pass these costs on to the food retail sector, there is a substantial danger that farmers will turn away from food production to less risky and guaranteed income provided by the countryside stewardship scheme, hence exacerbating the food supply problem. Can the Minister tell us what measures he is taking to protect and encourage food production and supply in this country?

Food production remains of central importance to our agricultural reforms and there is much that we can do and are doing to help farmers at this difficult time. The noble Lord is right to talk about the massive increases in input costs, such as fertiliser. We have announced recently a whole range of measures which will ease this for farmers, but we recognise that they are making decisions about next year’s cropping today—now—and we have to support them and encourage as many as possible to produce food. The strong price for wheat and other crops seems to suggest that they will continue to do so, but we will keep that under review.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned in his Answer the increase in prices due to the effect of Russia and Ukraine on world trade. If food prices go up, say, above 6% or 7%, will the Government cap the price of food?

No, it will not be for the Government to cap prices. Price-capping policy has been disastrous in the past, but there are other ways to support people on low incomes. The Government are spending many billions of pounds addressing the rise in household costs, and we will continue to do that.

My Lords, food security is at risk, and the Government have no target to bolster food security and food chain resilience. They have targets to secure biodiversity and tree planting. In 1984, the UK’s overall food self-sufficiency was 78%, but in 2021, it was down to 60%. Why are there no ambitious statutory targets for self-sufficiency in the UK food sector that would take us back to a more sustainable level?

There is a measure in the Agriculture Act that requires the Government every three years to produce a report on our self-sufficiency, which we did at the end of last year. It has remained relatively constant, and we are not complacent. At the moment, we are 88% self-sufficient in wheat. The remainder, mostly milling wheat, comes from Canada, and is therefore not affected by this problem. We are 100% self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots, swedes, soft fruit, liquid milk and lamb, and 86% in beef. However, we have a requirement from the population; for example, we have seen an increase of five times in the amount of rice that we consume. We have to address that, but this Government are very keen to make sure that we are doing everything we can to support self-sufficiency.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has made the welcome announcement that we are abolishing all tariffs and quotas on Ukrainian imports, including agri-foods. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in urging other countries to make the same gesture, especially our allies in the European Union? Following the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, all its goods exports must now transit across EU territory.

Supporting our friends through liberalising trade is an important way in which we can help a country such as Ukraine. It is just part of a wide range of support that we are giving over and above our defence support; we will continue to do so.

My Lords, I echo the Minister’s tribute to Lord Plumb, who was respected all around the Chamber. However, does the Minister agree that it is shocking that around half a million people in the UK are now forced to use food banks because of soaring food prices? He talked about the Government putting money into this, but what are the Government actually doing to help hard-pressed families who have to make a choice between feeding themselves and heating their home? Where is the action on that? Families are facing this dilemma every day.

I do not have time to go through the long list of the many measures we are taking to support families at this time. For example, we are providing £35 million to support schools in disadvantaged areas to provide breakfast, and Healthy Start food vouchers are increasing from £3.10 to £4.25. The reasons why people have to access food banks are many and varied. The issue requires a cross-government approach, looking at all sectors of expenditure; we are working across government to do that.

My Lords, I too pay tribute to Lord Plumb, who was a father figure to many of us who are involved in agriculture today. I have a very simple question for the Minister. During the passage of the Environment Bill, the Government refused to accept that food security was a public good. In the light of the global crisis and inflation, can the Minister confirm that food security is now regarded as a public good?

I am happy to do so. Food security is absolutely at the centre of what we are seeking to achieve in supporting farmers to think as entrepreneurially as they can and recognise that they have been constrained in the past by a system that now allows them to provide exactly what society needs and produce more, good-quality food.

The Minister referred to farmers. Given the now extremely high fixed cost of artificial fertilisers and pesticides—these inputs also have massive environmental impacts in terms of damage to soil, water and air—and that some farmers are already productively and profitably farming and producing good-quality food without such inputs, are the Government planning an emergency effort to support farmers in sharing their agroecological knowledge, drawn from organic farming, regenerative agriculture and integrated farm management systems, and to provide free advice to farmers?

I am sure that the noble Baroness will welcome the fact that there is a significant shift towards regenerative farming, which will address precisely that issue. In emergency terms, through the sustainable farming initiative and our soil standard, we are encouraging farmers to plant nitrogen-fixing crops, which will reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers.