The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has called for a sea change in the government’s attitude towards food security.
In a report on food security, the cross-party committee of MPs said there was an incoherent approach towards food policy across government. While Defra is designated as responsible for food, 15 other departments and agencies are also involved in elements of food policy development and delivery.
The report recommended that the Cabinet Office should undertake a comprehensive review of all aspects of food policy and publish its findings within 12 months of the publication of the Committee’s report.
It also called ‘in the broadest terms for a sea change in the government’s attitude towards food security’. The report quoted the food minister, Mark Spencer, as saying ‘household affordability of, and access to, food’ is not part of the definition of food security.
The Committee report replied: “We disagree”. It said the high and sustained rate of food inflation meant many households were having to take measures to save money like skipping meals, which could lead to physical and mental health consequences.
“We recommend that the government should change its position,” the report said.
EFRA chair Sir Robert Goodwill (pictured), said: “Food security matters to us all. It is vital to farmers; it is vital to other food producers. And of course, it is vital for every citizen up and down the land to have a square meal at a reasonable price.
“But surprisingly, the government does not appear to be taking this very basic matter anywhere near seriously enough.
“This report is calling, through its various recommendations, for much more attention to be paid to the guaranteed supply of good quality food – at prices which suit both producers and consumers. I know that is not an easy balance to strike. But that’s what government is for. It must read the report carefully and act accordingly”.
Prioritise food security
The report pointed out that only a little over a half (54%) of the food eaten in the UK is home-grown or home reared. It said shocks to international trade such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Brexit had exposed some of the UK’s vulnerabilities. The Committee urged the government to develop a suite of key food security indicators – from farm inputs to retailer outputs – to monitor and ensure food security.
It also pointed out that migrant labour fills 99% of seasonal harvesting job and the number of visas available to migrant labourers was lower than had been requested by the NFU. Labour shortages had led to some UK food production being moved overseas. The Committee said the government must address this shortage and ‘prioritise the country’s long term food security ahead of other considerations’.
The report also said it was risky that there was only one factory in the UK producing nitrogen – an important farm fertiliser. The Committee recommended that the government looks into increasing the production of nitrogen fertiliser in the UK – while also examining the incentives offered by other governments to competitor plants. The plan to do this should be produced within six months of publication of the Committee’s report.
Good quality food
The report said a fifth of UK households are struggling to get access to good quality food at reasonable prices, causing them to turn to unhealthy, high-calorie alternatives. This is likely to contribute to making 40% of the population obese by 2025, the report added. The increase in food insecurity is partly because consumer price inflation has risen to its highest rates in over 40 years, the MPs added.
The report addresses the availability and affordability of food from the household to the national levels, calling on the government to explore the options and affordability of extending the provision of free school meals and to break what it calls the ‘junk food cycle’ the UK suffers from.
It says the promotion by retailers of relatively low-cost food which is high in calories but low in other nutrients – for example biscuits, burgers and other highly processed items – has led many poorer people in the UK to become obese. On current trends, the study says, the treatment of Type 2 diabetes alone that will result from this will, by 2035, cost the NHS more than it currently spends on treating all cancers.
The committee called on the government to review whether income support packages for poorer members of society – including welcome index-linked welfare benefit and pension increases – were sufficient to stop people needing to turn to food banks.
The Committee compares the recommendations made in July 2021 by the government’s then ‘food Tsar’, Henry Dimbleby, with an official government report subsequently published in June 2022. Mr Dimbleby resigned as an independent food adviser to the government in March 2023 citing an ‘insane’ lack of government action on obesity.
The EFRA Committee’s report says that while Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, an Independent Review made the links between the types of food we eat and the health of the nation, the government’s subsequent Food Strategy document published in June 2022 ‘did not cover the topic at all or set out any actions to break the junk food cycle’.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “We have been calling for Government to take our national food security seriously for several years and we echo the Committee’s recommendation for strong leadership on the issue.
“As part of this leadership, the need for all Government departments to have a coordinated approach towards food policy is vital. We welcome the recommendation of a Cabinet Office review into all aspects of food policy.
“Everyone should have access to affordable, quality, sustainable food and British farmers and growers need the support of Government to have the confidence to continue producing. The reports’ finding that only 54% of the food eaten in the UK being grown here is shocking and it is concerning that this number could decrease further if British food and farming isn’t valued.
“In the same week as CF Fertilisers announced it will be permanently closing its Billingham ammonia plant, the report’s acknowledgement of the risk of there only being one fertiliser factory in the UK is a timely one. Availability of fertiliser is a crucial element of domestic food security and Government should look closely at how this could impact production.
“Food security matters and British farmers and growers are well placed to provide climate-friendly food for the nation, while protecting and enhancing our iconic countryside.”