4 March 2024
Clifton-Brown calls for more UK food self-sufficiency and fairness for British farmers

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown voices concerns that, at a time of international uncertainty, the UK is heavily reliant on food imports and he calls for more emphasis on self-sufficiency stressing the importance of a healthy, cost-effective and sustainable food supply chain; which includes recognising the invaluable role of British farmers, rewarding their efforts, and ensuring fair treatment in the marketplace.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in this important debate on farming, during which we have heard words of wisdom from no less than two former Secretaries of State and a number of other colleagues, so important points have already been covered. I start by declaring my interest as a lifelong farmer, so I may have a few points I can add.

We have had an uncertain few years, with covid-19 lockdowns and the war in Ukraine contributing to a fluctuating global economy and a huge spike in energy prices since 2021. That, together with the inflation we have experienced domestically, has meant unsustainable pressure on many farmers’ businesses. Farm input cost inflation in 2023 stood at 42%, with wholesale energy prices 1.5 times higher compared with 2019. These disruptive events have exposed several vulnerabilities relating to the UK’s food supply chain and self-sufficiency.

The UK has seen changes over the years, influenced by various factors, such as agricultural policies, technological advancements, globalisation and environmental concerns. We have become increasingly interconnected with global food markets, relying on imports for a significant proportion of our food supply. While this provides access to a wide variety of foods year-round, it also exposes the UK to supply chain vulnerabilities, as seen during the events of covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine. In 1984, the UK’s overall food sufficiency was 78%. In 2021, it was 60%. Today, the nation is only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in vegetables and 71% in potatoes. We need to produce policies that start to increase our self-sufficiency rates in those commodities.

Declining self-sufficiency coupled with supply-chain problems abroad have resulted in occasional gaps on our supermarket shelves. Due to cost of living pressures, consumers have shown signs of trading down to cheaper proteins. The trend for 2022, for example, has shown volumes of beef down 6% and lamb down 16%. In November 2022, growers’ costs of production have increased by as much as 27% in the preceding 12 months. UK egg production fell to its lowest in nine years, and is down 12% in one year alone. The cost of feed for those producers has increased by 28%, and the price of a pullet by 22%.

Back in 2022, I contributed to a debate on national food strategy and food security. At that time, the House was regularly discussing issues relating to energy markets, with costs trickling down to consumers. Similar conversations were not happening on the cost of food and the impact of rising costs on people’s budgets, although I did warn that rising food prices would increasingly become an important issue to the public.

Food and energy prices are highly regressive, causing those on low incomes to pay much more as a percentage of their budgets than those higher up the income scale. Recent studies have suggested that up to one in seven people in the UK had reported going hungry due to the cost of living. Therefore, securing our domestic food supply should not only support British farmers, but help bring costs down.

Greater certainty from the food supply chain and the Government are needed. This can be encouraged through various means: long-term certainty on accessing seasonal labour—the seasonal agriculture workers scheme—which was mentioned by several Members tonight; greater productivity investment, which was mentioned by the Minister in her opening remarks; a more enabling planning policy; and measures to deliver growth and bolster food security.

Advances in agricultural technology, such as precision farming, vertical farming, hydroponics and genetic engineering offer opportunities to increase productivity and efficiency in food production. Embracing these food technologies can help boost domestic production and reduce reliance on imports. Farming is one of the sectors that best embraces new technology, and I pay tribute to it for that. Reforms that prioritise sustainable agriculture, support small-scale farmers, and provide investment in research and development can improve self-sufficiency in food production. This might include payments for sustainable farming practices, incentives for local food production, and regulations that promote food sovereignty.

At the NFU 2024 conference held on 27 February, the Prime Minister announced: a new annual UK-wide food security index to capture and present the data needed to monitor levels of food security; a Farm to Fork summit to be held annually, which began in Downing Street last year; and a £15 million fund to help tackle food waste from the farm gate. Work that I have done through my role as deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has examined the environmental land management schemes in some detail. We pressed hard for an annual report to Parliament on the goal to produce the statutory food index, which will help this House to keep track of how our production to obtain self-sufficiency is going.

We must be careful about how much grade 1 and grade 2 land we take out of food production for environmental use, especially as the areas of greatest ecological worth tend not to be in those high land grades. We have thousands of acres of very high grade land being taken out in Lincolnshire for solar farms and windmills. That is surely unsustainable in the long run. As I said in a debate way back in 2020, there will come a time when we need to produce as much food in this country as we possibly can. As the temperature rises with global warming, the temperate areas of northern Europe will be able to produce more of the food that is needed in the world.

Payments to farmers, aimed at keeping food prices down, have been a cornerstone of UK agriculture since the war. In countries that are our major competitors, such as France and the US, from which I have just returned—I was on a visit with the Public Accounts Committee—some prices in supermarkets are double what they are in our supermarkets. That highlights the impact of our subsidies in keeping food affordable domestically. However, it is unsustainable to reduce payments to farmers, even for well-needed public goods, and rely solely on importing cheap food from around the world. In recent weeks, we have seen farmers protesting in Brussels and in other European capitals. Last week, that also happened in Wales. I am not surprised that farmers in Wales are outraged at their Labour Government’s emphasis on the environment over agriculture; there are plans for farmers there to commit to having trees on 10% of their land, and to using another 10% as wildlife habitat. Good as those things may be, it would be hard for a small farmer already struggling on the breadline to have 20% of their land taken out. It shows that the Welsh Government have no consideration for the loss of jobs and livelihoods that the policy will produce.

British farmers are held to incredibly high environmental, animal welfare, and food quality standards, as I indicated to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), but we must not allow our trade deals with other countries to result in our farmers being undercut by low-quality, cheap products. Equally, we must look to the long-term health of our nation. We need to ensure that we continue to produce food to high standards, because that benefits consumers, and we must do what we can to maintain that.

Modern agricultural practices, including intensive farming and monoculture, have raised concerns about environmental sustainability, including soil degradation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. The pollution of our rivers in the UK is a huge challenge. There are problems resulting from agriculture, such as run-offs of nitrates and phosphates. Eventually, we must come up with a plan that allows farmers to apply these nutrients to grow their crops but does not lead to unnecessary run-off in our rivers. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal mentioned, action to help reduce pollution includes the “Plan for Water”, which would provide £200 million of funding through slurry infrastructure grants.

Water companies play a crucial part in the pollution of our rivers. I am delighted that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the Environment Act 2021, which obliged water companies to install meters on all their outlets, so that we can see whether they are adhering to their environmental discharge conditions. I am particularly delighted to have obtained a grant from Thames Water for Ampney St Peter’s sewage works in my constituency, which is one of the most egregious outlets of sewage; it will be worth several million pounds and has been budgeted for. I have had similar confirmation for sewage works in Moreton and Bourton.

The production of cost-effective, wholesome food is vital for every single person in this country. However, it must be grown in an environmentally sustainable way; we must take steps to ensure cleaner rivers and reduce carbon through improved methods of production. It is also incumbent on the Government to ensure that farmers, who are the ultimate guardians of the countryside, are properly rewarded for their onerous work. They are often trying to combat adverse weather conditions.

Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Will the hon. Member give way?

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

If Madam Deputy Speaker will allow me to give way and increase my time a bit, I will happily do so.

Matt Western 

Briefly, does the hon. Member agree that there are real concerns about adverse climate conditions across the sector, including from farms, and those involved in community-supported agriculture, particularly Canalside Community Food? Heavy rain has led to really heavy soil, which is hard to plough, and that will affect the yield and timing of crops.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has only just come into the debate. We on the Public Accounts Committee given a lot of attention to the work of the Environment Agency. It could do much more not only to promote new flooding schemes, but to maintain its existing flooding schemes, which would help protect a number of farms and houses.

I strongly support the Government’s policy of buying local. There are only two ways that farmers can continue in business: either they get payments for public goods and benefits, or they get a price that reflects the cost of production. It is slightly disappointing that the Government have not done more to encourage all supermarkets—there are some good ones and some bad ones, to be fair—to pay prices to the farming community that reflect the cost of production. The Government could do more through the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that that is the case. DEFRA has committed to ensuring contractual fairness between supermarkets and farmers—to ensuring that supermarkets meet certain expectations, including the expectation that they will pay on time, pay what they agreed and, vitally, pay at least the cost of production. That is important if we are to ensure a healthy and sustainable food supply, and to ensure that the hard work that produces it continues in the long run.