Committee Corner – Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chair Robert Goodwill on his in-tray
Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine have triggered a spike in food prices (Alamy)
Liz Truss certainly has a full in-tray. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will be doing its bit to make constructive recommendations on some of the key items as she settles in.
Very high on the agenda, of course, is the cost of living crisis and the impact it will have on the food we eat – where it comes from, its quality and its price.
The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused big hikes in food prices. Experts predict that food inflation will hit 15 per cent in the coming months. The United Kingdom’s farmers, fishers and food producers are feeling the pressure – as, of course, are families up and down the country.
My committee’s food security inquiry will consider whether the current level of national food self-sufficiency is enough. About three-quarters of the food we can grow in the UK is supplied by our own growers, fishers and producers. However, because of people’s diets and choices (some like imported food, and we can’t grow mangoes here!), as well as our food exports, only a little over a half of the food that actually ends up on our plates is produced in the UK.
We need healthy and nutritious food, but we also need it to be reliably supplied and at a price we can afford. Food security is all about ensuring that, despite challenges, we can deal with any future price or supply shocks so the nation is still fed.
By scrutinising government action, and inviting experts to brief us, we hope to provide some answers on how this can be done.
In the shorter term, the vulnerability in our supply chains can present real risks to food security. For example last month it was announced that the UK’s only remaining fertiliser plant, on Teesside, would stop producing ammonia for fertiliser – a process that also creates a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas as a by-product.
CO2 gas is vital for keeping packaged food fresh and is also used to stun animals for slaughter. In response to the factory stoppage, my committee swiftly wrote to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We sought assurances about the supply of CO2 for the food supply chain, and that domestic fertiliser production would continue.
Another focus for my committee in the coming months will be the rollout of the new system of support for farmers – the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which is replacing the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The government’s aims for ELMS are significantly different from CAP. All payments will be focused on landowners and land managers supplying “public goods” such as planting trees or protection against flooding – rather than, as under the CAP, making payments largely based on food production. Taking land out of agriculture for rewilding, solar farms or forestry is contentious in many locations – particularly if this involves high grade land.
ELMS is a hugely complex and challenging project. Our inquiry will look at what progress the government is making and how it is supporting farmers and others through these changes. It will also ask whether the aims and timescales of ELMS need to change. Should those aims, we will ask, respond to the current pressures those who work the land are facing in the areas of energy prices, fertiliser costs and labour availability – all of which ultimately affect the price we pay for our food?
How do we produce more food while delivering for the environment? Where should the balance lie?
These were big questions before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. When his tanks rolled over the border, they got bigger.
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