Maggie Jones on the need for better short-term solutions and a long-term plan to resolve Britain’s food security issues
COVID 19 has created huge and immediate challenges in keeping the food supply moving and ensuring the nation is fed. Most farmers, food manufacturers and retailers have responded magnificently to the health and business challenges of lockdown Britain. I pay tribute to the frontline staff in food factories and supermarkets who have continued working in difficult and potentially dangerous environments.
The issue of food poverty, however, remains an ongoing and worsening crisis. The economic impact of the enforced lockdown has left many unable to feed their families. The Food Foundation previously estimated that 5 million people (2 million of them children) are experiencing food insecurity; and polling undertaken since the onset of the pandemic suggests as many as 8 million adults have struggled to access food.
Food Banks are doing a fantastic job in creating emergency food parcels for those in financial hardship and I welcome the government’s recent decision to allocate £16 million to support the food charity sector. Local councils are also playing their role in distributing essential supplies to those who are shielding and unable to shop.
Nevertheless, these initiatives are only a temporary sticking plaster. What we really need is a reform of the welfare benefits system, including the current five week wait for Universal Credit – something that is creating food poverty in the first place.
Problems have also been exacerbated by the school meal voucher fiasco. A sensible initiative to provide food vouchers for children who would normally receive free school meals, this has been sabotaged by EdenRed – the company that is contracted to administer the scheme. It has therefore, proved impossible for many eligible families to get vouchers in a timely manner, leaving children going hungry. A scandal if there ever was one.
The Covid crisis has also highlighted a more fundamental problem in the food supply chain. Currently, the UK is only 53% self-sufficient in food and drink. Nearly half our food is imported, mostly from the EU. While most of these imports are getting through, our reliance on fruit and vegetable trucks from Europe reminds us of the importance of striking the right Brexit trade deal.
Labour and the food charities have consistently highlighted the need to drive up the percentage of food grown here. In the current crisis, however, there is a danger of the opposite trend occurring. Most farms rely on EU seasonal workers to harvest the crops and many of them have thankfully continued to make this journey – despite the risks. But Brexit means this could be the last year they can come to the UK.
Our government is intent on recruiting a new army of UK seasonal farm workers from those furloughed from other jobs but take up levels have to date been low. It is not clear yet whether our essential crops will be picked this year – or where such workers will be drawn from in future.
In terms of legislation, the Agriculture Bill – shortly to arrive in the House of Lords – provides an opportunity for a radical rethink of future UK food production.
A strong farming sector, based on sustainable methods and local food strategies, will give us greater food security. A legal guarantee of future high animal welfare and environmental standards will protect our consumers as well as British farmers at risk of being undercut by cheap imports. Initiatives to encourage changing diets and less food waste will help cut our greenhouse gas emissions with people leading healthier lives.
And the Fisheries Bill could revitalise our fishing sector, providing a greater source of local fish and at the same time embedding high environment fishing standards and marine conservation.
While we must overcome the immediate challenges facing the UK’s food system, the debate in the Lords tomorrow will at least allow us to look ahead at how we deliver a more robust and sustainable food supply chain. And perhaps one that will work better if we find ourselves facing another pandemic of this nature.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 13th May 2020