Opening Speach of Derek Thomas MP for the Food Security Debate in Westminster Hall

Food Security Westminster Hall Debate     Wednesday 6th January


I beg to move that this House has considered food security.


I requested this debate because the past year or so has been particularly difficult for most farms, big and small, and specifically in the dairy sector. Since securing this debate I have been encouraged by the fact that so many MPs share my concern regarding food security and I want to particularly thank the MP for Taunton Dean, Rebecca Pow, who has given me some insight into the difficulties her farmers face. She is unable to be here today as she has select committee responsibilities. Farming remains an important part of the economy and this is particularly true in my constituency of West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I grew up amongst farms in West Cornwall and I live today at the bottom of a farm lane so I see first-hand the hard work that is put in and the challenges farmers are exposed to year in year out.

Living in a rural area like West Cornwall brings home the contribution farmers make and the vital role they have. They preserve, maintain and protect our countryside and create jobs in farming, food processing, engineering, tourism etc. 

Most importantly they feed the nation. Maintaining food security has long been a concern of mine and I believe it is an issue we need to take much more seriously. Conflict around the world affects food security; and population growth leaves more mouths to feed. 

Food security is defined by the UN and Agriculture Organisation as: when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food [to] meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

I recognise that when measuring food security, imports are included in the calculation. However, for the purposes of this debate I would like to concentrate our minds on the ability of British farmers to produce the lion share of the food we need and ask what more can be done to ensure that they can continue to feed our nation. This is important because I believe it would be unwise and that there are moral implications if we were to assume that whatever we cannot produce for ourselves can be simply imported.

As the world's population grows, and taking into account growing unrest and conflict that threatens some region’s ability to produce food, we should not assume that affordable imports will be readily available.   And we must not because every tonne we import is a tonne less available to other nations who may not have the ability to produce as we can. 

As a parliamentary candidate of 8 years and an MP of 8 months I have had ample opportunity to meet with my local farmers and get an insight into their industry. I am grateful for the time farmers have taken to explain their industry. I have learnt that the challenges are considerable. The solutions are complex!

Having seen how hard farmers work I would never claim that running their business has ever been easy or straightforward. However, 2014/15 has been a particularly difficult period for British farmers. They have been more productive, largely as a result of investing heavily in technology and machinery, but the farmers are having to work harder for their money and in some cases getting less for their product than twenty years ago - this is particularly true in the dairy industry.


Dairy prices hit the headlines last summer. The price of milk is still falling and the dairy sector in Cornwall has a particular problem through the limited markets available. Basically these are Dairy Crest for cheese, Arla (Rodda) and Trewithen, the latter two paying being 22 and 24p per litre.


Cauliflower growers have had a terrible winter, admittedly due to the warm weather.They tell me they need 48p per head to have a future they can invest in. However, prices have been anywhere from 18p to 22p per cauliflower.


Across the UK 2014/15 income figures show harvest down by 9%. A 24% drop in general cropping. 25% drop in income for pig farmers, 20% for poultry farmers and 29% down for mixed farms. So the situation is bleak.


Basic business sense says that:

• You don't invest in a business when you have no idea what the return will be from one month to the next.• You cannot expect a business to survive if you are consistently being paid less than the cost of production. 


Yet this is the daily reality for large parts of the British farming industry. They persevere when any other business would pack up and go home.


But we cannot afford for British farmers to pack up. We must not ignore the threat to British producers.


For many farmers, the price they are being paid does not cover the cost of production. If this continues we will see farms disappear and less food produced. We need to create an environment where farmers are consistently being paid a fair price so that they have confidence to invest in their business, employ the workers they need and produce the food and drink to meet UK demand and beyond. 


Why is this so important?

Because British farmers play this vital role, as I have said earlier:

• They protect, maintain and preserve our natural environment• They provide jobs in farming, processing, engineering, tourism etc. (3.8 million in food and farming alone)• They contribute £10 billion to the UK Economy


(In rural Cornwall it’s our farmers that primarily keep our Methodist churches open!)


And most importantly they feed the nation!


It is difficult to establish exactly how much of the food and drink that the UK needs is produced by UK farmers. The widely accepted figure currently stands at 62%. However, a recent NFU report suggests that, taking into account predicted UK population growth, as things stand this will drop to just over 50% when my children reach retirement age.


The UK does not want to be in a position where we rely on exports for nearly half of the daily food and drink we need!


It does not have to be like this: 

It is widely acknowledged that there is an opportunity for the UK to import less indigenous fruit and vegetables. The UK only supplied 23% of its fruit and vegetableneeds in 2014.


Yet a frustration exists within the industry and further afield with what appears to be a lack of ability to tackle this issue and maximise the potential of our food industry for the future.


The National Farmers Union have done some very useful work in this regard which the former Secretary of State, Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP reinforced in January 2014 when he said:


“By buying seasonal fruit and veg we can improve the nation's health, help the environment and boost the economy. […]As British farmers and food producers you know that we grow some of the best food in the world here - so why is 24% of the food eaten in the UK imported when it could be produced here? […]We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8bn of fruit and veg in 2012.”


It is in our interest that we produce as much food as possible. If we want to ensure that good quality food continues to be available to us at a reasonable price then we must support our farmers. The NFU’S recent ‘Back British Farming’ campaign, carrying the slogan ‘Want great British food tomorrow? Buy great British food today’, makes it very clear that the time for action is NOW.


And with a growing global population there is every reason for us to produce more. We have the opportunity to grow because there is huge international demand for food and we want to be part of the solution.


Earlier I referred to the complex challenges that require equally complex solutions and I am grateful that I am speaking here as a back-bencher. I do not envy the position of my friend and colleague, the farming minister, who is required to respond to this debate.


However, there is some capital that we can build on that, I believe, is ripe for the taking (excuse the pun) and if we get it right will help the British food industry no end. UK farmers enjoy significant levels of good will from the British public.


Recent research shows that 88% of the UK public think that farming is important to the economy and they are concerned that we have a secure and safe domestic food supply. The British shopper wants to support the British producer! So, over the recess I wanted to see how easy it is for shoppers to support producers!


I visited 5 supermarkets with two simple questions in mind: can I be sure that I am buying British produce and can I be sure that the farmer is receiving a fair price. 


To the credit of the Government, the suppliers, retailers and most importantly consumers, the issue of labelling and country of origin has largely been resolved. Although legislation only requires country of origin to be shown for products from outside of the EU. When buying fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat, you can often see the county of origin as well as the country. It is clear that the industry has responded favourably to consumer demand. However, I did find some butter thatsimply stated that it was produced in the UK, whereas all others stated that they wereproduced using British milk etc. I also found salmon that was labelled as being from Scotland or Norway, which I found curious as I had not previously met a salmon with such an identity crisis!


However, despite various claims on packaging, I left each of the five supermarkets unsure as to whether the farmer received a fair price. I am not suggesting that they do not. However, I found the packaging confusing and what consumers need, as they seek to support British producers, is absolute confidence that the product is British and that the farmer is getting a fair price. Unless we can provide this assurance,consumers are not able to fully support the British farming industry especially if they are being asked to pay a little extra.


We have seen consumers demonstrate that they are willing to pay more for milk and dairy products once they are completely confident that the product is British and the farmer gets paid a fair price. Unless they can have this confidence they will continue to buy cheap milk: no noble-minded British person wants to give more than they must to the supermarket bosses! But they would to the farmer because they value British farmers and are concerned about food security.


And the truth is that it is not necessarily the case that we must pay more. If I were to have purchased a Cornish cauliflower before Christmas I would have parted with a pound knowing fully well that the grower was getting just 18p for the cauliflower! It is possible to pay a fair price to the grower without hiking supermarket prices on many of the goods that the UK produces.


 The great advantage of being a back-bench Member of Parliament is that I have the space and privilege to do some blue-sky thinking!


My blue-sky thinking is this: with the support of British consumers being so solidly behind our producers and with increasing concern about future food security and, in light of the torrid time our farming industry is enduring, is this the time for the Government to establish a UK Fair trade brand giving the consumer a rock solid guarantee that when choosing to buy British, British farmers are getting a fair price for their product!

We need to remove all confusion and empower consumers to support the British Farming Industry.


My objective is clear: 

To support British Farmers/Producers by encouraging consumers to buy locally farmed and produced food and enabling them to easily identify genuine domestic product that have rewarded the farmer fairly. I want to see a Government backed initiative that delivers this objective.


I would also like the Minister to address a few short questions when he concludes this debate:


• What can the Government do to give consumers confidence that, when they buy British, British farmers are getting a fair price?• What can the Government do to ensure the public sector is buying as much British produce as it possibly can to feed our children, our armed forces, our patients, and others in their care?• What can the Government do to support the NFU’s ‘Back British Farming’ campaign, enabling consumers to choose to buy great British food today so that they can buy great British food tomorrow?• We do not expect farmers to tolerate a price below the cost of production but quite often as consumers we expect to pay half the price for a pint of milk than we would pay for a pint of bottled water. What can the Government do to quash the myth that milk is cheap to supply and should always be cheap to buy?• What can the Government do to reassure consumers that buying British produce has the added benefit of supporting good welfare of livestock and achieving the highest standards of food hygiene and production?• What can the Government do to create an environment where British farmers are consistently paid a fair price so that they can invest in their farms, attract new blood into the industry and weather the storms?• What can the Government do to help the nation celebrate the great British good and drink industry, and provide food security strengthened by increased self-sufficiency?