Food security is the emerging challenge of this new century

Food security is the emerging challenge of this new century, writes shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh MP.


Mary Creagh MP (Labour, Wakefield) is the shadow environment secretary

Food security is the emerging challenge of this new century. But the country woke up to more bad economic news last week. The second wettest summer on record means the wheat harvest in England is down 15%, which will increase food prices. And the problem is global.

Heatwaves in Russia, and drought in the USA, have also hit harvests. Higher grain prices mean bad news for pork, chicken and dairy prices as animal feed costs rise.

Food is not the problem. There is more than enough food in the world. The problem is our global approach to food production, and in Britain, a Tory-led government who are out of touch with families feeling the squeeze from higher food prices.

Labour tabled a debate on rising food poverty in January this year. The then environment secretary likened the rapid growth in foodbanks to the work of churches during harvest festival that is now ‘part of British culture’.

And last week at Tory party conference the new environment secretary Owen Paterson encouraged the nation to eat more ice cream. A Marie Antoinette for our times!

It is a national scandal that we are the seventh richest nation in the world, yet we face an epidemic of hidden hunger, particularly in children. People are facing a perfect storm of rising food prices, stagnant wages and the double-dip recession.

Being able to feed yourself properly is fundamental to people yet government figures (see Food Statistics Pocketbook 2012, Defra; pdf) show people on lower incomes are buying and consuming less than five years ago as fruit, milk, cheese and egg prices are up by 30%.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has stated high food prices are here to stay. Cereal prices could be on average up to 20 per cent higher over the next decade compared with the last 10 years.

Defra statistics (pdf), published last week, show food prices have risen 12% in real terms over the last five years, taking us back to 1997 in terms of relative costs. In May, 63 per cent of people told a government survey rising food prices were their main concern about food.

Falling income levels and rising food prices have reduced food affordability by a fifth for the lowest income households. The report states baldly: “The main response to higher food prices by low income households has been to buy less” – but the silence from Defra ministers on food poverty speaks volumes.

In 2010, very few people knew what a foodbank was. Well, they do now. Last year, 130,000 people relied on food handouts from foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, including 45,000 children. They are now opening three foodbanks a week and estimate they will feed 200,000 people this year.

The leading food charity FareShare feeds 36,500 people a day through their network of 700 charities; FareShare defines food poverty as:

“…suffered by people with low or no income with poor access to affordable nutritious food and who lack the knowledge, skills or equipment to ensure food is safe and prepared properly.”

Over the last year I have visited foodbanks across the country. In September I visited the FareShare depot in East Manchester to discuss their work with local breakfast clubs. I have also visited foodbanks in Bermondsey, Norwich, Weymouth, Bradford, Worcester and Harlow.

On every visit, the message is clear: the situation is getting worse, with demand growing exponentially; and food bank users are no longer the homeless, or people with drug and alcohol problems. The biggest demand is now coming from families facing benefits delays, struggling with debt and unemployment.

We need a new deal on food, growing more with a smaller water, land, energy, chemical and carbon footprint. But food must be affordable, globally and locally. Labour is challenging the government on food.

In government, we published the first national food strategy for 50 years, Food 2030. We commissioned Sir John Beddington to write the Foresight report which laid out the challenges of feeding the world in forensic detail. We reflect the growing consensus across the country on the need for a sustainable food policy. We need to cut food waste, with zero food waste going to landfill, increase productivity, improve resilience and think about what we eat

We need to harness the power of research and development to ensure food remains widely available. Yet the government is cutting its R&D budget into efficiency in the food chain by 61% (down from £3,291,000 in 2011/11 to £1,271,000 in 2014-15) over the next four years.

Higher commodity prices play their part in raising food prices. Recent research modelling (see Retail Food Price Inflation Modelling Project, Final Report, 2011; pdf) undertaken by the University of Nottingham and the University of Exeter for Defra, showed the long-term effect of a 10% shock to the world price of oil translates into a 3.5% increase in retail food prices.

The problem is not commercial hedgers, the food producers, but excess speculation caused by Wall Street selling their latest financial products. Oxfam’s “Grow” campaign focuses on the need for fundamental change in the food system. Their research shows spikes in food prices have forced people to change their diets, sell their animals and in extremis, migrate to places where food is available.

Climate change and changing weather patterns mean more poor harvests in future. We need to adapt to climate change and ensure we have a sustainable food system. No child should go to bed hungry at night. Labour will continue to challenge the government to meet the challenge of increasing food security and tackling the scandal of food poverty.

Food 2030, Labour’s national food strategy. has been gathering dust on Defra ministers’ bookshelves; on food waste, on food to landfill, on food poverty, Defra ministers simply have nothing to say.

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