From field to fork, food is at the heart of the economic recovery.
In January a ban on the use of battery cages for chickens came into force in Europe. British farmers have spent £400 million to ditch the old cages and ensure that our eggs meet the standards shoppers expect. Yet our industry is being let down by the government. British farmers face cheap imports from EU countries that still haven’t implemented the new rules. One billion illegal eggs will have been laid by the end of this month. Despite talking tough, ministers are failing to support the UK’s food industry.
The abolition of battery cages in the EU was, in large part, down to the push from UK consumers. It is disappointing that the government has not worked with the food industry to give consumers clarity on non-battery eggs. Our egg farmers have invested millions in the changeover. It is only right that they should reap the rewards. This week the NFU have published the ‘good egg’ list which provides information on which food producers have rejected the use of battery-caged eggs, alongside which companies will not say.
British farming is a world leader. Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with a turnover of £76.2 billion, employing 400,000 people across the UK. UK food exports are up 12 per cent over the last year as new emerging markets develop a taste for all things British. In Wakefield, we have EU recognition for our early forced rhubarb – in shops now – and the largest bakery in Europe, Warburtons. Yet too often food manufacturing is forgotten in favour of more ‘sexy’ manufacturing and hi-tech sectors, such as cars, chemicals or aviation.
The debacle over battery cages is about more than animal welfare, it is also a sorry sign of a government out of touch with the needs of British food industries. We need greater innovation in the food sector and to transform our understanding of the role that food and farming can play in stimulating the economy recovery. The success of companies like Yeo Valley and Dorset Cereals is being driven at a micro-level and shows the importance of product innovation. Labour’s five point plan for jobs and growth wants to see investment in food and farming: supporting skills and apprenticeships; helping businesses access bank finance; and bringing forward investment on critical infrastructure, such as rural broadband, to access new markets.
In government, my predecessor Hilary Benn launched Food 2030, the first national food strategy for 60 years, setting out a renewed vision for the food sector. Following the hike in food prices in 2008, Labour rose to the challenge of how we produce more food, sustainably. Since the election though, it appears this strategy has been stuck on the Defra bookshelf gathering dust. Last October I gathered stakeholders together to discuss how we can update Food 2030 and not lose sight of the strategic direction it sets out.
We want to see a fair and competitive supply chain for growers, processors and retailers. That is why Labour in government got cross-party agreement on the need for a Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure a fair deal for farmers and producers. But we are worried by government delays which mean that the adjudicator will probably not be up and running until 2014/15.
The government has lofty aspirations about ‘buying British’ but has failed to deliver on its promises. It spends £2 billion a year on food and is well placed to support British farmers and food standards through procurement. Yet Defra’s latest figures show that the department bought less than a third of its food from British sources in 2011. Number 10 has not revealed how much of its food has been UK sourced. That must change. In December, the Food and Drink Federation published Food 20/20, its new strategy for 20 per cent growth in the food production sector by 2020. Food is one of the defining issues of this century: meeting the challenge of how we feed 9 billion people globally by 2050. The scale of this ambition needs to be met by a government that is up to the job.
Mary Creagh is the shadow secretary of state for the environment and Labour MP for Wakefield
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