We must act now to create a thriving food culture that is best for our health, for our economy, for our planet and for our farmers

Last week I was delighted to lead a Westminster Hall debate on UK Food Security.

The UK is facing a Food Security crisis as our farmers experience increasing uncertainty over the viability of their businesses, while our supermarkets continue to be flooded with unhealthy junk food.

This is having a terrible impact on the nation’s health. It is estimated that 40% of British adults will have obesity issues by 2035, which would intensify the pressure on the NHS as well as our entire economy, given that we already have 3 million people out of work due to long-term sickness.

Research by the Food Foundation has found that the poorest 20% of households would need to spend half of their disposable income to be able to afford the NHS’s recommended healthy diet.

British farmers are going out of business at an alarming rate, with 110,000 farms having closed their gates for good since 1990. 49% of British fruit and veg farmers fear that they will go out of business within the next 12 months and three quarters of them state that supermarket behaviour is a significant factor in this.

The lack of a land use and horticulture strategy, despite promises from Government that this will arrive soon, means that our farmers struggle to plan for the future. The Government have also failed to protect British agriculture in recent trade deals, instead signing deals with Australia and New Zealand that undercut UK producers on welfare practices and food standards.

Our farmers have received incoherent messages, on one hand encouraging them to engage in more environmentally friendly farming techniques and on the other allowing lower welfare food into the country, undermining their hard work. We must speak with one voice that encourages sustainable food production, high welfare practices and environmental responsibility.

It is also essential that we recognise the role that nature has in ensuring our long-term food security. Pollinators are crucial in the production of our food, but I fear the Government is not addressing this issue with the seriousness it deserves. A citizen-science survey led by Kent Wildlife Trust and Buglife found that UK flying insects have declined by nearly 60% in less than 20 years.

These insects underpin our ecosystem and without them we will all suffer, but the Government’s disregard for their health is clear. This year was the fourth in a row that the emergency use of neonicotinoid pesticides was allowed, despite the harmful effects they have on our wildlife.

But it is not too late to avert this crisis and address the issues in our agri-food system.

I believe that it is essential we focus on the production of sustainable food at home and this starts with growing more British fruit and veg. We produce just 53% of the vegetables and 16% of the fruits that we consume, leaving us vulnerable to international disruptions to the supply chain. The UK has a favourable climate to support fruit and veg growth and domestic production can cut down on added costs such as food miles.

To do this, it is of vital importance that the Government produces a land use and horticulture strategy. The Liberal Democrats have committed to developing comprehensive national land use and horticulture strategies that encourage the growth of the horticultural sector and effectively manage the competing demand on land.

We must also allow the system to put more emphasis on localism to provide a food system that is resilient and delivers a vibrant, cyclical local economy. Farmers are frustrated by their inability to shorten the supply chain. Some are prevented by planning regulations which stop them from developing on-farm infrastructure, enabling them to diversify and add value to their products, and they may also be restricted by contracts, which limit the amount they can sell directly to consumers.

If we reform the system to allow more local procurement and direct selling, we can create local food cycles that encourage the proliferation of healthy food for all, that adequately pay farmers for their produce and that encourage both us and our children to eat well.

The Liberal Democrats want to do this by calling for proper scrutiny of our trade deals to prevent the undercutting of British farmers, by putting an additional £1bn into the farming budget to support those farms struggling to stay open, and by expanding free school meals to all children in primary education and all secondary school children whose families receive universal credit.

Sarah Dyke MP

Sarah Dyke is the Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, and was elected in 2023.