A cross-party group of MPs is demanding urgent action from the UK government to tackle food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and climate change.
MPs from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee have warned that a second wave of coronavirus and possible disruption to the food supply chain caused by a “disorderly Brexit” is likely to increase the number of people at risk of food shortages and hunger.
After the use of food banks in the UK almost doubled during the lockdown, with a significant spike in demand from families with children, the MPs have called on the government to urgently appoint a minister for food security.
The government should also consult on whether a “right to food” should be put in legislation, says a report by the Efra committee, which analysed its response to the disruption to food supplies caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although MPs concluded that Defra’s response was largely commendable once the crisis hit, the report questions why government ministers appeared unprepared for disruptions – given the spikes in retail demand and the effect of food service closures that followed lockdowns in other countries.
Panic buying led to a shortage of staples on supermarket shelves, such as eggs, flour, bread and pasta. But the closure of pubs, cafés and restaurants forced some dairy farmers to pour away fresh milk after collections were disrupted and they were unable to find alternative markets. In total, they lost in excess of £41m.
Food imports reliance
During this time, Britain relied heavily on food imports, but any future crises over cross-border trade caused by a no-deal Brexit or climate change could stop this flow and trigger more serious problems, the report (PDF) warns.
Neil Parish, MP and Efra committee chairman, said the lockdown “may have eased, but problems with food security are far from over”.
He said: “Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a shocking spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“It is therefore essential that the government appoints a new minister for food security who will stop this issue falling between the cracks.
“The government’s actions to lock down the country and close businesses were necessary, but they had huge impacts on the food sector and on food security.”
According to the MPs, some 6.6 million people, including 1.7 million children, are at risk of food shortages and hunger.
The Soil Association welcomed the proposal of a food security minister, but said the role would need to be cross-departmental and cover healthy diets food poverty, resilience in the supply chain and the environmental footprint of food production, at home and abroad.
A government spokesperson said: “As we have seen in recent months, the UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain – which is able to cope with unprecedented pressures.
“During this time the government has worked closely with the food industry to prepare for a range of scenarios and has invested record levels of funding to help people get the food they need.
“Our Covid-19 taskforce has also brought together expertise across government to tackle the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic and ensure those most vulnerable in our society are protected.”