There's no appetite for a new minister

by Ben Ramanauskas, Policy Analyst

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee recently published a report on food security in the United Kingdom. It makes grim reading, highlighting a number of issues in the UK such as households having limited access to food, undernutrition, and obesity. The Committee said that the government has failed to implement any strategy to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The report received a lot of media coverage, with claims being made that the UK is the most food insecure nation in Europe and that a Minister for Hunger should be introduced. Commentators. However, something did not smell right and so we decided to take a look.

The first thing to ask is whether or not the government should even be attempting to meet these development goals. Why should the UK government be tasked with ensuring “safe nutritious food all year round”? We haven’t believed since the 1950’s, when rationing was brought to an end in the 1950’s that the government has seen it as its job to provide food to the population. These are more appropriate for developing  countries, not a country with a highly developed and advanced economy such as the UK.

As the above example suggests, the Sustainable Development Goals are so general and ambiguous and so it is difficult to judge whether or not governments are achieving these aims.

The report also ranks all EU countries in terms of the percentage of children under 15 living in a severely food insecure household. This is based on a report from the Food Foundation in 2017. Strangely, the report appears to have been removed and so we cannot know the methodology used to reach its conclusions. However, common sense alone should be enough to be sceptical about it. It is highly unlikely that countries such as Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria have higher levels of food security than the UK. The report is based on data from 2014 and 2015, when Greece was in the midst of a recession and its citizens were forced to forage for food, but somehow had a higher level of food security than the UK.

The report also blames cuts to local services meaning that the elderly and vulnerable do not receive the care which they need. It is right that we provide high quality care for the elderly and the disabled. One way which this could be achieved is through the use of automation and new technology. This is common practice in countries such as Japan, and so it is encouraging that the UK and Japanese governments are forging a new alliance for research into the use of robotics in health and social care.

Low wages was also highlighted as a problem. It is obviously disappointing that people who work hard can still find themselves being unable to adequately provide for themselves and their families. The most effective and sustainable way to increase wages is by increasing productivity, which has been very low in the UK since the financial crisis. Last year, the TPA released a paper setting out how we can increase productivity in the UK. Productivity would be much higher if the planning system was reformed which would end the housing crisis. The country would also see higher productivity if stamp duty was abolished and taxes on income and businesses cut. There would also be much higher productivity and higher wages if the government reduced transport congestion by investing on infrastructure instead of wasteful vanity projects such as HS2.

Universal Credit is also blamed by the Committee. The aims of Universal Credit, to simplify the benefits system and ensure that those who are able go to work, are commendable. However, there have been real problems with implementing it and so people have suffered as a result and have been forced to rely on foodbanks. The government needs to sort out these problems so that people get the help they need. In the meantime, groups and individuals such as the Trussell Trust will continue to do a great job providing for those in need.

This is not to completely dismiss the report. The cost of living is high in the UK, with many people struggling to make ends meet. The price of food is a major factor in this.

Food prices are high in the UK for a number of reasons. First, tariffs are place on on products from outside of the European Union, and these tend to be higher on food and agriculture products. There are also tariffs placed on farming machinery such as tractors which places financial pressure on farmers. These costs are passed on to shoppers.

People are also paying more for food in the UK due to the subsidies given to EU farmers by taxpayers. Subsidies are used to prop up producers. This means that they are not forced to compete and improve like other businesses in other parts of the economy. This results in the agricultural sector being inefficient and unproductive. As a consequence, it costs farmers more money to create their produce. Once again, the end result is higher food prices in the shops.

EU regulations also increase the cost of food in British supermarkets. These regulations do not allow food which have been produced in certain ways from being sold in the UK. One example is chlorine washed chicken which is a more cost effective way of preparing chicken than the one used in the EU. Despite it being completely safe, chicken prepared in this way is banned in the EU. This means that shoppers in the UK are prevented from buying cheaper food.

The EU has also banned the production and sale of genetically modified (GM) and edited food (with a few exceptions). Matt Ridley does excellent work pointing out the many benefits of biotechnology. GM allows farmers to produce higher yields in a more cost effective way, and there is overwhelming evidence that it is completely safe.  The EU’s approach, which is not based on scientific evidence, means that people in the UK are paying more for food.

To ensure that food is affordable in the UK, then the government needs to address the root cause of high food prices. Once the country leaves the EU it needs to drop tariffs, phase out subsidies for farmers, and have an approach to food safety based on scientific evidence.

The Committee's recommendations, such as appointing a Minister for Hunger will not solve the problem as they do nothing to address the root causes. We should focus on making food more affordable, boosting wages by increasing productivity, and ensuring that the welfare system is fit for purpose.