The government has ruled out any intervention in the market to help farmers or consumers with high food prices, said Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey.
Food prices have risen sharply in the past year, partly due to higher input prices such as energy, fertilizer and animal feed. Last month, food price inflation hit a new high of 12.4%, with poorer households hardest hit.
Farmers have also complained that supermarkets are lowering the prices they pay farmers, making small profits. A report published last week by food charity Sustain found that farmers made less than a tenth of a penny profit from a supermarket loaf sold to consumers for £1.14, and only a penny profit from a £2.50 block of mild cheddar cheese .
But Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since Rishi Sunak took office in September, declined to criticize supermarkets and said the government would take no action.
“I’m not going to be particularly critical of supermarkets – in general, having a competitive supermarket environment has done a lot to help consumers,” she told Parliament’s committee on environmental food and rural affairs on Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think we’re at the stage of direct market intervention when it comes to pricing.”
She acknowledged the growing demand for food banks across the country and pointed to steps such as upcoming increases in benefits and measures to cut energy bills, but declined to promise further support. She said: “It is not the government’s role to provide free food.”
In her first quirk by MPs about the environment, food and rural affairs committee since taking office, she also said she was “very disappointed by the water companies” and acknowledged her concerns about sewage flowing into waterways. She said water company bosses will be called next week to account for their actions, and that they will be subject to more scrutiny and must submit “real-time data”.
She made no commitment to address sewage flows to rivers and beaches.
However, Coffey offered comfort to those hoping for an expansion of renewable energy in rural Britain. She moved away from the stance taken by Sunak in his leadership campaign when he rejected solar parks on British farmland, saying a government land use assessment due to be published in the first half of next year would take a “balanced” stance.
She told the committee that land rated 3b for agricultural use – assessed as moderate in quality, suitable for grain and grass production – could be used for solar farms.
She said: “I am not routinely suggesting that I want to put solar energy on every 3 billion piece of land. I think we need to strike that careful balance and use the land to the best of our ability. I’m more inclined towards brownfield sites and definitely thinking about how farms and others can do much more self energy production. I am already aware that there are challenges to connect to the grid.”
She added: “But no doubt, you know, we now have 14 gigawatts of solar power. At the moment, the ambition within the energy security strategy is to increase this to 70 gigawatts.”
The Agriculture Minister, Mark Spencer, confirmed that the government will not ban solar parks covering 3 billion acres.
He told the Guardian: “I believe Beis [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] and Defra are looking together at how we can best use land and there will be a framework for land use. But I am not in favor of a broad approach.
“We shouldn’t stop farmers who want to diversify their income from doing so because it would be detrimental, so I wouldn’t have a problem with them putting some solar panels on 3 billion acres. But then we can’t have thousands and thousands of hectares removed that could otherwise be used for food production. It has to be a balance.”
Dustin Benton, a policy analyst at the environmental think tank Green Alliance, welcomed the apparent shift in government stance. “It’s refreshing to see ministers point to a practical approach to getting solar and agriculture to work together,” he told the Guardian.
“We know that installing solar panels on cropland or grassland while food is being grown reduces yields by only eight per cent and can even increase yields in hot and dry summers. The government should focus on helping farmers get the most out of their land, including where their land can best be used for clean energy or for nature.”
The solar industry also welcomed the move. “It will be a great relief to the solar industry to hear that Thérèse Coffey supports the existing planning rules, which have successfully encouraged development away from the best quality farmland, while recognizing the critical need to develop solar parks in response to the climate and energy price crisis,” said Chris Hewett, CEO of the trade association Solar Energy UK.
“This appears to be a significant shift from the anti-solar rhetoric of its predecessor,” said Chris Hewett, CEO of the trade association Solar Energy UK.