Opposition Day — 16th Allotted Day
Roger Williams (Shadow Minister (Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
I thought that the Secretary of State was more encouraging towards British agriculture than I have heard him be recently. My hon. Friend makes the point about the single farm payment and what a sapping effect the problems with it had on the confidence of British agriculture and its ability to invest and carry on its business.
The Secretary of State defined food security as having sufficient food and access to food unhampered by bad governance, substandard infrastructure or the inability to pay for that food. As several hon. Members have said, this is an issue not of self-sufficiency, but of security of supply and where we get food from. The issue is greatly affected by national agricultural output and European agricultural output. Indeed, the EU is a great exporter of food and is an important source for food security in the whole world. Many analysts of climate change predict that northern Europe will increase its importance in global food production.
As an historical perspective on food production, I point out that in 1900 there were some 2 billion people on the planet; in just over a century we have increased to 6.5 billion. Food supply has kept up with that increase in population until very recent times because people have been innovative and engaged in research and experimentation. Mechanisation, plant breeding, fertilisers, agrochemicals and herbicides have all contributed to a great increase in food production, so much so that food prices have fallen in real terms over that period, especially in the past 20 years. That has been a big disincentive to investment in British agriculture. When I did my training, we were in the midst of the green revolution that did so much to bring improved food security to Asia, including the use of F1 hybrids and other technical developments. Many millions of people are alive in Asia today as a result of the improved food supplies provided by the green revolution. Many children have also gone on to better and more productive lives as a result.
Individual food security is about not only sufficient calories, but sufficient vitamins, essential amino and fatty acids and minerals. We need not only food, but a range of foodstuffs that meets our nutritional needs. Where disasters have happened, it has often been a case not of insufficient food, but of an inability to get the food to people fast enough because of civil unrest, poor infrastructure or delays in transportation. The problem has been logistics failure rather than food shortage, but many people are undernourished. It has been estimated that their numbers have increased considerably as a result of the increase in food prices.
Why is food security a hot topic and why does it cause concern for Britain and the British Government? The Government were initially sceptical about food security implications for Britain, or our responsibilities for the rest of the world. Britain's own food production has fallen as a percentage of our needs, and world food stocks recently reached an all-time low. Food on shelves and in store is likely to be inadequate if transport is disrupted, either by industrial action or by fuel shortages. Recent threats of industrial action have shown that food is spread so thinly across the nation that getting it to the shelves is a real issue, and it is one for which the Government must take responsibility. The Government's reaction was that although food production was falling in Britain as a result of decoupling, Britain was resilient because of its secure home base and diversity of supply. More work needs to be done on the resilience of the distribution network.
Other factors have already been touched on this evening that have implications for food security: the possible increase in the population to 9.5 billion by 2050; the increase in wealth of India and China, as well as the fact that they eat and want foods of higher quality and cost; and the competition for land from biofuels, with all its implications in causing a tighter market for food supplies.
What should the Government do and what can they do? First, it is a question of attitude. I call on Ministers to show more pride in British agriculture, to stand up for it and to be proud of what it has achieved in producing good, wholesome food over a long period and in ensuring that people in this country have access to that food and to variety. Secondly, Ministers should invest in the greatest resource in British agriculture—the men and women who work in it. There is too little demand for many agricultural courses in our colleges of further education. Let me give a little example. In my local agricultural college, which is in one of the biggest agricultural constituencies in England and Wales, only one person wants to go on to level 3. As a result, he will have to travel 50 or 60 miles to another college to take part in that training.