There has been a decline in the number of persons employed in agriculture, a very sad decline, and it has gone on for many years since a date before the War. It is due to a great variety of causes: One is the possibility of getting employment in the towns. Another is undoubtedly the stimulation of public works of one sort and another; and a third is undoubtedly the increasing resort to mechanisation by farmers. These are the elements of the problem. I ask the Committee to remember that the crease of population in the countryside, a thing which I lament for its own sake, has not been accompanied by a decline in agricultural production, for while this decline in population has occurred there has been an actual increase in agricultural production of something like 14 per cent, When I replied to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) I was pointing out the effect of the protective policy of the Government. We have had that advantage from it—and it is surely a very small price to pay, even if any increased price can be traced to protection—that so many more of our people are at work and getting good wages.
As to marketing schemes, it is said sometimes that they are responsible for an increase in the cost of food. The principal commodities covered by such schemes are milk, potatoes and bacon. It is true that the retail price of milk has risen slightly since 1931, but this is offset to some extent by the provision of cheap milk in schools to that section of the population to whom milk is a most necessary element of diet; and it is also offset by other schemes of a similar character of which the Committee are aware. There is this curious point to be borne in mind about milk and its products. Salt butter, which is a major commodity of milk, is actually cheaper to-day than it was before the War. I also ask the Committee to remember that before the Marketing Board for Milk was established the industry was getting into chaos. A decline in the production of milk would have meant a very severe rise in its price, and the same thing is true of bacon. In bacon there has been a slight increase in price, but it is still cheaper than it Was in 1930, when hon. Members opposite were in power.
The whole truth of the matter seems to me to be that in questions of food prices the efforts of man are too puny compared with the operations of Nature. It is remarkable that if you survey the whole field of food prices at the present time you find that the most sub Stäntial increase has been in the case of bread and flour and wheat, which are not affected at all by Governmental control or exclusion; but through the operation of Nature itself, by bringing drought for two years and abnormal consumption, there has been an immediate effect on the price of bread of far greater effect than anything achieved by legislation. The truth of the matter is that food prices have varied with world conditions and from world causes for years and years, under Governments which were not at all inclined to interfere with the freest possible trade. There have been these fluctuations. Indeed under the marketing schemes we have achieved a greater degree of steadiness in price, which has been of great benefit to the consumer, and the producer does not now suffer from these wild fluctuations in value.
I have so far dealt with the work of organisation which has taken place in commodities such as hops, potatoes, milk and bacon. I turn now to the work which lies ahead of us with regard to the last two commodities and poultry. The object of Government policy is what it has always been, to secure ample supplies to consumers and a reasonable return to producers. A fair price for efficient pro-duction is an essential, and is the goal at which to strive, but we should not forget that price is not the end of the matter. It is the margin between price and the cost of production which determines whether or not an industry is commercially profitable. We ought to direct our attention to reducing the cost of production in agriculture as far as we can, and there are certain costs of production which it would be in the general public interest to have reduced if possible. Along this line, which is very important, the activities of the Ministry are extremely widespread and very interesting, and I believe that they are helpful to the community at large. Wastage and high costs may be due to several things; for example, lack of the use of the best methods of cultivation. Science has provided agriculture with great advances in its technique and these are becoming more available and more sought after by the new generation of farmers to-day.
The Government carry out a great work of education, because research is of no use if it ends in the laboratory; its fruits must be brought into the field, and its benefits conveyed to the farmer. There is a great problem here in agricultural education, and education we shall continue to carry on to the best of our ability. Other things which increase costs and cause wastage are pests of one sort and another. Here is another of those curious instances which show that scientific advance and invention are not always attended by unmixed blessings. Freer communications throughout the world have brought us the problem of infection by foreign pests, which speedily make themselves at home in our country and may multiply and become very harmful. Among these pests is the Colorado beetle. The outbreak that occurred at Tilbury in 1933 seems to have been successfully suppressed, and so far as I know the country is now free from these prolific and destructive insects. The further spread of the beetle on the Continent, from France to parts of Belgium and Germany, renders it more necessary than ever before for all potato growers, whether on a commercial scale or in private allotments—here I appeal to them—to assist us and to report the appearance of any suspicious beetle to the Ministry.
Another pest which caused grave inconvenience and serious loss was the musk rat, which, owing to its habit of tunnelling into banks, can undo the work of years of drainage and improvement of banks. Apart from one stray specimen caught in Cheshire in July, 1936, no captures of this pest have been made since the spring of 1935, and I think we are justified in assuming that it has now been exterminated. We may be wrong about that, and we are keeping in reserve a depot for the storage of trapping equipment for use in an emergency: and this is represented by the sum of £50 in the Ministry's estimates. The fact that it is only necessary to ask for this humble sum in order to deal with a pest which does grave and irreparable damage, affords, I think, good ground for congratulating those who have conducted the campaign for its extermination.
Another cause of high production costs, and one which is very distressing to contemplate, is the immense burden of animal diseases, which probably costs the industry something like £14.,000,000 a year. A great deal of work has been done in the past by local authorities and by the Ministry's veterinary service, and practical results have been obtained from it. To deal first with foot-and-mouth disease, the position is that during the last financial year there were 13 centres of infection, and these comprised 66 separate premises. The policy which has been carried out has had the result that the disease has not become endemic in this country, as it has in those of some of our continental neighbours, and I am very glad to see, because I think it can he regarded as a hopeful sign, that the incidence of this disease on the Continent seems to be declining. The other scheduled disease position can be summed up by saying that there was a slight increase in the incidence of anthrax, but a satisfactory decrease in swine fever and sheep scab. There are still diseases like tuberculosis, contagious abortion, mastitis, and others which take an immense toll of our cattle, and necessarily add to the cost of production. The proposals which I recently announced will involve legislation, and I only want to say this about them, that they represent a very much bigger step forward and a much more resolute attack on this problem than has yet been made, and one which, I hope, with the cooperation of those concerned, will yield substantial results in freeing the industry from a burden which is wasteful and one which is no longer to be endured.
There is another cause of loss on the wrong side of the balance sheet which may arise from too much reliance upon imported feeding stuffs. This, as I have already said, particularly affects the specialist producer, and it is also bound up with the question of decline of productivity of the soil. The great question of producing feeding stuffs for our livestock from native sources is bound up with the question of soil fertility, and it is vital from the defence point of view. We have a crop at our disposal in this country the proper management of which would go a very long way to help us in dealing with this problem. That crop is grass. I was told by one of my hon. Friends that a constituent of his had said that, from my insistence upon grass, it was obvious that I was a Scotsman, but I should not like to claim that the whole credit for the development of grass is due to those who live north of the Tweed, for, if there is one country that has distinguished itself more than any other in this direction, it is Wales. The experiments that have been carried out at Aberystwyth under the direction of Professor Stapledon have opened up a very wide and interesting field for the future development of our agricultural industry. It must never be forgotten that in the long run soil and climate are the unchangeable factors of agriculture. Ministries may change, but soil and climate will remain, and in our country we have a set of climatic and geological conditions favourable to the growth of good grass which are second to those of no other country in the world. It has been estimated that the grass yield of this country could, without undue strain, be increased by as much as 15 per cent. That would be equal to an addition of 3,000,000 acres to the pasture lands of this country. Hon. Members opposite will remember the old dictum about three acres and a cow, and, on this basis, that would mean food for about 1,000,000 more cattle.