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I beg to move,
That this House
notes with concern current food shortages which are believed to have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide;
recognises that rising food prices are putting household budgets under increasing strain;
believes that with rising global demand and pressure on supply it is both a practical and moral imperative that Great Britain retains the capacity to produce a significant proportion of its own food;
notes that UK self-sufficiency in food has declined considerably over the last decade;
regrets the Government's failure to accept that domestic production is a necessary condition for food security;
and urges the Government to relieve pressure on world markets and ensure the security of domestic food supply by enabling British farmers to optimise food production while preserving the natural environment.
At the outset, may I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests?
A few weeks ago in the Chamber, I challenged the Secretary of State on the subject of food security. In his answer, he asked for a discussion on the right things to do in response to the changing circumstances. I hope that he will use this debate to make a contribution to those discussions.
Three years ago, the most significant reform of the common agricultural policy since its inception took effect. The so-called mid-term review began the process of cutting the link between how much a farmer produced and how much public money he or she received. In England, the Government quite rightly decoupled totally. Many other countries did so only partially. It is ironic, however, that the price of the two basic commodities at the heart of the present rise in food prices—grain and milk—has risen because of global markets. So, far from having cheaper food as a result of ending production subsidies, the market has conspired to raise prices. The two aspect are not linked; it is a coincidence, but it demonstrates that we should not make rash assumptions about something as unique as food production. Farming cannot be switched on and off like a car plant. That is why this debate is so important.
Why are we concerned? First, we are concerned because of the considerable rise in global food prices, to which I shall return. The second reason is the impact of those price increases on consumers, both here and in the developing world. The price of wheat has risen by up to 150 per cent., but that does not explain the rise in retail prices. For example, in the past two years the price of an average 800 g loaf of bread has risen by almost 30p, but the rise in the price of wheat accounts for less than 10p of that rise. We recognise that the rise in fuel prices has hit everyone, but we have to ask how that total price rise is justified. I suggest that if the price rise had been less than 10p, there would have been much less fuss. The same applies to milk: in the past 12 months, the retail price of a 4-pint bottle has risen by about 11p a litre, but the farm-gate price has risen by just 7p a litre. So in his quite proper concern about inflation, the Chancellor must look at the whole picture.
We all know the basic reasons for the rise in commodity prices. They include the drought in Australia, which has reduced the harvest by 60 per cent., and the increasing demands of China and India, both for grain itself and for animal protein partly raised on grain. In China, for example, meat consumption has risen by 150 per cent. in 30 years. They also include biofuels. Views differ about the scale of the impact of biofuel production. The United States Government claim that about 3 per cent. of the price rise is due to biofuels; the International Monetary Fund puts it at nearer 30 per cent. The fact remains, however, that the United States is pouring money into ethanol production, which is due to rise from 5 billion gallons in 2005 to 10 billion in 2009. That production is using corn that would previously have been sold on the world markets.
Of course, some of these factors could change. Australia could go back to full production, but I have to say that the picture is not encouraging. If we take a medium to long-term look at supply and demand, we see the world population rising by about 1 billion in the next 10 years, and by perhaps 3 billion by 2050.
We must also consider climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a 1 m rise in sea level would swamp a third of the world's crop land. That is possible before the end of this century. It is perfectly true to say that there is unused land in the world. For example, some 20 million hectares in Russia and Ukraine have been taken out of production since the end of the Soviet Union. However, it is estimated that some 10 million hectares of farmland around the world are lost each year to urbanisation, deforestation and desertification. The background is not encouraging. World cereal stocks have gone down consistently by 17 per cent. over the past five years.
I put it to the House that we should take our future food supply—including the share of it produced in this country—seriously. The question is: do the Government do so? In December 2005, a joint policy document produced by the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called "A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy" made the astonishing statement that
"domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security".
Let me be clear: no one is suggesting that it is sufficient—we have not been self-sufficient for many centuries—but surely we cannot suggest that it is not necessary. Are the Government really suggesting that it does not matter whether there is any domestic production at all? In the past six weeks, I have challenged the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister in the House to disown that document. Neither of them has done so. It is true that both have made noises about the importance of British farming, but, as I shall show, they have done nothing of significance.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Natural England recently produced a manifesto for the countryside, in which it stated that too much of Britain's countryside was being farmed? However, we now have the lowest milk yields in history and farmers are leaving the fells because of their inability to make a living. Will the hon. Gentleman seek to correct the Government's perceptions, which are based on their quango's manifesto?
I hope that this debate will succeed in correcting that impression, which has been given by the Government and by Natural England.
Is my hon. Friend aware that a former permanent secretary at DEFRA volunteered the information to the Public Accounts Committee that, following 9/11, officials approached Government Ministers at the time when Margaret Beckett was Secretary of State to suggest to DEFRA officials that, in the light of that event, the Department should consider the minimum amount of self-sufficiency in this country? They were told by Ministers that that was not necessary.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I am very much aware of that statement. Of course, it was Margaret Beckett who signed the statement to which I have just referred. If the Secretary of State is to achieve anything tonight, I hope that he will start by publicly stating that he has ditched that policy.
Of course, there will be those who say that there is special pleading by farmers, but I want to assure the House that there is not. There are many reasons why hon. Members want to see a vibrant and productive agricultural industry, but the real reason—which I hope the Secretary of State will agree with—is very important. In a world in which supply and demand are now at best in balance, increasing demand will push up prices. As part of the projected population rise to which I have referred, it is predicted that Africa's population will more than double by 2050. No matter how much production in Africa can be increased by husbandry, political stability and technology, that continent will still be buying vast quantities of food on the world market. We, as a relatively rich country, might well be able to meet our needs, but we will be competing head to head with the poorer countries. Where is the morality in that? Increasing domestic production is not selfish; in fact, it is quite the opposite.
Before turning to what needs to be done, let us look at the recent past and the reality behind the Government's claims. In the past 10 years, there has been a steady trend: production of all major food items has declined in this country. Cereal production has declined by some 19 per cent., meat production by 17.5 per cent. and milk production by 5 per cent. Overall, our contribution to indigenous food in our market has fallen from 81.8 per cent. in 1997 to 73.9 per cent. last year. That is the 74 per cent. to which the Government refer in their amendment to our motion.
It is laughable that the Government's amendment claims that we are somehow okay because we are doing better than we were in the 1950s. The Secretary of State—or whoever drafted the amendment—seems to ignore the fact that the population of the world has more than doubled since then, and that it has risen dramatically in Britain. He might just as well have cited the 1930s, when we were really in a deep depression. The figures were even worse then, and today's figures would look even better by comparison.
I am listening to my hon. Friend's excellent speech, which is putting our domestic production in context and dealing with the problems faced not least by dairy farmers in my constituency. Does he agree that whenever this country has most needed to be competitive and to look to its strengths, it has recognised that food production is a strategic industry, which makes it worth investing in to ensure that we remain competitive as well as to contribute to a degree of self-sufficiency in our own land?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I will come on in a few moments to what needs to be done to achieve the status of food security that I believe is necessary.
Overall, we produce only about 60 per cent. of all our food, and the food, feed and drink trade deficit has now widened to £14 billion. No doubt the Secretary of State will point out that last year's figure for self-sufficiency was marginally higher than in 2006. Of course that is good, but unless he can assure us that it marks the beginning of a completely new trend, it is pretty meaningless. If I had used the 2006 figures in my calculations, the overall figure would have been even worse than the one I have just given.
What is behind the dramatic fall in our self-sufficiency? Essentially, it is all about profitability. In the period 1998 to 2007, food prices rose by just 20 per cent. against overall inflation of 32 per cent. This year, of course, it is different, but throughout that decade, food prices failed to keep up even with inflation. More importantly, the farmers' share of the food pound—in other words, the proportion of the retail price actually taken by the farmer—has declined by 20 per cent. over the decade. That has shown itself as a fall of 86,000 in the work force over the same period.
Let me now turn to what needs to be done if we are to halt and reverse the downward trend and to achieve greater food security by ensuring that we have the capacity to produce enough to meet the majority of our needs. Of course we will produce surpluses in some products and we will trade them for those that we need to import. It has been like that for many decades, and it will always be so. Unless we have that strong domestic level of production, it will be to the detriment of the developing world that we are buying our food.
There will be those who believe I am about to seek a return to protectionism. Precisely the opposite is the case. Those who advocate a protectionist regime and who want to cling to subsidies, including some leading agriculturists in Europe, are wrong. The real answer lies in fair and free competition—something that patently does not exist at present. We need further reform of the common agricultural policy to make it sustainable and stable. How can our farmers invest if they do not know the shape of any future policy in what is now just four years ahead?
The health check proposals on the table at the moment are, in our view, wholly inadequate. We need a phased programme to shift all funding from direct payments to development funds. We need to see full decoupling across all products in all member states. We need a programme to dismantle all the remaining trade-distorting support; and we need to see a programme of increasing co-financing by member states so that those who want to increase expenditure pay for it. The sooner we can achieve such a stable policy, the sooner our farmers will be in a position to make their long-term plans.
In the meantime, there are things that the Government should do or, in some cases, undo. First, we have to lift the burden of regulations. We know the Government's rhetoric and I am sure that the Secretary of State will use it in his speech, but I have to tell him that in the past five years we have seen a net increase in DEFRA regulation of about 20 per cent. a year. Whereas in 2002, one regulation was revoked for every two new ones, last year it was just one scrapped for eight new ones. It is not just a matter of numbers. Some regulations are necessary, but how they are applied is the important thing. There is no justification for the continued gold-plating of EU regulations; it should be removed if we are to have the free and fair competition that I mentioned.
The legion of inspectors who turn up on our farms needs to be slashed and, in some cases, merged. Even more importantly, however, it is the culture that has to change. In France, a farm inspector sees his job as helping the farmer to meet the regulations' requirements; here, it seems that the inspectors are on commission to see how many penalties they can impose.
While on the subject of regulations, let me deal with two specific ones that are currently of considerable importance. First, the nitrates directive, which applies at the European level, is obsolete and far too prescriptive. There is no excuse at all for DEFRA to go beyond the minimum necessary to comply with it, while hopefully working to have it reformed. The idea of setting in statute what will effectively be national muck-spreading day is ludicrous. It is compounded by the Prime Minister's decision when he was Chancellor to abolish the agricultural buildings allowance, which would have been of some help in meeting the £50,000 or so estimated costs to the average dairy farmer.
My hon. Friend is talking about regulations. I can tell him that certain agricultural companies in my constituency are sending employees to eastern Europe to undertake some training because the regulations are so over-imposed in this country, but not in other EU countries.
I am very much aware of my hon. Friend's immense support as chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group. I am not surprised to hear what he has to say.
Let me refer to the proposed pesticides strategy, which I understand the Secretary of State spoke against last week. I am grateful that he did, but I understand that he did not vote against it. No doubt he will wish to explain that. At its worst, this strategy could reduce grain production by more than half, not just in the UK but throughout Europe. So much for food security. I find it unbelievable, but some pest control products that are to be banned on account of this strategy are actually allowed by organic farmers. These pesticides—copper sulphate and the natural pyrethroids, for example—are so safe that the organic movement allows them, yet they are to banned by Europe.
What my hon. Friend says applies across the whole sphere of what we might call horticulture and field-scale vegetable production, as well as fruit. The size of the market is such that, in the absence of the present products, it is very unlikely that any company will go to the expense of developing replacement products.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me a second time. One of his examples was the NVZ—nitrate vulnerable zone—regulations. Is he aware that the cost of gold-plating is met on the ground, when farmers have to go to the expense of digging their pits and fencing them to ensure that they are not a danger—even though someone falling in would be trespassing on their land? The real issue is seen in my constituency, where the river Weaver has for the last 12 years recorded reduced nitrate levels in the water from the natural fall-off, yet the farmers have to meet this enormous expense for a nitrate problem that does not exist.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We all know that nitrates in water can be caused from run-off of recently applied chemicals, but we also know that they can have a very long historic lead-in. Some work has been done in Rothwell in Lincolnshire to show that nitrate levels in water can reflect actions taken decades or even centuries ago. It is therefore very short-sighted to rely solely on the current situation.
Since my hon. Friend has referred us back to the NVZ proposals, it is worth pointing out that I challenged the Secretary of State only a couple of weeks ago about this problem and the gold-plating issue. I heard various sotto voce comments to the effect that there was no gold-plating in the proposals, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that there is— [Interruption.] I would be delighted if he intended to drop them, but let me give him one example—the requirement to have cover crops on the land all through the winter. That is not in the directive, and if the Government are going to drop it, I know that most farmers would be very pleased to hear it, but let us not hear any profession that there is somehow no gold-plating in the drafting.
I could add many other issues to do with double-tagging of sheep, electronic identification and many more, but unless there is a clear benefit to be gained from a regulation, it is pointless. I question considerably the need for them, but the key point in this debate is that all those things restrict farming's ability to increase production.
Let me move on to animal welfare. We in this country rightly pride ourselves on having some of the highest standards, but equally we must look hard at the standards used in food production overseas. There is no point in raising standards at home only to destroy our own producers by importing produce reared under less humane, and therefore perhaps less expensive, standards.
In the long term, such issues could be, or should be, addressed in the world trade talks, but in the short term we must ensure that the consumer knows the full facts. However, food labelling law does not allow that. Apart from beef and honey, there is no obligation for food to be labelled with the true country of origin: that can either be avoided altogether or the label can merely represent the place where the food was last processed. So, British ham or pork may not be from a British pig. If that were to be corrected, our industry could properly market its strengths, but there is one customer whose buying power is greater than that of any other—the Government.
About £2 billion of taxpayers' money is spent on food and drink by the Government and their Departments and agencies, yet the proportion of it that is British is woeful. Only 5 per cent. of NHS orchard fruit is British. The Ministry of Defence sources absolutely no British bacon. There are many other pathetic examples. Of course, Ministers will say that we are not allowed to insist on British products. That is true, but there is nothing wrong whatever with insisting that products are produced to British standards. What hypocrisy we have in a Government whose Ministers regularly proclaim the little red tractor as a logo demonstrating good-quality food, but who are complicit in spending taxpayers' money on food that is not produced to those self-same standards.
On animal health, the Government have consulted on sharing the cost of disease control. That is not a bad idea at all until we realise that, in its current form, it means that farmers should pay the cost of DEFRA's mistakes. It is no coincidence that the proposal appeared just after last year's foot and mouth chaos. True cost sharing can work only if there is genuine sharing of decision making and planning for disease control, and if the Government recognise their unique responsibilities. They are the only organisation who can properly protect our borders against illegal meat imports and the disease risk that they bring. It is estimated that an average of some 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat comes in each year.
The Government must also deal with the crisis of bovine tuberculosis. After 11 years of almost total inaction, there is no prospect of the disease coming under control. Indeed, it is getting worse. On figures for this year so far, we can see that 40,000 cattle have been slaughtered compared with just 28,000 last year. What a waste. What a tragedy for the farmers who see their breeding programmes disrupted and their businesses driven to the wall.
The Government know what has to be done: there must be a comprehensive programme, as we have spelled out before, but it must include addressing the reservoir in wildlife. We on the Conservative Benches want to see healthy wildlife alongside healthy cattle, but in parts of the country we have neither, while we have a Secretary of State who seems to want to compete with the Prime Minister as chief ditherer.
Finally, the Government have a responsibility—
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have to deal with the reservoir in wildlife. The question is how we deal with it. Perhaps he will give us his thoughts.
I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the report of the Select Committee of which he is a member. His own Committee has produced part of the answer and I have spelt it out on many an occasion. I am happy to do so again on some other occasion. Going through the whole programme would take a long time—
No, it is not a no at all. I strongly support the Select Committee proposals, which demonstrate a way forward. The key thing is that we must tackle the reservoir in wildlife. That, of course, is code for badgers. There is no point in hiding that. We need to look at selectively culling badgers in the hot-spot areas. That is one of the proposals made by the Committee of which Mr. Williams is a member.
I sensed that my hon. Friend was drawing to a conclusion when he used the word "finally". There are two issues that, up to now, he has not mentioned and I would be grateful for an idea of his views on them.
First, the words "genetically modified" have not yet crossed my hon. Friend's lips. What scope might there be to assist global production with that technology, and should British farmers have that piece of equipment in their toolkit? Secondly, the Government will have to address the big issue of how environmental schemes will continue to be funded at a time of rapidly rising commodity prices, which have changed entirely the economics for farmers. For example, we no longer have set-aside. What are his thoughts on that crucial issue? None of us wants to return to the intensive production methods that are now a generation old.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who will not be surprised to hear that there are a lot of issues that I have not included in my speech, which would otherwise have been even longer, but I am happy to take him up on those two points.
Our position on GM is quite straightforward. First, it has to depend on consumer demand. The ultimate decision must be taken by the consumer. We see the need for all GM developments to be considered individually. It is wrong to lump the whole GM debate together, because it depends on the merit or demerit of a particular development. There must be proper testing for food safety and environmental safety. We need to ensure that rules on crop separation, liability and such things are sorted. Subject to those requirements, GM crops have a role to play. Whether people want to grow those crops is up to them, as is whether they think there is a market for such production.
That is what I have just described. I will come back to the issue of funding, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. He is right about UK food production being vital for the food security of our country—I certainly agree with him there—and I am interested to hear what he says about GM foods. Will he set out his party's policies on the controversial issue of biofuels? What policies should the Government pursue to adapt to the climate change to which he referred—adapting in a way that builds and increases our food security? What measures should be taken?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for some of the things I have said. The issue of biofuels has to be based on sustainability. It is clear in the Gallagher report of last week, or whenever it was, that they are not sustainable. In fact, we do not yet have the report; I am jumping the gun. I think we will find that the Gallagher report suggests that they are not sustainable. If you want to know where the leak happened, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it happened here. It is clear that sustainability is the key element, which is why we voted against the renewable transport fuels obligation. We believe that, at present, insufficient sustainability has been built in, but biofuels have a role to play and they should not be ditched completely if they can be made sustainable.
The hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous in giving way. He has mentioned buyer power, as well as the price of milk and the fact that the retail price was not being passed on to the producers. No doubt he will have followed the results of the Competition Commission report on the grocery sector, and will be aware that it recommended not only strengthening the supermarket code of practice, but introducing a supermarket, rather than a grocery sector, ombudsman. If such an ombudsman were introduced, that would surely do a great deal to assist farmers and food producers in this country, and surely it would help food security in the UK. Is that the policy of the Conservatives?
If I had been able to return to my speech, my next sentence would have dealt with that issue, and I will return to the second point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon.
The Government have the responsibility to ensure that the market works fairly. As Andrew George has just pointed out, our supermarkets are all-powerful. They sell the vast majority of our food, and they will continue to do so. Those who think that if they shut their eyes the supermarkets will go away are fooling themselves. However, I believe that the balance of power is wrong. We are still awaiting the Government's response to the Competition Commission's proposals, which the commission said were in the interests of both farmers and consumers. Perhaps we are seeing even more dithering from the Government.
As for the hon. Gentleman's idea about an ombudsman, self-regulation is closely involved in my party's approach to these matters. We are waiting to see whether the Government endorse the idea, and whether they are prepared to say that if the industry cannot set up its own regulatory system, they will set one up instead. In the meantime, we are not making much progress.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Competition Commission's intervention in the price increase agreed by supermarkets for farmers some years ago has been entirely counter-productive? Supermarkets are now generally reluctant to contemplate increasing prices for farmers in case they are accused of complicity. The Food Standards Agency is having to broker an agreement with the competition authorities so that the dairy partnership can go ahead without the accusation that it is basically a price-fixing cartel.
I can only agree with my right hon. Friend. I am well aware of the situation that he has described, and I think that he is entirely right. I know that the supermarkets were upset by the criticism, because they thought that they were acting with the noblest of motives. It is a matter of judgment whether they achieved their objective, but, as he says, that criticism has seriously affected their willingness to do anything to help the industry in the future.
Let me say something about the environment, which is an important issue. Many people, including farmers, see it as an either/or issue. Farmers say to me, "Make up your mind: do you want us to produce food or do you want us to be park keepers?"—and use various other forms of vocabulary. I do not accept that interpretation. I believe that modern, efficient food production can be achieved alongside long-term care for our natural environment. There are many examples of good practice. Work by the organisation LEAF—Linking Environment And Farming—the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has a demonstration farm on the edge of my constituency, shows that it can be achieved.
Transferring resources to environmental and development programmes in the second pillar of the common agricultural policy will target funds on activities that yield no market income for the farmer. That is the only way in which we can address the important point made by my right hon. Friend. Payments for entry-level stewardship at £30 a hectare were fine when wheat cost £60 a tonne, but represent no form of compensational carrot now that it costs more than double that. Nowhere is such action more essential than in our hills and uplands, where the landscape has been fashioned by farmers. Tourists visit those areas and biodiversity is considerable, yet economic and, indeed, social existence is often exceptionally fragile in a market economy. The need to recognise the contribution made in those areas is vital.
Domestic food production has regained an importance that is unprecedented since the end of the second world war. That approach has been taken not for selfish or protectionist reasons, but to ensure that this country does its bit to increase world food supplies and to help to restrain price rises for the countries and consumers who can least afford them. That is what the people are increasingly asking for; it is what farmers want to do; and—true—the Government say that it is what they want to do. However, if the best the Government can do is say that we are doing better than we were in the 1950s, they know in their heart that they have failed.
We will never produce enough to meet all our needs, nor should we try, especially as concern about total carbon footprints plays an increasing part in our lives, but there is no reason why we cannot produce enough to meet the significant majority of our needs. We have some of the best land in the world and some of the most technically advanced farmers, but we also have a Government who seem obsessed with regulation and centralisation, and who therefore hinder rather than help those who want to get on with their business.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"notes with concern current food shortages which are believed to have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide;
acknowledges the steps taken by the Prime Minister to encourage coordinated international action to address global food security;
welcomes the additional UK contribution to the World Food Programme;
recognises that rising food prices as a result of global pressures are affecting household food budgets;
believes that with rising global demand Great Britain needs a strong farming industry able to produce a significant proportion of UK food;
notes that UK self sufficiency stands at 74 per cent. for food which can be grown in the UK, which is higher than in the early 1950s;
and commends the Government's role in helping to develop a domestic farming sector that produces what consumers want in a way that preserves natural resources and enhances the valuable environmental benefits that it provides to society.".
I welcome the opportunity to debate food security. I also welcome the context of what was said by Mr. Paice, if not all the content. I will take his contribution in the spirit in which it was offered. I think that we need both to understand what is happening and why it is happening, and to agree what we should do in response, both internationally and at home.
Let me begin with the international aspect. As the hon. Gentleman said, the last 12 months has seen a remarkable increase in food prices across the globe. Demand for food has increased, one reason being the fact that more people in emerging economies are becoming better off. The world's population is growing: by 2050, there may be another 2.5 billion mouths to feed on this planet of ours. Drought and changing weather conditions have hit yields. High energy prices, poor harvests in some places, speculation, biofuels and export bans have all pushed up prices. We have seen food riots in Haiti, Cameroon and Mexico. The whole House will be concerned about the fact that those price increases are pushing millions of people in the developing world further into poverty and hunger.
Despite the unprecedented prosperity in our world, it should weigh heavily on each and every one of us that even before the recent increases in food prices, 850 million people on the planet did not have enough food to eat every day, and that every five seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies because it does not have enough to eat. Lives are lost for want of enough food, yet there is enough food in the world for everyone; it is just that the poorest cannot get enough of it, either because they have not enough money to buy it or because other circumstances deny them access to it. I shall say more later about the question of the future.
It is not for nothing that Josette Sheeran, who heads the World Food Programme, has described what has been happening as "a silent tsunami". The United Kingdom, along with others, has responded, giving a further £30 million to the World Food Programme's emergency appeal. There is, however, a fundamental problem, which was referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire: the need to increase production in the developing world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that global food production needs to rise by 50 per cent. by 2030 and to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing world population.
It is good to hear that the World Food Programme is putting more resources into Sudan, a country that my right hon. Friend and I know very well. Sadly, what we do not hear is that before the latest increase, the amount of resources given to the World Food Programme had been drastically cut. There may be reasons for that, but we never hear those silent voices. It is vital for us not only to play our part and make our own contribution, but to ask other countries to make their contributions too, in terms of not just words but actions.
I agree. Like a number of other countries, the United Kingdom has a long and honourable tradition of not just talking about what needs to be done, but putting money into it. I can say from my long experience of dealing with the World Food Programme that it is an outstanding organisation which delivers the most practical assistance to our fellow human beings in times of need. However, it deals with short-term emergencies. The question is: how are we going to increase global food production in what is literally a changing climate, because farmers throughout the world will have to contend with unreliable water supplies and the increasing frequency of droughts and floods? Food production will be affected by climate change, but it could also contribute to climate change if the wrong agricultural policies are adopted. The common agricultural policy, and agricultural support policies in countries such as the United States of America, keep prices high domestically and do not help poorer countries in the global economy; dumping subsidised produce on local markets does not exactly encourage and help farmers in those countries to produce. All of that is why we need a deal through the World Trade Organisation Doha round, and it is why I agree 100 per cent. with what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire says about reform of the CAP through the health check. Indeed, at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council I made the point about what we in the UK have done in decoupling. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support, but the problem is that there are others in the European Union who have to be persuaded that the path of reform is the right one to take.
On pesticides, the UK, along with the Irish and one other country, appear to be the only nations that have done the work and identified the potential problem, which is why I spoke in the way that I did when this matter came up at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council, and we will return to it.
On nitrate vulnerable zones and the nitrates directive, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I would not have started from here, and nor would he; I suppose that this question should be addressed to those who agreed the nitrates directive all those years ago, but I think that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by Mr. Jack, got it right in its recent report. On labelling, the upcoming new EU proposals offer an opportunity to make progress on a number of points that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised.
Looking beyond the recent price rises in global food commodities—which many commentators believe will come down from their peak, but will not return to where they were previously—we need to consider the future. Apart from giving more help to the World Food Programme, the UK—in the spirit of the contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Drew—has committed £120 million a year to boost agriculture in poor countries and £400 million over five years for international agricultural research, and Ban Ki-moon has taken an initiative with the taskforce, which is looking at a range of things that need to be done.
Let me make one final observation on the international dimension: ultimately, good governance in countries has a hugely important influence on whether markets work successfully. Zimbabwe, for example, has in the space of 25 or 30 years gone from being the bread basket of Africa to a country that is incapable of feeding itself, not because of any factor except a monumental failure of governance.
Looking to the future, does the Secretary of State agree that we will depend on advances in science, technology and agriculture to a greater degree than ever, and that it would be absolute folly to reject GM technology both in Britain and in order to aid overseas problems, and that we should be increasing research in such technology and building confidence? We should, as my party spokesman has said, be careful not to dry up resources for science and research in this important area, both in terms of reducing insecticides and pesticides in our own crops and in producing drought-resistant crops in the rest of the world?
In responding to the scale of the challenge facing us in the fight against dangerous climate change and producing enough food for a growing world population, my view is very simple: we should look at all the means that are available, and we should not be afraid to ask questions. In relation to GM, we have to be able to provide answers to two questions that the public not unreasonably ask. First, they ask whether the product is safe to eat, and there is no evidence that it is not. Secondly, they want to know about the environmental impact of growing these crops. I recently gave approval to a trial that the university of Leeds wanted to undertake with a variety of potato. I am sorry to have to say that the trial has been trashed, and it is difficult to know the answers to the questions in those circumstances.
One step that the EU could take is to speed up approval for new varieties to come in. Imported soya grown from GM sources is fed to a lot of livestock in this country, and therefore becomes part of the food chain.
I intend to reflect upon that point. I think I am right in saying that this was the first trial to which I have given approval since taking up my current post. We need to find a way of answering the question, which, legitimately, everybody asks, because we should not be afraid of the answers, whatever they are; but those doing research into GM technology also need to be able to demonstrate that it can deliver some of the things that are sometimes claimed for it. That must be shown to be the case if GM is to be increasingly taken up.
The question that goes to the heart of this debate is this: what do we mean by "food security"? I think the House would agree that it means people having, at all times, access to enough safe and nutritious food at a price they can afford. It also means having a food supply system that is reliable and resilient and able to withstand shocks and crises. In other words, we need to think about availability, access and affordability.
We in the UK are not, of course, insulated from global price rises any more than anyone else is. We have seen the oil price rise to unprecedented levels—now almost $140 dollars a barrel, whereas a decade ago the price of a barrel was a tenth of today's price. We all feel the consequences of that in the shopping basket and on the forecourt when we fill up the car, and this is particularly difficult for households on low incomes, even though there has been a long-term decline in this country in the proportion of household budgets spent on food. The average household spends about 10 per cent. of its budget on food, whereas 10 years ago it was nearer 11 per cent. and 20 years ago it was 13 per cent.—and further back in time it was higher still. However, those averages hide the impact on those with less money. Low-income households currently spend about 15 per cent. of their household budget on food. The Government have been helping pregnant women through the Healthy Start programme, which provides free vitamin supplements and vouchers for essentials like milk, fruit and vegetables. We are spending about £100 million on that programme in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I also know that the supermarkets are acutely conscious of the pressures these price rises have exerted on their customers' budgets, and in the last week or so we have seen signs of them responding. On a visit to any supermarket it is evident that our major grocery chains have been very successful in providing consumers with choice and a diversity of food products sourced from both this country and elsewhere around the world. Consumers have become highly sophisticated in choosing what to buy. There is also a growing network of farmers' markets and farm shops, as it is true that we as a society are becoming more interested in where our food comes from; the year of food and farming is in part about trying to educate more of our young people that food comes from farms, and does not grow in supermarkets, thereby informing the choices consumers make.
The Secretary of State will be aware that when addressing the National Farmers Union conference in February, the Prime Minister stated that its members had a core responsibility to grow and produce most of the food consumed by the British people. What proportion of food, by value, that is consumed by the British people is produced by British agriculture, and what proportion does the Secretary of State expect that to be in five and 10 years' time?
If my hon. Friend will bear with me a moment longer, I will come on to that point.
The UK currently enjoys a high level of food security. Our food supply chain is, however, highly dependent on energy, and reducing that energy dependency will be very important in addressing the challenges we face. Our farming industry makes a very important contribution to our food supply by producing food that consumers want. I want—we want—a strong, thriving, successful farming industry, and in many respects the outlook is brighter than it has been for some years. Let me say to my hon. Friend that domestic production is necessary for food security, but it is not on its own sufficient.
The Secretary of State is trying to paint a very rosy picture—that he is a friend of farmers—but is he not concerned about the large number of judicial reviews that the NFU is pursuing and the growing number of such reviews that it feels forced to pursue because it fundamentally disagrees with Government policy on so many things?
Well, we are a free society and individuals and organisations are perfectly free, by those means, to challenge decisions that the Government have taken. I should be very happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the particular context of some of those. We await judgments in those circumstances and we will of course be judged by the courts on the basis of the decisions that have been taken by the Government, but I do not accept the premise that the Government are somehow not trying to provide support. However, if one is talking about regulation, we are operating within a context where a lot of it comes from Europe, and it is indeed society itself that presses for that.
Let me turn to the facts and individual products. Coming directly to the point about self-sufficiency, which my hon. Friend David Taylor raised, milk and cereals production is about the same as it was 30 years ago, although it peaked in the early 1980s. It has gone up and down a bit. Self-sufficiency in vegetables has undoubtedly fallen from about three quarters to less than two thirds. Imports from the EU have risen sharply. Self-sufficiency in butter, on the other hand, has risen from just under one third to nearly two thirds over the past 30 years. Of the foods that can be produced in this country, we are about 74 per cent. self-sufficient and yes, it is true that that is higher than it was in the 1950s or, indeed, the 1930s. It is not as high as it was at the height of the CAP, and 60 per cent. of the food that we import comes from the European Union, which is itself about 90 per cent. self-sufficient in the food that it needs.
Would it be sensible to make self-sufficiency a policy aim? What about exports, which are very important for the farming industry? If self-sufficiency means protectionism—the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that he was not arguing for that—is that a desirable aim? We are a trading nation. We export as well as import food, and there are of course some things that we cannot possibly grow ourselves that we need to buy. What is more, feeding the population of the UK sustains a very large industry, not just agriculture, and some 3.7 million jobs. It accounts for 7 per cent. of gross domestic product, and for one fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, food manufacturing is the largest single manufacturing sector in the UK.
My right hon. Friend has talked about self-sufficiency but he has not really put that in the environmental context. Does he not agree that in this day and age, when this country produces food such as apples, it is absolute madness to incur the environmental consequences of importing apples from somewhere such as New Zealand?
In the end, consumers have a choice about what it is they wish to buy in those circumstances. Food security cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world. Part of the answer to the question that was raised earlier is that we need an open global trading system and an end to the distorting subsidies.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, not least for the way in which he is addressing the subject. He rightly said earlier that I was not calling for protectionism, but does he also accept that I was not calling for self-sufficiency either? I specifically used the phrase "food security", which I defined as the capacity to produce the majority of our needs. We have never been fully self-sufficient and nobody is asking us to be.
I accept the point, and in asking the question—others have raised it, and I was not attributing that view to the hon. Gentleman—I think it important that we have thought through exactly the argument that he has put, so that we can answer it in relation to those who do say, "Should we not aim to be self-sufficient?" Then, we can get on to discussing what we mean by food security and what the right policies are.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to put this matter into an international context. At the world food summit, the Food and Agriculture Organisation secured its plan to address this issue, but at the same time, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, indicated that the UN was going to produce its own plan to deal with the same issue. The World Trade Organisation has an influence in terms of its market policy. The World Bank also has an influence and so does the European Union, yet so many delegations said, "We've talked about this ad nauseam over the last two decades, but what guarantees are there that we will have a course of action that will deliver the increase in food supply that we need?" What role are the UK Government going to play in trying to create coherence among all the players who have an influence on this subject?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. When one looks at the international system, one could describe a similar situation regarding a number of other issues, where there are lots of fingers in the pie. I do not mean that in a disrespectful sense, because those organisations have a view to express. Indeed, I was discussing this, in part, with the secretary-general of the OECD only this morning. I think that the answer would be that the UK will do what it has done on a number of other occasions—argue our corner to try to ensure that we have an effective international system.
The single most important priority in improving production is the need to focus on Africa, because it has not experienced the green revolution that Asia went through. We must also consider issues such as getting governance right, markets, communications, water supply, access to seeds, lowering the cost of fertiliser, helping with transport and getting products to market. Some of the food grown in the developing world rots. The rats get it before anyone can eat it because the infrastructure is not there to get it from where it has been grown to where it needs to be. That is why progress on all those fronts is required if we are to solve the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the common agricultural problem as part of the —[ Interruption. ] Sorry, that was a Freudian slip; I meant to say that he is right to refer to the common agricultural policy as part of the problem. Does he agree that the common fisheries policy is also dysfunctional? If so—I guess that I will not get very far down this line—will he therefore explain why the Government's policy is not simply to withdraw from them? Given that Dr. Gibson is present and that apples have been mentioned, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the demise of the honey bee will have a major impact on our agriculture and biodiversity, and what will he do about spending more money on research into that problem?
I understand that the policy that the hon. Gentleman has put forward is that of the party that he now plants his standard in; it is not the policy of either of the parties represented on the Front Benches. However, the sustainability of the world's fish stocks is a really important issue. If, in the end, we fish the seas out, we have all got an even bigger problem on our hands.
May I invite the right hon. Gentleman, in response to the question that came from his back-bench colleague, to assert that trade is a good thing—that if we do not buy New Zealand apples, they may not buy our whisky, for example—and that the environmental damage of a long sea voyage is almost certainly a great deal less than that of the final bit by lorry from the port to the processor to the supermarket? Trade has done a huge amount to advance the cause of civilisation, and I hope that none of the Front Benchers is going to suggest that we should do anything but seek to promote it.
I happily say, since the right hon. Gentleman invites me to do so, that trade is indeed a good thing, which is why I have just told the House that we need an open global trading system. However, I also said to my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy that individuals have a choice. If they are going to eat apples, which lots of people do—doing so is very good for them—they can decide where they want their apples to come from. [ Interruption. ] "Kent", says my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw from a sedentary position—and who am I to argue with him?
In bringing my remarks to a close, I want to come to the question whether our food supply is secure. Currently, the answer to the question is yes, both because we produce a lot of it ourselves and because we are able to buy the rest of the food that we need on the world market. Will the answer to the question be yes in the years ahead? The truth is, none of us can answer that question for sure, which is why this debate matters so much. We should therefore ask ourselves how we can watch what is happening and set up a system of warnings—if I might use that word—to alert us to changes that we ought to be worried about. That is the starting point for this debate. In the document that I promised the House at the last departmental questions, I intend to suggest what those warnings might look like. I intend to produce the document alongside the Strategy Unit's report on food, and I genuinely look forward to contributions. As a starter for 10, the things that we might want to watch include the overall global availability of food compared with population growth; the pattern of UK food imports and supply diversity; the changing patterns in domestic land use here and elsewhere in the world; the energy dependency in our food chain and food chain resilience; affordability of food, and especially whether low-income households can afford nutritious food; and public confidence in the food system to deliver. There will be many other suggestions—
I will give way one final time in a minute, as it is my hon. Friend.
What is striking about this debate is that all of us can think of things that we might need to worry about— [Interruption.] I did give way to Daniel Kawczynski. However, the answers are not clear. While the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire listed a series of things about which he wished to complain, his speech was light on answers. I do not say that because I doubt his ability, but because, in truth, all of us are trying to work out the right policy to adopt to respond to this issue.
My right hon. Friend probably knows what is coming. One of the big factors that we have already had warning of is the change in climate to which he has adverted. Those changes will accelerate in the United Kingdom as well as elsewhere. I urge on my right hon. Friend a policy on food production and security in the UK that keeps a close eye on climate change, because it is one of the biggest issues facing UK agriculture.
I am happy to say that I agree completely with my hon. Friend. What is the best way to ensure our farming sector can meet this challenge? We need to support farming in producing food that consumers want in a way that maintains the natural resources on which farming and food production depend—the quality of the soil and the availability of water—and increases environmental resilience, because there is not a competition between the two. We need to be more aware of where our food comes from and how it is labelled and to find ways of producing food with much less dependence on fossil fuels. We also need to encourage farming to play its part in reducing emissions and to encourage the next generation of farmers to see the great opportunities that exist.
One thing is beyond doubt, and that is that the world is going to need a lot of farmers and a lot of food over the next 50 years, and it is the job of every one of us to respond to that global challenge. The truth is that all our lives depend on us getting it right.
I draw the House's attention to my declaration of interests in the register.
"the hon. Gentleman knows that we are pretty confident about the position here because of the diversity of sources from which we draw our food supplies and our very effective international trade."—[ Hansard, 19 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 417.]
That was a fairly good answer, but what disappointed many of us was that there was no mention of British agriculture and the part that it can play in food security.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I listened with interest to the Secretary of State, but I was disappointed that he did not focus a little more on that question and on the Government's role in at least ensuring that single farm payments are made in time to farmers who rely on them to invest in the sorts of things that we want to see— [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that the Government are making progress, but they recently had to revise downwards their estimation of how much they would be able to achieve. Although things are improving, they still have a long way to go.
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.
The hon. Gentleman asked Ministers to take a greater pride in British agriculture. Does he include in that their taking a more robust attitude in Europe in matters of labelling, for instance? It is absolute lunacy that pigs that are grown for slaughter and slaughtered in, say, Denmark can be brought to, say, Kent, processed and then presented on the supermarket shelves as a UK product. That is barmy, is it not? Why are we not taking the other EU nations to task on it?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We seem to have been talking about labelling for as long as I can remember. It would be a huge step forward for British agriculture, and for the Government in the eyes of British agriculture, if they could do more on the labelling question. It seems to me that the issues are relatively straightforward and that a little bit of determination and guts could lead to a success story.
The Government could do more to promote the use of second generation biofuels. The problem with food security and biofuels comes from the first generation of biofuels, which involve making bioethanol from foodstuffs such as wheat. The second generation, which involves cellulosic enzyme technology, uses crop waste rather than foodstuffs. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Select Committee on Environmental Audit have both published reports that made that recommendation, yet the Government do not seem to be taking it forward. The next thing that the Government could do is invest in research into plant breeding, which might mean using genetic modification as a research tool.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from biofuels, let me say that although great emphasis is being placed on the fact that biofuels are increasingly taking up agricultural land and that that is forcing up food prices because of the scarcity of such land, is not another factor the fact that agricultural land is increasingly being used to grow soya that is then used as animal feed? Everyone knows that it takes 7 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. Is that not as much of a factor as the fact that biofuels are being produced?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. As we go on, in terms of global food security, we will have to look at how much food is eaten in vegetable and plant form and how much is eaten as meat. The ruminants do not have a good conversion factor in converting corn and soya into meat, but species such as pigs and chickens are relatively efficient. Two thirds of all agricultural land is grazing land and if we can use that land more efficiently to produce food in the form of meat, meat production still has an important part to play in food security. I do not think that people always realise that arable land takes up only one third of the total global agricultural land.
By investing in research, the Government could do a great deal to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of agriculture in this country. By exporting that technology, they could do a lot for other countries, too. I referred earlier to the green revolution, which is an example of how research and technology can take forward production to an extent that is difficult to anticipate.
The next issue is preventing waste, which the Secretary of State has already mentioned. More research and more investment in infrastructure and transport are needed. Some 30 per cent. of all food is wasted. Some is not even harvested, and some deteriorates in store. Much is wasted in processing and in retail when it is not sold during the time in which it is meant to be sold. It is wasted in the home, too. If only a small amount of that waste was used for its proper purpose as food, food security would be addressed.
British farming must not be discriminated against by uncompetitive regulation. David Taylor talked about pig production, and we have seen the pig herd in this country reduced by about a third or a half of its total. Part of the problem is that it has to compete against imports of pigs that are reared and produced in conditions that would not be allowed in this country. That is where labelling comes in. If the Minister and the Secretary of State can do anything for the pig industry in this country, they should ensure that imports meet the same standards and regulations as apply here.
Mention has also been made of the situation in much of the EU, where full decoupling has not taken place. That puts British agriculture at a disadvantage, too. Some of the compliance cost for agriculture seems unnecessarily complicated and oppressive. Mention has been made of all the inspections. Yes, we must have a compliance system to ensure that public money is properly accounted for and spent, but some of the compliance requirements do not seem to go that way at all.
Nitrate vulnerable zones have been mentioned. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say, "I wasn't there when the agreement was made," but we have to deal with the issue now, and ensure that Britain is not disadvantaged while other countries are not made to sort out their difficulties— [Interruption]—or fined. There is another issue that the Secretary of State must take up during the mid-term review: the move towards pillar two must not be done at a rate that makes British agriculture uncompetitive and unprofitable. We want to move towards pillar two, but in a considered manner, and the profitability of agriculture must be borne in mind. I believe that Mr. Paice, who spoke for the Conservatives, said that we should move away entirely from direct payments to management schemes. That is the first time that I have heard that suggested. He must mean that to be done at the end of 2013.
I think that the phrase I used was a "phased programme" of transfer; that has been our approach to common agricultural policy reform for several years now. It is about shifting resources from pillar one to pillar two over a reasonable period, precisely for the reason that the hon. Gentleman describes—to give farmers time to adjust. That shift should happen across the whole of Europe.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been able to clarify that point. He also talked about co-financing for nations that wanted to spend more on agriculture. I am not sure how that would work within a common agricultural policy. I understand the issue of co-financing within the CAP, but it seems to me that if one country wanted to spend more on a particular aspect, that would destroy the concept of a common agricultural policy.
People should take responsibility for their own food security. That is a point that a number of people have taken up. When towns or developments are being planned, allotments and other land should be set aside so that people can get involved in food production. People not only want farmers' markets and other local food production, but want to produce food for themselves, and they should be given the opportunity to do so.
I call on the Government to take action on the Competition Commission report on supermarkets. There is no doubt that there have been uncompetitive practices. Supermarkets are reaping the rewards of their actions; the fact that food prices have risen substantially is partly due to supermarkets having paid farmers so poorly that food production has been reduced. Representatives from supermarkets are now going around the country trying to find produce to fill their shelves. The Competition Commission recommended establishing an independent ombudsman for the supermarket and retail trade. I ask the Minister to say, when he replies to the debate, when the Government will act on that issue.
My last point is that we should secure the hills. The hills are a huge jewel in the crown for the UK. The profitability of farming in the hills is decreasing so rapidly that no young people will take up the farms there in future. Unless the Government come forward with plans to address that problem, we will end up with dereliction in the hills, rather than the management that so many people want, so that they can enjoy their walks and their recreation in the hills.
This has been a useful debate. It is one that the Secretary of State wanted, and all Members have engaged in it in a positive way.
I was inspired to contribute to the debate after a meeting held last week by Sir Ben Gill, who gathered together 100 brains from different parts of the United Kingdom to consider the issue. The problem with such debates is that 100 issues come flooding out into the ether, rather as they did in the last speech. The subject requires some concentrated focusing down on what the important issues are, in both the short and the long term.
I want to thank two friends of mine, Professor Ian Crute from the Rothamsted research laboratory in Harpenden, and Professor Chris Lamb from the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury laboratory in Norwich; the people there do sterling work on plant genetics and developing food crops. I shall say something more about them when I focus on the issue, but I start with the comments of the new chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington. At a GovNet sustainable development UK conference in Westminster, at which the Secretary of State spoke, Professor John Beddington said quite clearly:
"There is progress on climate change. But out there is another major problem. It is very hard to imagine how we can see a world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous increase in the demand for food which is quite properly going to happen as we alleviate poverty."
That is a strong, political message from our new chief scientific adviser. I am sure that more will be said about that issue in the coming months.
The year 2008 is distinguished by the fact that fewer members of the world population derive their livelihood in rural areas than in towns. More people buy food produced by others than are involved in its production. A few years ago, land workers in this country disappeared. In my part of the world—East Anglia—there were always strong Labour constituencies, because farm workers knew which way the cookie crumbled. It all changed when new factories were built and so on. We lost a lot of that technology and skill on the land.
This year is the centenary of a discovery that has probably saved more lives than any other discovery in the history of mankind—the Haber-Bosch process of making ammonia from gaseous nitrogen and hydrogen, which was discovered in 1908. It provided the ability to manufacture nitrogen fertiliser, and it is estimated that without access to synthetic nitrogen fertilisers there would be half as many humans on the planet, or we would have had to cultivate double the land area. Either way, there would be major ecological destruction, conflict and suffering. Some people argue against that view, but whether one loves them or hates them, pesticides and insecticides have made an important contribution to farming development across the world. We feed 6.5 billion people from 1.5 billion hectares of land. The area of land used to grow grain globally—about 2 billion tonnes per annum—has hardly increased in the past 50 years, but crop productivity has kept ahead, as we have heard, of rapid population growth, which has been achieved through foresight and sustained investment in agricultural science and technology, from the period between the wars until 20 years or so ago, when we became rather complacent. That may cost us dear.
With global grain stocks at an all-time low—less than 10 days' worth, it is estimated—and with ever-increasing demand from an urbanising Asian population; with the losses of arable land to degradation and urbanisation; and with the impact of climate change and the rising cost of oil, we can be sure that high food prices will be with us for some time to come. The only response is to increase the food supply. There are only two ways to increase food production: plough more land or increase the yield per hectare. I shall deal with the first proposal and discount it as a solution. The total land area of the earth is about 13 billion hectares, but more than a third is desert, high mountains or covered in ice, so it does not support the growth of crops. Of the remaining two thirds, we cultivate 1.5 billion hectares, which is only 18 per cent. of the land area of the planet, leaving more than 7 billion hectares, which support plant growth. However, we would be ill advised to use that land because it is stable pasture, forest and savannah, and harbours a vast supply of stored carbon. If we plough it or cut down forests, we release carbon into the atmosphere and reduce the earth's capacity to fix carbon. That is not a sensible thing to do, although we know that deforestation is taking place and that the pressure to bring more land into cultivation is indeed very great in some parts of the world, and there is a strong political pressure.
If we are not going to plough more land, how are we going to achieve more productivity per hectare to meet global demand? Scientific knowledge comes into it, as does an understanding of plant genetics, soil science, plant pathology, and pest biology. In fact, we must harness our understanding of the components of agricultural ecosystems. Science will enable us to remove some of the things that constrain agricultural productivity, and we must invest in it quickly. Since the years of the previous Government, we have believed that as a wealthy nation we will always be able to buy what food we want on world markets and that affordable food will always be available. As a result of that complacency, we have under-invested and severely damaged what was, and still can be, a world-class capability in agricultural science. The point is that as food prices increase, it is the poorest of the world, and even the poor in rich nations like ours, who suffer. In Europe, and particularly the UK, we have fertile resilient soils, a favourable climate and excellent skills, so we have an obligation to the future to ensure that we obtain maximum productivity with minimum environmental disturbance from that natural resource.
Let me return to the science. Five things constrain plant growth. Science and technology cannot deal with all of them, but it can address most of them. First, radiant energy for photosynthesis is all about latitude. We cannot do too much about that, but through molecular genetics it is possible to make photosynthesis more efficient and therefore fix more carbon for growth. The work at Rothamsted research laboratory in Harpenden introduces the prospect of higher crop yields by increasing the efficiency with which radiant energy is converted to chemical energy. The UK has a jewel there—the longest established agricultural research centre in the world, and a deep reservoir of knowledge and expertise which we must do more to foster and exploit.
Another constraint is temperature, which is a feature of latitude and altitude. We can use modern glasshouse technology to conserve energy and prolong growing seasons but, more importantly, we must anticipate problems of extreme temperature, even here in the UK, where it could have catastrophic effects on cereal yields. Mathematical simulation and modelling from Rothamsted point to the need for emphasis to be placed on breeding crops with resilience to high temperatures, which are predicted to become more frequent.
A further constraint is water. The only reason why we can grow food in some parts of the world, such as India, is that we move water from places where it is plentiful to places where it is scarce. We can use sophisticated technology to use water more efficiently, and 70 per cent. of fresh water on the planet is used for agriculture. The competition for water for urban, domestic, industrial and agricultural use is becoming more intense. It could, indeed, become the source of warfare and strife. Science can deliver to us crops that use water more efficiently—a really green and valuable application of the science of genetic engineering. That is the target of several research groups, and in particular, that which I have spoken about at the John Innes centre in Norwich.
At the beginning of my contribution, I mentioned nitrogen fertiliser and its importance for cultivation. Adequate crop nutrition—sufficient provision of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and trace elements—is essential for high yields. We need crops that are nutrient-use efficient, and we need to use high technology to ensure that nutrients get to the right place at the right time to bring about their effects. Nitrogen fertilisers require fossil fuels for their synthesis and they can pollute watercourses; we must use them more efficiently. The world experts in that arena are also located in the UK, at Rothamsted. In Norwich, we have groups working on the prospect of transferring to other crop plants, such as wheat, the genetic capacity of legumes, which fix their own nitrogen through associated bacteria. We can transfer them across plants. We surely must resource better and encourage more important work, because it is vital to our future.
The fifth constraint, and the source of much wasted water, energy, labour, nutrients and so forth, are pests, diseases and weeds. Some 25 per cent. of all crops are lost to those causes before or after harvest, and the control of pests, diseases and weeds would go a long way to providing the extra 50 per cent. of food that we will need between now and 2030, when the world's population will reach about 9 billion. How do we do that? In Norwich, at the Sainsbury laboratory at the John Innes centre, and at Rothamsted, pioneering work exploits natural plant defences and their genetic control, aided by green chemistry to deliver a new generation of pest-resistant and disease-resistant crops. The threat of resistance to pesticides, the agricultural equivalent of MRSA, is being countered and responded to at Rothamsted, with the application of new molecular diagnostic methods and management practices that will sustain the effective lifetime of those valuable chemicals.
In conclusion, Members will realise from what I have said that the challenge is great, but we have the tools, technology and intellect to meet it, and we must nurture, encourage and resource the science. This is my message: we must sweep away any regulatory environment that impedes that progress and makes the lives of farmers who grow food more difficult. We ought to ensure that safe pesticides exist, and as the argument develops we ought seriously to consider genetically modified crops again. We all know the arguments in respect of GM crops, and I do not want to go through them now, because we will do so on many future occasions, but about 300 million Americans have consumed food derived from GM crops—without a single tort in the most litigious society in history. [ Interruption.] My hon. Friend Mr. Drew laughs, and we could continue the argument until the cows come home.
The use of Bt cotton in, for example, China benefits small-scale farmers. Other people will point to the monopolies of the various pharmaceutical companies—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and so on—and how they develop the technology. The argument is there. However, as the Minister said, we have to look seriously at GM as part of a key breeding tool in the context of a shift to science-based, targeted and predictive breeding underpinned by some kind of plant genetics.
GM is not the whole process, but it is a part that we have to contemplate seriously and get back to. The arguments are not all about how the technology is used; they are also about how such crops are produced and what good they are. As was said in a debate on human embryology, when GM was used to produce insulin in human cells there was no argument whatever; the development was quite tolerable. However, when we try to make plants that are resistant to certain bugs and viruses, resistance seems to develop among certain parts of the community.
The science-to-crop-improvement pipeline is fractured internationally and it requires significant capacity development in developing countries. Today we have read in the papers that not enough physicists are coming through; we also need more plant geneticists. We need people who want to work on plants and develop new, efficient crops that are resistant to drought and so on. We must get such people into our education system. Plants are not always popular; animal and medical techniques and technologies seem to take many of the best people. We have to keep hammering home the message that we need to produce more food and we need to use science to do it.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mr. Paice managed to secure this important debate on the security of our food supply. Dr. Gibson said that we all ought to do something about the issue, so for the record I should say that Sunday afternoon saw me on my allotment harvesting my first courgettes, nurturing my peas and onions and battling against the overwhelming forces of the weeds.
Doing a little horticulture made me reflect on the fact that at least I had at my disposal a range of sophisticated chemicals to deal with the creatures that—in spite of my most persuasive words to the snails and slugs that keep coming on to the allotment—want to take away the food that I am growing. I realised how fine the margins are between having and not having a food supply. The hon. Member for Norwich, North rightly reminded us of the enormous progress made by science and technology, as far as western agriculture is concerned, in increasing the margin between having and not having a crop.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked in the horticulture industry. I remember standing in a field of leeks that had been hit by a severe cold spell. They had effectively melted. No amount of science was going to stop the loss of that crop. It is important that we recognise that all our discussions on the availability of food are surrounded by natural forces over which we—mankind on this planet—have very little influence. Yes, we can do something to address the vagaries of climate change, but the limits are there for all to see.
I had the privilege and pleasure of going to the world food summit in Rome on behalf of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I sat through the presentations of all the Heads of State there, and that gave me an interesting perspective into the whole question. In the west, we have effectively subcontracted our supply of food to supermarkets and major caterers; 80 per cent. of the food spend in this country happens in supermarkets. The idea that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has some command-economy role to play in respect of the price of food or its supply is not credible. However, the Department can influence some of the key policy instruments that can ultimately affect the purchasing policies of companies such as Sainsbury's, Tesco and Marks & Spencer. We have subcontracted our food supply to them; they make the procurement decisions.
It is important to distinguish between the factors that have led to a short-term rapid rise in the price of food and consider them against the background of the period five or 10 years ago when my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire would have talked about falling real rates of return to producers and the impact that they were having on the structure of the United Kingdom's agriculture. Those falling real rates of return were a contributory factor in the restructuring of the dairy and horticulture industries, and in pig producers going out of business and so on. They are also one reason why people in the arable sector have looked, enviously in the first instance and now with enthusiasm, at biofuels, which represented an opportunity to use set-aside land productively to produce something rather than nothing.
From the western point of view, we have to look at the relationship between the overall policy framework, namely the common agricultural policy, and its effect on the supply side of the equation. The world food summit taught me that there is another view of agriculture, and the Secretary of State alluded to it when he talked about Africa. When one listens to the Heads of State from the less developed parts of the world, it is clear they take a very different view. Those countries have very small-scale micro-agriculture. There are some medium-sized and large-scale producers, but nothing compared with the very large-scale agriculture in the United States and some parts of western Europe. Their challenges are the affordability of seed and simple fertiliser, the availability of water, and the opportunity to get their food to market—all the things that the Secretary of State mentioned. It is a question of how we in the west can stimulate production in those countries and address the fundamental issue of the supply of food for their indigenous people. At the same time, that will take some of the pressure off the west having to make up for the fact that, in the less developed countries, the margin between feast and famine is wafer thin.
It is interesting to look at the statistics showing the priority that we in the world give to agriculture. In the past 12 months, we put $1 trillion into propping up the world's financial system and $4 billion into aid for food production. It is also interesting that it costs the world $20 billion annually to deal with the consequences of obesity. Perhaps if we ate a little less, there would be a little more for others.
There are so many ways of looking at this multi-faceted subject that it is difficult to come to a neat five or six-point conclusion on what we need to do. I am firmly of the view that it is vital to knit together the many and various world bodies and policy-setting forums. The World Trade Organisation has been talking about market liberalisation and opening up opportunities. That is right, because the returns that farmers receive fundamentally change the supply-side equation. If one wants more from farmers, give them the return and within 12 months they will react to it.
However, there are downsides to reform. For example, the change in the sugar regime under the common agricultural policy resulted in the price of sugar within the European Union falling, which brought forth immediate criticism from Afro-Caribbean producers who said, "We can't supply sugar at that price—it's not high enough for us." We can open the door to market access, but the price consequences can have the wrong effect, and unless one can help those countries to modernise their agriculture, we will lose an important resource. It is vital to link together the work of the European Union, the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and then to make certain that the grand plans that they talk about really happen. At the world food summit, the President of Senegal got up and said, "Look, we've been at this for 10 years. We've heard all this before. Just give me the budget of the FAO and I'll go and sort out the world's food supply." He was saying that we had had too much talk and not enough action.
One of the themes that came out of the conference was that, because there had been a green revolution, people thought that agriculture had started to motor forward in the less developed world and the development agenda had moved on to health and education. Then, all of a sudden, we found that agricultural production had been falling, just when the world's population was increasing and climate change was threatening some of the major centres of world agricultural production, such as Australia. If we bring the two together, we get a shortage of supply, rising demand and rising prices. Therefore, optimising the opportunities to use our agricultural knowledge to address those issues is one of the most important things that we can do.
I have one or two other points of contrast. President Lula da Silva of Brazil made a passionate defence of his country's production of biofuels. He pointed out that Brazil has 340 million hectares of agricultural land, 200 million hectares of which is pasture, with 63 million devoted to crops and only seven million used to grow sugar cane. He pointed out that 77 million hectares of land could be brought into production in one of the most interesting areas in the world for agricultural production and he said that that could be done without destroying the rain forest. I have to take what he said at face value, but against the background of rising arable crop prices, the demand for biofuels and the important issues of sustainability raised in western circles, I asked myself why those 77 million hectares were not being used for production. Constraints exist, some of which are agronomic, but some are influenced by market access.
That brings us full circle to the European Union's policy on subsidies versus exports, and its attitudes to the World Trade Organisation talks. There are interesting lessons to be learned from some of the speeches at the conference, and for me, the cameo speech was that of the President of the Republic of Madagascar. He did not stand up and say, "I want lots of aid", but said that there were certain things that his country could do for itself. His first point was that
"industrialized countries subsidize the export of these products"— the things that his country produced. He wants a level playing field with regard to the economics of world agricultural production. He went on to make a number of points, but the next one that caught my eye was that
"no-one really cared about farmers, their legal situation, their security, their ability to access credit".
Simple things can give a sense of security to the local farmer, such as the provision of resources and credit, which is where the World Bank can make such an enormous difference.
The President talked about the initiative going on in Madagascar—a new vision that he called "Madagascar naturally". He went on to talk about the liberalisation of the price of rice in that economy, which had led to a 25 to 30 per cent. increase in production in the past three years. That shows the simple relationship between return and an increase in production. He also said that
"we need better training and better advice...we have to increase our productivity per hectare by using better seeds."
He did not want to become dependent on western nations, but wanted to improve his storage and transport facilities. He wanted to standardise and improve his product; he wanted to develop new products that would meet international demand; and he wanted better marketing strategies. Against that background, he said that his country also produced some of its own biofuels.
While I was sitting there listening to all that, and we were discussing the food chain, climate change, agricultural science, environmental issues, the role of aquiculture and the challenge of pests and diseases, I kept saying to myself, "Where's DEFRA?" It was not represented. There was no DEFRA Minister and no DEFRA civil servant. The UK representation was left to the Department for International Development. I am sure that it did a very good job of putting forward the UK's position, but given that DEFRA has the prime responsibility for food, it has the levers to mobilise our food chain by disseminating information and using technology. It has learned many of the lessons that are so vital in other parts of the world, it leads on climate change and, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North has pointed out, it holds the levers on agricultural science.
The John Innes Centre has a budget from public funds of £12.5 million and earns another £12.5 million from contracts. That makes £25 million, which would hardly buy a really good premiership forward. We have to address the priority that we give to the science and technology issues that are vital not only to our agriculture but to that of less developed countries. I would like the Secretary of State's Department to become fully engaged in providing what the President of Madagascar said would be a key ingredient in improving the performance of his agricultural sector. For Madagascar, read many other enlightened countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
It comes down to this: we must consider the factor that has caused us to consider this matter now—the rising price of food—but at the same time, we must minimise the risk to the world's food supply chain. We must use our technology and knowledge not only to increase total food productivity from our excellent indigenous agriculture but to maximise the potential of Africa, the east of Russia and other parts of the world, such as Brazil, that have tremendous potential. Then we might rest a little easier in our beds about the world having a secure supply of food.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say to the House that we have probably a little under half an hour to go? Three Members are seeking to catch my eye, and if each can manage to restrict his remarks to a little under 10 minutes, we might fit everybody in.
I shall take careful note of your remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and be as brief as I possibly can, particularly as I rehearsed my arguments in the debate that we had on
I wish to address some matters that are different from those that I raised that day, at the time of the Rome conference. I am delighted to follow the comments of Mr. Jack, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on the conference. I shall park the matter there, but it was an important conference and it is good to hear for the first time the contents of some of the speeches.
I wish to address some of the major themes and discuss some slightly different issues. It is a pity that my hon. Friend Dr. Gibson is no longer in his place, because he does the science bit and I do the anti-science bit. Long may that continue—we are very good friends, but we do not agree about everything. I wish to say a few things about genetically modified crops, as people would suspect.
I shall begin with a couple of points that are more general. As I said in the debate on
The reasons for being where we are have been well rehearsed. As no one else has done so, let me give a plug to the Cabinet Office paper, which the Select Committee examined. It remains a good analysis of the different criteria whereby our food is produced, who can buy it, the international consequences and the impact on health. The latter has not been mentioned, but it is important and we ignore it at our peril.
We talk about food security as a global or a national issue, but it is sometimes highly personal. I shall say a little about the impact of rising food prices on the poor, which should concern us, shortly. There is a live debate about what we should do with the school meals service. The School Food Trust now says that it can do nothing with the money that it has set aside to provide school meals, and that, despite Jamie Oliver, there has been a decline in the take up of school meals. That has a huge impact in two respects. First, it means that some children will have inferior food and, more particularly, if we cannot educate children appropriately at school about good food and catering, there is little chance, given the way society has gone, that they will have that education.
I am grateful to July's edition of Green Futures, which states that Washington state has decided to put $600,000 into locally grown food and vegetable snacks for the school meals service there. The Americans had no hesitation—partly because they support their agricultural system in that way, but also because, when they have a problem, such as rising food prices, they put resources into it—in subsidising those who most need it. Such initiatives, which are perceived as "nanny state" if this country introduces them, are part and parcel of the operation of American states. We should take more such action.
Let us consider the impact of rising food prices on the poorest. Again, the Americans have had food stamps for generations. If we consider the link between production and support for the producers, we might like also to examine the impact on those who buy food. The impact of rising food prices in the past few weeks and months has been greatest on those who buy. I do not suggest food stamps per se, but one of the advantages of a deficiency payment system was that we provided food to those who could least afford to buy it. The whole EU has moved away from that to a minimum price system, and that has an effect. Those who cannot afford to buy food of quality and variety are adversely affected. It is therefore a great shame that we do not consider a more flexible system. As a long-standing opponent of the EU, I wish we had more national control because there can be reasons for intervening. For example, I have considered the school meals service, supporting the poorest through flexibility in providing food, and the price at which the food is being made available.
To some extent, we are still debating the last war, although things have moved on. As Mr. Paice said, there are new opportunities for production and new people are going into production. People are growing more in their gardens and trying to get allotments. Community agriculture means that people are genuinely coming together—there are two examples in Stroud, as hon. Members can imagine. People are making the best use of their time and are willing to consider how they can produce food. That is at least interesting, and we need to encourage it and see it as a different way of really localising the food chain. Again, I stress that we must see food security not as a global or national issue, but as a local one.
It was interesting to hear some of the things that Sir Iain Anderson said about biosecurity and biosafety in a private meeting last week. I have felt for a long time that the biggest threat to this country is animal disease, whether imported or created indigenously—we all know about the impact of that. I have never been sure what we would do if a series of animal diseases all hit at the same time. I did not receive a terribly satisfactory answer to my question a week or so ago, but I continue to bang on about how important it is to look at the strategy, because I do not think that we will get animal diseases in single order anymore. Rather, it is quite possible that we will have a number of them all together. We need to have the means to bear down on them, otherwise our whole food chain will suffer.
But on to GM. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the issue being safety and the environment. I also heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said about how we must continue to experiment. I would introduce a third factor, which has always worried me, which is this: who owns the means to propagate GM? My greatest concern has always been about the concentration of our retailers and supermarkets—we are increasingly seeing this with the globalisation of the control of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and the rest of it. Until we can break those monopolies, I will always be fearful. That is my fundamental opposition to GM. It is interesting that people have recently begun to look into both the entry costs and the exit costs of GM. There is always the terminator gene, too. I know that it can be greatly exaggerated, but it is nevertheless something that we must face up to.
In conclusion, I am not nearly as sanguine about GM. I do not see it as the answer. More particularly, the worrying thing is that GM is moving in the direction of increasing concentrations of power and the ability to influence the food chain in a completely different way from how I would like it to develop. My way would be to encourage localisation, encourage more people to do things for themselves, and recognise that there are farmers' markets and ways for communities to come together and effect changes in what we now call food fundamentals. Again, those things are happening out there, but it is a great shame that we in this place do not look at those local initiatives and see them as important to the huge strategic issues that we face regularly. As long as that is heard and understood and as long as there is some recognition that this issue is as important as some of those other debates, I will be quiet and let others continue the debate.
In the few minutes left, I will try to add something new to this debate.
I always think that food security needs to be considered in the context of the fragility of our food supply. That was brought home to us recently by the fuel strike, during which we saw photographs—they may have been in the Daily Mail, but they were there nevertheless—of empty shelves. If I want to scare myself as I cross the M25 coming into London, I think for a moment about how many eggs, pints of milk, loaves of bread, bags of peas or tonnes of fish have to cross that line just to feed this city on a daily basis. The way in which that is achieved daily is a triumph of market forces. I try to imagine how it would happen if it was controlled by a central agency—by DEFRA, perhaps. I suspect that there might be a few people fed in the suburbs, but food riots in Chelsea. We have to learn from the successes of the free market in order to make ourselves more self-sufficient.
That is why I support the idea of places such as Thanet Earth. I have not been there, and there might be all sorts of problems locally that I have not heard about, but I have always believed that there was a market for proper, large-scale, home-grown food production near to centres of population. I have never subscribed to the belief that low wage costs elsewhere in the world would drive food production inexorably away from these shores. I have seen at first hand how food is produced highly efficiently in places such as Kenya. However, given the wage inflation in the developing world—it stood at 43 per cent. in parts of China last year—I believe that there is a huge market for places such as Thanet Earth. Furthermore, I never believed the GM theory that was propounded a few years ago—that we could feed the world from a farm the size of Delaware. There is a great future for British agriculture.
I am amazed that the Government's proposed amendment to our motion says that
"UK self sufficiency stands at 74 per cent. for food which can be grown in the UK, which is higher than in the early 1950s".
It is worth putting that statement into context. When Winston Churchill spoke at a National Farmers Union dinner in the 1950s, he said:
"30 million people, all living on an island where we produce enough food for say 15 million, is a spectacle of majesty and insecurity this country can ill afford".
I wonder what heights of hyperbole he might reach if he were able to consider the situation today, with double the population and the declining level of food self-sufficiency.
Given the global changes in demand, our own consumer needs and the effects of the rise in the price of oil, we are faced with either a serious problem or a great opportunity. Huge challenges face our agricultural community, but there are also opportunities, and we need to embrace them. Unfortunately, at present, there appears to be a widespread lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of agriculture in this country. This sometimes leaves farmers with a sense that they are redundant, undervalued and misunderstood. I think that I am the only dairy farmer in the House—my hon. Friend Bill Wiggin will correct me if I am wrong—but I will not be one for much longer. I am selling my herd this autumn. Regulations relating to nitrate vulnerable zones and the cost of complying with an overburdening regulation scheme are driving me out of milk production. I should have reminded hon. Members to look at my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests.
Farmers are the main users of land in Great Britain. Farming is a significant economic sector, but it is easy to forget the contribution that it makes to other income earners in this country, including tourism. The present Government have failed to give confidence to the agricultural community as a whole. We have seen their incompetence over the single farm payments and the needless red tape, gold-plating and bureaucracy that have been imposed on farmers and landowners. I remember my father talking about the agricultural community's fear of Labour party manifestos which talked, year after year, about the nationalisation of land. It is wonderful that that is no longer in Labour manifestos; it has not been in them for years. I submit, however, that there has been a nationalisation of the use of the land. What we can actually do on our farms is now so restricted, and the quangocracy now controls so tightly what farmers can do, that we no longer have the freedom that we had in the past.
In conclusion, I want to make a plea, and I use these words with great caution. I believe that there needs to be a reassessment of the power of the environmental and conservation lobby. Actually, I call it the conservation industry. I am part of it; I have chaired a conservation organisation and I am a member of a variety of conservation bodies. I consider myself a conservationist. I have won conservation awards, for what that is worth. The problems of the 1970s, which included hedges being taken out to produce more food, represented appalling excesses. I can remember being encouraged to use appalling pesticides, such as Hostathion, which killed everything and had a wide impact on our environment. However, since the 1970s, the pendulum has swung much too far the other way.
I heard recently about a prime management objective on an agreed management policy of a farm in Scotland, which was
"to create, maintain and encourage a high density of breeding raptors".
I have nothing against raptors; in fact, I am very fond of them and take great delight in the red kites on my farm. I would, however, question whether we have the balance right. In an era of food shortage, is it morally right to have such a—dare I say it—smug first-world attitude in saying that farms in this country should no longer have the prime objective of producing food? I submit that we can produce food and maintain the environment. The moral issues were clearly put by my hon. Friend Mr. Paice: when we cannot grow something here, we have to buy it on the world market, and when we buy it on the world market, we are competing with poorer countries. That is something that we should ponder—whether we are getting the balance right.
I wanted to say much more, but I also want to hear my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, the eminent chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group.
I read the motion as focusing on our own food security here in the UK, although many others have spoken about problems in other parts of the world. I view the motion as relevant to our own country, and the Secretary of State has tried to pour a soothing balm over the whole crisis that we face. He tried to appear both very positive and as the friend of the farmers, but I have to tell him—I want to take this opportunity to explain it to the House—that this country faces a crisis in its agricultural sector. He knows how passionately I feel about dairy farming, and speaking as chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group, I have to tell him and the House that more than 170 MPs across the parties are involved in the group and they all feel passionately about the future of our dairy sector.
In 1997, 47 cattle were slaughtered in Shropshire. Last year, the figure had risen to more than 1,200. I keep repeating those figures: how can we go from 47 cattle slaughtered in one year to more than 1,200? To me, that seems just phenomenal. It goes over and over in my mind, and it reflects the state of the crisis that we have with bovine TB in Shropshire. This year, if current trends continue, more than 1,600 cattle will be slaughtered in Shropshire.
As the House knows, I like talking about Shropshire, but nationally, as my hon. Friend Mr. Paice stated—the National Farmers Union confirmed these figures to me today—28,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2007 and it is likely that 40,500 will be slaughtered in 2008. That is going to cost the British taxpayer more than £100 million in compensation to the affected farmers—money that I believe the Government can ill afford in current circumstances.
One farmer in my constituency is Mr. Chris Balmer—I want that name to be indelibly etched in the mind of the Secretary of State—from the village of Snailbeach. He had bovine TB on his farm and I had to intervene on 16 occasions concerning the fiasco over his rural payments during the last year. This is a man who has been literally brought to his knees by the incompetence of DEFRA in respect of tackling bovine TB and getting the payments to him. If I could ask one thing of the Secretary of State, it would be to please ensure that that one constituent is treated in a much better way in future. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested to know more about the serious problems that my constituent has faced, I would be happy to talk to him about them.
It does not have to be like this. France has eradicated bovine TB. Less than 0.004 per cent. of herds in France are infected— [Interruption.] I hear some socialist MP saying no, that is wrong. Well, I have spent hours translating Ministry of Agriculture statements from France where those involved are lauding their achievements in this sphere. France has tackled bovine TB through a huge investment in extra testing, vaccines and a limited cull of badgers. If the French can do it, why can the Government not do it? They will not do it because, in their growing unpopularity, they are desperately worried about those marginal seats where there are many members of the Wildlife Trusts.
The Government do not want to offend members of the Wildlife Trusts. I understand that. There are 5,000 Shropshire Wildlife Trust members and it is the biggest organisation in my county. So concerned are those people about my desire for a limited cull of badgers that they insisted that on Friday night my wife and I spend four hours watching a badger sett and looking at all the badgers. They even gave my baby daughter Alexis a little cuddly badger to play with. They desperately want us to stop talking about badgers and a potential limited cull, but my priority has to be my Shropshire farmers, although I think badgers are sweet. I have seen all the evidence that there is a definite link between badgers and the spread of bovine TB.
I must also tell the Secretary of State that I entirely agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire when he raised the issue of illegal meat imports and said that 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat come through our ports. Why is that being tolerated? We need extra security guards in our ports to deal with that illegal meat. Australia and New Zealand have specific border guards who deal with the problem to ensure that illegal meat and substances are not trafficked. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that some investment will be made to ensure that there are more officers and sniffer dogs at our ports to try to deal with the huge increase in illegal meat imports?
Food security starts with encouraging people to grow their own vegetables. That may be a funny thing to say, but one Briton in three is thinking of starting up an allotment and growing their own vegetables. I have 16 raised beds at home and I grow all my own vegetables for my family, as well as having planted an orchard. I take great pride in looking after my orchard, and nothing gives me more pleasure than looking after my fruit trees and vegetables and providing my family with organic foods grown locally.
The Government should do more to encourage councils to have more allotments. Today, I went to Greenfields, which is part of Shrewsbury, and spoke to the gentleman who runs the Greenfields allotments. There is a huge waiting list of people trying to get allotments and we should do more to encourage councils to give people the chance to grow their own food.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall end my remarks. I have spoken in private with the Secretary of State on this issue, and today I spoke with the National Farmers Union. We all await the Government's decision on bovine TB, which is one of the worst things affecting my constituency. I hope to hear from the Secretary of State some assurances that the Government will finally tackle the disease and save many Shropshire farmers from going out of business.
The Secretary of State has said that the
"poorest can't get enough food".
He is right, but failing in the UK makes that problem worse in the rest of the world. He moved from the previous DEFRA position, and we welcome that U-turn. He is a nice chap; he waves his arms around in an inclusive way and I have a soft spot for people with political parents, but he is wrong about food security being an unknown in the future. He never offered solutions on animal health and welfare, deregulation, gold-plating or, worst of all, public procurement, so without leadership on the issue food security will be a problem in the future.
Mr. Williams is a member of the Select Committee, but he failed to mention TB. Perhaps he should go away and read the Committee's report. He did mention our own farmers with pride. In this year, the 100th anniversary of the National Farmers Union, I can completely agree with him that we owe farmers a great debt of gratitude and we should be extremely proud of the industry.
Dr. Gibson made a very interesting scientific speech, which I enjoyed—he spoke of such matters as the invention of fertiliser—but it might have come across better as a PowerPoint presentation. It was very technical.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Jack talked about his allotment. I cannot resist pulling his leg: I know he is an expert on all agricultural matters, but he did tell the House that he was talking to his slugs and snails, which made me chuckle. He also talked about the horticulture industry and melting leeks, the limits of climate change, and—most important—the world food summit. I listened carefully and with enjoyment to what he said about the President of Madagascar's speech, about the fact that we talk about improving agriculture but do not actually do it, about the way in which countries can help themselves if they are allowed to, and, of course, about the endless demand for a level playing field. I know that my constituents will be sad to learn that DEFRA was not represented at the conference, as I think they would rather it was abroad than at home.
Mr. Drew described himself as the anti-science Member, which worried me somewhat. He also told us that we had abused food—I was not sure what he meant—and talked about things being "in the round", from which I assume that he had eaten what he should not have eaten. He talked about school food and nutritional education, which I agree is an important subject—as is Washington state's support for local production. I believe that if we address ourselves to local procurement, we can make a huge impact and send out all the right signals. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the present position is a disgrace.
The speech that I considered most powerful was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Benyon, who knew exactly what he was talking about. He spoke of opportunity, understanding agriculture and the undervaluation of the dairy farmer. I think we all agree with that. He talked with great sadness of how he was being driven out of dairy farming by the nitrate vulnerable zone regulations, and I too thought that that was deeply sad. He also talked about the single farm payment, the nationalisation of the use of land and, of course, his own award-winning role as a conservationist. It was an extremely helpful and powerful speech, and it was sad that my hon. Friend could not continue for longer. It was really good to hear about an experience of that kind. I hoped that what he said about raptor breeding in Scotland related to golden eagles, but I suspect that it involved a lesser species.
My hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski talked of the crisis in agriculture, and mentioned his constituent Chris Balmer. No one should miss the chance to emphasise the importance of what our constituents are suffering as a result of TB and rural payments. My hon. Friend spoke passionately about the dairy farming sector, of which he is a strong advocate, and about the number of cows being culled because they have TB.
I do not think anyone has been left in any doubt that global food supplies and prices matter, because we live in an uncertain world in which global demand for food is rising and supplies are under pressure. The cost of the basics—wheat, rice and other cereals—is rising, and the increasing cost of fertiliser, energy and fuel is making food more expensive to produce and buy. Consumers are facing record food prices, while farmers and food producers are being squeezed because the increasing food production overheads are forcing up the costs of bringing food from farm to fork. We can no longer take it for granted that plenty of food will be available at low prices. In the last year alone, prices paid by consumers for food have risen dramatically. Butter and eggs are up by more than a third, bread by more than a quarter, flour by more than one fifth, and milk and cheese by one sixth.
Regulation has placed an enormous burden on our farmers, costing the industry £500 million a year. The Government have already cost the industry more than £20 million in lost interest alone, and face a potential £300 million fine from the EU for failing to deliver the single farm payment on time. They believe that if British consumers have access to food, the food security issue is resolved, but at this time our country cannot continue to rely on an increasing supply of food imports. There are steps that the Government should be taking to improve domestic food production.
Food procurement is the key. The Government have tremendous resources at their disposal to back British production through the £2 billion budget for public procurement, but with just 5 per cent. of British fruit being served in the NHS and our armed forces being fed with lamb that is just 13 per cent. British, it is clear that the public sector could do more to support local food production, or at least take steps towards a system whereby food that is publicly procured is produced to standards that are acceptable in Britain so that our producers can compete.
Red tape is another crucial issue, and the Government fail to understand it. They must end gold-plating, and they can start by listening to farmers telling them about the impacts of the nitrates directive, which will cost farmers on average about £11,000 each, as well as the shift from risk to hazard-based pesticides, which will have a disproportionate effect on yields, and welfare standards and labelling.
Happily, British consumers want to buy British, as they recognise the higher welfare standards to which our livestock is produced. The public demand those standards and our farmers deliver them, but meat cheaply imported and then sold as British—sometimes labelled as British because it is processed here—is all too often produced in conditions that fall well below the standards we would find legally and morally acceptable. This greatly disadvantages our own domestic food producers, and to counteract that the Government should be pressing the EU and the WTO to raise standards around the world. Then British producers could out-compete as standards rise, rather than see animal welfare dragged down by price to the lowest common denominator. The Government should also establish a better and more honest system of food labelling.
On food labelling, is my hon. Friend aware of another fabrication being perpetrated on the British consumer: the fact that smoked food does not have to be smoked? Most smoked bacon is dipped in chemicals and has never been near a whiff of smoke. Is that not astonishing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is a shame because we all try to support British food when we go shopping, but if we do not have honesty in labelling, how can we possibly direct our purchasing power in the right direction?
When the Government launched their consultation on cost sharing for animal diseases, the Secretary of State remarked:
"I want the industry to be much more deeply involved in the key policy and operational decisions, and rather than shy away from hard choices I think now is an opportune moment to reinvigorate this debate."
If anyone is shying away from hard choices on disease control, it is this Government. They have dithered and failed to take the tough decisions on tackling TB so that we can have healthy cattle as well as healthy wildlife.
From an animal welfare point of view alone, I cannot see how the Government can justify the suffering caused by leaving sick badgers to crawl around, excluded from their own social groups, fighting and possibly infecting other social groups of badgers through scratches, and then slowly dying, riddled with lesions that start in the bladder. That is inhumane, and we need to face up to our responsibilities to tackle this infection in order to protect our healthy badger population. Of course we should be acting responsibly towards our wild animals, but the taxpayers are footing a £100 million bill each year for culling infected cattle, and this bill looks set to rise inexorably higher. This situation cannot continue.
Much of our debate has focused on land-based food production, but the incompetent way the Government regulate food production extends beyond the land we farm and into our fisheries, which we must manage sustainably. Like our farmers, our brave fishermen are under tremendous financial pressure. They have fuel costs, which have doubled over the past year, and while fishermen in Spain are receiving de minimis aid from the Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in no position to support our fishing industry. The industry should be having access to £97 million of the European fisheries fund that we are entitled to, but because the Government failed to agree with the devolved Administrations how the money should be spent and failed to submit their operational programme to the European Commission by last year, and are in the middle of consulting the industry on it—something they should have been doing this time last year—this money will not be available until later this year, and some of it might even be withheld.
Moreover, because the Government have not produced a policy to tackle fish discards, edible fish that could be sold to British consumers is being thrown back into the sea dead, and this precious food resource is wasted with no value to anyone. Food security—along with energy security, climate change and terrorism—is one of the major challenges of the 21st century. It matters to the public, to food producers on land and sea, and to our economy. To deliver it, we need competitive, viable and sustainable British food production fit for the 21st century. We also need a Government who have the political will to take the steps to help our food producers and free them to feed the nation.
At the next general election, the public will have a choice between a Conservative party that truly values British food producers and consumers, or more years of misery, dithering and ruin under Labour.
This has been a good and welcome debate. We welcome the remarks from Mr. Paice and the way he set out the key issues facing not just this nation but the world, in terms of how we tackle a rising population and the demands on our food.
Many Members made important contributions, and particular reference was made to the European Union. Members from all parts of the House frequently say, "Why aren't we doing this in Europe? Why aren't we doing that? What about nitrates, pesticides, electronic identification? Why aren't you telling the other member states what to do?" Grandstanding is all very well, but Members really know that what we have to do is to make hard, solid arguments. On looking at the direction of travel of common agricultural policy reform, we see that many member states do not agree with us. They take a more protectionist line, and it is we who are in the vanguard of CAP reform. It is the UK Government who are shifting the subsidy for food production to public goods, so we are working hard on that issue and making good progress.
Many Members made important contributions on what farmers and the farming community have done for our environment, and rightly so. This year is the 21st year of agri-environment schemes, which have been enormously successful. Many Members will doubtless have seen very imaginative schemes on farms in their own constituencies. Robert Key referred in an intervention to pesticides. I visited a farm recently where the farmer had a stewardship scheme. He had put in a border that was encouraging ladybirds. Of course, the ladybirds eat the aphids, so he was spending less money on fertilizer and pesticides. Such simple measures have led to enormous achievements, so we congratulate the farming community on its contribution in that regard.
Several Members mentioned supermarkets, and Mr. Curry referred to the discussion between supermarkets and the Competition Commission. He criticised the fact that, when supermarkets had tried to increase the amount of money that they paid to farms for good reasons, they were fined by the Competition Commission. My noble Friend Lord Rooker wants a dialogue, and we should surely be able to have a mature dialogue involving producers, the Government and the supermarkets that does not breach competition rules. That is a sensible idea and I know that he is taking it forward.
Many Members talked about the World Trade Organisation, and we welcomed what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said in that regard. He said that he agrees with us on protectionism, which we, too, do not want to see. Now is the time that we need to take forward the WTO, not least because a deal could be worth an estimated €120 billion to the global economy annually. That is €30 billion for the EU economy alone. We need to reform the agricultural policy, which undermines the ability of poorer countries to produce and trade agricultural goods and keeps prices high for EU consumers. Further CAP reform would reduce the prices that UK consumers pay for food. In 2007, the cost of the CAP to consumers was €33.4 billion.
Mr. Williams referred to the single farm payment. We are making good progress on that, and it is the right policy because it is area-based and allows farmers to respond to the market. He is right to say that the EU is an important player in global food production. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, we too have that responsibility. We will continue to be a contributor to the world, and we will of course support Africa and develop its agricultural industry, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Flyde in a thought-provoking speech—[ Interruption.] I mean Mr. Jack. I was thinking about his reference to snails and wondering whether he meant the members of the Select Committee, but I am sure that he would not be so rude. He made the important point that there has not been enough focus on agriculture in Africa, and the World Bank is now concentrating on that in a more effective way.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the men and women who work in agriculture. One group that has not been mentioned in this debate is migrant labour. We introduced the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and hon. Members will remember the cockle pickers in Morecambe. It was right to introduce legislation on that issue and we pay tribute to Paul Whitehouse and the work that he has done in collaboration with the trade unions and supermarkets. That has made a real difference to ensuring that we have floors of decency in the sector, in our packing sheds and fields. Migrant labour makes an important contribution without which this country would not be so strong in food production. We should point that out whenever possible. That is what farmers tell us, and it is an important point.
Hon. Members mentioned biofuels, and we anticipate the Gallagher report. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire appears to have read it already, as he gave us a sneak preview. He obviously has good sources. We will bring that report forward shortly, and we need to tackle the issue of first and secondary biofuels.
Hon. Members also mentioned waste. We throw away some £10 billion-worth of food a year—6 million tonnes—while 6 million children die of malnutrition.
My hon. Friend Dr. Gibson made an important contribution, focusing on the work of scientists. He told us how fertiliser was invented in 1908 and what a huge contribution it has made to the yield we can get from our land. He also talked about how we need more research on, for example, how we use water and chemicals in the farming industry.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently gave the go-ahead to a trial involving potatoes, but sadly they were vandalised—[ Interruption.] They were mashed, someone suggests.
We live in a world of contradictions, in that we have some of the finest food we have ever produced—as hon. Members who have visited agricultural shows will have seen—but we are also producing some of the worst. It is important for supermarkets to be conscious of the primary producer. Asda is producing sausages, which it cannot even call pork sausages, for 16p and it should consider its responsibilities.
My hon. Friend Mr. Drew talked about educating children about food. I pay tribute to the year of food and farming which has made a huge contribution by bringing thousands of children on to farms so that they understand that food is not produced neatly wrapped in cellophane by supermarkets, but grown and reared on our farms.
Bill Wiggin referred to animal diseases, and we are grateful for the partnership arrangement for bluetongue. Hon. Members referred to TB. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a decision on that—[Hon. Members: "When?"] Very soon. Mr. Benyon referred to his experience as a dairy farmer and to Thanet Earth. Food security—
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes with concern current food shortages which are believed to have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide; acknowledges the steps taken by the Prime Minister to encourage coordinated international action to address global food security; welcomes the additional UK contribution to the World Food Programme; recognises that rising food prices as a result of global pressures are affecting household food budgets; believes that with rising global demand Great Britain needs a strong farming industry able to produce a significant proportion of UK food; notes that UK self sufficiency stands at 74 per cent. for food which can be grown in the UK, which is higher than in the early 1950s; and commends the Government's role in helping to develop a domestic farming sector that produces what consumers want in a way that preserves natural resources and enhances the valuable environmental benefits that it provides to society.