Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury 5:31 pm, 10th October 2018

I will always give way to the representative of my many relations who grow soft fruit and vegetables in the Vale of Evesham—our family history is called “Not only cabbages”. I agree that workforce planning is critical. That is one issue about which I hope to learn much more in the coming months. We need 95,000 seasonal workers. We grow asparagus in Oxfordshire as well, and this issue is important to many of our farmers, although not all.

To keep prices low and the food supply secure, we need to focus on food production as well as the environment. We are proud of our local housing record in my constituency. That is important, but it is literally true that we are losing productive ground to housing—apparently the national equivalent of about the Isle of Wight every year. It is important when we make all these decisions that we look at real evidence. For example, the ban on neonics was widely welcomed. I keep bees on my hobby farm and I know how fragile they are and how important they are to my cider and perry orchards—my cider is definitely the best in the country. The ban on neonics may well be right for them, but the flip side is that some local farmers have sprayed their oilseed rape seven times this year with alternatives to neonics and killed far more of the surrounding eco-structure as a result. Very little rape will be grown in my constituency next year, and of course we all need fields of wheat to continue in Oxfordshire. It would be ludicrous if the new system allowed crops sprayed with neonics to be imported without restriction. If an environmental restriction is right for us, it is right for the produce that we import from around the world. We must assess the evidence rather than be swept up by environmental campaigners.

I would also urge caution around re-wilding. It sounds sexy and is gaining ground and celebrity endorsement, but the object is to remove all human impact on the environment. It comes with environmental risk, including species loss, and would completely alter significant national assets such as the Lake district and the North Yorkshire Moors, where nature and farmers have worked together for thousands of years.

I should end by focusing on the corn bunting, which my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon mentioned earlier. I am proud to be the species champion, but the corn bunting is in peril, with numbers dropping by over a third since 1995. These are farmland birds, which breed mainly in cereal crops and depend on farmers helping them by providing cereal grain over the winter, given that they do not migrate. Tailored agri-environment schemes, such as mid-field double-drilled strips in winter cereals, are perfect for them. We can get it right, but in order to do so, food production must be considered every bit as important as environmental protection. Food may grow on trees, but trees grow better with care and attention. We must listen to the voices of the countryside when making this new policy.