The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 4:21 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, like others, I must first of all declare an interest as a farmer and as chairman of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. I also have other agricultural and countryside pursuits. I thank particularly my noble friend Lord Ferrers for his invigorating introduction to the debate. I shall follow him in the observations that he made very trenchantly about the unerring ability we have in this country to make ourselves less competitive rather than more competitive. We shoot ourselves in the foot--and that is as close as I shall get to following the country sports' metaphor.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. Some years ago I served on Hampshire County Council with him. I can vouch that the number of initiatives he started when he was chairman of the planning committee and chairman of the county council are great beacons and examples for other local authorities.

Although it comprises a minority sector of the rural economy, agriculture still remains a highly important percentage of it. As the right reverend Prelate reminded us, it is something in the order of 30 per cent in many areas.

We still lack in this country a clear strategy of what the Government and society as a whole expect from United Kingdom agriculture. The Minister may think that that is a bit hard, but time and time again Ministers have told us their aspirations and what they expect from agriculture. For example, paragraph 5.6 of the discussion document published by the Government in February of this year, which paves the way for the White Paper that has been mentioned, states:

"The Government wants to see the farming industry adapting to meet the challenges of changing consumer demand, world trade liberalisation and new techniques in agriculture".

That is a very fair summary. I do not quarrel with any of it. However, I suggest to the Government that they should not worry about agriculture taking up new techniques. It is already an industry which is peerless in terms of following research and development and implementing it. A lot of the problems come from the reluctance of the rest of society--and, indeed, the Government--sometimes to understand the implications of new technology.

If we want British agriculture to be competitive, it will have to move fast to compete with lower cost production systems around the world. There is an inability to realise that if we do not have a competitive agriculture system, the rural economy will ultimately suffer.

An example of this muddled thinking, the inability to think through what we mean by "competitive agriculture" in the face of world trade liberalisation, was demonstrated in a document from the Minister's agricultural advisory group, three members of which came from the Government Benches. The report is entitled Europe's Agriculture The Case for Change. On the whole, it is a wide-ranging and interesting discussion about the future of the common agricultural policy and it has a lot to say about rural development strategies. However, paragraph 4.3 shows where it falls into total confusion. It states:

"In so far as the CAP can be held responsible for stimulating intensive livestock production within a commercial culture which treats farm animals as tradable objects, disquiet over publicly funded support for such activities is itself a significant driver for change".

The report goes on to promote the case for the development of less intensive and alternative systems of production.

That is very much the fashion. Everyone seems to think that commercial, and therefore intensive--a word charged with meaning--production must inevitably have lower environmental benefits or greater environmental impacts. It is open to the implication of being less satisfactory in terms of animal welfare. That may or may not be the case. The size of the unit, the size of the scale, is irrelevant. Clearly what is important is the system of husbandry. If we had the evidence, I suspect it would show that the standard of husbandry has no correlation to the size of the unit. Rather charged words like "intensive systems" or, alternatively, "extensive systems" simply confuse us.

One can imagine the astonishment farmers must feel when they read that there is something discreditable about using animals as tradable objects. That is what agriculture is all about; agriculture exploits animals. One may not like the language, but that is what agriculture is all about. I do not know whether those shepherds who were watching their flocks by night 2,000 years ago would describe themselves as "intensive"--perhaps the right reverend Prelate will tell us--but I am absolutely sure that they were trading in their sheep. So let us not have any of this nonsense that there is something reprehensible about agriculture trying to trade, and to trade competitively. If one trades in livestock, that is the nature of one's agriculture.

The Government tell us that we need to be competitive. Let us not have any more muddled thinking about preferring intensive to extensive. Let us make sure that we have environmentally sound agricultural systems in which the food can be marketed as the best of environmental produce.

I am absolutely sure that we have some of the best welfare standards in the world. It is one of the areas in which we have put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. We have rightly imposed restrictions on the use of husbandry systems which are widely used on the Continent--for example, in pig meat production--and we are about to do the same with battery cages for hen production. But what has happened? We have already lost a considerable share of our pig meat market.

The consumer is delighted to hear that we have imposed those much stronger husbandry regulations--and any market research would confirm that the consumer would continue to like to have a say in this--but when it comes to making a choice in the shops, if the consumer is asked immediately after purchase, "What determined you to buy that produce?", the answer is, "Price". In other words, the connection simply is not made. That is not a criticism of the Government; it is a criticism of much of the meat industry, the agricultural sector as a whole and, by implication, the consumer. If we want to put in place systems which are environmentally benign, with strong animal welfare advantages, we shall have to carry the message through to the consumer.

I suspect that one of the reasons we do not do that is that we are rather ashamed of the fact that we are trading in livestock; that we are exploiting animals. Once we pull our punches on that, we go on to fail to draw attention to some of the fairly nasty practices adopted by other producers around the world who are in direct competition with us. We need to say so. We should simply say that we are going to go for these rather more expensive systems. If we are going to deliver these environmental benefits--which, I am absolutely clear, is part of agriculture's role--we shall have to say that our competitors are aborting their cows in order to keep a tight calving pattern; that they are using chemicals that we would not dream of using, but they do the job. They have a very tight calving pattern, which means that one can buy some very cheap butter in the market. That may be considered a dangerous practice, but we should know it.

It is not the job of British agriculture to rubbish the competition, but the Government should support consumer organisations. Let us take, for example, what happens with refrigerators. If one buys a refrigerator, one finds on the back some kind of code which tells one whether it is environmentally benign or whether it emits ozone-depleting chemicals and the like. We could do exactly the same with agriculture. We could have a code based on the agricultural regulations of our competitors which says, "This produce is likely to have been produced from an environmentally benign system" or, "a less environmentally benign system". If the country in question uses practices which we consider to be undesirable, clearly it would have a lower coding than ours.

We have one advantage in agricultural production in this country which, I believe, farmers like myself often do not acknowledge as a great advantage; that is, the sophistication of the buyers of the multiple retail outlets. They require us to have total traceability and to conform to protocols which are by no means like regulations; they are much tighter. We take that advantage, which has been forced on us, for very good reasons, and we should take it right through to the consumer. If we could label our produce in the multiple retail outlets so that the consumer is able to trace it back to a precise farm--not just to the region, but to the actual farm--I believe that we should gain a great advantage.

I should like to see consumers taking an equal interest in the provenance and quality of their food. They should point out, quite rightly, if they believe that our practices are perhaps too intensive or if there is some correlation which I do not know about between intensive production and poor environmental animal husbandry standards. By all means, they should point out those matters and agriculture should address the problems. We should be proud of the products of the British countryside. At the moment we sell ourselves short.