The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:59 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Beaumont of Whitley Lord Beaumont of Whitley Green 5:59 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, everything has to die, as the noble Earl says.

However, I thank the noble Earl for introducing the debate, as it has turned up a number of extremely good speeches. I mention the contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield and the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, which we have just heard. I thought that speech was an extremely important contribution to the debate as a whole, although I do not necessarily go along with his final endorsement of free trade.

I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said: that the countryside is important and that it is not the countryside unless it is the home of farming. I do not pretend that that is an axiom; I merely say that, almost without exception, those of us who have lived in a healthy working countryside will recognise it as an important truth. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was absolutely right to say so. As I told your Lordships in a recent debate, recently I travelled through New England. I did not travel through countryside but through forestry or suburbia or both, made from good farmland by the evils of free trade. To help the countryside, one needs to help farming.

This weekend I went to a farming world conference entitled "Farmers--Are they an endangered species?" Except for an NFU economist who pointed out that a few clever, imaginative farmers could survive by diversifying, the answer was yes, they are endangered. Not only are they endangered but, in fact, they are committing suicide by the score.

The countryside is for producing food--but food that is healthy, palatable and does not have to be taken long distances, but feeds its own hinterland. I believe that it is time that we started reversing the move towards extreme free trade--almost all extremes being bad. The first and most important step would be to take agriculture and food production back from free trade into the area of food security. Many noble Lords have lived through a period when food security was very important to this country. In a difficult world, however much globalisation we have, that will not go away. I should not like to live in a country where there was not a certain amount of food security. Indeed, in some places like Tanganyika there is a move towards area food security. That means ensuring that local farmers are able to feed the people who live around them and that the people produce the food in return for a living wage. That would not, as is falsely suggested, harm developing countries because it would not encourage or allow dumping.

I found the recent debate on the CAP distressing. It seemed to me that the only reasonable speech was that of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, because she did not emphasise monetary income as the measure of efficiency. Of course, monetary income is important. This debate, to a large extent, has been about monetary income and in no way would I detract from that. We have to ensure the monetary income of our farmers. But what about efficiency as regards the conservation of our soils and the welfare of our animals? Plenty of other efficiencies must be put on an equal par.

In that debate, speaker after speaker said that we have subsidised inefficient farmers. However, the farmers referred to were efficient producers and conservers but were being driven out by the big boys, by the farmers who sit in offices in the City and who have the time that small farmers do not to sit on NFU committees and to resist modulation on behalf of the small farmers.

The Green Party, which I represent, asks for a number of matters to be considered in agricultural policy. I shall list five: safe, healthy, nutritious food seen as a basic human right; sustainable, smaller-scale, organic farms encouraged, creating more local jobs; financial support and education for farmers converting to organic farming; taxes to discourage the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers; and natural, free-range, low-drug animal-rearing practices encouraged. I should have thought that few countrymen would quarrel with those points. We need them. They are all sensible and essential.

We have had a good, valuable debate. Unless we can make the Government take rather drastic steps to protect our farms and our farmers--especially our small farms--we shall lose the countryside as we have known it all our lives; we shall lose a lot of hardworking worthwhile citizens from the land, and we shall lose a long tradition that we should preserve.