Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 7:27 pm, 20th January 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for funding agricultural and food research.

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative

My Lords, agricultural and food research has been in decline for a quarter of a century. We need to take stock of whether this is in the national interest. I hope that this short debate tonight will give us an opportunity to do just that. I start by declaring my interest as a farmer and my commitment to agricultural and food research as a past chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, now subsumed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

In the 20th century, agricultural and food research and development was a key contributor to the great achievements of agricultural production, particularly after the Second World War. To meet the needs of food security, production increased massively and productivity increased even more. By the mid-1980s, priorities had changed. Agriculture was seen as no longer such a key sector and, in my time as chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the 1980s, the Government of the day started on a round of closures of agricultural research institutes and experimental husbandry stations, a process that does not seem to have ended 25 years later. In the past five years, we have lost Long Ashton Research Station, Silsoe Research Institute, the Hannah Research Institute and much of the Horticultural Research Institute. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the farming and food science LINK programmes.

The challenges of the 21st century are different from those of the 20th century, but in many ways they are equally urgent. Global food security, the impact of climate change on agricultural production, the need to reduce water used for irrigation and the spread of animal diseases are all pressing issues of global importance to which agricultural research based in this country can and does make a significant contribution. There is a need to ensure that increased agricultural production—which is, after all, essential to meet the needs of a larger, more prosperous world population—does not lead to further adverse environmental impacts. Most people believe that, by 2050, if you take into account increased world population and consumption, global food production will have to double.

The research needs of the UK agricultural sector are not identical to the global priorities, but they are compelling. The case for appropriate publicly funded research and development to support this sector is overdue for reappraisal. Many of the products of agriculture are public goods, which justify public investment in research. Although the industry is highly competitive, it is largely made up of micro-businesses that cannot individually fund and receive the benefit of private research.

The key challenge for the farming and food sectors is to ensure that improved crop productivity can be achieved efficiently without adverse environmental impacts. We need to focus on where production gains are most readily and sustainably achieved. We need to ensure that we retain a competitive agricultural industry. We need to support those ancillary industries that support agriculture, such as crop protection, animal health, animal and plant breeding, agricultural machinery and many others. There are great opportunities for the agri-food technology industry in this country to sell more of its expertise and products overseas, based not least on the products of our publicly funded research.

We need to ensure that our consumers benefit from competitively priced, high-quality food grown in our own country. While food security may not be the critical issue for us that it is in many other countries around the world, too heavy a dependence on food imports is surely unwise. Most of us recognise the very obvious benefits of regional production.

Our national science base, our biological sciences and the environmental research programmes funded by the research councils, higher education funding councils and government departments are among the best in the world. However, when it comes to exploiting this underpinning science to meet the needs of the UK agricultural sector, we are missing out. Without adequate applied research focused specifically on the needs of UK producers or the infrastructure to support field research, we will miss the opportunities that this excellent basic and strategic research offers.

I pay tribute to the National Farmers' Union for recognising in its campaign "Why Science Matters" just how great the contribution from publicly funded agricultural research and development has been and how critical it is to recruit a new generation of applied agricultural scientists. The Commercial Farmers Group has called for a new vision for UK agricultural research and development. I agree that the time is right to explore what that new vision should be.

We need to get all interested bodies and funders of agricultural research and development, whether in the public or private sector, charities and levy boards, to come together to share their ideas on just what are the national objectives for agricultural research and then to agree how each can contribute to co-ordinated programmes. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has given considerable attention to the contribution that research can make to sustainable agricultural production, but it is essential that Defra and the BBSRC work closely together to determine what resources will be needed to deliver the national research needs. This has to be agreed before we lose yet more of our research infrastructure.

Producers recognise the key role that research has played in the past, and could play in the future, for their economic survival and prosperity. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask the producers themselves—represented, I suggest, through the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board—to take a leading role on behalf of the industry in developing such a new vision. Obviously, many other contributors need to be part of that debate—for example, the research councils, particularly BBSRC and NERC, agricultural departments, in which I, of course, include the devolved Administrations, universities, including the vet schools, the Food Standards Agency, the Science and Innovation Network within DIUS, the Technology Strategy Board and the agri-technology team within UK Trade & Investment, which is charged with helping us to export the expertise to which I referred. No doubt many other agencies would have a role in this discussion. Since the future of LINK has been in some doubt, there has been talk about establishing an agri-food technology platform. When the Minister responds to the Question, I should be interested to hear what progress, if any, can be reported on this agri-technology platform initiative.

I understand that on 1 April Defra will merge its science agencies into the Food and Environment Research Agency, which I am sure will help the department to play its part in reassessing where our priorities lie for ensuring a thriving, sustainable farming sector. However, perhaps the best way for Defra to demonstrate that agricultural research will be taken seriously after 25 years of cuts would be to put the word "agriculture" back into the name of its research agency. Can we please have an Agriculture, Food and Environment Research Agency?

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson for Wales 7:35 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, on commencing the debate. He has a very distinguished career and his knowledge of research into agriculture and food is immense.

In the space of four minutes it is very difficult to put over what a massive area this is. When the chips were down in the past and Britain was up against it in the First and Second World Wars, scientists, engineers and farmers responded magnificently to feed the people of these islands. They raised the self-sufficiency of home-grown food production from 40 per cent to 60 per cent and then, post-Second World War, to 75 per cent. That fantastic achievement was gained through co-operation and enlightened government policies with vision and commitment. Breakthroughs in plant and animal breeding enabled, through fundamental scientific research and technology transfer, very substantial increases in crop yields and animal production. The fundamental resources of land, labour and capital were put to work to feed the people of these islands. Now food self-sufficiency rates are back down to 60 per cent, and falling, in a world where the population will increase from 6 billion to 9 billion in the next 50 years. In fact, this reduction means that Britain now spends £23 billion making up the difference in the balance of payments. That must be a figure that the Treasury can get its head round and cause it to provide Defra with more funding.

I am proud to have been part of the previous food production revolution, working on the land on farms in the 1950s and 1960s, with the fruits of research with ICI agriculture division and later in agricultural management education. What has shocked me in the past 20 years is the downgrading of the importance of farming to the nation. This has been accompanied by the asset stripping of fundamental objective agriculture research. Many research stations have been closed or sold off to multinationals and former MAFF and ADAS farms have been shut down. Plant breeding institutes have been sold and agriculture colleges and farm institutes have been closed. All were crucial for technology transfer and for producing a new generation of agronomists and farmers. In many parts of the UK the average age of farmers is now 60. One only has to mention the names of the National Institute for Research in Dairying, the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge, Wye College, Seale-Hayne College and the closure of seven veterinary investigation centres and many experimental husbandry farms, to name but some, to see what damage has been done.

In the days of the EU grain mountains and surplus milk production, one could understand, but not forgive, the short-sightedness of ignoring the prospect of inadequate food security. Why did it happen? It was mainly due to drastic cuts in MAFF, and then Defra, funding. What must happen now is a massive reform of funding priorities where scientific research and development is restored to its rightful importance. The future challenges that will have an impact on farming and food production are legion—for example, climate change, flooding and drought, exotic diseases such as bluetongue and bird flu, problems with pesticides, animal feed utilisation with, for example, high-sugar grasses, the whole subject of GM, ensuring food security and increasing home-grown food production. Incidentally, the issue of GM will not be resolved until it is out of the clutches of the Monsanto corporations of this world. Scientific research in this field must be independent and objective and not driven by corporate greed. All these issues require substantial increases in Defra funding.

Risk assessments and new technology must be watertight. Public, plant and animal health are incredibly important to the nation. The news of the creation of the Food and Environment Research Agency from within Defra and its science agencies is to be welcomed. The 45 per cent drop in real terms in Defra funding must be reversed. The fact that only £20 million is now devoted to farming and food R&D is unsustainable. Where is the vision among government policy-makers? An example is the current paucity of bee research funding, for example at Rothamsted, at a time when our bee colonies are dying off. Surely everyone can realise that pollination is absolutely crucial to food production.

Finally, knowledge transfer must be resurgent and productivity must be increased. Defra must ensure a critical mass of scientists producing quality, independent innovation to ensure the survival of this country and its people.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 7:40 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a farmer and landowner, and as a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, has summed up the challenge for world agriculture by saying that by 2030, the world has to produce 50 per cent more food than it did in 2000, using less water, less energy, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and not despoiling the environment.

That is a pretty tall order. But what is more important is that Britain has a key part to play in the delivery of this tall order. According to the IPCC, northern Europe is one of the few places in the world where global warming will actually enhance food production, so it is really important that Britain is properly engaged in playing its part. The UK must grasp the economic opportunity that this gives us, as well as our social and environmental obligations, and we must ensure that we do everything in our power to maximise our responsible production of food.

The prime message that I—and I suspect everyone in this debate—wish to give the Government is that we must build back the expertise in our agricultural research capability. As the noble Earl indicated, over the past 25 years, 16 out of 20 research institutes have been closed or merged into a university. We must now support and exploit the world-leading capability and facilities that we have remaining.

Certain vital scientific expertise is now in short supply—agronomy, plant pathology, entomology and soil science, to name but a few. We must build back a new generation of scientific competence while we still have those who can train it. We must motivate our scientists to engage with this major challenge of how to provide food for another 50 per cent more mouths.

We also need to build back our agricultural extension capability—scientists formulating research of direct relevance to production problems encountered on farms on the land, and translating research findings, including near market research, into improved practices on the land. This involves scientists honing their communication and motivational skills, both here and across the world. This agenda and debate involves Defra, DIUS and particularly DfID. Scientists should be rewarded for improved outcomes on the land, rather than necessarily just for plaudits from their peers.

We need a national strategy for where our investment in science and technology should be directed in the coming decades, and strategies for the protection of our soil and for the genetic improvement of our key crops—cereals, oilseeds, grasses and horticultural crops. That must surely involve the adoption of all available technologies, including GM. This is not the time for the GM debate, but I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, that we must distinguish between what one might call the Monsanto debate, where multinational corporations seem to be driving this agenda for profit, and the Government easily giving free access to drought-resistant maize in Africa, or nitrogen-fixing wheat across the world.

There is also the need for a national strategy for our interactions with the developing world. It is not enough just to allocate funds to other organisations overseas and hope that this will deliver the required outcomes. This agenda used to be a real strength of the UK, and I believe that we can play this part again in the future.

Above all, and in conclusion, we need a research strategy that provides the necessary leadership and resources to enable Britain to grasp this opportunity and play its part in overcoming the potential for massive world food shortages, if we and others do nothing.

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative 7:44 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on his eloquent and knowledgeable analysis.

We are all conscious of the global financial crisis, but a number of factors are converging to create a global crisis for food security that is quite as serious as the global financial crisis and is made even more serious by that global financial situation.

The statistics are stark. Each year, the world's population is increasing at a rate equal to the entire population of Great Britain. By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion mouths to feed in the world. At the same time, UN figures show that each year, drought, deforestation, and climate volatility are already taking out from food production an area equivalent to the size of the Ukraine. Thus, while we need to double food production by 2050, we will have to do so on a reduced area of cultivable land worldwide, and with fewer resources than at present. Climate change threatens production levels on existing land and will make some uncultivable. Worldwide water availability will certainly restrict output. The situation is therefore extremely grave.

I am sure—I hope and believe—that the Government now realise that the world is not awash with food for us to import. Indeed, we should be helping the developing world to feed itself through aid and investment and, at the same time, increasing the domestic production of food that we can grow sustainably.

Ten years ago, we produced a surplus of pork. We now import a third of all the pork that we eat. We ship in more bacon, lamb, eggs and chicken than we did 10 years ago. Our self-sufficiency in vegetables has collapsed. This is most emphatically not a protectionist point. Trade must play an important part in food security, but surely, given that 2008 will be recorded as the critical year when more than 50 per cent of the world's population became city-dwellers, we need to maximise our own domestic production.

That means that there needs to be recognition from the Government that the production of food and food security are issues of vital importance, not only domestically but globally, and that there should be a shift in R&D priorities to help us produce more, with fewer imports. That realisation would sit ill with the 45 per cent drop in Defra R&D devoted to farming and food, but the Government could and should take a lead in redefining R&D's objectives in changing the priorities, becoming a stakeholder themselves and encouraging the industry to follow suit.

It really is hard to think of an issue of greater importance than feeding ourselves and helping to feed the world. The primary duty of the Government is to provide security for its people, and it is vital that they recognise now the importance of reordering their research priorities to enable us to do that.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness a question? I am sorry if I am being impolite in asking this now. In the common agricultural policy, we are obviously talking about reduced subsidy. Does this mean the opposite of that?

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord could not be impolite if he tried. I think that he will find, when he has the chance to read Hansard after the debate, that my request is that we should maximise those things that we ourselves can produce sustainably. That is my argument; I believe it is one with which he would agree and I am quite sure that the Minister will also agree.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 7:49 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has eloquently demonstrated the importance of agricultural research and he and other speakers have outlined the sad story of the decline in the amount of money that goes into agricultural research in this country.

I have a simple proposal that would improve efficiency and more than double Defra's limited research budget at no extra cost to the Exchequer. Defra should stop spending the £30 million or so that it now spends, or used to spend, on subsidies for conversion to organic farming and transfer the savings to its budget for agricultural research. Although £30 million may not sound much in these days—millions are not what they used to be—it would make a very big difference.

The subsidies have no rhyme or reason. Organic food costs more. Why? Not because organic farmers rook the public, but because organic farming is less efficient. The advocates of organic farming cannot have it both ways. If it is not less efficient, then they are exploiting the consumer. In fact, the evidence shows that, comparing like for like, overall yields from organic farming are between 20 per cent and 50 per cent lower than those from conventional farming, depending on the crop.

With an extra three billion or so mouths to feed and a growing shortage of good agricultural land in the world, we have the crazy situation that the British Government spend some £30 million a year to promote the less efficient use of land. For what reason? I suspect that it is because they are reluctant to confront the very powerful and very successful organic lobby that represents a £1 billion industry.

However, the organic movement is wholly founded on a scientific howler, whereby artificial chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals are bad—I am sorry, I should have said that the assumption is that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals are bad. Every independent body that has examined the claims made for the virtues of organic farming has rejected them. Organic food tastes no better than conventional food when subjected to random blind tests. The Food Standards Agency has found time after time that organic food is no more nutritious; and a very carefully conducted Defra study found that organic farming is no better for the environment than conventional farming.

I hope that the Minister will consider my suggestion. Ministers have always avoided the subject of this crazy subsidy when I have raised it in the past. My case is simple: stop spending millions on promoting inefficient farming. Spend it instead on vital research.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 7:53 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for clearly laying down the challenges that the Government face in providing sufficient funding for agricultural and food research. Other noble Lords have spoken of the dramatic cuts which have resulted in the closure of research centres, with the loss of more than 100 scientists. I will not repeat the figures, but at best they are disturbing and, in truth, a disgrace. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords of our family's farming interests, of my membership of the NFU and of my presidency of LEAF.

We live in a world which is seeing huge rises in the human population and the challenges that climate changes brings. It is clearly our responsibility to produce much more food—50 per cent more by 2050, as has been said—on less available land. I remind the Minister that there will be less land on which to develop food crops. Scientific knowledge has never been more important that it is today, yet the Government have reduced the amount of money available for this type of research. I cautiously welcome the decision to establish the new agency, but its success will depend on adequate funding, good management of the various projects that the agency commissions and undertakes, much closer working between government and private companies, and the sharing of information directly with farmers for implementation on their farms.

There are gaps. Last year, the Dairy Science and Food Technology Forum produced a report drawing the Government's attention to the gaps in the UK's research and scientific knowledge-transfer base and highlighted areas that required action. The report runs to 12 pages and I shall send the Minister a copy.

In his presentation to the LEAF conference last autumn, Keith Goulding expressed his concerns about the inadequacy of funding and the long-term loss of skills in research and advice on soil and water management. Has the Minister had discussions with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and, if so, have the Government been minded to commit more, or perhaps adequate, funding to this type of research? There are other research projects, such as the Campden food research station, which is well known to your Lordships.

I hope that the new agency will link food and agriculture work closely. The agency should work with the farmers and organisations involved in promoting good farming practice and not simply reinvent the wheel. I point the Minister to the work being undertaken by, for example, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington, Leicestershire, which balances commercial food with the preservation of wildlife, or the work of FWAG and my organisation, LEAF. I suspect that these and other organisations which promote good farm practice, based on sound science, will struggle financially in the crisis that is affecting all businesses.

I hope that the new agency will look at the way in which it allocates its money. Government, private companies and the industry as a whole must look to new ways of collaboration and promote R&D in future years. We desperately need to attract new scientists. We have lost many in recent years and those who remain are, sadly, at the height of their careers and may retire soon.

This has been a short but timely and worthwhile debate. I thank my noble friend for introducing it and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Lord Haskins Lord Haskins Crossbench 7:57 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust and I am delighted to be an east Yorkshire arable farmer in these trying times, when the banks still seem to be falling over themselves to lend me money.

As the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, pointed out, investment in agricultural research was a high priority in the post-war years of shortage and low self-sufficiency. By the 1980s, in Europe at any rate, shortage had turned into excess. The need for such heavy commitment to research seemed to be less. The Government's view was that the private sector should take the place of the state, especially in near-market research. Even today, the European Union is largely self-sufficient in indigenous food—and we are members of the EU, as far as I know, and, therefore, share the benefits of the single market.

However, the situation is different today in two respects. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, pointed out, globally there is a greater risk of food shortage than there has been for years, given the rising population, affluence in the developing world and more people eating meat. Secondly, climate change will almost certainly exacerbate that situation. Without sufficient scientific and technological innovation, a Malthusian crisis could be created. Last year's hiccup of increased prices produced worrying signs of political unrest in Egypt, Indonesia and other developing countries.

Much of the research that is needed will continue to be carried out by the private sector. It includes the need for more effective and safer pesticides in Europe, more productive plant breeding, and sophisticated technology, such as precision farming. However, Britain, the EU and other affluent Governments must concentrate on three aspects of state-funded agricultural research. First, they should make sure that existing science and technology become available to the poorer farmers of the world who cannot afford to buy them. That would make a huge change to the world's capacity to feed itself. Secondly, there should be investment in long-term research to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, especially as it affects poorer farmers in countries such as Bangladesh, and British and European farmers who are coping with the impact of extreme weather on their crops. Thirdly, and above all, they should ensure that regulations and restraints do not inhibit responsible research and development. There will be a constant need to insist on higher standards of animal welfare and safer pesticides, and so there should be. However, there is no point in applying regulations that place European farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage against, especially, North American farmers. The proposed pesticides directive might just do that but, being a cynic, I detect a bit of traditional Armageddon forecasting from farmers and the agriscience companies.

Governments must not allow themselves to respond to well-meaning but mistaken demands to outlaw responsible research into exciting developments, such as genetic modification in crops. They must manage the science but not deny it. At a time of severe crisis, with unprecedented demands on Governments to borrow heavily to revive the economy, it may be tempting for Ministers to slash research budgets in order to reduce public sector debt. However, long term, for Britain and the world, that would be a catastrophic mistake. The world will get over a credit crunch, however painful, but it will not get over a food crisis of Malthusian proportions.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Wales 8:01 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Scottish livestock farmer and a member of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

Farming, in many aspects, has been through some pretty dire times recently and now it seems that the banking industry is quite keen on joining it. In spite of this, it seems that the drug that gets to most farmers in the end is the fact that, whatever you try to do, farming is always a challenge on a huge range of levels.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, for many years after the Second World War and under the CAP the challenge was always to produce more. We are now entering a very different scene, where the great drive is for the efficient use of the minimum of inputs and the least effect on the environment. In practical, everyday terms, this is a seismic shift and will need research.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, called for more applied research, and perhaps I may mention a small practical application in the world today. I note that Defra has allocated 0.2 per cent of its research budget to reducing the methane output of ruminants where this enteric fermentation accounts for 2.5 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Can the Government reassure us that this is adequate? As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, in world terms, agriculture will have to go on increasing production and, in order to combine both aims, all sorts of research will be needed.

It is interesting to note that in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review it was expected that Defra's budget would have an average annual growth rate of 1.4 per cent over the five-year period. Of course, we are now in a very different economic situation, and no doubt the Minister will tell us of areas where the Government expect us to tighten our belts. However, within that review, the Government stated that they expected to be able to achieve an annual saving of £121 million through the increased sharing of responsibility for animal health and welfare with the agricultural industry. Some of this is taking place as we speak in areas such as the disposal of fallen stock and even in the bluetongue vaccination programme.

The fulfilment of this proposal is dependent on the industry's ability and willingness to pay. There is a rather worrying precedent in the most recent extension of the bluetongue area in England, where the uptake of the vaccine has accounted for only a very small proportion of what is required. Much of the vaccine that has been prepared at government expense is sitting idly on the shelves of veterinary surgeries and at the suppliers. As a Scot, I can say that this does not give me great reassurance that the disease will not try to spread north of the border.

A concern that I have recently come across is that the original figure for the industry's contribution is supposed to contain an element towards agricultural and food research. In our discussions tonight, this could be quite a critical factor, as the NFU tells me that the Defra budget for farming and food research and development is now only £20 million. Can the Minister say whether the department is still budgeting for a sizeable contribution from the industry for financing any of the core research facilities? I am sure that the Minister is as aware as anyone that, whatever happens, a certain number of our research facilities in the animal health field are absolutely key to our control of animal diseases—both those that we currently experience and the more exotic elements that seem to be migrating across the world. I need mention only avian flu as an illustration.

Of course, much of the finance for these facilities is not wholly dependent on Defra, and a fairly sizeable amount comes from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform through the BBSRC and other sources. In Scotland, we are extremely proud of our world-class scientific research. I was recently speaking to the chief executive of the Mordun Research Institute in Edinburgh. It has received approximately £6 million from government, which gives the institute its core funding. The chief executive has just come back from the US, where she has obtained additional funding from major chemical companies, which overall will give the institute a working budget for next year of £18 million. That must be good value for money in the context of the UK economy and the chance to maintain quality jobs in this country. Can the Minister assure the House that, in considering the finances to be made available, adequate emphasis will be placed on the vital asset that these research facilities represent?

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs 8:06 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, this is a very topical and timely debate. I want to concentrate specifically on one major strategic issue that has arisen in the speeches of all those who have taken part. Since the Thatcher era in the 1980s, when the Government decreed that most research led to commercial, profitable development with near-market results, the public sector has not had to take such a big role in that function. As a result, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, emphasised, in the following 25 years we have seen a considerable reduction in public investment for the public interest.

I want to consider animal diseases in particular, as in the other House my area of responsibility was agriculture, food and the rural economy throughout the BSE and foot and mouth disasters. I shall refer specifically to the 2000 report from the Phillips inquiry into BSE because there are extremely important lessons to be learnt from it in the context of our debate. The inquiry concluded:

"BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans ... A vital industry has been dealt a body blow, inflicting misery on tens of thousands for whom livestock farming is their way of life", and, of course, hundreds of millions of pounds were lost to the British economy as a result.

The research identified in the Phillips inquiry—and the research that should have been and still needs to be undertaken—is of extreme importance. However, that research will not be undertaken if the lead comes from the private sector, for obvious reasons. I take one example. The Phillips inquiry came to the conclusion that,

"the OP phosmet might modify the susceptibility of cells to the prion disease agent".

The OP warble fly dressings used until the 1980s—which, incidentally, organic livestock farmers very carefully avoided, which is perhaps a good reason for supporting the organic sector—were clearly identified as needing further research. Since 2000, that research has never taken place.

The critical paragraph from the inquiry reads as follows:

"BSE did not emerge at a propitious time so far as research was concerned. In 1985 Ministers had accepted a recommendation from the Priorities Board for Research and Development in Agriculture and Food that expenditure on research into animal diseases was disproportionate and should be reduced by 20 per cent. Implementation of this policy was resulting in staffing cuts at research establishments".

As Members of your Lordships' House have emphasised time and again this evening, that process started because the public sector was thought to be less important than the private and commercial sectors, which could benefit from near-market development. That, again, is a very important lesson that we must take to heart. The public sector has to take the lead in setting priorities in research.

Last summer's Cabinet paper, Food Matters—Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century, on the whole seems to suggest that the nation does not think that food matters. I do not believe that is true; I think that the nation believes that research into food and farming issues is of extreme importance. As the NFU has reminded us, a 45 per cent reduction in investment in this research took place during the 1980s and 1990s and now—again as the NFU has told us—only £20 million is being spent in the Defra budget on those critical areas. As my noble friend Lord Livsey said earlier, given that £20 billion is paid to import food into this country, the disproportion is dramatic.

I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance about the announcement of the merger, to which reference has been made, to form the Food and Environment Research Agency from 1 April—not a propitious date. It will be meaningless if there is no increase in resources, no firm focus on what is in the public interest and, therefore, no firm focus on what should be a priority for public investment.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 8:10 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing gratitude to my noble friend Lord Selborne for securing this debate. I welcome his introduction of this important topic.

I declare my interests, both formally and literally in this matter. I am, as many noble Lords may know, involved in my family farming and growing business. We are members of various organisations such as the NFU, have qualified under a multiplicity of crop assurance schemes, and are members of LEAF. In short, we would consider ourselves productive, progressive and dependent on science for success. Surely one outcome of this debate would be that the House would wish to see all British agriculture and horticulture so described.

I have been much interested in research matters in the industry. In the past, I have served on governing bodies, ministerial panels and programme reviews and I was a founder member of the Horticultural Development Council, which is now part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. Over many years, my family has worked on projects with the soon-to-be-closed Kirton Horticultural Research Institute, joining the long list of those we have heard of during the debate. Things are not as they were and the Government need to revisit their priorities in this area.

I will not be using my position on this Bench to call for more government spending. Spending commitments are not to be found here and, given the country's current woes and Defra's impecuniosity, it would be irresponsible to suggest any other line. However, the debate has shown that there is a pressing need to provide support through research and knowledge transfer to an industry that is in the front line of a fast changing world. As noble Lords have said, we need to face issues such as food security, energy from crops, pesticide bans, animal disease and climate change adaptation and we will not do this without proper research and development.

I mentioned the Defra budget but real encouragement needs to be given to other departments to look at the potential in this area: DIUS, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested; DfID and the need to develop crop science to assist the reduction of food shortages in the thirdworld, such as drought-resistant crops; DECC and the creation of second-generation biofuels; and the Department of Health and the breeding and development of foodstuffs improving health by, for example, producing wheat flour which is able to reduce the risk of rectal cancer. Within existing budgets there is much that can and must be done.

I believe that partnership research can be a very useful way of leveraging government spending. How much are the Government committed to this? CAP pillar 2 allows for part of the European budget to be committed to research. How much have the Government committed under this heading and what percentage of that is currently food-production orientated? The Government have set up the Food and Environment Research Agency. As noble Lords have said, much hope rests on it. It will be vested in April, after a year in shadow operation. What will be the spend on agriculture and on food by the four bodies joined to form this organisation? Current budgetary pressures are immense—all the more reason for making sure that we address waste and inefficiency within the department.

I end by mentioning the 2008 report of the National Horticultural Forum, which drew attention to the way in which reductions in applied research and technology transfer are impacting on an industry which provides for an important part of a healthy diet; namely, fruit and vegetables. The future of agriculture and horticulture is important. The success of farmers and growers in meeting what the nation requires will depend on the application of science. There must be better ways of making this work than at present.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Minister of State (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality), Department for Energy and Climate Change, Minister of State (Department of Energy and Climate Change), Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality) (also in the Department for Energy and Climate Change), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:15 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to respond to this very interesting debate. It is remarkable that such a high-level debate can take place within an hour, even though contributors have had only four minutes to speak. As a result, we have much food for thought—if I can put it that way. I shall answer as many points as I can, but I also want to assure noble Lords that my department will take into account the comments that have been made, particularly as we go forward into the new arrangements on research. I am very grateful to the noble Earl for initiating the debate and also for what he said about the priorities that he thought should be developed.

Of course I heard what the noble Earl said about the past contribution of research and development to agricultural production in this country going back over 40 or 50 years, a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. He said that in the past few years agriculture has no longer been seen as a key sector. I thought that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State addressed that issue only a few weeks ago at the Oxford farming conference. Although my right honourable friend recognised in his speech many of the challenges facing farming, he also gave a very positive vision of the future role of farming in this country. I listened with interest to some of the comments made by parts of the farming sector following that conference.

We all understand the real challenges facing farming at the moment, but I thought that there was a positive message about the critical role that farming has to play in the future. My department understands very well its importance and will promote it. Food security, in the context of climate change, growing world population and instability in many parts of the world, is a point very well taken. I will come back to the issue about R&D in relation to food security in a moment.

Of course research and development lies at the heart of innovation in agriculture. It has never been more important. Climate change will affect production patterns, yields, incidence of pests and diseases, and produce an increased incidence of extreme weather events with the potential to disrupt markets and cause price volatility. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, on the question of bees; from several noble Lords about the need for research into GMOs independent of companies with a direct concern; and from the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, who asked a very pertinent question about what I merely describe as research into cows farting.

There are many important areas where research and development need to take place. I know that noble Lords are concerned about the amount of money that my department spends on research and development. I do not want to go into huge detail about the amount that is spent. Overall, it is £353 million in research relevant to agriculture and food. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council invests £185 million in fundamental science. My department spends £68 million. DfID is investing £400 million over the next five years on agricultural research in developing countries. The Food Standards Agency has a spend of £20 million on research underpinning food safety and healthy eating.

I understand that noble Lords are concerned about the budgetary decisions that have been made. One has to face the fact that inevitably given the pressures on public sector expenditure, and exacerbated by the recent global turndown, the search for greater efficiency is ever-present. We also look to other sources of funding. Noble Lords have already mentioned the EU. There is the question of funding coming from industry—and various parts of industry at that.

Of course we will continue to look very carefully at the budget and at its balance. Today's debate is very helpful to me and the department in making proper analysis of where that resource should be spent. I cannot stand here and say that I can promise to put more money into the budget. At the moment, that is very difficult, but we need to make sure that the resource that we have is spent as widely as possible.

Food security is clearly critical, but one must distinguish between food security and self-sufficiency, although I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made a very good fist of describing the relationship in what she described as sustainable food production in this country. I assure noble Lords that the question of R&D is important; we are looking to invest more in that area. I understand that a cross-government research co-ordinating group has been set up, chaired by Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, to look into that very question. I take the point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, about the uptake of vaccine and the need for us to be ever-alert to that especially important factor in relation to bluetongue.

In dealing with R&D, our relationship with key scientific partners, such as key research councils, is very important. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that we are in discussion with the BBSRC about how we can better co-ordinate our efforts. I assure her that we will continue to consider that very carefully.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and other noble Lords referred to the issue of research institutes and the closures that have taken place. I understand those concerns. Some of those have been driven by the need for more multidisciplinary institutes. I know that the BBSRC has sought to maintain the ongoing sustainability of the UK agriculture research base by developing alliances through closer relationships between centres and between individual centres and universities. I know, however, that we need to keep a careful eye on that. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, we must ensure that the science base and skills base in this country is not undermined, so that we do not lose some of the key skills we have now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, talked about scientists retiring and whether they will be replaced. We have to keep that under very careful review, and we will do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made a very important point about extension services. I am told that one of the successes following the privatisation of ADAS has been the development of independent consultants and consultancy businesses. Consultants do not get much of a mention or many plaudits in your Lordships' House, but that seems to have been one of the positive outputs.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, made some very important points about the industry contributing more. Of course the industry is a very important player. Private companies, such as large food companies and the agrochemical sector, have their own research activities. Funding from farming businesses is largely through the activities of the levy organisation, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which has a spend of around £20 million. I recognise the point that noble Lords have made about the small scale of many individual interests in the farming sector and the difficulty there of raising resources for research. That gives rise to the question whether other interests in the food chain, such as the food retail industry, contribute more at the applied end.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, asked about the role of producers, the link programmes and the discussions in government at the moment with the Technology Strategy Board to see whether we can have better, more co-ordinated research in the sustainable food chain and whether we can attract more private sector investment. We certainly agree that partnership funding, which we currently support through the link programmes, are very important, but we are looking at how that could be developed and improved.

I could respond to so many points, but I have only a minute left and will pick up other points in writing to noble Lords. Most of my ministerial experience has been in the Department of Health, where I had responsibility for research and development. I understand the critical importance of research and development. It is important not only to the farming and agricultural sector, even in the organic field, but to our relationship with the critical science base in this country. Defra's budget has been challenging, and I am afraid that I cannot bring good news of expected increases, but I can say that we recognise the important role of farming and the role of research and development. Noble Lords have cited many important challenges that we recognise we must face up to in research and development. We will continue our efforts to co-ordinate with other funders and the private sector to ensure that we produce as much resource as possible, that the value that is obtained from it is as effective as possible and that we continue to support farming in this way because of its importance to our nation.