Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 20th January 2009.

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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.