Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 20th January 2009.

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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.