Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:49 pm on 20th January 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

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.