Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:53 pm on 20th January 2009.

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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.