Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:57 pm on 20th January 2009.

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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.