Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:06 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs 8:06 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, this is a very topical and timely debate. I want to concentrate specifically on one major strategic issue that has arisen in the speeches of all those who have taken part. Since the Thatcher era in the 1980s, when the Government decreed that most research led to commercial, profitable development with near-market results, the public sector has not had to take such a big role in that function. As a result, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, emphasised, in the following 25 years we have seen a considerable reduction in public investment for the public interest.

I want to consider animal diseases in particular, as in the other House my area of responsibility was agriculture, food and the rural economy throughout the BSE and foot and mouth disasters. I shall refer specifically to the 2000 report from the Phillips inquiry into BSE because there are extremely important lessons to be learnt from it in the context of our debate. The inquiry concluded:

"BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans ... A vital industry has been dealt a body blow, inflicting misery on tens of thousands for whom livestock farming is their way of life", and, of course, hundreds of millions of pounds were lost to the British economy as a result.

The research identified in the Phillips inquiry—and the research that should have been and still needs to be undertaken—is of extreme importance. However, that research will not be undertaken if the lead comes from the private sector, for obvious reasons. I take one example. The Phillips inquiry came to the conclusion that,

"the OP phosmet might modify the susceptibility of cells to the prion disease agent".

The OP warble fly dressings used until the 1980s—which, incidentally, organic livestock farmers very carefully avoided, which is perhaps a good reason for supporting the organic sector—were clearly identified as needing further research. Since 2000, that research has never taken place.

The critical paragraph from the inquiry reads as follows:

"BSE did not emerge at a propitious time so far as research was concerned. In 1985 Ministers had accepted a recommendation from the Priorities Board for Research and Development in Agriculture and Food that expenditure on research into animal diseases was disproportionate and should be reduced by 20 per cent. Implementation of this policy was resulting in staffing cuts at research establishments".

As Members of your Lordships' House have emphasised time and again this evening, that process started because the public sector was thought to be less important than the private and commercial sectors, which could benefit from near-market development. That, again, is a very important lesson that we must take to heart. The public sector has to take the lead in setting priorities in research.

Last summer's Cabinet paper, Food Matters—Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century, on the whole seems to suggest that the nation does not think that food matters. I do not believe that is true; I think that the nation believes that research into food and farming issues is of extreme importance. As the NFU has reminded us, a 45 per cent reduction in investment in this research took place during the 1980s and 1990s and now—again as the NFU has told us—only £20 million is being spent in the Defra budget on those critical areas. As my noble friend Lord Livsey said earlier, given that £20 billion is paid to import food into this country, the disproportion is dramatic.

I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance about the announcement of the merger, to which reference has been made, to form the Food and Environment Research Agency from 1 April—not a propitious date. It will be meaningless if there is no increase in resources, no firm focus on what is in the public interest and, therefore, no firm focus on what should be a priority for public investment.