Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:10 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 8:10 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing gratitude to my noble friend Lord Selborne for securing this debate. I welcome his introduction of this important topic.

I declare my interests, both formally and literally in this matter. I am, as many noble Lords may know, involved in my family farming and growing business. We are members of various organisations such as the NFU, have qualified under a multiplicity of crop assurance schemes, and are members of LEAF. In short, we would consider ourselves productive, progressive and dependent on science for success. Surely one outcome of this debate would be that the House would wish to see all British agriculture and horticulture so described.

I have been much interested in research matters in the industry. In the past, I have served on governing bodies, ministerial panels and programme reviews and I was a founder member of the Horticultural Development Council, which is now part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. Over many years, my family has worked on projects with the soon-to-be-closed Kirton Horticultural Research Institute, joining the long list of those we have heard of during the debate. Things are not as they were and the Government need to revisit their priorities in this area.

I will not be using my position on this Bench to call for more government spending. Spending commitments are not to be found here and, given the country's current woes and Defra's impecuniosity, it would be irresponsible to suggest any other line. However, the debate has shown that there is a pressing need to provide support through research and knowledge transfer to an industry that is in the front line of a fast changing world. As noble Lords have said, we need to face issues such as food security, energy from crops, pesticide bans, animal disease and climate change adaptation and we will not do this without proper research and development.

I mentioned the Defra budget but real encouragement needs to be given to other departments to look at the potential in this area: DIUS, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested; DfID and the need to develop crop science to assist the reduction of food shortages in the thirdworld, such as drought-resistant crops; DECC and the creation of second-generation biofuels; and the Department of Health and the breeding and development of foodstuffs improving health by, for example, producing wheat flour which is able to reduce the risk of rectal cancer. Within existing budgets there is much that can and must be done.

I believe that partnership research can be a very useful way of leveraging government spending. How much are the Government committed to this? CAP pillar 2 allows for part of the European budget to be committed to research. How much have the Government committed under this heading and what percentage of that is currently food-production orientated? The Government have set up the Food and Environment Research Agency. As noble Lords have said, much hope rests on it. It will be vested in April, after a year in shadow operation. What will be the spend on agriculture and on food by the four bodies joined to form this organisation? Current budgetary pressures are immense—all the more reason for making sure that we address waste and inefficiency within the department.

I end by mentioning the 2008 report of the National Horticultural Forum, which drew attention to the way in which reductions in applied research and technology transfer are impacting on an industry which provides for an important part of a healthy diet; namely, fruit and vegetables. The future of agriculture and horticulture is important. The success of farmers and growers in meeting what the nation requires will depend on the application of science. There must be better ways of making this work than at present.