Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Minister of State (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality), Department for Energy and Climate Change, Minister of State (Department of Energy and Climate Change), Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality) (also in the Department for Energy and Climate Change), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:15 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to respond to this very interesting debate. It is remarkable that such a high-level debate can take place within an hour, even though contributors have had only four minutes to speak. As a result, we have much food for thought—if I can put it that way. I shall answer as many points as I can, but I also want to assure noble Lords that my department will take into account the comments that have been made, particularly as we go forward into the new arrangements on research. I am very grateful to the noble Earl for initiating the debate and also for what he said about the priorities that he thought should be developed.

Of course I heard what the noble Earl said about the past contribution of research and development to agricultural production in this country going back over 40 or 50 years, a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. He said that in the past few years agriculture has no longer been seen as a key sector. I thought that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State addressed that issue only a few weeks ago at the Oxford farming conference. Although my right honourable friend recognised in his speech many of the challenges facing farming, he also gave a very positive vision of the future role of farming in this country. I listened with interest to some of the comments made by parts of the farming sector following that conference.

We all understand the real challenges facing farming at the moment, but I thought that there was a positive message about the critical role that farming has to play in the future. My department understands very well its importance and will promote it. Food security, in the context of climate change, growing world population and instability in many parts of the world, is a point very well taken. I will come back to the issue about R&D in relation to food security in a moment.

Of course research and development lies at the heart of innovation in agriculture. It has never been more important. Climate change will affect production patterns, yields, incidence of pests and diseases, and produce an increased incidence of extreme weather events with the potential to disrupt markets and cause price volatility. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, on the question of bees; from several noble Lords about the need for research into GMOs independent of companies with a direct concern; and from the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, who asked a very pertinent question about what I merely describe as research into cows farting.

There are many important areas where research and development need to take place. I know that noble Lords are concerned about the amount of money that my department spends on research and development. I do not want to go into huge detail about the amount that is spent. Overall, it is £353 million in research relevant to agriculture and food. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council invests £185 million in fundamental science. My department spends £68 million. DfID is investing £400 million over the next five years on agricultural research in developing countries. The Food Standards Agency has a spend of £20 million on research underpinning food safety and healthy eating.

I understand that noble Lords are concerned about the budgetary decisions that have been made. One has to face the fact that inevitably given the pressures on public sector expenditure, and exacerbated by the recent global turndown, the search for greater efficiency is ever-present. We also look to other sources of funding. Noble Lords have already mentioned the EU. There is the question of funding coming from industry—and various parts of industry at that.

Of course we will continue to look very carefully at the budget and at its balance. Today's debate is very helpful to me and the department in making proper analysis of where that resource should be spent. I cannot stand here and say that I can promise to put more money into the budget. At the moment, that is very difficult, but we need to make sure that the resource that we have is spent as widely as possible.

Food security is clearly critical, but one must distinguish between food security and self-sufficiency, although I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made a very good fist of describing the relationship in what she described as sustainable food production in this country. I assure noble Lords that the question of R&D is important; we are looking to invest more in that area. I understand that a cross-government research co-ordinating group has been set up, chaired by Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, to look into that very question. I take the point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, about the uptake of vaccine and the need for us to be ever-alert to that especially important factor in relation to bluetongue.

In dealing with R&D, our relationship with key scientific partners, such as key research councils, is very important. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that we are in discussion with the BBSRC about how we can better co-ordinate our efforts. I assure her that we will continue to consider that very carefully.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and other noble Lords referred to the issue of research institutes and the closures that have taken place. I understand those concerns. Some of those have been driven by the need for more multidisciplinary institutes. I know that the BBSRC has sought to maintain the ongoing sustainability of the UK agriculture research base by developing alliances through closer relationships between centres and between individual centres and universities. I know, however, that we need to keep a careful eye on that. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, we must ensure that the science base and skills base in this country is not undermined, so that we do not lose some of the key skills we have now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, talked about scientists retiring and whether they will be replaced. We have to keep that under very careful review, and we will do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made a very important point about extension services. I am told that one of the successes following the privatisation of ADAS has been the development of independent consultants and consultancy businesses. Consultants do not get much of a mention or many plaudits in your Lordships' House, but that seems to have been one of the positive outputs.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, made some very important points about the industry contributing more. Of course the industry is a very important player. Private companies, such as large food companies and the agrochemical sector, have their own research activities. Funding from farming businesses is largely through the activities of the levy organisation, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which has a spend of around £20 million. I recognise the point that noble Lords have made about the small scale of many individual interests in the farming sector and the difficulty there of raising resources for research. That gives rise to the question whether other interests in the food chain, such as the food retail industry, contribute more at the applied end.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, asked about the role of producers, the link programmes and the discussions in government at the moment with the Technology Strategy Board to see whether we can have better, more co-ordinated research in the sustainable food chain and whether we can attract more private sector investment. We certainly agree that partnership funding, which we currently support through the link programmes, are very important, but we are looking at how that could be developed and improved.

I could respond to so many points, but I have only a minute left and will pick up other points in writing to noble Lords. Most of my ministerial experience has been in the Department of Health, where I had responsibility for research and development. I understand the critical importance of research and development. It is important not only to the farming and agricultural sector, even in the organic field, but to our relationship with the critical science base in this country. Defra's budget has been challenging, and I am afraid that I cannot bring good news of expected increases, but I can say that we recognise the important role of farming and the role of research and development. Noble Lords have cited many important challenges that we recognise we must face up to in research and development. We will continue our efforts to co-ordinate with other funders and the private sector to ensure that we produce as much resource as possible, that the value that is obtained from it is as effective as possible and that we continue to support farming in this way because of its importance to our nation.