Agriculture: Royal Society Report — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:48 pm on 10th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson for Wales 2:48 pm, 10th December 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on bringing forward this debate on the Royal Society report, Reaping the Benefits. It is extraordinary how history repeats itself, especially in agriculture and food production. The Royal Society, not for the first time, comes to the rescue. In 1755, progressive farmers and landowners in Breconshire, my home county, consulted the Royal Society because farmers and rural dwellers were struggling with rampant poverty in rural areas. With Royal Society support, they founded the Brecknock Agricultural Society-the first agricultural society-and the first agricultural show in the whole of Britain. This far-sighted act furthered what were then modern farming techniques and the transfer of modern technology to farmers in order to reduce rural poverty, and it was a resounding success. In 2005, it celebrated its 250th year. In times past, it introduced the Norfolk four-course rotation system, which was phased out only in the 1960s. There is cattle and sheep-breeding excellence, and likewise, there were projects in the First and Second World Wars. The war agricultural executive committee in the Second World War put in place progressive farmers all over Great Britain. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a revolution and, as I have mentioned before, I was part of that, working for ICI's agricultural division. Many of my colleagues worked for the advisory service at NAAS, which became ADAS and on research stations.

Post-Second World War, UK self-sufficiency rates went up from 40 per cent to 75 per cent. Today, UK self-sufficiency in home-produced food is only 60 per cent. At the same time, the world cannot feed itself. Make no mistake, this is a crisis. Add to that climate change which, Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser described as the biggest challenge to face us in the 21st century. We have a lot of problems, and it is not surprising that the Royal Society has produced this timely report. It is in five sections: the challenge of food security, both UK and global, scientific targets, capacity to innovate, making science make a difference and governance. It is a large subject, but I shall address the first point only-the challenge of food security, both UK and global.

I am concentrating my remarks because I believe that this is the most important aspect confronting us. Indeed, section 5.1 covers many aspects of the importance of achieving food security both within the UK and across the world. It makes the cogent point that the world does not have the ability to feed itself at present. There are many other aspects pointing to increased global food production, but that has to be achieved without damage to the environment and the long-term interests of the globe.

The UK could lead the way, but one has to re-establish research, particularly agricultural education and reinvent agricultural extension and advisory capacity. These points are made in the report, along with the importance of public funding to bring it about. Agriculture and farming must come to the fore. Defra's cuts in the budget for agricultural research have been devastating. I believe that they are the result of undue pressure by the Treasury, which has been extremely negligent of the future of farming and food production in this country. It has downgraded the importance of the science over the past 20 years, and the amount spent now on research is minimal. The closure of many research and experimental stations was unforgivable. In our debate in this House on 20 January, I outlined clearly what had gone on in research stations that no longer exist.

It will be only if we restore our lost capacity and get on-farm technology transfer again that we can help to solve the global food production crisis. We cannot rely on corporate company research to solve our problems. I say that as someone who has worked for a large corporate company in my time. GM research cannot rely on the Monsantos of this world. It needs independent, publicly funded research and development with truly objective independent assessment. All risk factors must be evaluated. The Treasury must stop ignoring agriculture and Defra must get itself properly organised to meet these challenges.

I believe that the crisis in Africa is extremely serious. Indeed, the issue of climate change is impacting very seriously. However, I believe that the problems of feeding the world are not insoluble. The primary recommendations of the Royal Society in a British context can be achieved with imagination and courage, and many of these problems can be solved both in the UK and globally.