My Lords, before I start I should refer to my interests as set out in the register, including that I am a farmer and a beneficiary of the CAP schemes.
The track record of British farming is one of resilience. During the five years following the recession of 2008, while the UK economy as a whole recovered to a size similar to that before the global banking crisis, the contribution of farmers to the economy grew by around 45% to almost £10 billion. Our farmers grow the raw ingredients for the food sector, which collectively is worth more than £100 billion. The farming and food sectors together provide nearly 4 million jobs. Food and drink is now our country’s fourth-largest exporting sector and is worth more than £12 billion. Farming offers huge potential to the rural economy as a whole.
Today, British farmers produce around 62% of our food, which is good but—some would say—not enough. Many increasingly employ innovative technology to produce food for today and to prepare for the future. Our farmers work to enhance the countryside and protect the environment, to maintain habitats for native plants and animals, to maintain footpaths, to protect watercourses and to support wildlife. Productive farming depends on healthy soils and clean water, so it is in farmers’ interests to prioritise their protection. Through the voluntary Campaign for the Farmed Environment farmers have created thousands of hectares of wildflower habitat and are continuing to plant more. As energy prices rise and climate concerns increase, farmers are finding innovative ways to produce renewable energy on farms.
But all of this has to be seen against a background of volatility in farm business incomes, which sometimes vary by up to 30% between years because of factors such as commodity prices, currencies and weather conditions—and the structures of some of our markets do not help, either. So it was welcome when the Chancellor announced in last year’s Budget that farming incomes could be averaged over five years for tax purposes. High on the list of those bearing the brunt of the problem are dairy and other stock farmers, many of whom continue to suffer devastating losses. I would be interested in an update from my noble friend the Minister on the initiatives that are in place to assist them.
I turn to horticulture, which for food represents around 12% of total agricultural output, so it is an important component. In addition, there is a sizeable and important market in ornamentals. Field vegetables and non-edibles in particular have shown recent growth, although vegetables have declined over the longer term so that until recently—my figures may be slightly out of date—we are in value terms around 38% self-sufficient in vegetables, while the figure is only 16% for fruit because of our appetite for tropical fruits, and around 49% in ornamentals.
It is important that we now see growth in that area, and my noble friend might care to comment on new ways to encourage that. While global demand for food is forecast to increase steadily over the next 20 to 30 years, it will not be all plain sailing, especially as prices are likely to continue to be volatile. If farming is to be profitable in future, whatever else contributes to that profitability, yields will need to increase.
The United Kingdom is home to some of the world’s finest agricultural research, and this must hold one of the keys to improving the position of our farmers. I have been fortunate to visit many of our wonderful institutions: from Rothamsted to John Innes, Fera to Roslin, East Malling to NIAB, the RAU to Harper Adams, to name but a few. Drawing on exciting breakthroughs in plant and animal breeding, remote sensing, meteorological prediction and the exploitation of data, Britain’s most progressive farmers are leading the way. Our world-class food and drink manufacturing and retail sectors are highly competitive, supplying consumers both here and abroad.
In the agritech strategy, in which I was fortunate to play a role, we considered how we could meet the challenge of feeding a growing population without damaging our natural environment. Our vision was of a United Kingdom with once again a world-leading role in the race for better, more efficient and more sustainable agricultural production. Central to this was rebuilding the connection between basic research and applied science. We secured £160 million from the Treasury through the agritech strategy to accelerate innovation by UK food and farming businesses and to boost UK growth through the emerging global markets. This, importantly, included addressing skills, essential to help us to develop ideas from the laboratory to the farm, as well as to develop our capabilities on-farm.
We also identified that British science and technology has a vital role to play in efforts to improve food security in developing countries. Part of the £160 million was to go towards the establishment of a small number of centres of scientific excellence. I understand that these now include an agrimetrics centre, based at the Harpenden site of Rothamsted Research, a centre for crop health and protection and a centre for innovation excellence in livestock, both to be headquartered just outside York at the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus in Sand Hutton, and an Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre that will have hubs at Edinburgh at Harper Adams University and at Cranfield University.
The other substantial proportion of the £160 million agritech money was to be invested through a catalyst in projects dealing with subjects ranging widely from, for example, resistance to rhynchosporium, to improving apple storage, to localised delivery of environmentally benign pesticides, to feed conversion efficiency in beef cattle, to chicken welfare, to the sustainable intensification of agriculture in the Horn of Africa, and much more. Perhaps my noble friend could update us on the agritech strategy.
There is more, of course, to the rural economy than farming, but farming is integral to it. Of all the technologies that will benefit rural industries, superfast broadband is one of the most tangible, so I am pleased to see the prospect of some real progress in my home area, despite some well-publicised disappointments. I would welcome an assessment of progress nationwide.
Before I finish, I cannot avoid the elephant in the room: the effect on all of this that Brexit will have. I do not know whether others noticed, as I did with some surprise, the high proportion of farmers during the campaign who, despite their, in many cases, heavy reliance on subsidies through the CAP, said that they planned to vote leave. The reasons given ranged from arbitrary and disproportionate fines being levied for relatively minor administrative errors in cross- compliance and grant claims, to confusing and sometimes contradictory regulations, for example on nitrates, to the categorical refusal of the European Union to accept imports of British beef without any scientific basis, to frustration at political decisions by the Commission which, for example, led to the sacking of the excellent chief scientific adviser because she gave advice that the commissioner did not like.
Others cited the position that the Commission took over the negotiation of a new CAP, for example insisting on a flawed three-crop rule and making mapping unnecessarily complicated. These are the reasons a surprising number of farmers gave me for voting leave. Brexit will have far-reaching consequences and I worry that, despite what many told me, it will not make farming, or indeed horticulture, which relies on labour from overseas, a great deal easier. I will finish by tempting my noble friend to gaze into his crystal ball and give us his thoughts on how the future might pan out for British farmers and horticulturists, and indeed for agricultural science. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and congratulate him on initiating this debate, which is particularly timely in view of the Brexit decision 10 days ago, to which he alluded.
When I speak in the Chamber on rural issues, I am always conscious that I see things from a slightly different perspective from many colleagues on either side of the House. I am not a landowner but I was born in the countryside, grew up there and live in the countryside today. I will defend with them the critical role of the agricultural community, in particular, to survive and prosper in this country. I am grateful for this debate.
I am also conscious, however, that the previous census, in 2011, showed that more than one in five still live in rural areas. Having said that, we are a heavily urban-based society. Clearly, because of that, most of our citizens are influenced by the environment in which they live. It is incumbent on those of us who think we understand the countryside to try to explain to them the difficulties, the potential and the opportunities for those of us who live in the countryside, so I am doubly grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate.
Having said that, things are changing in agriculture, and have changed in my lifetime beyond what I could comprehend. Science and technology will have to be harnessed even more in the years ahead if we are to sustain a role for agriculture, and we do need to sustain it in our rural areas. Broadband, as the noble Lord indicated, has not been universally successful in many rural areas. In some it works; in others it does not. It causes a problem for modern businesses operating in rural areas.
Perhaps I can emphasise that by giving one example of the impact of technology. I shall talk about forestry because I started my working life as a forestry worker and then had the dream job to which I aspired, as chair of the Forestry Commission. When I retired in 2009 after eight years, it was decided that I would cut down one of the trees that I had planted 50-odd years previously. That was significant in many ways for showing forestry as providing a living crop that had its life and had then to be harvested. I did it in a way that I would never have dreamed of doing it. I was sitting in a state-of-the-art machine which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and which was guided by a computer. Within five minutes, I had chopped down the tree, stripped it of its branches and we had cut it up into lengths to be sent off to the factory.
I contrasted that with the position 50 years previously when I planted the tree. Then, it would have taken two of us a whole day to do that job. We would have had to cut down the tree with a crosscut saw—this was in the days before even the chainsaw, which was a remarkable piece of technology that has had such an effect on the lives of everyone in the countryside: farmers, foresters, horticulturists and everyone. Then we would have to strip the branches, then cut it up and then get it ready for loading on to the tractor to go. That just showed how productivity can be so enhanced beyond our wildest dreams by modern technology. I use that as an example.
What is true in forestry is true in agriculture. It is laughable now to think of people milking cows by hand. Cows virtually milk themselves these days. Having said that, as the noble Lord indicated, life is still hard for those of us who work in agriculture and rural areas. He mentioned farmers with livestock. That is doubly difficult. I think of the upland farmers with sheep. Of course, technology has revolutionised that in a very basic way in that the farmers now have quad bikes to go up into the hills. Nevertheless, they still need the old and trusted Border collies—the cleverest of all dogs. Without those dogs, they could not do the job. I do not foresee it, but perhaps one day we may have a machine that does that. It will have to be pretty good to run 100 miles a day to bring in the sheep from the hills. That emphasises how hard life is for farmers, particularly with livestock.
We face a big challenge at the moment. The noble Lord mentioned Brexit. I remember the referendum of 40 years ago. The issue then was so much to do with agriculture: the sugar from Australia and the West Indies, and the lamb from New Zealand and the Commonwealth countries. Agriculture and farming dominated that debate in many ways. I know that the NFU took a position officially to endorse remain but, according to the opinion polls, about 50% of farmers voted to leave. The CAP, with all its shortcomings, had pluses. We are now going back to the annual agricultural review. I recall all the hardship and anguish that the annual review caused, not only to we politicians but especially to the farmers. There were those months of uncertainty and bargaining. It was not a very successful means. We will have to reinvent our own agricultural support system. Each of the constituent Governments in the UK will need their own system.
I also agree very much with what the noble Lord said about food production. I am a great environmentalist but I have always accepted that at the end of the day we need to produce as much food as we possibly can. It is silly to try and produce food that we cannot grow efficiently, but with science and technology there are things we can grow now that possibly would have been very difficult 40 or 50 years ago. I was interested to see this week that our own Select Committee on Science and Technology was looking at driverless vehicles. One aspect it looked at was how that could revolutionise agriculture and farming. I am moving away from the stock farmer to the arable farmer. Clearly, with modern technology and driverless vehicles you can spray crops—and the machine will pick out which is a weed to spray and which is the crop. With investment and experiment, that could revolutionise the way we do our arable production.
We then have the challenges of climate change. I looked at the Veterinary Record this week, which discussed how even in a cold climate between January and April there were 14 investigations into exotic diseases, many of them—such as blue tooth—affected and coming into our country because of changes in climate. Those are other challenges we must take on board when trying to get the right balance of support. There needs to be support for the agricultural industry.
While agriculture is critical and provides the backbone of many of our rural communities, in terms of jobs so much depends on the tourist industry. I speak here as chair of the Lake District National Park Partnership, which oversees the work of the national park. We have in it all the major players from the community—obviously, the tourist industry and the environmental groups but also the NFU and representatives of the Country Land and Business Association—so that we can get a balanced view of how we move forward and make sure that we get the right discussions. Currently, we have a bid for a World Heritage Site with UNESCO which could be decided next year. I make this very last point: people come to the Lake District National Park, and visit England, in such numbers because of the landscape there. That landscape—the hills, fields, fences and stone walls—is built and maintained by farmers. That is why we must support our farming industry.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Clark. He may not be a friend in the political sense but he was born, bred and lives in the depths of my old constituency. Indeed, he once wrote a book about the Labour Party in that constituency in which he referred to me as “wily”. I am sure he did that as a friend but I was really rather flattered to be described in those terms.
Like him, I must begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord De Mauley on instigating this debate which is extremely timely. I have seldom participated in debates in this building on agriculture. I think I am right that this is only about the third time I have participated since, 29 years ago, I ceased to be Minister for Agriculture. However, this is a good time to come back to the topic. Of course, I must begin—like my noble friend—by declaring an interest as a farmer and being in receipt of funds from the common agricultural policy.
Like others, I must concentrate my remarks this afternoon on Brexit. I was very surprised that so many farmers supported Brexit. My noble friend Lord De Mauley referred to a whole lot of the nonsenses that have emanated from Brussels. Nobody is more aware of those than I because I had to put up with some of them in my time. However, I am old enough to remember the days of the annual price review—to which the noble Lord, Lord Clark referred—and of guaranteed prices and deficiency payments. It was a horror squeezing money for the agricultural industry out of the British Treasury. It was annual horse work, if I can put it that way. I can remember very well—perhaps not many noble Lords remember this—that in the 1966 general election, and again in the 1970 general election, before we joined the Common Market, as it was then, the manifesto policy of the Conservative Party was to break away from guaranteed prices and deficiency payments and to move to a system of protection based on tariffs on imported foodstuffs. I think that a lot of people have forgotten that. In the 1960s, I happened to be a member of a study group chaired by Lord Prior, who subsequently became a Minister, which led to that policy in those two elections. It is unfortunate that so many farmers seem to have thought that they would obtain a similar level of generosity from the British Treasury as they have had over all these years from the mandarins of Brussels and the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers, on which I had the privilege and pleasure of serving for four years, was much more sympathetic to the position of farmers and agriculture than one ever sees in the British Treasury.
However, today I want to refer to the problems of the dairy industry. My noble friend Lord De Mauley quite rightly referred in passing to the current crisis in the dairy industry. I have never been involved in that industry. The closest I ever got to it was when I was the Minister who introduced milk quotas in 1984, which led to me being widely and nationally vilified. Unlike the German Minister, I was never burnt in effigy as a result of that—I think he was five times. That measure made me extremely unpopular, until farmers discovered that quotas were worth a great deal of money and it was much easier to talk to their bank managers on the back of the value of their quotas. Then they started to ask me, “You won’t scrap milk quotas, will you? I always said, “I wished you had told me that at the time”.
Going back to the UK’s dairy industry today, it is really in a fearful state. Receipts in many cases are well below the cost of production, and many small and medium-sized milk producers are going out of business. Of course, one of the underlying reasons that the dairy industry is in such crisis in the UK leads, I believe, directly from the scrapping of the Milk Marketing Board, which happened after I left the department. I think it is no secret that the Commission in Brussels pressed me very hard indeed to abolish the Milk Marketing Board, as did some people here at home. I absolutely refused to do that, to the extent that I threatened to resign if I had to do so. However, it was scrapped because of the intense pressure from Brussels.
It is as well to recall that the Milk Marketing Board was set up between the wars because of the fate of small and medium-sized milk producers who were situated away from the big conurbations and being driven to bankruptcy by the attitude and behaviour of the large dairy manufacturers at that time. There are many parallels between what happened back in the 1920s and 1930s with what is happening today in the milk industry. The situation today is not helped by the actions of some of our supermarkets, which have caused the dairy industry to be in such difficulty through the use of their buying power. Therefore, if we are to leave the European Union and the common agricultural policy, I ask the Government to ensure that in future there will be nothing to prevent us trying to find new devices to support not only small and medium-sized dairy farmers but also small and medium-sized farmers right across the spectrum.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, and my noble friend referred to the importance of the rural economy. It would be tragic if we were to move to a situation where we drove medium and small-sized farming interests out of business altogether. I am not necessarily saying that we should create a new Milk Marketing Board; I do not think we could face that at this moment. However, there are other ways, and other organisations, which could be created to help the whole agricultural industry, although I am thinking of milk in particular.
In the old days, there were other organisations which had far fewer powers than the milk board. The milk board had the almost monopolistic power of being the sole first buyer of milk from producers. Other organisations were set up such as the Cereals Marketing Board, which had a reserve buying power. I made my maiden speech down the Corridor on that. There was also the meat and livestock authority and the potato marketing boards. There were other organisations of this sort which we ought to give some thought to reviving in some form to protect and support our industry because, as I said earlier, our agricultural industry will not be able to rely for very long on the generosity of the British Treasury. If we are to leave the European Union, and now that we are likely to be free of CAP regulations, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that thought will be given to determining whether plans can be prepared to establish new organisations to provide backing for the agricultural industry in the years ahead.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, with his great experience of farming.
I declare an interest as a landowner who receives income from agricultural activities. The main question that we all want to ask the Minister is one that he will be unable to answer—that is, on the future support system for our farmers and horticulturalists outside the CAP. I think that I am the third speaker to express surprise that so many farmers opted to leave the EU. For many, the single farm payment is the difference between loss and being able to pay the rent or the bank.
The Defra Minister in another place has argued that subsidies will carry on indefinitely. I find that hard to believe when both the main political parties in the last decade have said that they would be reluctant on that, certainly at the current levels. At the very least, I hope that future support will be found for marginal and upland farms which would not be able to survive on the unprotected world stage and which provide public goods.
We should remember that, currently, the CAP provides 55% of the total UK farm income—that is a considerable amount. Even with the present payments, farming is in a dire situation. I believe that all sectors are suffering, from cereals, through milk, to the meat trade. It is both low prices and volatility, but it is the former that is the most severe. Cereals in particular are projected to make a loss in this coming harvest, even after direct payments. The rotten weather has not helped, with increased disease and a difficult spraying season.
So, as the timely Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, indicates, we need to look to science to help. We need difficult decisions to be made on a scientific basis. There are two topical questions that are currently causing problems: glyphosate and neonicotinoids. In the case of the former, a last-minute reprieve for a further 18 months was achieved after the EU member states delayed a decision on unproved grounds about the threats to human health. Further assessment is urgently needed. We obviously do not wish to carry on using a carcinogenic product but, if it is not one, this vital agricultural tool must be allowed to continue to be used. The controversy over neonicotinoids is similar in that science is still uncertain as to the effect that they have on pollinating bees. Such a ban would seriously affect rapeseed growers. Again, we need the scientists to finish their evidence-based work so that regulators can make an informed decision. Science can help in all sorts of agricultural areas, from —as we have heard—automated tractors and combines through to forecasting the weather and developing crops that can cope with the changing climate and can survive floods and drought. There are plenty of other arable diseases and weeds that the industry is looking to control chemically. Black grass is spreading north and mildew, rusts and blight are rampant.
I think, however, that there is a question mark over the tolerance of consumers in the future as they start to understand how many chemicals are applied to their food. This is something that the industry will have to manage very carefully, as people become more questioning and savvy about what they eat—as they are doing. It is a surprise to me that the organic premiums are not greater in order to reflect this but, perhaps with the inevitable rise in prices post-Brexit, price will outweigh these concerns in consumers’ minds.
GM is another PR issue for the industry to confront. Biotechnology policy is changing and the Government have recently increased their support, certainly since 2010, for both GM crops and further research. That is especially true in the activity of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We are fortunate to have a good number of diverse agricultural research stations, as we have heard, and these will be increasingly under pressure to come up with solutions. The world population is set to rise from about 7 billion at present to 9 billion by 2050 and all these new people will need feeding, but with less labour, less water, less energy and less land—all commodities that will be needed for other, competing uses.
GM is a part of biotechnology and its benefits could cover the whole spectrum of agricultural output but many consumers and growers remain wary. Despite 2 trillion GM meals having been consumed since 1997, with no apparent health risks, suspicion remains. We have seen the activities of large companies such as Monsanto, which exploits its dominating position in the seed market and contracts its producing clients into poor positions of dependence and debt. That they have a Roundup Ready soybean available causes huge anxiety to many. A cursory internet search reveals the horror stories of many US farmers who are locked into these methods. Great care is thus needed in advocating these progressions. Barriers between GM and non-GM farms must be enforced through a strong code of conduct, as has indeed been in place in the UK since 1999. Likewise, a redress charter is being developed to compensate for accidental contamination of neighbouring land.
Another industry interface with the general public is TB and badger control. It is encouraging that the Ministry is more determined than ever to tackle this curse, but frustrating that the vaccination programme has been interrupted by the scarcity of the BCG vaccine. However, the Government and the industry have failed to win the argument about culls and they need to work harder to point out the dangers of TB and the sad and wasteful costs of slaughtering affected cattle. Why are badgers considered by many to be more valuable in the animal kingdom than cows? They are equal; each has a life, but one carries disease and so needs to be controlled like all other wild animals that impinge on human health and well-being.
There is much to celebrate in British food production, from our huge range of cheeses, to artisan breads, small-scale cereal and muesli makers, yoghurts, asparagus, game, and craft beers, not to mention fruit and berry products—surely we all agree that our strawberries are the best in the world. All these niche products are funding an increasing market of keen purchasers. British food quality is, I believe, overtaking the French in critical perception, as their labour laws are decimating restaurants in that country. We must encourage these products and their dissemination in farm shops and farmers’ markets. The margins are narrow and many retailers, small and large, are struggling. Science has a huge role to play, but so will a new Government—free, perhaps, of Brussels red tape, bureaucracy and conformity. Defra will need to make friends with a new Treasury, inevitably short of funds, and make the case for targeted support to keep our industry one of the biggest in the UK, vibrant, healthy and innovative and which, at the same time, also respects the environment, biodiversity and public opinion.
I have one minute left so I will repeat a plea that has already been made that the Government redouble their efforts and determination to provide fast broadband and mobile phone signal to rural areas. The absence of these services seriously hinders and disadvantages all those working and living in rural England. I ask that the Government do all that they can to improve that situation.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for securing this debate this afternoon; it is always good to have a debate on agriculture but, at this moment, after the Brexit decision, it is so important that we have it. I should declare my interests, which are in the register, that we have farming family interests and that we are in receipt of common agricultural payments, and that I am a member of the NFU and CLA and I am the current president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Today, we have been set the target, if you like, of considering agriculture and its role in society, the economic factor that goes with that, and the role of science in agriculture as we look to the future. I have divided my thoughts into those three areas.
I believe that serious consideration of the place of agriculture starts with food. It covers the growing of cereals; animal husbandry, from which come milk and meat; and poultry, which signifies meat, eggs and special lines, such as Christmas turkeys, geese and ducks. Agriculture and forestry encompasses production, packing fruit from horticulture and growing fruit and vegetables. At farmers’ markets throughout the country and in countless stores at shows, fairs and fetes, we find cheese, butter, pies, cakes and ice cream, all produced locally on our farms. Most farms are situated in rural areas, though there is a significant growth in city farms and, of course, in the use of allotments.
Agriculture supplies employment in rural areas for many people, and has the merit of being a long-term business. As has been said, food manufacturing is our greatest manufacturing industry in the country. It employs one in eight people, and is bigger than the aerospace and automotive industries. It is worth about £100 billion and, as I say, it is a long-term commitment. The sheer range of possible products that may be obtained from the land leads to a stability that is not always available for the urban environment.
Following the referendum on withdrawal from Europe, the supply of labour, particularly on fruit and vegetable farms, is of concern. Will the Minister clarify whether existing arrangements will continue, and if not, what plans will be put in place to address this change? I am referring to the former SAWS and other such schemes.
Agriculture also supplies housing in the form of tenancies for farm workers. It is increasingly coming forward with land for shared ownership schemes and with barn conversions for dwellings. Outside food or renewable energy production, agriculture’s biggest contribution is surely to tourism, which has already been mentioned. We are very lucky to live in a very attractive island, but much of the maintenance of that attraction is down to the work done by our farmers. They also contribute to the entertainment and well-being of tourists through the supply of farm-based holidays, cafés, cream teas, bed and breakfast facilities, and many self-catering venues. Rights of way, bridle-paths and footpaths criss-cross the rural landscape, and many farmers maintain them as a matter of course.
Farmers also use external professional services. Livestock husbandry requires vets, and we have people to deal with subsidies and water extraction licences. Employee payments and pensions involve computer experts, and machinery needs highly skilled engineers. Farmers, their employees and all families need doctors, nurses, carers and teachers. There is a call for cleaners, motor mechanics and those skilled in home maintenance trades. My goodness, we need a lot of people.
Agriculture is the foundation of the rural economy. If I may say so, it is often the focus of the local community, bringing it together in a way that some of our urban colleagues really envy. Its economic stability and prosperity is vital to the well-being and way of life of a quarter of our population. Its continued development and progress is essential to the remaining three-quarters of our population. As our population is expanding rapidly, food resources must at least keep pace, if not grow.
As others have suggested, agriculture experienced a loss of some £15 billion in 2015. Commodity prices have continued to fall, and the dairy industry is experiencing particularly hard times. Looking to the future, I am confident that our agriculture will succeed in the coming years. The pending changes will give us access to all markets on terms negotiated by our Government. I believe that imports can be controlled to ensure, for example, that pork and pork produce come from herds that are raised to the same welfare standards as our own. If that is not the case, it is surely not right for UK farmers to be expected to compete at a financial disadvantage to other producers around the world.
Lastly and most importantly, I turn to research and development. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Plumb, had he been here today, would have referred to his early years, when technology was fairly minimal, and to the fact that the enormous changes seen in agriculture have been because of the development of technology, with GPS making such a difference to those of us working on the land.
Further collaboration is very important. At the moment, quite a bit of our research is twinned with Europe, but I believe that we will look further afield in the world to gain suitable arrangements. Our Government must be prepared, especially in the early days, to subsidise research programmes if they are discontinued before new ones can be established. It is very important to find out soon whether existing contracts will be kept going at the time of our exit from the EU, and whether they will be honoured until their completion. I seek clarification from the Minister on that point.
I am grateful to the NFU for its detailed briefing on biotechnology. It acknowledges that some of its members are keen to see GM technology developed in the UK, while others have concerns about such crops. In fact, in my family, my husband takes a different view, which will I think be reflected in other contributions. GM modification is not a stand-alone saviour, but it offers new techniques of plant breeding. Other farm management practices to improve efficiency and long-term sustainability are equally important, and soil and water are crucial. As president of LEAF, I am well aware of the impact that that can have, and of the importance of caring for the environment and wildlife.
GM technology would increase yields, use resources more efficiently and be more robust in the face of increasing pests and diseases caused by changes in climate. I urge the Government to support this new technology in the future so that we can develop more for our own home market, but, equally importantly, so that we can supply the export trade to countries that will not be in the same position as us.
Finally, I cannot sit down without urging the Government to consider how best to support our apprenticeship schemes in rural areas. My noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble said on
It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend—and bridge partner—Lady Byford, with her great expertise. It is right to say just how much we miss our noble friend Lord Plumb. He is not taking part today but would have been a useful contributor. I was one of those who called for a full debate on farming and the countryside during our short debate on
The speech I planned to make when I raised this matter on
So whither now? We cannot go back to the post-war system of guaranteed prices and assured markets. My noble friend the Minister has a fairly blank slate on which to come forward with proposals. What has Defra cobbled together so far in the past two weeks? We cannot look at agriculture and horticulture in isolation when they are part of a wider discussion on how our countryside is managed—by whom and for whom, and how it should be accessed for public good. We live in a heavily urbanised society in which some people are very vocal and some, sadly, have little idea of the real world of farming. It is therefore important that we have easy-to-understand information readily available for those people. What is the relevance of climate and soil, for example? Does it matter that 85% in Scotland is in a less-favoured area?
Farming is unpredictable, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, reminded us. In 2014-15, farm businesses’ income in Scotland fell by more than 20% from the year before. Business really cannot exist on that basis. But farming is a commitment. Stock farming is a 365-day a year business—yes, even on Christmas Day, while most are holidaying, farmers are feeding, watering and tending their stock. We want cheap food but we want it of high quality. We are schizophrenic between a romanticised view of the country and farming and an industrialised view of an efficient, capital-intensive and mechanised industry. Sadly, the voice of farming has diminished hugely over my lifetime. An added difficulty for my noble friend Lord Gardiner is how to make the voice of farming heard in what will be a bitter political struggle on how we go forward now. Farming will be well down the list of priorities. In that respect, I venture to suggest that the CAP was an irritating but useful friend of the farmer, since it at least gave farming a high profile.
In winding up the debate last night, my noble friend Lady Anelay said that the Government would consult the devolved Governments—but that is not enough. I hope that my noble friend Lord Gardiner will reassure the House that the Government will consult the devolved institutions as well. These organisations, which represent the interests of those who live and work in the country, must be actively consulted and listened to as we go forward. Can he say whether we are to have a UK policy for farming or different English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish policies?
I turn to the crucial question, as I see it. What is the value and public good of the taxpayers’ money that is given to farmers and landowners? Is it good value? A great many farms are unprofitable and would go out of business without taxpayer support. Most farmers have diversified just to exist; some farming is no more than glorified crofting. Farming is a small proportion of total farm income to many. Many of us want the stone walls and hedges, and the small mosaic of fields that is much better for wildlife, rather than prairies and wire fences. But that is costly to maintain and needs skill and dedication, which is provided by the farmers—often freely, as my noble friend Lady Byford told us. We need a countryside that is of huge benefit to us all and to the much underrated and misunderstood industry we call tourism, which is such a help to our rural economy.
On access, I speak from personal experience. I did not know how much of getting better after an operation was in the mind. I have been pushed through woods on my wheelchair and I have tottered on crutches, painfully and slowly, along farmers’ footpaths. Recently, I walked again on a hill. I was fortunate to be able to do this—to hear the birds and see our lovely countryside, and to get fresher air than we have in the city. It has speeded up my rehabilitation. I have had it all for free and done it on someone else’s land, but I am not alone. Millions of people, a minority of them perhaps mentally or physically ill but most fully fit, derive huge benefit and improve their well-being by accessing the country. In doing so, they are saving the NHS and the taxpayer a massive sum of money. Is there a cost-benefit analysis of this calculation? What assessment has there been—and, if there has not been one, will my noble friend have one done?
Has the benefit of well-being been taken into account in the cost of agro-environmental programmes in the UK, which is equivalent to £20 per hectare? The average in the EU is £100 per hectare. We have the lowest level of support of any member state. Many argue that support for farming, especially livestock farming in the hills and uplands where there is little opportunity for diversification, is the best means of keeping a balance between food production and care of the countryside. The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, reminded us that some politicians are arguing that that support should be reduced. Has the Minister assessed what the implications of that might be?
I hope to be fit enough to fish again later this year and I make no apology for wanting to do that. Country sports play a vital role in preserving our countryside. Not only do they help keep the rural economy good and create jobs, but they require our woodlands, heather, rivers, lochs and lakes to be in good condition. Everyone benefits from that; wildlife benefits from that. Country sports really do help farmers and fragile communities exist.
I will not talk about scientific research, which has been well covered. I recall only that I served on our EU Sub-Committee which looked at this. It found that we could and should do an awful lot more. Perhaps now is the opportunity.
As my noble friend the Minister plans for the future, will he consider looking at farming more holistically, as it is part of how our countryside is shaped? Rather than payments on a field-pattern structure, there should be a whole-farm approach to include woodland, so that the farmer can receive the right benefits for managing all his land in a way that we would like him to.
When my noble friend Lord De Mauley opened this good debate, he reminded us of the resilience of farmers—but that is also their own worst enemy. By showing such huge resilience and ability to adapt to what successive Governments have thrown at them, they deserve our gratitude and respect. But it has also allowed politicians to consider them as easy meat—that farmers will just carry on doing whatever politicians ask them to do. That should not be taken for granted in the future. Doubt has has been expressed, at least on the “Farming Today” programme at the weekend, that after all the changes Defra has gone through it no longer has the capacity to think through the myriad uncertainties and opportunities that now confront us. Can my noble friend tell us what use Defra will make of those in the farming community and others in the private sector with the relevant experience to help him find the right path forward?
My Lords, I add my thanks to those from other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for securing this important debate at this time of significant uncertainty for the agricultural and horticultural sectors. I also declare my interest in the register as president of the Rural Coalition.
As noble Lords have already stated, the agricultural and horticultural industry is an essential feature not only of the rural economy but of the wider national economy. It is often said in this Chamber that the defence of the people is the first duty of government, but I wonder whether feeding the people should be an equally primary duty. Establishing food security is an essential role of all Governments, never more so than in the current climate of global uncertainty.
The process of maintaining a thriving agricultural and horticultural industry is not simply about protecting commercial and economic interests. A thriving domestic food industry is a common public good and provides the bedrock from which we can secure affordable and nutritious food for everyone in our society. Farming of course plays a central role in the rural economy, providing jobs and bringing money and services into rural areas. It provides the backbone of the wider food manufacturing industry, and its important role in domestic supply chains will only increase if sterling remains weak.
Figures released last week by the Government show that nearly a third of UK children are now classed as living in poverty, unable to afford basic supplies. Food banks are being increasingly relied on by some of the poorest families in society. Of course, things could get worse if barriers to global trade rise and we do not have the capacity to rely on domestic produce. We can create all the life chances we like, but that is futile if families cannot afford to put food on the table.
It is for that reason that the Government must take steps to secure the future of Britain’s agricultural and horticultural sectors, particularly in the light of our impending withdrawal from the EU. If we are going to become more reliant in the future on domestic food supplies, we need to start the hard yards now. There are three things in particular that I hope Her Majesty’s Government will start planning for immediately, besides the inevitably protracted negotiations.
First, the Government must do everything they can to secure funding for the ground-breaking agricultural research which is already taking place across UK universities and research centres such as at Rothamsted Research, which I think two noble Lords have already referred to and which is just up the road from where I live in my diocese. Rothamsted has made significant contributions to research over the years and has the longest-running continuous scientific experiment, which began back in 1856. It is also at the forefront of cutting-edge agricultural research. Yet without EU support, Rothamsted Research faces serious challenges in securing funding for future long-term projects. In the last five years, Rothamsted scientists have received nearly £5 million in funding support from the EU. The loss of this research capacity would ultimately be to the detriment of the UK, not only to our status as a world leader in agricultural research but to our ability to increase food production to match demand in an environmentally sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner. What research centres such as Rothamsted urgently need is the security of government investment for long-term projects that will boost productivity in a sustainable manner. We cannot allow research funding to be controlled by commercial interests, whose priorities may just be short-term and perhaps ill-aligned with the wider common good.
On that note, I might add that any research funding must be directed towards agricultural practices that promote environmental sustainability. We need the agricultural technologies of the future to reduce farmers’ reliance on herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers, not increase it.
Secondly, there is access to labour, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has already referred. As noble Lords will know, the horticultural industry is particularly dependent on seasonal labour, which is invariably, for one reason or another, provided by EU migrants. The seasonal agriculture workers scheme was scrapped back in 2014, and I know many farmers are fearful about how they are going to find the workers to pick fruit and vegetables. Obviously, we do not know what form the eventual EU agreement might take when it comes to migration, but I hope that the Government would not be caught out and that appropriate schemes would be ready for implementation when required.
We need similar assurances for the agricultural research sector, which has consistently looked to the European Union to attract the very best research talent, as well as working in collaboration with research bodies across the EU. One-quarter of Rothamsted’s research staff are from the EU, and it is a similar story across other research bodies and universities. Again, I hope Her Majesty’s Government will be working on plans to ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of international agricultural and environmental research, regardless of eventual EU agreements. It is absolutely vital that our research institutions have access to the EU knowledge base, through the sharing of both information and personnel.
Thirdly, away from the EU negotiations, I hope that we can begin to see fresh blood injected into an agricultural industry that is ageing at an alarming rate. Unless a new generation becomes integrated into the farming industry, I fear the long-term sustainability of British agriculture and horticulture is in serious trouble, no matter how many new technologies or scientific advances we might develop. Research depends on a thriving industry, just as the industry depends on innovative research.
There is good news of course: we have record numbers of students graduating from agricultural colleges across the UK, which are some of the finest educational institutions in Europe. But these aspiring farmers struggle to get a foot on the first rung of the farming ladder, so prohibitive are the risks and costs involved. Apprenticeships will help, but I would like to see new entrants schemes established—but we also need to take steps to give an older generation of farmers the confidence and stability to retire with dignity and pass the farms on to new hands. That means direct retirement support, but it also means investment to create the sustainable rural communities that will be required in terms of housing, education and social care.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord De Mauley on securing this debate, especially as during a recent similar debate in the Moses Room it was stressed by those taking part, including my noble friend Lord Caithness, that a larger window for debate was required, reflecting the importance of the subject. Today’s debate is excellent news, therefore, and I welcome the opportunity to consider the situation facing our agricultural industry.
Both my noble friend and the Minister bring with them wide experience, not only in Defra but as participants in the industry. I declare an interest, as a member of the National Farmers’ Union, and as a former president of the Staffordshire & Birmingham Agricultural Society, where I had the pleasure of inviting my noble friend Lord Plumb one day. I am very sorry that he is not here today. We miss him—I have never actually taken part in an agricultural debate without the old boy in here, and we wish him well. Henry Plumb walked around with me; what I wanted him to do was to come to lunch, but I could not keep him away from the farmers, who regarded him as somewhat of a god.
With the result of the recent referendum still ringing in our ears, what better time could there be to explore the needs of the agricultural and horticultural sectors going forward? I voted to leave, as did many farmers and landowners. The road from Ashbourne to Derby was lined with leave posters on agricultural land. That I did not expect to see—nor did I expect the leave supporters to prevail. But we have what we have, and we must get on with it, and grasp wholeheartedly the opportunities and challenges which Brexit inevitably will bring.
We ignore the economic importance of the agricultural sector at our peril. It is the bedrock of the UK’s largest manufacturing industry—food and drink—employing 3.9 million people and being worth an annual £108 billion to the economy.
Currently, agriculture is not an easy business to be in. It seldom is but, particularly at the moment, times are very poor. Milk and meat prices are atrocious, cereal prices are not much better, and one of the few sectors to be fairly buoyant is poultry. My youngest son is a free range egg farmer in Lincolnshire. His business is profitable, but it is subject to vagaries and even small fluctuations in the cost of inputs and in the price of the product, which in turn is almost entirely driven by the decisions of the supermarket chains. He told me yesterday that 1 penny less per dozen makes a very considerable difference to his profitability.
Love them or loathe them, we badly need to grow GM crops on a commercial basis. I believe that they would revolutionise homegrown food production, reducing the costs of livestock, poultry and egg production dramatically, and thus assist those sectors to become profitable. What we now have to do—and I mean immediately—is to plan for life in the horticultural and agricultural industries and indeed in the rural community as a whole, after the cessation of the single farm payment when we leave the EU. A number of politicians have said openly that these sectors will not be allowed to suffer, but, to be quite frank, we have seen so many promises broken by our political classes, so can we really believe their assurances on this issue? Do they really know yet which direction they intend to take us in? Will they have the funding available to continue a basic payment and support through the Rural Development Programme or some such scheme? Will they continue to support the stewardship of our less favoured upland areas, where much of our sheepmeat production comes from? What will happen to our export market for sheepmeat to Europe, which is currently a substantial market for our sheep farmers?
I suggest that we need, like never before since the last war, a new and vibrant domestic agricultural policy, one that is both achievable and sustainable and, yes, profitable to the farmer and producer, giving them a fair return for a very high-quality product. Without adequate profitability, they cannot invest in the future. We have a growing population and declining food self-sufficiency, and these facts must be addressed and action taken. We need to promote British food products through better, clearer labelling. Our customers really care about traceability; they care about high welfare standards—and we have some of the best welfare standards for animals in the world, in this country. They care about quality and, alongside our agriculturalists, they care about our countryside.
The post-war Labour Attlee Government stated their aims for the Agriculture Act 1947 as,
“to promote a healthy and efficient agriculture, capable of producing that part of the nation’s food which is required from home sources at the lowest price consistent with the provision of adequate remuneration and decent living conditions for farmers and workers, with a reasonable return on capital invested”.—[
That is an admirable statement, and one upon which we now have the opportunity to modernise and build, but it should also include the word “export”.
My Lords, in our family my wife is the farmer and we farm in the beautiful dairy fields of north Devon. As other noble Lords have said, it is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of change that the referendum result will enforce on the rural economy. This will require not only a review of British farming policy but also a greater understanding of the critical importance of sustainable agriculture to our rural communities. The facts help to spell out the scale of the challenge. As noble Lords have said, food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing business with 7% of GDP. Farming received £2.4 billion in 2015 from CAP with an additional £4 billion allocated to the UK for rural development programmes between 2014 and 2020. On average, therefore, every farm receives an average of £13,000 per annum.
In the south-west, there are around 25,000 farm businesses—24% of all English farms—with 60,000 employees and, crucially, 200,000 indirect employees. We calculate that every farm supports around 25 other businesses. The referendum result is a huge opportunity for the Government to unlock the vast potential of a revitalised agricultural industry, to the benefit of not only the rural economy but national wealth. It is a real chance to ensure that agriculture is a sustainable and profitable long-term business rather than one that continues to require subsidy.
Opportunities are there in abundance. Take, for example, food production. Currently the UK produces only 60% of its capacity. With population growth and rising cheaper imports, this is predicted to drop below self-sufficiency by 2030. By supporting the great British food initiative and the long-awaited 25-year food and farming plan, production could achieve 75% of our requirements and, at the same time, increase food and drink exports around the world, which are currently this country’s fourth-largest export sector. This could create double the number of direct and indirect jobs, with obvious benefits to the whole rural economy. Importantly, many of the jobs would be attractive to our next generation.
In the south-west, we have seen too many young people leave the industry. We have, however, been market leaders in encouraging women to develop farm diversification enterprises. Here again, a rich prize can be achieved. Greater links between agriculture and tourism would also transform the prosperity of the south-west: amazing food equals amazing gastronomy plus beautiful landscapes equals happy visitors all year around.
To concentrate just on the importance of food production tells only half the story. Farms, through their land stewardship programmes, also provide a wide range of eco-system services. These include helping to improve water quality, being at the front line in helping to reduce flood risk and making a vital contribution to renewable energy supplies. Here again, this extends the influence of agriculture right across the rural economy and helps to ensure that rural services can be maintained.
So what must the Government do to ensure that agriculture and the rural economy can now reach their full potential? First, they can ensure that Defra is adequately resourced to meet the challenge of unpicking the European project while driving new front-line business. Secondly, they can ensure that, as a minimum, current funding for the agricultural industry is maintained with a guarantee that this will be ring-fenced for at least five years to allow confidence to be rebuilt and investment decisions to be made. Thirdly, they can ensure that there is not a shift of capital investment priorities from shires to metropolitan areas. Fourthly, they can rural-proof council tax, which is already significantly higher per head of population in rural areas compared with urban areas due to historic underfunding of rural services by successive Governments. In short, the challenge is for the British public to support the rural economy and our farmers, but will the Government respect the voice of the people? Again, in short, they must.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord de Mauley, for bringing this very important subject to our attention today. I declare my interests as recorded in the register. My husband owns a small farm in Worcestershire, for which we receive about one-thirteenth of the £13,000 average CAP payment. I am also co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming.
While I was thinking about writing this speech, my mind went back to my first jobs on farms in the mid to late 1950s—I cannot believe it was 60 years ago. I recall long hours of back-breaking work hand-weeding acres of kale in the pouring rain, spreading lime, slag and farmyard manure on the fields for fertiliser and milking cows in their stalls, initially by hand, but later by machine, at 6 am each morning and again 12 hours later. After I married, I would go strawberry picking in the summer and apple picking in the autumn. Those jobs are now taken almost entirely by our eastern European friends, and I wonder what has happened to the British workforce in this field.
Scientific and technological developments and, at times, sheer necessity have changed the world of British agriculture and horticulture from small, mainly family units, which were labour-intensive and marginally productive, to, with some exceptions, large, low-labour, high-capital industrialised units with some of the highest productivity levels in the world. We have looked west to Canada and the USA, where farmers have vast tracts of uniform land, and have tried to emulate their monocropping practices, albeit on a smaller scale, particularly in eastern England. However, Britain is a small country with hugely varying geographical features, climate and soil conditions, not necessarily suited to US methods.
A section of the scientific and farming community is asking us to emulate the States further by allowing genetically modified crops to be grown in the UK. Our farmers and horticulturalists have, with EU encouragement and education, made steady advances in reducing pesticide and fertiliser inputs to those deemed essential, and they have steadily improved yields. Here, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford—whom I call my friend; we have worked together for so many years—for her work with LEAF, which has certainly made huge advances.
There is a risk that if we introduce GM pest and herbicide-resistant crops, those advances will be reversed. This reversal is a feature of so-called Roundup-ready GM soya. Since an initial increase in productivity when GM crops were first introduced, crop yields have become highly variable and have in some cases declined, sometimes below pre-GM levels. More than 20 weed species have become resistant to Roundup, despite application rates that have risen nearly 15-fold since GM soya was introduced in 1996 to 122.5 million pounds in 2014, the latest date for which EPA figures are available.
To accommodate this, maximum residue levels for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in animal and human foods have been steadily increased, despite safety concerns. Major seed companies have now developed stacked varieties of soya that are tolerant to at least two herbicides, but I have very little doubt that Mother Nature will find her way around these, too.
Those scientists who develop GM seeds and plants seem to have totally ignored their effect on the environment, or on the health of humans and animals who consume the crops produced. They emphasise the accuracy and simplicity of their procedures while ignoring the complexity and interdependence that exists within the genome. We still do not understand fully the relationship between genes and the environment. To quote Jonathan Latham,
“a defined, discrete or simple pathway from gene to trait probably never exists. Most gene function is mediated murkily through highly complex biochemical and other networks that depend on many conditional factors, such as the presence of other genes and their variants, on the environment, on the age of the organism, on chance, and so forth”.
US regulators have taken the word of the corporations that their GM products are substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts without testing the veracity of their assertions. There have been very few truly independent studies of the safety of GM foods. We frequently hear, as my noble friend the Duke of Somerset said, that millions of Americans have been eating these foods for 20 years with no ill effects, but there have been no post-marketing surveillance or epidemiological surveys to prove this assertion one way or the other. American consumers have no way of knowing whether the food they are eating is GM unless they deliberately buy organic food.
We know that many studies have shown that glyphosate is strongly associated—I repeat, strongly associated—with increased birth defects, neurological developmental problems in children, kidney failure and cancer. It is genotoxic. It is believed to attack the beneficial organisms in the human digestive system, causing serious health problems, although much more research is necessary to prove this and other hypotheses. It is also a powerful biocide which encourages microbial plant pathogens and mycotoxins to develop.
There is a major concern about the threat of major widespread contamination of the countryside. It is clear that some GM crops pose a threat, but not all. The lesson of the Government’s own farm-scale evaluation trials should be heeded. The key one was that contamination was inevitable with some crops. Currently there is no effective system in place for post-marketing surveillance to measure the effects of GM releases, though both the UK Government and the EU have acknowledged the need for such monitoring. It could be said that there is no need for monitoring because there has been no commercial cropping, but if GM varieties of, say, oilseed rape, cereals or grasses are to be introduced, a robust monitoring system is essential.
There is a tendency to the simplistic view that agricultural science is the equivalent of genetic modification and intensive chemical farming. Far from men and women in white coats working in laboratories on trial plots, there are many agriecological, agriforestry and organic farmers who have an intimate scientific knowledge of the farming, ecological and environmental systems in which they operate. Far from the objectors to the currently available GM seeds being anti-science, I believe they have very valid scientific reasons for voicing their concern.
These advances are proving economically important to many family and small farms, as well as to many large-scale producers that serve local markets, UK markets such as supermarkets and, especially in the case of dairy products, the export market. The UK organic market, according to the Soil Association’s 2016 report, showed growth of 4.9% and a value of £1.95 billion. We are now on the threshold of major change in the way we are being encouraged to farm as members of the EU, changes that I hope we will embrace with enthusiasm and courage as well as a modicum of caution. I suggest to the Minister that he reads The Precautionary Principle (With Application to Genetic Modification of Organisms) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It provides a very balanced method for the application of the principle, though I must confess that the mathematics got the better of me. We are constantly reminded that we need to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050. That reminder is coupled with the statement that the only way we will succeed is by embracing genetic modification. I am neither anti-GM nor anti-science. If it could be shown that, instead of being beneficial solely to the great corporations that promote it, GM was both beneficial and safe for humans, animals and the environment, I would happily embrace it.
Currently, agritech strategy totally, and government funding largely, ignores the research and development needs of the sector. In what is undoubtedly our most important industry, the many years of neglect have resulted in the closure of land-based university departments and colleges with a loss of soil and plant scientists—those young people who, as we have heard today, the research establishments need to replace others as they retire.
British expertise in this field was once regarded as the best in the world. Just after the Second World War, we were 80% self-sufficient in food. That is now down to 62%. Unless we recognise the importance of agriculture, not just to the rural community but to the whole of our nation, we will be in danger of becoming the equivalent of a third world country. Commercialisation or development pathways for direct rural development are not particularly considered in funding allocations, or, if they are, they are not transparent. Alternative approaches that rural communities might consider more beneficial to the development of the rural economy are not set against any proposal and considered. It is not just a matter of deficit in transparency; it is a deficiency in thinking about how science can engage communities and, through that engagement, be more effective.
Our farmers have the skills, energy, ingenuity and motivation to be the best. Far from wallowing in doom and gloom, let us harness those assets and show the world what we can do. However, we need a supportive Government.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for tabling this timely debate. I am following very experienced and knowledgeable speakers and farmers. I am not a farmer but I own a pair of wellies and some well-worn walking boots. This morning I was out in the countryside very early, walking my dogs and enjoying the freedom of that countryside. I thank farmers for being good stewards and opening up the countryside to enable people to come and walk their way back to health. I wish also to highlight the contribution that our rural economy plays in economic terms now and in the future.
As we know, agriculture and horticulture play a significant part in our rural economy by contributing an estimated £229 billion to England’s total economy in terms of GVA. The agritech strategy will play a significant role in meeting the challenge of feeding a growing population and, importantly, will do so without damaging our natural environment. All partners, whether from the public sector, the third sector or industry, will initiate support for long-term investment by businesses and private investors, who will look at opportunities for working together, with potential for real growth in investment.
Getting more land back into production was a necessity many years ago, with land conversion, drainage and reclamation. The people who lived where I live, in the Isle of Axholme, learned from the Dutch experts such as Vermuyden, who brought some of this technology to Britain all those years ago, and we still see strip-farming being used today in my part of the world. This Dutch engineering expertise created a landscape and enabled farmland to be established and expanded, and we can still see that uniqueness today. Therefore we need more land to grow more food, and that continues with even more pace so that we will be able to feed more people. As we have already heard from previous speakers, we are at just 62% self-sufficiency.
Fast-forward from the then British agricultural revolution to the science and technology of today, which is helping our modern farming and food production raise its game and our position to become, I hope, a global leader once again. Lincolnshire is a major contributor in cereals, including the area known as the bread-basket of the UK, but we also major in food processing, food and drink manufacture and packing, retail, tourism and catering. To the south of the county we have horticulture, which is certainly not to be underestimated as an important player in Lincolnshire’s rural economy and the landscape. Even our sporting fixtures receive quality turf from Lincolnshire for major sporting venues, and I hope that everybody has heard about Lincolnshire Poacher cheese, which is one to be sampled.
Our colleges must re-energise and begin to reform, encourage and stimulate interest to make a serious case for a place in further and higher education courses, to reduce our green skills gap and make a case for new opportunities in this sector. It is about changing mindsets, because there is much more to agriculture and horticulture than many people think. Having worked in the agri industry, I have seen many changes in agriculture innovation and how it plays into achieving bigger quality yields, coupled with resource efficiency.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to our food production, because we have seen that, over the past 30 years relative to our major competitors, our skills gap is holding back on developing and using innovation and new technologies. All too often we see professionals retiring and experienced workers leaving. Therefore it is so important to fill, skill and reskill our new workforce now and for the next generation.
I am pleased that the Government have recognised and support—with funding—putting research into practice, with agricultural science and technology becoming rapidly one of the world’s fastest-growing and exciting markets. We are already seeing progress in nutrition, genetics, informatics and satellite imaging, which help drive major global investment in agritech. We want the UK to be leaders in this technology, with a vision to be part of not only increasing productivity but working internationally.
I have spoken to many farmers recently; in Lincolnshire we had the large Lincolnshire agricultural show and have other small and medium-sized shows. I have to say that the majority of farmers were for leaving the EU, for many reasons. I will touch on Europe for a moment. Previous reforms of the CAP on subsidies distorted the market, having the reverse effect from that intended, discouraging competitiveness among farmers. EU regulations have acted at times as barriers to innovation, merely acting as a safety net not available to other small businesses. Again, it is recognised by economists that this can inhibit innovation and change.
Leaving the EU allows the UK to build a new agricultural policy specifically adapted to our needs—one that is easy to understand and simple to administer, whereas for many people the CAP is very complicated, with late farm payments having an impact.
Our rural economy comes with many challenges, as well as opportunities. In Lincolnshire, small and medium-sized companies need connectivity. Previous speakers have mentioned superfast broadband. Luckily, North Lincolnshire was a pilot area for this and connectivity there is almost at 100%, which is really good. Other rural parts of Lincolnshire and the UK as a whole need that fix as quickly as possible.
The Government have set about their vision for the UK to become a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability, exploiting opportunities to develop and adopt new and existing technologies, products and services to increase productivity, thereby contributing to global food security and international development. I certainly agree about “getting smarter with science”.
However, this industry has another barrier—dealing with the diverse weather conditions, which, for example, have led to the flash flooding that we have witnessed all too often. It is imperative that the agricultural and horticultural sectors are given real support to increase flood defences, ultimately giving businesses the confidence to grow.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in today’s debate to highlight the importance of agriculture and horticulture to our rural economy. Agricultural science plays an important role not only in production but in encouraging the closure of the green skills gap. Finally, I would like there to be a firm dialogue with Ministers to identify how we can action these objectives in support of our agricultural sector. I very much welcome this debate.
My Lords, I am not a farmer. However, I like to think that I am a countryman. I live in an old farmhouse surrounded by someone else’s farm. It is farmed not by him but by a contractor. What I am about to say may be specific for that reason rather than applying generally throughout the country.
I understand that there are now far fewer mixed farms than there were 30, 40 or 50 years ago. A number of them have much less in the way of livestock or no livestock at all where they had it before, and there are now a number of very much larger arable farms—farmed, of course, with modern machinery and much less labour.
Some 70 years ago, from my observations there were far more butterflies and insects. In fact, back then, as a small boy among many others, it was great fun to catch butterflies in a butterfly net. I understand that that is now illegal and I suspect that that is because of the reduction in the number of butterflies in the country.
I have also noticed that there are far fewer starlings around. Noble Lords will recall that in the past when going to Trafalgar Square there were thousands and thousands of starlings every evening and in the mornings. Their number probably declined there as a result of the reduction in the number of horses in central London. However, their number has dropped in the country as well. I have not seen a large flock of starlings flying round at dusk for many years, and it used to be a very common sight. I suspect that it is partly because of the arable farming that goes on today.
When the crops were off, farms used to lie with spilled seed on the ground for weeks if not months. Today, around me, they are very often ploughed in within a matter of days of the harvest being taken off. There is no food left for birds or other wildlife.
We used to have swallows at home. The last time I saw a swallow at home it was some three years ago and it was lying on its back on the ground, because there are no flies around. The farmer around us regularly sprays his crops with insecticide. There are no flies for the swallows, for the swifts, for the martens or for the flycatchers, and others that live on flies. Consequently, there will not be the grubs in the ground for those that eat the grubs there. One of the only benefits as far as I can see is that we are no longer, as humans, pestered by flies in the summer, which must be a great advantage for horses and ponies as well. Farmers provide game strips because they want to increase the number of grey partridges, but where are the insects for the chicks to eat? They have all been sprayed out. The partridges will not stay in the partridge strips. They are adventurous; they go among the other crops and they die.
Hedges were taken out—those who did it probably got a grant. Other hedges have now been put back in, some in the same place and some in different places, probably with another grant. But they are cut mechanically and no longer cut and laid as they were in the old-fashioned way. It means that the bottoms of hedges are thin. There is no cover there; there is less cover for the birds to build their nests, and nothing for small mammals on the ground.
We used to have hedgehogs around us, lots of them, brought in every night in the summer by my dogs. They had to be rescued and freed again. Some three or four years ago, a crop of rape all around us was smothered in slug pellets, making the slugs poisonous to the hedgehogs. Since then, I have seen one hedgehog only.
We get a lot of moles in the lawns in our garden—an awful nuisance—but it is the only area around where there are sufficient worms for the moles to feed on, because, with no muck being put on the fields, there is nothing for the worms to eat. While we have been in the house—we moved there in 1974—there was one field of navy beans ploughed in because it was so wet that it could not be harvested and one field on which sheep were folded one year, but no organic compost has been put on to that land in all the time that we have been there. It means that when it rains heavily and there are no crops on the ground to hold the soil in place, it is washed off. That is the topsoil. What is left is the organic soil.
I know that we need to produce food and need modern farming methods, but they must be combined with keeping the standard and structure of the soil healthy for the future. If we lose the structure of the soil, I understand that it takes at least 100 years to produce an inch of good soil on top. What are we doing to this green and pleasant land? Many of your Lordships will have read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. It should be compulsory reading for every agricultural student. I am not against modern farming practices, but I wish that the farming community could manage to keep the soil in good condition to maintain our wildlife and our birds, which we need. We cannot afford to lose them.
My Lords, I add the thanks of those on these Benches to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for initiating this debate today. Post the referendum result, it is critical that the role of UK agriculture is championed. This debate has allowed Members on all sides today to do just that. As we have heard, our farmers provide over 60% of the food that we eat and it is vital that we have farmers keeping our food prices affordable, and a sustainable farming industry providing well-husbanded landscapes, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and the noble Earl, Lord Arran, memorably articulated, are the bedrock of tourism in many rural economies. They also deliver protection to wildlife and biodiversity and can help climate mitigation.
Now there are serious questions about how our farmers will trade in the EU and further afield, the levels of agricultural support they will receive, how they will access labour, what standards they will follow and the levels of investment in research and development. While the majority of farmers voted to leave the EU—and, like other noble Lords, I am equally surprised at the large number who did—few of them would deny that there are many challenges ahead. The most vulnerable are the livestock farmers, particularly in upland areas, and those on low incomes. They must be uppermost in our mind at this time.
Farmers now face a lengthy period of uncertainty about what the future trade arrangements will be. At the Norfolk show, the Secretary of State said that there was no plan B, so I am keen to hear what Defra has—as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, notably said—“cobbled together” in its plans to work with the team in the Cabinet Office that is being drawn together to co-ordinate negotiations. I ask the Minister specifically what economic advice Defra is getting to inform its position and from whom. The NFU is urging the Government to ensure access to the single market when negotiating withdrawal agreement. It is right to do so given that the rest of the EU countries presently take 60% of our farm exports.
As significant are worries about the level of support that British farming will attract outside the CAP. With UK agriculture receiving £3 billion per annum under the CAP, upcoming discussions about the future of direct support to British farmers will have far-reaching consequences. There is no doubt that there will be those in government arguing that farming is a marginal economic force, with core agriculture contributing less than 1% to GDP. Some prominent leave campaigners will still be arguing for the abolition of direct payments and that farmers should be left to float free on the volatility of the world food markets.
While we can and have today pointed to the contribution that UK farming makes to the economy by underpinning our food industry, there is no denying that when discussions about future support go ahead, Defra will need all its tenacity to fend off calls for more money for education or the NHS. My party believes that farmers deserve public support and subsidy for delivering a public good: both feeding us healthy food at a time of growing food insecurity and delivering environmental benefits. We will argue hard for continued support on those joint grounds.
There are real worries, too, about how we will access the non-UK labour vital to harvesting our crops, given the increasingly difficult ways that we will have to recruit a domestic workforce—something that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans remarked on. I would echo their comments and ask the Minister how the department believes that farming in places such as Lincolnshire—or closer to my home in Surrey, where we have a number of soft-fruit farms—will survive without the free movement of people that we have benefited from in the EU.
There is all this uncertainty and a risk of a bonfire of the directives, as the hard-won gains in animal welfare and environmental protection built up over 40 years, which Britain has often been at the heart of championing, are threatened by those in the industry who see leaving the EU as a chance to cut back on all that burdensome red tape and to ditch all that gold-plating, when in reality that red tape has created a level playing field for our farmers to trade fairly while raising standards of animal welfare and tackling the threat of catastrophic climate change and environmental degradation.
We on these Benches will speak out loudly on the continuing need for legislation to control nitrates and pesticides, to improve our water quality, to ban the use of nicotinoids—unlike the comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset—and all the hundreds of other pieces of legislation and regulation built up to ensure that farming delivers wider public goods.
The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, highlighted the role of agriscience in the future development of the sector, and I will turn to that in a moment. Before I do, I will make one point about the need for a clear strategy from the department at this time. We on these Benches have resisted calls made by the Government, who decided that they would divide the strategy into two: one for food and farming and one for the 25-year plan for the restoration of biodiversity. We would argue that after the referendum, when there is an absolute need to remind the general public of the benefits that farming produces so that we can ensure that they will support calls for public subsidy for farmers, it is no longer appropriate for the two strategies to be kept in isolation. Now that a pause has been put on the 25-year plan for biodiversity, will the Government reconsider and bring the two strategies together so that we have one strategy for farming which recognises its vital role in both producing the food we need and protecting the environment we rely upon?
I turn now to agriscience. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, was right to flag up this issue, but the referendum poses major challenges to agricultural research and development. Key figures in the industry say that it is of enormous concern both in terms of the level of funding and the loss of links and networks that have been built up over the past 40 years. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans highlighted the work of Rothamsted Research. I have been speaking to emeritus Professor Peter Gregory at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at Reading University. He reflected on how, back in the 1980s when the first framework grant was introduced, everyone thought that it was just a lot of bureaucratic nonsense. Some 30 years on it is fundamentally different, with everyone who is active in agricultural research linked deeply into EU networks. Under the current EU research programme, framework programme 7, the UK ranks second behind Germany both in the number of participants and budget share. How will we access those funds, consortiums and networks outside the EU? How will we continue to make progress in, innovate and develop our agribusinesses?
It is not just about replacing funds, which leave campaigners cavalierly suggested was possible when clearly that is even less likely now, given that the risks of exit warned of in the run-up to the referendum have begun to crystallise, as the Governor of the Bank of England said this week? It is about how we can replace the important collaborations that British science needs if it is to remain at the forefront of research. There are desperately pressing global challenges such as food security—an issue outlined by the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset. With our European partners, the UK has been pivotal in addressing those issues. We need to find ways to advance agricultural science with our partners in Europe and further afield in the years ahead.
Let us be clear what we mean by agriscience. It is not just about GM, although there are outstanding concerns which were eloquently outlined by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. GM is not a silver bullet and it is only one of a number of options in the toolbox. We have seen big advances in precision farming over the past four years. Highly specialised sensor companies have begun applying their technology to horticulture with image analysis and biological interpretation of what is coming out of the sensors. In due course his technology will roll out into mainstream agriculture if the funds for research can continue. A new suite of applications is coming along to take us beyond some of the pesticide controls that we have had to date.
We must not think about agriscience as just about doing things to nature, it is about working with natural resources, including the soil, the importance of which was eloquently alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. In recent years, universities and research institutes have begun to focus more on soil, including increasing research efforts and working with farmers to trial different solutions and provide evidence of what can work on our farms. These are vital programmes, one of which is the soil security programme led by the Natural Environment Research Council in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Defra and the Scottish Government. Future agriscience must support agro-ecological research, as we can achieve truly sustainable agriculture only if we respect and value the constraints of the natural environment. So, like others, I ask the Minister what assurances he can give about maintaining the funding for agriscience R&D and the vital collaboration to maintain our leading status once we are outside the EU?
There is no denying that there are challenging times ahead for farming. For those of us who argued that British farming’s future was best secured within the EU, our job now is to champion British farming and the huge benefits it can contribute to our country, our communities and our precious environment if it is properly directed and supported.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for initiating this debate today and for the insight and knowledge he and other noble Lords have brought to the discussion. As everybody else has been declaring interests, I feel that I ought to find one to declare. The best I can come up with is that I am the daughter of an official of what was then known as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I spent my years growing up in the rather beautiful Vale of Glamorgan. I could not have had a nicer place as my playground in my formative years.
I feel rather sorry for the Minister in having to reply to this debate. There are such huge challenges to be answered in the light of the EU Brexit vote, and I doubt whether he can say very much with certainty at this stage. However, things need to be said and clarified soon, to provide some reassurance for the 9 million people who live in rural areas, and specifically to those contributing to the food and farming sector, which is worth some £108 billion to the UK economy.
As a fervent remain supporter, I could use my time to score lots of political points about the hollow Brexit promises made to farmers during the campaign about protecting their interests and their lifestyles. To be honest, I am not sure that the farming community put too much weight on those promises. Whatever their motives—we have heard a number of different interpretations around the Chamber today—they, like me and other noble Lords, are left with a whole pile of questions about the practicalities of leaving the EU and what the future holds.
For example, what will happen to the 10,000 or so pieces of EU legislation which impact on farming life? Will the EU-funded rural payment scheme be protected? Will a future UK farming strategy have the same commitment to environmental protection, or will those commitments be discarded as being perceived somehow as unnecessary red tape? Will we still be in the single market, or will farmers have to find new markets elsewhere in the world—a real problem for us when we look at how much we rely on the EU currently?
Will we be able to impose higher tariffs on food imports that do not meet our welfare and public health standards? What will be the impact on the availability of seasonal labour if freedom of movement to the UK is restricted? What will happen to the unprofitable upland farms whose very existence is kept alive by the EU subsidies? As my noble friend Lord Clark and others have said, they also add so much to the landscape that attracts and builds a vibrant tourist industry.
Like a number of other industries, the farming sector relies on long-term planning and investment, so we cannot afford to have an investment freeze while we await the outcome of potentially two years of negotiation. Perhaps the Minister could clarify what work is taking place in the department to give some urgent guidance to farmers on these issues. Could he also clarify the status of the 25-year food and farming strategy, which we understood was to be published shortly? Is it now being revised in the light of the referendum decision?
Even without the complications of Brexit the farming community, as we have heard this afternoon, has been faced with some difficult challenges. Falling global prices and overproduction of milk have seen profits fall and many producers exiting the market. At the same time UK food self-sufficiency has dropped from 80% to 62% and continues to fall. If, as a result of Brexit, we are to be more isolated in the world, it is even more imperative that the Government give priority to ensuring that the UK has enough safe, affordable and nutritious food to feed its population.
Clearly, as noble Lords said, one part of that solution is to harness the outcome of research and technology to increase yields. We welcome the Government’s investment in agricultural innovation—the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, referred to a number of schemes. For example, there is the funding of three centres looking at crop health and protection, livestock technology and precision agriculture. Of course, these centres will help to build on our global reputation for agricultural innovation. Apart from helping to increase crop yields and improve pest control, they should also lead to better lives for our livestock and healthier animals. These developments will build on our scientific breakthroughs in such areas as nutrition, genetics, satellite imagery, meteorology and vaccination, which are already having an impact on farming efficiency. However, these initiatives must be set against the potential loss of EU-funded research projects such as Horizon 2020 and other EU innovation partnerships.
A number of noble Lords mentioned GM crops. We had a useful debate a few weeks ago about the opportunities and concerns arising from GM insects and GM crops. As I made clear at the time, it is important that all these developments are rooted in science and evidence, but are also combined with robust safety controls and underpinned by a fully informed public debate. That is why we are also supportive of the work of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and others who have sought to increase public understanding and raise public awareness of the ethical issues arising from techniques such as gene editing. Could the Minister confirm that the Government will work closely with Nuffield and others to ensure that our scientific advances are firmly rooted in public awareness and ethical scrutiny?
We also urge policymakers and innovators to focus their efforts on the concept of sustainable farming. There is increasing evidence of the damage that intensive farming can do to the longer-term viability of the land. The overuse of pesticides and the destruction of local habitats will have an adverse impact on yields. We need to value pollinators and bird life more, which spread natural reseeding. The hedges and woodland that make rural areas attractive places to visit and work also provide a healthy, balanced ecology which is resilient and abundant. We need to value that more. Our scientific progress must be centred on the essence of long-term, sustainable farming practice rather than short-term profits.
If we are serious about sustainable farming, we also need a bigger rethink about the behaviours we encourage as both producers and consumers. We have a generation who have no understanding of food production systems. Cheap food and obesity go hand in hand. We currently spend £6 billion a year on health issues caused by bad diets, with the cost to the economy as a whole set to rise to about £50 billion annually by 2050. While the introduction of a sugar tax on sugary drinks is welcome, we need a much bigger eating revolution. We need to make healthy food choices more appealing. Seasonality and provenance need to be valued more and consumers need confidence in robust labelling controls—with no more invented Tesco farms.
We must also bite the bullet that no Government have been prepared to face up to until now: large-scale consumption of animal protein is incompatible with sustainable farming and food security. Put simply, people must be encouraged to eat less meat. It is not the best use of our limited land resources and livestock contributes 15% to global greenhouse gases, making our Paris commitments even more unobtainable. At the same time, we must address the inefficiencies throughout the food chain that lead to an estimated 16 million tonnes of food waste being generated each year—a waste of energy and precious resources. Could the noble Lord confirm the Government’s commitment to sustainable farming combined with a focus on healthier eating and less food waste?
Finally, our strategy for innovation in the rural economy needs to be focused on the impact of climate change. We saw last winter how ill prepared we were for changing weather patterns, which resulted in the large-scale floods. We need a more profound rethink which goes further than building higher flood defences. On the one hand, we need an urgent plan to implement our Paris commitments to cut CO2 emissions. Sadly, I have to say that DECC has been noticeably slow in coming forward with any concrete proposals in this regard. On the other hand, we need to adapt to the effects of a changing climate on our landscape. Despite our growing frustration that we will never see a summer this year, we have to recognise that overall the trend to higher temperatures and reduced summer rainfall will increase the need for irrigation of crops and water for livestock. Some crops will be become less viable; other new species might thrive. At the same time, flooding of farmland could become more frequent and new pests and diseases could pose additional risks to trees, crops and livestock. Yet the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report in 2015 highlights that there has actually been a decline in investment in research and development on new approaches and technologies that would boost the resilience of agriculture and forestry to climate change. This seems particularly short-sighted, so could the Minister explain what steps are being taken to invest in solutions to this challenge?
I have been able to focus on only a few of the key challenges identified by noble Lords, but I think we have had an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, my noble friend has long been a great champion of agriculture and horticulture and I join other noble Lords in congratulating him on securing this debate. As his successor at Defra, I am very conscious of the positive legacy he has left us.
This has surely been an exceptional debate and the experience that your Lordships bring to it is invaluable. I am delighted and honoured to reply to it. My noble friend Lord Plumb was rightly mentioned a number of times. I am very much reminded that he has been a constant in so many people’s lives. In fact, I remind him now and again that he knew my grandfather very well.
I declare my farming interests as a recipient of CAP funds, a member of the National Farmers’ Union and as vice-president of the Buckinghamshire Agricultural Association and the Suffolk Agricultural Association. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that I am tenacious. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for her remarks but I shall be robust on matters in the department and more generally because I passionately believe that agriculture and horticulture have a crucial role to play in our rural and, indeed, our national economy.
Farming directly added almost £10 billion to our economy in 2014. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans described it as the backbone of the food industry. I decided that I would call it the seedcorn. Farming contributes to the UK’s £108 billion agrifood chain, which provides employment for one in eight workers. It is an industry renowned the world over for the quality of its produce and its high standards of animal welfare. Farming also dominates our landscape: 70% of UK land is classed as agricultural.
I am pleased that my noble friends Lord De Mauley and Lord Shrewsbury raised the issue of exports. The UK boasts some of the most diverse food and drink, ranging from Scottish beef to Yorkshire forced rhubarb, Kentish ale and Suffolk cheese. As my noble friend Lady Redfern is present, I had better include Lincolnshire Poacher cheese as well. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector with exports worth £18 billion. I assure noble Lords that very much uppermost in the Secretary of State’s and all the ministerial team’s minds is how we enhance exports to China and America. If I had longer, I would advise your Lordships on the many areas that we are working on.
This Government are absolutely clear about the importance of vibrant and sustainable rural communities that are built on a strong economy, making them great places to live, work and visit. We also champion the way of life and traditions that make our rural areas so special. Sustainable rural communities need to be dynamic, resilient and ready to adapt for future generations. We should not look to preserve them in aspic, but instead provide them with a framework of support within which they can flourish. Last August the Secretary of State published a 10-point rural productivity plan. It will help us to create thriving towns and villages where generations of families can open and expand their businesses, buy homes and educate their children at first-class schools.
One of our plans—mentioned by a number of your Lordships—is to improve broadband, mobile and transport connections. The public investment in improving broadband is nearly £1.7 billion. My department is working closely with DCMS and its delivery body, Broadband Delivery UK, to press for improvements in coverage. It may be good in Lincolnshire, but there are still counties that are not where they should be and we need to work consistently to improve it across the country. We should also be improving planning and regulatory conditions for rural businesses, creating a highly skilled rural workforce, creating strong conditions for rural business growth, and making it easier to live and work in rural areas, particularly by overcoming housing constraints and improving access to affordable childcare for working parents.
As a number of your Lordships—my noble friend Lady Byford, in particular—raised, tourism plays an important role in the English economy as a whole and a vital one in many rural economies. Many of our most iconic landscapes, which attract millions of visitors from around the world, are landscapes that have been, and continue to be, shaped by farming. I am so pleased to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, said: the Lake District would not look the way it does today without the presence of sheep and the careful management by hill farmers.
I also entirely agree with my noble friend Lord De Mauley about the importance of growth in the horticultural sector. The UK’s horticultural growers are embracing new technology to allow them to grow more while using less land. New growing techniques are being used for new varieties of apples, producing not 20 tonnes per hectare, but up to 100 tonnes per hectare. Meanwhile, growers use fewer pesticides because they use weather monitoring technology to determine when they need to spray. Our apples are the tastiest in the world and we are now selling this crisp, beautiful fruit into the middle of June. This is due to improved storage technology. The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, mentioned strawberries—another success story. In the 1980s, English strawberries were a treat for a few weeks of the year; the rest were imported. We are now nearly self-sufficient in strawberries and they are available from March through to November and, whatever the weather, for the whole of the Wimbledon fortnight. UK growers use various types of modern, innovative, hydroponic growing systems to produce fresh herbs and salad vegetables year-round. In addition to UK research and development, UK growers regularly visit other countries to learn from the technology used elsewhere and incorporate the best ideas into their own regimes.
British cut flower growers are just starting to see a renaissance in interest in local seasonal blooms. With continuing support from consumers, they can continue to invest in the best production techniques and produce even more. Our garden designers are the best in the world and the impact on our economy is enormous; it is worth more than £10 billion. We attract visitors from everywhere to our world-renowned gardens and centres of horticultural excellence. I must mention Kew and Wakehurst, for which I am responsible, as well as Wisley, Sissinghurst and Alnwick, to name a few. In addition, we lead the world in flower shows. Many of us will have wondered at the displays at Chelsea, not least the gold-medal winning tribute to Her Majesty by New Covent Garden Market.
As my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury has observed, farmers quite clearly operate in a global market. The future promises further change; yes, some opportunities, but some current uncertainty, following the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, to which all your Lordships—I think it is fair to say—have referred. I am fully aware of the overwhelming importance of this decision to our farming and horticultural industries. The Prime Minister has been clear that the negotiation for Britain’s future relationship with Europe will need to begin under a new Prime Minister, who should also take the decision about when to trigger Article 50 and start the formal process of leaving the EU.
To address the points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, Defra’s priority, as my colleague the Secretary of State has made clear, is to put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure we leave the European Union in the best way for Britain, which includes ensuring that Britain’s agriculture and horticulture sectors have a vibrant future. I assure noble Lords that Defra will play a very important role in these discussions. As we prepare to negotiate our exit, Defra will work closely with a new dedicated EU unit set up in the Cabinet Office to look at future support for farmers, future trade arrangements and the regulation of the food industry.
The Government will work with industry and the public to develop these new arrangements. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, agriculture in the UK is a devolved issue, but we will continue to work closely with colleagues in the devolved Administrations. When I attended the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg last week, I had some very cordial discussions with the Scottish Government Minister. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked about the economic analysis on Brexit that Defra will receive. The Government will work with industry experts and the public to take into account all the important issues, particularly the advice on economics, as she highlighted.
My noble friend Lord Caithness, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend the Duke of Somerset asked about the future of CAP schemes. As the Prime Minister has made clear, while the UK remains a member of the EU, current arrangements for food and farming, trade and the environment remain in place. EU funding arrangements continue unchanged. We are considering the implications for multi-annual schemes under the Rural Development Programme for England, including countryside stewardship, as a priority. We will advise stakeholders as soon as we have any further information.
In answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the existing rules of the CAP will continue to apply and inspections will be conducted as normal during this period. Looking to the future, the Prime Minister was absolutely clear that a system of agricultural support would be needed in the event of a decision to leave the EU. This will all have to be negotiated under the direction of a new Prime Minister, but it is vital that British farming is profitable and remains competitive. It is at the heart of the countryside, and it is the bedrock of the food and drink industry, which is Britain’s largest manufacturing sector.
My noble friends Lord De Mauley and Lord Jopling spoke about the dairy sector. It has been and still is a grave time, but there are some positive signs for the sector. The global dairy price has risen by 3.4% over the past year and dairy consumption globally continues to rise. To support dairy farmers through this volatility, we have extended tax averaging to five years, invested in technological advances to help farmers improve their productivity, and fought hard—I was at the Agriculture Council when this happened—to secure support from Europe for a £26.2 million aid package for our dairy sector. We paid this money promptly to provide some immediate relief. I should say that I am very conscious of all that has been said about the dairy sector, as my family has been steeped in the industry for so many generations.
The world’s population is expected to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Our world-class research and development has a role to play in contributing to global food security and international development. As has been acknowledged, the UK has enormous strengths in this area. A recent international survey placed us top in innovation in biosciences and environmental science. In the UK, as of 2012-13, the private sector is spending more than £500 million on research and development in agricultural technologies, while the public sector is spending around £300 million.
My noble friend Lord De Mauley launched the agritech strategy in 2013. Through that strategy, this Government are taking action to ensure that the products of our world-class science and research base are making it to our food and farming businesses. As my noble friend said, the Government have committed £160 million under the strategy to rebuild the pipeline of innovation from the research laboratory to the farm. To date, £77 million of government funding has been committed to almost 100 projects under the agritech catalyst. The projects cover every aspect of farming, from cereals production to horticulture and livestock. Examples of these research projects include the precision application of fertilisers using radar technology, and protecting crops without spraying insecticides by luring insects to traps coated in insect fungal spores.
Many of your Lordships raised the importance of the environment. I was struck by what my noble friend Lord Swinfen said about soil health. I spent last Friday on a farm looking at pollinator schemes because the national pollinator strategy group, for which I am responsible, is a key part of what we want to do in ensuring that we have the best environment. I assure the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, that black grass is prevalent in Buckinghamshire and is a very serious problem for us all.
This Government have also invested £80 million in four new centres for agricultural innovation, which will be enormously important. These centres are now open for business and I hope that we will soon see a positive impact.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked whether a future farming strategy will have the same commitment to environmental protection and about the status of the food and farming plan. The outcome of the referendum clearly provides an opportunity to consider a long-term vision for the type of environment, and food and farming sectors, which we want in Britain. I also noted the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on this. It remains essential that we have a thriving food and farming sector, with high environmental standards. We will continue to develop both our plans in partnership with the sector within this new context.
My noble friend Lady Byford and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned employment. The land-based colleges and universities provide vital training for those joining the industry. I welcome the recent creation of the National Land Based College, through which many land-based colleges are working together to enhance their offer to the industry. For our part, we are working with the industry to treble the number of apprenticeships in food and farming. My noble friend Lord Arran spoke of the enormous opportunities. I endorse his words and very much hope that it will be a huge success in his part of the world, the south-west. We also need to join up innovation across the farm gate. To bridge that divide, last summer the Prime Minister announced that we are setting up a new industry-led food innovation network, which I believe will be of great assistance.
The Government recognise that GM technology is one option that could help to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable. We want our farmers to have access to the best technology available, so that they can remain competitive and contribute to the growth of the rural economy. The Government believe that policy on GM technology must be science-based and proportionate, taking full account of the available evidence. We also recognise the importance of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about the need for a debate on new technologies to be informed and to take account of any ethical considerations.
A number of your Lordships raised climate change, which is one of the biggest challenges we face in our future. We are committed to meeting our target for reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and supporting the agriculture sector in reducing those emissions through investment.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, raised the matter of TB. We are taking strong action to deliver a long-term plan to eradicate the disease and protect the future of the UK’s dairy and beef industries. Our comprehensive strategy includes strengthening cattle testing and movement controls, improving biosecurity on farms and when trading, and badger control in areas where TB is rife.
Food security is another key point. Meeting the challenges of global food security will require a multipronged approach to improving production systems. This has been highlighted in the Royal Society report, and endorsed by the Foresight report. We are investing in food security. The Government invest £450 million a year in food and farming research and, as I mentioned, a further £360 million to support agricultural technologies. We are working with farmers, manufacturers and retailers to enable UK producers to grow and compete.
I re-emphasise the vital economic importance of British agriculture and horticulture, and this Government’s commitment to supporting its continued growth, especially through the use of science, in the future. Our country has a proud history of leading bioscience research and farming innovation, alongside a strong history of environmental land management. Farming and horticulture will continue to be the heartbeat of our countryside. For many of us, the British countryside goes to the very core of our identity and culture—the challenges of the seasons and the custodianship of the land. We owe much to the rural communities up and down the kingdom: our food, water, energy, landscape, recreation and indeed tranquillity. We ask much of them.
My noble friend Lord Caithness spoke personally of the countryside’s place in terms of both physical and mental health. Whatever the analysis, which I do not have to hand, I suggest to my noble friend that all these benefits are without price. The vibrancy of those communities is essential, and not only to the rural economy. I sense what all your Lordships have felt in this really striking debate—which has brought so much experience to bear—which is that what we owe to these communities and to our country is absolutely essential to our national well-being. I assure your Lordships that my energies, and the energies of Defra, are devoted to that purpose.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this debate so enthusiastically. I was struck by the high level of agreement between most of us, perhaps with the exception of the subsidiary debate on GM crops, which noble Lords will be relieved to hear I will not embark on now. Although the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, was a lonely Labour Back-Bencher, he and most of us on this side seemed to have a strong meeting of minds.
I did feel sorry for my noble friend Lord Swinfen. I do not know where he lives, but it sounds like the most terrible place and I feel very lucky to be able to say that it is not like that where I live. None the less, he makes an important point, which is why our agritech strategy emphasises the importance of meeting the challenges of a growing population without damaging our environment.
There is not time for me to thank each and every noble Lord by name, but my noble friend the Minister has summarised the debate in his usual competent way, saving me the trouble.