Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:35 am on 25th October 2018.

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Jack Ward and Helen Browning OBE gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 12:12 pm, 25th October 2018

Good morning and thank you for joining us. For the benefit of the written record, I would be grateful if you identified yourselves, starting with Mr Ward.

Jack Ward:

My name is Jack Ward and I am the chief executive of the British Growers Association. We operate in the fresh produce sector.

Helen Browning:

I am Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association and a very mixed organic farmer in Wiltshire, with a whole variety of other enterprises as well.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you very much. Ringing the changes, would you like to kick off this time, Dr Drew?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Welcome to you both. If this Bill is introduced in its current form, take me ahead 20 years. What will British growing, and in particular organic growing, look like?

Jack Ward:

There is terrific potential for us to increase our market share. At the moment, we are about 50% of fresh produce, but that is enormously variable. On tomatoes, we only do about 20% of production; on pears, it is about 27%. There is a terrific opportunity. There is an appetite to buy British and an appetite from the retailers to buy British. We have the technology and the skills. There is an opportunity to increase our consumption, so from a fresh produce point of view we just see opportunity ahead. It is just a question of capitalising on that opportunity.

Helen Browning:

The Bill is the only bit of the jigsaw that we currently have and we are pinning a lot of our hopes and fears on what it contains. The other more detailed policy that will come through will largely determine whether the powers given in the Bill are used in the right way and will lead us into a great future or not. We are also waiting for a food plan, which will be very important in terms of the market and the market pull. We do not know what the trade environment will be.

The Bill gives some new powers, which is helpful, but it does not set out anything other than the skeleton of what might come. There is a huge amount of devil in the detail that needs to follow, and we need to join all of those things up before I can properly answer your question. I can say what I would like to see in 20 years’ time, but I think the Bill gives us the “may”s, not the “will”s, and a lot more detail needs to follow.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q What specific improvements to the Bill would both of you like to see?

Helen Browning:

The areas where I am still unclear in terms of the public good section is whether we are really focusing enough on soil. We talk about land; we do not talk about soil. We talk about natural culture or natural heritage; we do not talk about wildlife and biodiversity. We need to be a little more specific about some of those areas. Given that we do not yet have any sense of what might happen in other places around a food plan, I would like to see public health mentioned within the Bill as a public good. That would be very helpful.

There is an interesting split: there are some provisions for the support of public goods, and those are very welcome, although they need to be expanded. We then also have a lot around productivity, which could be helpful, but again the devil is in the detail in terms of how we are lining up and looking at those productivity measures.

Are we looking at the environmental and social impacts of what we are doing when we talk about productivity? How do we define that? We need to make sure that we are not setting up some new great initiatives in one place, maybe on the fringes of the field, but not thinking about the overall industry and how it will operate, and how we are going to green the whole of farming and the food system over the next 20 years.

There are still some improvements that need to be made, but, as I say, it is the way this will be interpreted, particularly the definition of what we mean by productivity, that we need to look at hard.

Jack Ward:

The first thing to say is that the fresh produce of industry is largely operated outside of the common agricultural policy; it has had very little support over the past 40 years. Some of the things in the Bill are definitely positives. We welcome the continuation of the producer organisation scheme, and we look forward to conversations with DEFRA and the industry to see how we can improve the operability of that scheme. We all recognise that it has its shortcomings, but, going forward, it is a real opportunity.

The productivity piece is interesting. Within fresh produce we are always interested in how you reduce the risk of growing some crops and how you increase and improve the quality of those crops. The other interesting piece is around supply chain fairness. I know that is still to come, but obviously when you deal with multiple retailers and 85% of everything we produce goes through the hands of 10 people—possibly soon to become nine—how you address that imbalance between a large number of relatively small businesses and some enormous businesses is a constant source of tension.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

For the benefit of our witnesses, I should explain that the Minister is not being discourteous. He has had to leave to present a Bill on the Floor of the House, but I am sure he will be back before the end of this session.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

Mr Ward, I represent the Vale of Evesham, so many of the producers in my constituency are members of your association. We, of course, produce the best asparagus and tomatoes in the world—sorry, Sir Roger, I am going off topic there, but the legislation is hugely important for many of my constituents.Q

You have mentioned that overall you welcome the Bill, but you have both said that the devil is in the detail. What specific improvements would you like to see in terms of the relationships between Government and the producer organisations? Secondly, you talked about the supply chain and the imbalance between primary producers and the large distribution processes. What specifically would you like to see change? Improved data, information flow and transparency have been talked about, but how would that improve things?

Jack Ward:

In terms of the producer organisation, going forward, first we want a single scheme if we can possibly achieve it so that we have a common scheme in all the devolved areas, so that we have not got a different scheme in Scotland from the one that we have in the UK. Within the producer organisations, if you take soft fruit, there is a massive amount of production in Scotland and a lot of them are members of English-based POs. That is really important.

We want the principle of match funding to continue. That has been a really valuable part of it—the idea that the farmer or grower puts in £1 and the taxpayer puts in £1. That binds the two together in a common aim, which is really important. We want a fairly thorough review of the scheme. We need to get into the nuts and bolts of it and cut out the superfluous bits. From conversations with the Rural Payments Agency, it knows as well as we do where all the wrinkles are, so there is a meeting of minds there. We want more flexibility around the way the money can be invested. Sometimes, it is too restrictive and gets in the way of making sensible things, rather than having to spread it across several different areas.

The other thing is to make it more UK-centric. At the moment, it is set up for a southern European production-marketing model. As I have said, we deal with nine customers, and they operate in a very different way from the rest of the EU. We are constantly in a position where we are looking over our shoulder and second-guessing how the EU might interpret what we are doing in the UK. We are worried. The RPA is worried. We need to deal with that.

In terms of supply chain fairness, there needs to be a better meeting of minds between retailers and producers. I will give you a simple example. At the moment, we are right in the middle of the English apple season, but we are overwhelmed with southern hemisphere fruit that has been over-bought and is dominating the market—and probably will until Christmas. We have mountains of fruit that needs to move, and yet there is all that southern hemisphere fruit. Eventually, that cascades into difficult conversations between suppliers and retailers. Often, it is about more clarity between the two sides, so we understand what is going on and how we can make the system work better.

Helen Browning:

If I can come in on that, I welcome the focus on the relationship between the farmer and the first buyer of produce. We often pin all the woes of the world on to the retailers, but most farmers and producers deal with a processor, not a retailer. Historically, there is a blame game that goes on in that relationship. The processor will blame the retailer, the retailer will blame the processor, and it will all start to shift up and down the chain. In my experience, the processors, which are often very large businesses, have not been keen on farmer co-operation, unless it is their own supply chain. If we are going to encourage more farmers to get their act together, market well, grow and plan, we need that relationship to work better and that collaboration to be welcomed by the processors and not crushed, as has often happened in the past.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q It is good to see the British Growers Association here, because yesterday, in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is also taking evidence on the Bill, we had representatives from the dairy sector, the red meat sector and the ornamental horticulture sector, which was slightly odd, because the answer to whether they should be covered by the Groceries Code Adjudicator was mostly, “No, we don’t care about that”—well, of course they do not, because they are not grocers. There was an obvious gap with you not there.

I have tabled an amendment on public health, which I hope that you will welcome. It talks about measures to increase the availability, affordability, diversity, quality and marketing of fruit and vegetables. It also talks about pesticide use and antimicrobial resistance—the overuse of antibiotics. Some environmental organisations have said that they do not support the public health goal. I wonder whether we could do more, other than putting it in as a public good, particularly around procurement. In France, for example, there is a rule that 50% of public procurement should be locally sourced or organic produce. Could we do more on that front in the Bill?

Jack Ward:

There is a fairly urgent need to promote the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables—that is a given. It would be incredibly helpful to have something in the Bill that enabled us to do that, although I am not quite sure where responsibility ends for DEFRA and begins for the Department of Health and Social Care. Within the industry, there is certainly a lot of interest in how to extend the message about health and vegetable consumption.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q It has been said that since anything can happen to food during processing, why reward it at the produce stage? That is what I am trying to get to grips with. Fruit and veg are incredibly healthy, but how do we ensure that they reach the consumer in a healthy form without being adulterated or turned into something with very little nutritional value?

Helen Browning:

That is why we need to look at this alongside the food plan that is coming through. The two things need to work together. We need to grow a much wider diversity of fruits, nuts, vegetables and other crops on our farms; dietary diversity is a big factor, because we eat far too much of far too few things. However, it needs to be married with the market pull end, which is achieved through things like public procurement. We need to ensure that food is not being ultra-processed. Otherwise, however good it was at the start, it will not be very good by the time it gets to our plates.

I want us to look at the whole picture, because at the moment we are only looking at part of it. We want to see health addressed in the Bill, because we are not seeing it being addressed anywhere else. If we had an absolute assurance that it would be dealt with in other places, and that we were looking at a farming future based on public health, we would not be lobbying quite so hard for it in this place.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q May I also ask about whole farm systems? I have an amendment that relates particularly to agro-ecological and organic farming, which I am sure the Soil Association would support. You mentioned the concern that the approach might be piecemeal, with people doing things round the edges. How important is it to support a whole farming system, as opposed to focusing on individual public goods?

Helen Browning:

In my view, whole farming systems such as organic farming or agroforestry are probably the most efficient way to support the public goods that we want, because they actually deliver them as an inherent part of the food production system. That is why I have been an organic farmer all my life: I do not want to be farming intensively in one place and trying to produce public goods in another. The integrated approach gives us a balance of food production with environmental care. We will still need to do special things in special places so that we can preserve species, manage floods and so on, but the agro-ecological approach should be at the core of our farming system. We know that we need to start moving away from pesticides and antibiotic use, and towards encouraging rotations and using less manufactured nitrogen.

I welcome the steer on climate change, which is incredibly important. We need to soak up more carbon in our soils and in our trees. We need farming systems that deliver those things, but at the moment that is not coming through strongly enough. It will be financially and physically the most practical way to do it, and it will give people a vision of the future that we can all sign up to. A drive towards using the new technology coming through, as well as traditional techniques, would feel really exciting.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

Q I declare an interest: I am a conventional farmer and an organic farmer, and I own fresh produce factories. I have been involved in farming for donkeys’ years.

Part 6 of the Bill is about fairness in the supply chain. Several retailers have moved to central direct buying, effectively reducing the role of contracted packers. That has been part of the problem with the oversupply of apples this year. The industry is already changing: instead of producer organisations having 12 months’ integrated supply, the supermarkets are now trying to do it themselves. How will the Bill rebalance that? If you do try to rebalance it, you must maintain the natural effect of the market—how else will you control supply? What does the Bill actually do to give real powers of fairness between the power of the supermarkets, where they are already squeezing out the existing supply chain?

Jack Ward:

Growers understand that they are operating in a very competitive market and that is the way the world goes. We also have to recognise that we only supply for a part of the year. For growers, with the exception of one or two crops, it is a seasonal operation. Some growers are growing overseas and filling that gap. Generally they understand exactly how the supply chain works. I think I am right in saying that the Minister is charged with developing something around supply-chain fairness in the future. I think it is just about getting a better understanding between the two sides about what supermarkets need and what growers can supply.

This year has been a good case in point. We have been through a really difficult growing season with a very cold start and then a very dry middle period. It took quite a long time before people appreciated that what was coming off the farms would be different to a normal year, as a result of those weather conditions. It is about getting that understanding, acceptance and realisation that things might be different. You are not producing off a spreadsheet. Even if your spreadsheet says you will get “x” volume of “y” specification at “z” price, the season can interrupt that. There needs to be a grown-up discussion about how to accommodate that, rather than buyers turning their backs and saying, “Okay, we will have it in from America,” or wherever.

Helen Browning:

I will just add a bit more to that. There is also a need in the wider industry for a real culture change around co-operation and how we work together, both through the supply chain and between producers themselves. In some areas, we have better integration and better co-operative working. In the “Health and Harmony” document, the co-op that I belong to—OMSCo, the milk suppliers co-operative—was cited as a very good case study, and that is absolutely right. Differentiating markets, being very clear of our purpose, being inventive and entrepreneurial, and working well in partnership will all stand us in good stead.

There is a real need to look at transparency and information clarity, which we have already talked about a bit today. I also want to mention the opportunity to shorten supply chains and create new markets through investing in the kind of infrastructure that we need, in order to allow farmers and growers to deal more directly with the consumers themselves. We need to do that efficiently, so that we do not end up with white vans and lots of capital investment on every farm. But I think there are ways of doing that through processing hubs and good distribution networks, and that could be revolutionary in ensuring that fresh food is available affordably and does not always have to go through the normal retail chains.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

Q Just to follow up on that point, with the likes of Amazon and eBay, or maybe even some internet or app-based system we cannot see yet—I remember suggesting it years ago to supermarkets, and they were furious, because they owned retail sites and did not want to hear about it—you could actually just about bypass normal retail chains completely. Mr Ward, you spoke about the Asda-Sainsbury’s tie-up. That is inevitable, because they think there is a much bigger competitor coming down the road, is there not?

Jack Ward:

Yes. I think the fear from a grower point of view is that it just drives the price even lower. The real concern, if they are going to compete ultimately on price, is what that will do to the pressures in terms of trying to produce food in a sensible, balanced and economic kind of way. It does open up new opportunities, undoubtedly, but the big issue is whether it just moves even more of the grocery market into the discount sector. I think that is the real concern.

Helen Browning:

The problem with the discount sector is not that it pays less to farmers, but that they are taking less margin themselves, and therefore the mainstream supermarkets feel they need to match those prices, and they squeeze harder. I actually think that a lot of the discount sector can be very helpful for farmers. Ocado and Amazon can work well for smaller-scale producers. As a producer myself, I sell a lot of stuff through Ocado, because it is very straightforward. They will list stuff very easily and they can have more SKUs. Therefore they can offer a much wider range of produce than your mainstream supermarket can, so there are opportunities there. The threat is in the competitive pressure that is exerted on those big four supermarkets, which are still where the majority of food is sold.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

Q Going back to what Kerry McCarthy was asking, do you believe that the production of a comprehensive food strategy could help inform any future regulations that will give effect to the Bill, in order to enable or encourage the production of sustainable and healthy food?

Helen Browning:

I would like to think so because that is the other bit of the jigsaw. We are looking here at the production end and particularly at the support elements for farmers. We are not looking at the trade environment, which is going to impact hugely on this, and we are not looking at what is going to happen at the market end or at what will happen through the rest of the supply chain.

In an ideal world, we will be looking at all these bits of the jigsaw together and seeing how they fit together. It is very hard to get this bit of it right with only that base camp in terms of how we will affect farmers’ support into the future. We have no idea of the levels of support that there will be, and that is obviously a factor. The need for it will be influenced by what happens to the trade environment and the market more widely.

It is kind of tricky to do this. What I would ask, given that we do not have that clarity, is that we give broad powers and start to think about the targets. Introducing targets into the Bill would actually give us some destination point and allow the powers to be used in the right way, depending on what else comes through over the next year or so.

Jack Ward:

One of the criticisms I have picked up from talking to producers is the lack of reference to food and the promotion of food in the Bill. I think that the food strategy gives the Government the opportunity to redress that issue and spell out a vision for the food industry in the UK. It is our largest food-manufacturing sector; there are opportunities there—there are economic opportunities—and we seem to be at a really good point to take advantage and capitalise on them. I think the food strategy could be hugely influential and send a really important message of confidence throughout the industry.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

ClauseQ 1 allows for financial assistance to improve horticultural activities. What specific things would you like to see to support fruit and veg growers?

Jack Ward:

There is a list of things. Research and development is massively important—there is no access to ready-made solutions for the problems faced by a lot of relatively small crops, so they are invariably looking for solutions to problems, and research and development is absolutely vital.

There is also capital investment, and a good case in point at the moment is the replacement of seasonal and casual labour. How are we going to manage that? We are going to be looking at robotics—I think that the timescale is 10 years out, but that kind of thing is going to be really important. On skills and labour, which follows on from the whole seasonal labour piece, we probably need to be investing more into labour and encouraging more labour from UK sources for both seasonal and—more importantly—full-time activities.

There is also the issue of productivity and help with technical support. Often, growers are faced with a barrage of issues, from health and safety to GSCOP issues. Their ability to absorb every technical wrinkle that they need to know can be quite limited, so I think technical support would be pretty important, too.

Helen Browning:

I agree that there is no real clear provision in the Bill for support for R&D. I ask in particular for more support for farmers to do their own research. The work we have done with things like Innovative Farmers has been incredibly successful and very cost-effective in getting both knowledge transfer and trials done more professionally by farmers themselves.

Quite rightly, we talk a lot about fruit and veg, but agroforestry, which might also take us to biomass, nuts and timber production—there was a question in an earlier session about forestry—could be a hugely helpful way of squaring a number of circles. I would like some provision for that.

On the point about skills and advice, it is important to have good advice to assist farmers through the transition they will have to make, but it needs to be de-linked from companies that are trying to sell products to those farmers. Too much advice that farmers take is from companies that have products to sell. We need an independent advisory service available to farmers, so that they are assisted through the big changes they will have to make. We think that farmers have all the skills they need, whether for horticulture or for the delivery of public goods, but a lot of farmers—I am one of them—will have a lot to learn, and we will need some help with that. We need good, independent support.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

Q The existing EU fruit and veg producer organisation regime, while helpful to growers, has flaws and has led to legal disputes. What features would you like in the new scheme?

Jack Ward:

Quite a lot of the existing scheme is well worth carrying across. Some of the disciplines that it imposes are good, such as the requirements for a formal structure and for collaboration. The match funding element is good. There is not too much wrong with the categories under which you can claim grant aid, although there are issues about what proportion of the grant falls into which category.

The area that probably needs most attention is the issue around marketing: what is the interpretation of the PO role in marketing? I think I mentioned that we have reached a situation where, when doing online tendering, it is quite difficult for someone to argue that they have done the correct proportion of their activity on marketing when, in fact, it took somebody a morning to prepare an online tender, they won the tender and that was the end of it for a year. It is a question of looking at it and making it more UK-centric, reflecting what happens in the UK as opposed to what happens in some parts of Europe.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Q I am conscious that the immigration statement in the Chamber has overrun and the Minister has been detained. Ordinarily, I would draw the session to a conclusion immediately, but there is two-way traffic: the Committee has the opportunity to ask you questions, and you have very kindly come in to answer them; but it is also an opportunity for you to bend the Minister’s ear. If there is anything that either of you would like to place on the record, please do so.

Jack Ward:

We welcome the provisions on producer organisations. We look forward to a constructive discussion about how we can build on where we have got to and develop something really good that works for growers and consumers in future. I am looking forward to having that discussion. I hope it takes place—it would probably be in several months rather than immediately, but it is really important.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

If you go out of here and kick yourselves and think, “Oh gosh, I wish I’d said that,” you can always write to the Committee.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Does Helen Browning want to comment on organic conversion? One of the big barriers to farmers getting into organic farming is the conversion period when the produce is not organic but they are restricted in the products they produce. Is it a good use of public funds to support people who wish to convert to organic farming?

Helen Browning:

Yes, I would like there to be an organic conversion scheme and ongoing payments for organic farmers in recognition of the public goods that they continue to deliver. That is a very cost-effective way for money to be deployed. It would be really helpful.

We are languishing right at the bottom, now, of the European league table in terms of the amount of food that is produced in this country that is organic, compared with our neighbours. There is so much potential, with what is happening in places such as Italy. Italy is 15% organic now. It is remarkable: in public procurement schemes in Copenhagen, 75% of the food must be organic that goes into schools and hospitals. So many countries have really got behind it, and it is a really good vehicle for change, so I would like to see that as a key part of the proposition going forward. That will help to move us in that direction of net zero emissions, biodiversity regenerating, diverse food supply and getting rid of pesticides. I think all of those things would be hugely helped if we were to give more support to the organic sector.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q How self-sufficient are we in organic foodstuffs? I know there are some things we cannot produce in the UK.

Helen Browning:

We are really struggling in some areas in particular. Arable crops and protein crops for feed, in particular, are in very short supply in the UK. We could triple or quadruple the amount we produce—probably more than that—and still not meet the market demand here; so there is a big opportunity.

It does require some structural changes for those big arable farms that are currently probably not thinking about it. They need to be thinking about reintroducing, probably, livestock to their farms. It would be a jolly good thing in a lot of those farms in the east of England. So there are some structural issues, but I think a real focus on encouraging more farmers in, where there is a clear market, would be really helpful. You have got to make sure it is market-led, clearly, but in some areas the market is massively under-supplied. There are great export opportunities too. I think it would be a key part of a vibrant future for the countryside if we were to get behind organic farming more thoroughly —and agroforestry, as I mentioned earlier.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

Q As you said earlier, the devil is in the detail. There is very little detail in the Bill at all. Most of what will come out of the Bill will be in regulations, and there is very little written into it about consultation. Would you feel more comfortable about having more consultation written into the Bill so that you will know that, when the regulations are coming up, your concerns and those of other people involved in the industry will be taken into account?

Helen Browning:

I think it would be helpful because we are in a situation where we do not know so much of what is going to transpire over the next year or two. I think that there will be a huge amount more policy making to do, and this is just the starting point. What we must make sure of, with this Bill, is that it does not close off avenues that we may need open to us, depending on what happens to trade and the Brexit deal itself. It is base camp, and as everything else starts to become a little clearer, I think more consultation, as we start to look at the regulatory framework, would be really helpful.

Jack Ward:

From our point of view, I think there is a case for saying that the lack of detail is not a bad thing, given the timescale we are working on and the need for this Bill to be in place before the end of March. The worst thing would be to rush forward with schemes and solutions that had not been properly thought through. We work very closely with DEFRA on the development of schemes, and in our experience it is really important that those who are going to operate them at ground level are part and parcel of the development process, because we have seen just how difficult it is to implement some of the EU schemes. God forbid that we go around the buoy of producing schemes that are inoperable, having designed them ourselves. I think there is an onus on all of us to work together to make sure these things work for the benefit of everybody involved, from taxpayer to grower, through to consumer.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Q Mr Ward, you have touched on public procurement, and you gave some examples of procurement in other existing EU countries. As we come out of the EU, do you think there is scope for this Bill to make provision for us to be much freer as to public bodies procuring locally? Should that be specified in the Bill?

Jack Ward:

Yes, I think public procurement would be really helpful; but we have to recognise that we only produce a percentage of the total requirement. Inevitably, there are periods of the year, or there are crops, where it is not that easy to get locally grown produce, simply because it does not exist. We need to factor that in to our thinking. It is all very well to say, at a design level, “Yes, wouldn’t it be great if you specified that it had to be British?”, but eight out of 10 tomatoes are imported, so, by definition, they will not be local.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Q Ms Browning, you might want to come back to procurement, but my question relates to your role in the Soil Association. You used the word “biodiversity” earlier. Do you think there is enough in the Bill to allow for R&D and greater understanding of soil composition? My sense is that we have much less understanding of the biology and chemistry of our soil than we do of many other areas of life. Does the Bill facilitate a greater understanding among farmers of what is going on in their land?

Helen Browning:

I was surprised that soils were not mentioned explicitly in the list of public goods. As I said earlier, it mentions land but not soil. You are right that, on an R&D front, there is still a lot to learn on the biology side, but there is a lot that is already known that could be implemented quite quickly.

I was surprised because the Minister has been so vocal about soils. I would like to ensure that it is absolutely core within the Bill, that we are specific about that and that we start to set ourselves some targets for reversing the decline in our soil, particularly in the organic matter levels in our soil.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

Q My question follows on nicely from your last point, because as you say, the Minister has emphasised the importance of soil health. Measures to promote it are covered by the purposes of clause 1(1)(c) —I think it is in the additional provisions. What sort of specific interventions do you think would best deliver improvements in soil health?

Helen Browning:

Jack may want to come in on this as well. Generally, it would be about moving into more rotational farming systems, which is usually integrating grassland with growing cover crops. Reducing tillage can sometimes help, although it is not always the way through. Some of the agroforestry opportunities are there too. Rotational farming systems usually improve soil health.

Another is making sure that manures and other inputs are going back on to the soil. One of the things that I have a complete hysteria about is the burning of straw for fuel, when it should be going back to the land—that carbon should be going back to the land. It is about making sure that carbon-based inputs are being recycled into our soils and that we are not damaging those soils by over-heavy machinery, which is a big problem—I am looking forward to the days of little robots running around doing our work for us, rather than all the great machines that are crushing our soils to death—or about leaving soils bare over the winter or even during the summer months.

There is a whole host of well-known factors. A lot of those come together, obviously, within an organic farming system, which is demonstrated to have much higher levels of soil organic matter on average, which is the key indicator that we are looking at in our soil. We know how to do some of those basics.

Moving towards targets for soils at a farm level is difficult, because every soil type is different and will have different capabilities, so we need to be careful about how we use the metrics. We know enough about what husbandry methods we need to be encouraging, however. Good mixed farming is a good place to start.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

Q I have two questions. First, for Mr Ward, with the difficulty in getting a seasonal workforce here nowadays, which we can expect more of in the future, does moving away from subsidising food production to supporting public goods make the production of fruit and vegetables more or less economic? What impact do you think that will have on overall volumes?

Secondly, for the Soil Association, I met with your associates in Edinburgh, and they suggested that part of the problem with food security is the lack of security of supply of things such as fertiliser, and that true food security depends on a supply chain. Is there anything in the Bill that suggests to you that food security issues are being addressed?

Jack Ward:

Most horticultural production falls outside the CAP, and traditionally it hasn’t been supported. It is very much about what sort of income you can generate from that production. I think that changes in the CAP and in funding, and the switch to public goods, probably will not impact that very greatly. The demand for seasonal labour will be there all the while people are sufficiently confident to keep investing in production in the UK.

Jack Ward:

One of the big issues about the availability of seasonal labour is the continuing investment in production in the UK. What is happening at the moment is that, because of the uncertainty, everybody is just holding back on what they are prepared to invest and what they are prepared to do in the future. The last thing we want is to see some of that production move to where the labour is, whether in another part of Europe, northern Africa or wherever it happens to be.

Helen Browning:

There is lots of talk about food security, and it is used in a number of ways by a number of people. I do not think food security is the same as saying that we need to produce it all here; sometimes food security might be sourcing from a number of different places, because they might not have the same climatic disaster at the same time. It might be about storage. I think that we need to use that phrase with some caution.

At the same time, the Bill de-links the production of food from the funding that will come to farmers—that is a very important dislocation that is being made. Currently, if you are in receipt of public money, you are required to produce food, effectively. You will no longer be required to do that, as I understand it from the Bill. The import of that needs to be thought through clearly. I think it is the right approach, because I do not think you should force farmers to produce food that people are not paying an adequate amount for—they would be running loss-making businesses. Over time, we need to take a view as to what sort of food system we want, how much food we should produce here, and how much we are prepared to offshore our environmental or social responsibilities to other countries in order that they feed us. These are big societal debates that we need to have, but we need to be very clear that what the Bill does is saying, “We pay you for environmental goods; you don’t any longer have to produce food to claim those payments.”

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

A quick, final question from Chris Davies, and a quick answer, please.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q The Scottish and Irish unions are coming in this afternoon, and we had the Welsh in two days ago. How important is this UK framework for implementing the Bill?

Jack Ward:

We are particularly interested in the producer organisation—it is really important that we do not end up with four schemes. It will be a nightmare if we end up having to face four different directions and four different regulating authorities.

Helen Browning:

Absolutely—I think that the more unity we have on these things, the better. Life is going to get complicated enough, so I urge collaboration wherever we can find it.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Ward and Ms Browning. We are indebted to you for the time and effort that you put into coming to see us.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Iain Stewart.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.