[John Cummings in the Chair] — Agriculture (South-West)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:30 am, 20th January 2009

The Minister has not been long in her post, so she will not have heard me say on a number of occasions that a targeted cull was the right thing to do and that it should have been done a long time ago, before bovine tuberculosis reached its present, almost endemic proportions. That has long been my view. It was in the interests of the badger population as well as the cattle population, and it would certainly have saved an awful lot of misery in a lot of places.

On nitrate vulnerable zones, I simply observe that after the massive expansion—although, of course, I have nothing against proper environmental controls—I wonder whether the scale of the enterprise is not having a deleterious effect on agriculture. Some 22,000 agricultural holdings are affected. The cost for a dairy farmer—an average of £50,000 a farm in cattle costs—is not insignificant. It may be a factor causing some dairy farmers to feel that enough is enough. I do not believe that we can afford to lose many more dairy farms. The herd has contracted and the number of holdings and of people working farms has decreased to the point where we are moving towards an unsustainable industry. That worries me, which is why we need to consider the matter carefully.

The sheep sector is not a big factor in my constituency, but there are concerns about electronic identification. I know how much electronic identification will cost, but the Department must answer the question of what it is supposed to achieve. Is it a reasonable and practical solution to the problems of traceability? I certainly understand the implications for responding to epidemics, but I, like a lot of people in the industry, am not convinced that it is a sensible way of dealing with the problem. Many people feel not only that the costs exceed the effectiveness but that the effectiveness is likely to be limited in any case because of the practical difficulties. Given his constituency, I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Williams knows an awful lot more about sheep farming than me, so I shall not pretend to be an expert.

Nor shall I pretend to be an expert on the pig sector, although I have the distinction of having once been a pig breeder, albeit on a very small scale; I do not think four breeding Tamworth sows amount to a major agricultural undertaking. I have a great affection for pigs, which are wonderful creatures. I support the appropriately named hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and his Bill, which he introduced earlier this Session and which I was happy to co-sponsor, on food origin labelling. I am convinced that that is a big factor in the profitability of the pig sector and British pig products' ability to compete effectively with imports.

We have extremely high welfare standards for our pigs. Thank goodness for that; it is something of which we should be proud and on which we, as a country, have taken the lead. If any domestic creature deserves proper welfare standards, it is the pig, which is almost the most intelligent of all four-legged animals—and of some two-legged ones—and a great delight. Given that we have such high welfare standards for pigs, we ought to let the consumer know that and not allow our excellent pig products, which are produced on welfare-friendly farms, to be undercut by those that do not conform to the same standards. It is long overdue, and it is time that we did something about it.