[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

There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman has said about community land, but I am not sure that I understand why it should be on set-aside land. When I was a county councillor many years ago, one of the great issues in Somerset was the county farms estate. Our predecessors tried to dispose of it en bloc, and we saved it. Since then, it has become much more difficult to maintain a viable county farms estate, but the principle behind it was a good one, because it allowed entrance into farming.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, even on a smaller scale, giving people access to produce on land is an excellent idea. However, I am not sure that I buy the thought that set-aside land should be used for that, as by definition it is not set aside after it has been brought into productive use. I will consider that suggestion further.

As the Minister knows, organics have suffered a terrible downturn in the past year or so, perhaps inevitably. I think that we are getting ourselves into a muddle on organics. A lot of people were encouraged to go into organics to obtain a premium on their products, a premium that has evaporated or is beginning to evaporate. I cannot see that the answer to that problem is to change the definition of "organics", as some would argue. That is a self-defeating objective. Furthermore, I cannot believe that the answer is to import organically produced feedstuffs from the other side of the world to ensure that the whole scheme is productive. In environmental terms and in terms of the principles that underpin the organic movement, that also seems to be absolute nonsense. I do not have any answers to that problem. I simply point out that we have got ourselves into a terrible muddle on organics, at least in the short term.

I now want to address the issue of water. I mentioned flooding earlier, which is an issue that the Department ought to be looking at very seriously and putting its two halves together, as it were—those officials that are concerned with flooding and those that are concerned with agriculture. I am convinced that one of the major undertakings that we should address in the next few years, particularly in the west country and particularly in the Somerset levels, which is an area that I represent, is whole-river catchment management schemes. They involve setting aside water retention areas on agricultural land, where that is the most effective use of that land, and paying the price for that land, thereby allowing farmers to farm water, if that is the sensible thing to do in order to preserve our communities and prevent flooding further downstream. We need to address that issue in a much more urgent and holistic way. Such schemes are a real opportunity to do something for urban and village communities that suffer from flooding and at the same time to provide a basic income for farmers on land that otherwise may not be desperately productive.

I have raised my final point, which concerns bees, on a number of occasions without receiving satisfactory answers from the Department. I am very worried about bees, pollinators, the potential decline in the bee population in this country and the various diseases that are afflicting the bee population at the moment. I say absolutely bluntly that unless we do something about that problem before it gets any worse, there will be catastrophic economic consequences in the world of horticulture and agriculture, because we will lose a significant part of the pollinator population. It does not need a genius to work out that a small amount of investment in research now may reap enormous economic benefits, if it can prevent the sort of colony loss that we have seen elsewhere in the world. I implore the Minister to take that issue seriously and to do something about it as a matter of urgency.

I have taken half an hour on a canter across a wide range of aspects of farming in the south-west, but I return to the point that I started with. I just want to see a healthy farming industry in the west country. We have all the natural attributes that make that aim a possibility—indeed, it should be a necessity. We have the land, the climate and the people, and we should be feeding the nation. However, to do that we must have the right structures in government and in economics to make farming in the south-west work. As I have said, despite a very small improvement in the fortunes of some farms in the past year, I am not yet convinced that we have the sustainability and protection for good practice in this country that are needed to maintain farm incomes. I believe that some of the suggestions that I have made today will help that process, and I am interested to hear the Minister's comments.