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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:04 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 10:04 am, 20th January 2009

First, I congratulate Mr. Heath on securing this extremely important debate. I also want to say something that does not come very easily to me; I agree with virtually everything that he has said, both in general terms and with regard to the number of constituency issues and particular matters that he has taken the opportunity to raise.

I will not repeat the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but it is perhaps worth recognising that I agree with so much of what he said on a number of very detailed areas, not least bees and bumble bees. There is a very interesting point, which the Minister might like to contemplate, about the linkage between bees, bumble bees, hedgehogs and badgers. There is a distinct ecological linkage there, which needs some further exploration.

This debate offers us the opportunity to do more than just take a moment to contemplate constituency issues and other detailed matters. It could form quite an important part of a much broader philosophical discussion, which we in this country, this Parliament and indeed this world ought to be having right now. I am very glad that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, has recently launched a heavyweight and important investigation into food and the way in which we, and indeed the world, are going to feed ourselves over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. In a moment, I will say precisely why I think that that debate is so important.

The south-west plays an incredibly important role within the UK in agricultural terms, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has mentioned. We have something like 1.77 million hectares of enclosed agricultural land in the south-west, which is an extraordinarily large quantity. In the south-west, 3 per cent. of our population is involved in agriculture, as opposed to only 1.4 per cent. elsewhere in England. We are one of the biggest areas in terms of dairy and beef production—a third of all of England's dairy farmers are in the south-west. Of course, towards the east of the region, in my part of the world in Wiltshire, we also have significant arable production, so we have a significant contribution to make to the agricultural production of England. Therefore, we in the south-west have a locus to speak about a much wider issue—we have a locus to speak for farmers and agriculture across England—and I do not feel embarrassed about doing so.

It seems to me that the EFRA Committee and this morning's debate must focus on what the world will look like in the next 30 or 40 years. We all know that the present global population of 6.5 billion will rise to some 9 billion by 2040. The World Bank says that global demand for food will double by 2030. Some 852 million people in the world today are chronically hungry; 2 billion people in the world today do not have enough to eat; and 2,500 farmers in India alone committed suicide this year because they cannot grow anything.

The world is running out of water and collapsing through poverty. Diet is changing across the world, particularly in China, where people are giving up eating rice as they move into the middle classes and prosperity and increasingly they are moving towards eating beef and western-type foods. Of course, that will mean that we must produce a vastly greater amount of those foods than we do at the moment. Furthermore, our strategic food reserves in the world are at a historic low. The figure eludes me, but I think that the strategic food reserve available to the world today is 30 days, which is the lowest that it has been for very many years indeed. In other words, it seems to me that, looking forward over the next 20 or 30 years, we are facing a massive food crisis that will affect all of us.

Of course, there is a read-across from food into other areas, such as climate change, which is another hugely important issue, the difference between east and west and the clash, if there is one, between ourselves and Islam. Those issues all interrelate and we should address them all holistically. I hope that the EFRA Committee will do so and that we will do so in this debate.