[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

That was the recommendation of the cross-party Select Committee, which included the hon. Gentleman, who is shaking his head like mad. The Secretary of State ignored its recommendation that a large-scale cull of badgers had a role to play in the south-west, and I regret that. It is as plain as the nose on one's face that there is a clear link between badgers and bovine TB. To pretend that there is not, for the love of the cuddly badger, is simply ignorant.

The same applies to the worrying fact that bovine TB seems to be spreading to the deer population. The over-population of deer in my area is extraordinarily worrying—they are absolutely everywhere. That appalling over-population is not good for the deer or for cattle. That is another area in which environmental concerns seem to outweigh concerns for agriculture.

I came across another example in my constituency this week, in which a farmer had, for personal reasons, lost his cattle breeding records from four or five years ago. DEFRA stepped in and confiscated 78 cattle passports, thereby telling the farmer that he needed to keep those cattle on his farm until they died and then bury them on the farm and that he was not allowed to sell them in any circumstances. He could not bring other cows in or do anything, and it effectively put him out of business. Only under pressure from me did DEFRA, or the Rural Payments Agency at least, agree that it had the cows' details and could therefore recreate the records from scratch, thereby allowing the farmer to go back into business. But, my goodness, what a situation to have—because a farmer did not have some bits of paper, he would have been put out of business had it not been for his MP's intervention. That is another example in which political correctness, or environmental sensibilities have overweighed what we ought to be doing, which is growing food.

The whole issue of nitrate-vulnerable zones, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has correctly mentioned, could have a devastating effect on dairy farms, if it is allowed to run its course. Another issue is the electronic identification for sheep, which could be devastating for sheep farmers. We have been told by DEFRA that 5 per cent. of our arable land is to be managed environmentally. That is another 5 per cent. of arable land that might well disappear from useful production. In all these areas, and in so many others, we as a nation, and we as a world, have to think about what we seek to do with our countryside in the south-west.

Of course, there is no question but that we must preserve the environment. I am not one of those who says, "Scrub the environment, let's get on with making food." However, as we look forward strategically, over the next 40 or 50 years, surely it is right to acknowledge that half the world is starving, that half the world is short of water and that those issues are going to get worse rather than better. With the current economic and world situation in which we find ourselves, including the issues in Pakistan, India and elsewhere across the middle east, those are catastrophes waiting to happen. Here in the UK, including in the south-west, we can make a contribution to avoiding the worst downsides of some of those catastrophes by maximising the amount of food that we produce. We have to find ways not to put farmers out of business or to put things right so that the environmentalists are happy, but to balance the two sides. The south-west is a beautiful environment, and of course we must preserve it, but at the same time, for goodness' sake, let us find a way of maximising our agricultural production.