Leaving the EU: Agriculture — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:39 pm on 1st February 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 3:39 pm, 1st February 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing this important debate and getting Back-Bench time. It is also good to follow my hon. Friend Scott Mann, who I know is very supportive of farming, agriculture and the countryside. It was good to hear what he had to say. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland when he said that the countryside and farming are intricately linked, and that farmers are very much a part of the community. He may be a farmer’s son who is no longer a farmer, but I am a farmer’s son who is still a farmer. We have much in common, even if he is not farming now. We were both born on a farm and have farming in the blood.

As we move forward, we have to look at exactly what we want agriculture and our land to provide. We want it to provide good, wholesome food, and a good quantity of food. Let us not just play at farming; let us have proper production. The common agricultural policy has many sins, but the money that comes in through the basic payment scheme is used by the farming community—especially family farms—to keep farming going and to keep it profitable. Contrary to popular opinion, most of it, especially in the livestock sector, does not drive food prices up. I suggest it probably keeps them down, because it keeps a level of production going, which is key as we leave the EU.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into all the commodities. Some 70% of our exports go to Europe, so we need a combination of support payments, continuing into the future, and access to that market. We cannot have a New Zealand or Australian-style policy, because when the New Zealanders and the Australians got rid of subsidies they had virtually no regulation on their farmers whatsoever. The result would be a perfect storm were we to say, “Okay, we’ll allow all the food in. Let’s not worry about tariffs. Let’s have the cheapest food we can get from South America—Argentinian and Brazilian beef. Let’s get our sheep meat from New Zealand. Let’s not worry about the cost and the price of produce in this country.” We cannot do that, for the simple reason that we want an improved environment, and our farmers will have many controls, quite rightly, on the way we control water and nitrates, and the way we help to stop flooding. All those things are great benefits, but they come at a cost.

There needs to be a real policy, and I know the Minister is very keen to see that. I welcome the support payments, but whatever period we have them for, I do not want them to stay roughly the same and then fall off the edge. Whatever we do, we change the system of payment and move farmers in another direction. Certainly, we can make farming more competitive, and we can give grants and support, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said, to help that happen. However, when it comes to livestock and the sheep and beef sectors, it is very difficult to see, given the present pricing structure, how those industries will thrive without some support.

Kerry McCarthy rightly talked about the availability and affordability of food. That is why we need enough production. We can have a great farm shop and a great tourist attraction, and we can sell food to our tourists—that is all great stuff—but it is perhaps 1% or 2% of the total production in this country. It is no more than 5% of food. We need to make sure, as we go into our large retailers as consumers, that we get British food. Back in the ’80s, around 80% of food was produced and consumed in this country, but that has gone down to 60%. Perhaps some tastes have changed. Even though we have a bit of global warming, I do not think that we can quite grow bananas, oranges and rice yet. Seriously, though, we still have a great opportunity to produce more food.

We also have a great opportunity to keep the environment sound. Where we draw water for our reservoirs, let us look at the amount of nitrates going into that water. Such things are important; however, every time we restrict a farmer in his or her operation, there is a cost. I do not think that our consumers and the population of this country really see the opportunity that that offers to support farming. I do not believe that we should control farming so much that we stop that production and the income from it. We have to do a combination of things. I know the Minister is very keen on looking at insurance policy and how we might remove some of the fluctuations in price. All of that is right, but the policy has to be a practical one that farmers can afford to buy into.

As we go forward, we must also look not only at ways to get new entrants in, but at our tenancy laws and how we rent our land. Perhaps slightly contrary to what I have been saying, as much as we like the support that comes to farming through the basic payment scheme, there is an argument that it drives rents up and can therefore make land, particularly for young entrants and other coming in, more expensive. As we target the payments, they must end up in the pockets of those who do the farming, manage the land and look after food production and the environment. I am very keen to see that that happens.

I do not believe that coming out of the EU will be a disaster, or that it will lead us to a great sunny upland where everything will be rosy—perhaps the Minister and I may slightly disagree on that. I think we have to be realistic as we leave. Food production is necessary. I am very fond of our Secretary of State, and I know that he loves to talk about the environment, but I want to hear more about food, farming, production and how we are going to feed the nation. It is important that we keep those exports going and that we have a market that works.

The environment is great, but we need a market along with the environment. We need profitable agriculture above all things. The Minister will know as well as I do that if someone goes to the bank manager and they are not making a profit, they will not stay in business for long. I have huge confidence in the Minister, and I am sure that he will have huge influence on the Secretary of State, so that when he gets to the National Farmers Union conference in a couple of weeks, we will hear about food production and how we will keep farming and food going in this country.