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Local Food Production

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

DEFRA launched a regional food strategy in December 2002. Since then we have helped to encourage a flourishing quality regional and local food sector and given £20 million of support.

I thank the Under-Secretary for her reply and welcome her to her post. Britain should be growing more of its own food and importing less. Does she agree that it is not acceptable for supermarkets to describe as “local” food that may have been grown hundreds of miles away and transported through central processing and packaging points?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his kind words. I am disappointed that he has not raised the Colchester native oyster application, as he has done so often and on which I understand DEFRA is waiting for more information before sending to the EU.

Of course it is essential that labelling is accurate and that consumers are well informed about the produce that they purchase. However, there needs to be a life cycle analysis to determine which food is more or less environmentally friendly in its growing, production, packaging and dispatch. Food that comes from a distance does not always have more environmental impact than food grown locally with very high inputs. It is a complicated science. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point and we need to make sure that consumers are aware and can make appropriate choices.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her post; it is well deserved and I am sure that we look forward to working with each other for many years.

Community agriculture is beginning to grow in various parts of the country, Stroud being a wonderful example. It involves people taking food production into their own hands, which it is necessary to support. One way in which that can be done is by making sure that community agriculture links in with the county farm estates, of which I have been a supporter for many years. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that and ensure that we get local food for local people that is grown by local people.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and pay tribute to his interest in the environment, particularly local food and its quality. Food from Britain is a programme that has the support of DEFRA in which we are endeavouring to give assistance to farmers to improve their production, quality, labelling and marketing. This is very important to us and the Department will continue to give appropriate support to the food industry, including farmers.

From her time on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Under-Secretary will recall the importance of the rural development programme. Is she aware that her Department is spending some £260 million on consultants but only £300 million of its own money to top up the rural development programme? In her new role, will she look at reducing expenditure on consultants and spending more on the rural development programme for the benefit of local food producers?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and for his reference to my record. Consultants are an easy target for suggesting that they are not worth their money. I would judge each case on its own merits, and would want to know what the consultants were engaged to do and whether they helped the people they were advising to achieve their objectives. That is the way in which these judgments have to be made, but I am very happy to look at his specific points.

May I formally welcome the Under-Secretary to what I think is her first paid Front-Bench position? I recall that she was one of the unpaid Ministers earlier in the Government’s lifetime. I congratulate her on her appointment.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned food labelling in answer to the first question. Has she had time to realise just what a shambles we have in our food labelling legislation? It is very confusing. Why do we have a system where some food is required to be labelled with its country of origin but not others: beef, but not pork or lamb; chicken from Brazil, but not from Belgium; honey, but not jam; olive oil, but not sunflower oil? We have complete confusion about our labelling legislation. If she really wants to promote local food—I believe from her record that she does—will she get a grip of our labelling rules and change them as soon as possible?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I agree that we need more transparency and clarity. The purpose of labelling is to put the consumer in the driving seat so that they can make appropriate choices and, where appropriate, put pressure on producers and suppliers. Like him, I am keen for there to be improvements; I take the matter he raises seriously, and I and my colleagues will do all we can to enhance the regime.

Does the Minister agree that increasing oil prices will push up the cost of buying produce from abroad? The Totnes pound, with which she might be familiar, offers a 5 per cent. discount on locally produced goods, and 70 local producers are offering it. Does not that initiative provide a good way of proceeding? There will be a stick and a local carrot; the stick will be rising oil prices and the local carrot will be an inducement to people to buy local goods. Is the Minister familiar with the Transition Town Totnes project?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not yet being familiar with that project, but I intend to become familiar with it very soon. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown and the circumstances of the people who produce it. It is good for both business and consumers if more local produce is made available, if it is appropriately described, and if, as is the case where there are markets, people can meet the producers. If the product is right, it is good for our health, too.