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Sustainable Farming

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

8. What steps the Government have taken to encourage the farming industry to adopt sustainable farming practices. (171737)

The Government want farming to thrive while reducing its environmental footprint. We are supporting that in a number of ways, including through cross-compliance linked to common agricultural policy payments and the rural development programme for England 2007-13, which will invest £3.9 billion in farming and rural areas. I am pleased to announce that this programme has now been approved by the European Union and we will proceed to full implementation as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he be more specific? What is he doing to make organic food both more available and cheaper for the consumer?

The organic industry is growing extremely fast. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have our own action plan that aims to encourage the industry to ensure that by 2010 the share of the organic market coming from home-grown produce is equivalent to the share of the overall market, which is about 70 per cent. We are trying to encourage locally produced food and better information for consumers. Sales through vegetable boxes, farmers’ markets and mail order increased by 9 per cent. last year, and it is estimated that there are 550 farmers’ markets with a turnover of £220 million. It is clear, therefore, that consumers have an increasing appetite for organic produce.

But does the Secretary of State agree that one way to help British farmers—and Shropshire farmers in particular—is to have more transparently clear labelling not of where farm products were packaged, but of where they were sourced?

I agree. I am keen to pursue the fundamental principle that when we as consumers choose to purchase products, we have decent information about their origin. I am very happy to look at any proposals on that score.

May I ask the Secretary of State to look at the sustainability of livestock markets? Frome market—one of the biggest in the south of England—is within yards of the Wiltshire border. Wiltshire is in the bluetongue surveillance zone; Somerset is not. That means that animals can graze almost up to the border of the market and a new market could be opened in the next field, and yet animals from the east of the market cannot be sold in Frome market. Midges do not understand county boundaries; does the Secretary of State?

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s case, but the point about the control of bluetongue is that there has to be a line somewhere, and it is easier to follow county boundaries than to draw a circular line that cuts across them, because it is then harder for people to understand whether they are in or out of the zone. On the fundamental issue of bluetongue—we have previously discussed this in the House—in the end a balance must be struck on where to draw those lines. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have consulted closely with representatives of the industry, and the stakeholder group is of the view that currently we should have the boundaries where they are, rather than extend them to bring the whole of England into the bluetongue zone. Obviously, winter is arriving, and there will be less midge activity. We are working on—[Interruption.] Well, I understand that, but the lines have to be drawn somewhere. However, as I have previously said, if the industry were to come to me and say with one voice, “Actually, we think now is the time to change the boundaries” I would look at that request very seriously indeed.

On food labelling, the Secretary of State could not do better than to examine the four Bills that the Government have blocked on that subject.

How can the farming industry be truly sustainable if it is to be treated differently from its competitors? For example, we rightly have strict geographical and movement controls, which ban the export of meat from parts of this country, whereas although the European Union’s Food and Veterinary Office has found serious problems with the traceability and compliance system in Brazil, we continue to import Brazilian beef. Is that fair and sustainable?

The EU has strict rules in relation to Brazil. Brazil is a big country, and foot and mouth is a problem in some parts of it, but not in others.

That is indeed the case here, but things are gradually returning to normal. I accept that the livestock industry has had an awful summer, and we have debated that at some length. The question is not whether Brazil should be looked at as one entity; the question is whether we have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that imports come from areas where foot and mouth is not a problem.