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Global Food Prices

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 1 May 2008

3. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of the rise in global food prices. (202790)

With ministerial colleagues, I attended the food summit called by the Prime Minister on 22 April 2008. We discussed the causes and the consequences of the rise in food prices, especially for developing countries.

Much of the debate on this issue is focused on the impact of biofuels, but does my right hon. Friend accept that increased meat and dairy consumption, especially in countries such as China and India as they become more prosperous and adopt a western diet, is also a problem? Does he also agree that the introduction of ever more industrialised and intensive farming methods—trying to squeeze more meat or milk out of every animal and more animals into every acre—is not the answer?

There are several factors behind the recent rise in prices, such as the drought, especially in Australia, although it should produce much more wheat this year; the demand for meat and dairy products that is a result of growing prosperity in the developing world; the existing trade restrictions; and the growth in input prices. The rise in oil prices has a huge impact on fertiliser costs. First, the agricultural industry across the world, including in the UK, has to play its part in contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions. The second priority is to ensure that we protect those least able to deal with the consequence of rising food prices, both abroad and here in the UK.

The one bit of encouraging news is that if one looks at the price of wheat on the futures market for November 2008 and for 2009, the price quoted is around £140 a tonne, compared with about £170 currently. There has been a sharp spike, but the predictions are that we will see a decrease, although the price is unlikely to return to previous levels.

A plentiful supply of food for this country and for the world is dependent on the work of bees. Much concern has recently been expressed about the health of bees, certainly in this country. To draw the sting from that argument, the Government have launched a consultation process on bee health. However, that will report after this year’s pollination has been completed. In order to safeguard those food supplies that are dependent on bees, what help will the Secretary of State give to beekeepers now to ensure that the work of bees is undertaken properly this season?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. That is why DEFRA is contributing £1.3 million to the bee health programme, the Welsh Assembly Government are making a contribution and there is an additional R and D budget.

The European countries are all concerned. We are looking with our European colleagues at what more might be done. The truth is that we do not fully understand the cause of some of the changes that we are seeing, in particular colony collapse disorder, of which reports have come from the United States of America. We are taking the matter seriously. We want to focus our money on research that will help us to find the answer so that we can deal with the problem.

The rise in food prices led to an almost hysterical attack on biofuels as part of the cause. It might be part of the cause. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about the other causes. Will he acknowledge the importance of not completely abandoning the research on sustainable biofuels in the future?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We want biofuels that are better than the petrol and diesel that they are replacing. That is why we need better understanding of the facts and to encourage second-generation biofuels, because they will make an important contribution to helping us to meet the renewable energy targets. We do not want to support things that result in the kind of destruction that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) referred to a moment ago. Three years ago, many Members of the House from all parties were signing early-day motions and encouraging movement on biofuels. We are learning as we go, and that applies to us all. We want to take the right decisions to support the right kind of biofuels.

The recent Government report on food shows that UK self-sufficiency in temperate or indigenous food products has fallen by about 10 per cent. over the past 10 years. That means that as a nation we are going into world markets, pushing up the prices and making food less available for poor countries. The best estimate of climate change suggests that agricultural productivity in northern Europe will remain about the same or even improve. We are a key factor in the production of sufficient food in the world. What are the Government doing to ensure that productivity in this country and across northern Europe is maintained?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in terms of the figures that he gives. If one goes back to before the second world war and after, we were less self-sufficient in food than we are today. The reason that production has come down from the peak of a decade or so ago is that we in Europe, along with others, have reformed the common agricultural policy. That is a good thing, too. That kind of production and its cost were not sustainable.

The market is sending a very clear signal. The prospects for the farming industry are, overall, pretty bright, despite some of the difficulties that some sectors are facing. The people in the best position to encourage productivity are those in the farming industry itself, as they have the skills to encourage people to come in. We will need to play our part in helping to feed not just the population of this country—6.2 million human beings—but the 9 billion that we might have in the world in 50 years’ time.

Two years ago, the Government published their “Vision for the CAP”, in which they clearly stated that domestic production was not necessary for the food security of this country because we were a trading nation. Is that still the Government’s policy? If it is, how does it fit with the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about the importance of British production? Either the Government have changed their policy over the past two years, in which case they should say so, or they should tell us clearly that they do not believe that British food security involves domestic production.

By definition, British food security is very significantly dependent on domestic production, as the figures to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) just referred clearly show. [Interruption.] For the avoidance of any doubt, may I make it absolutely clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government continue to support a strong, thriving agricultural industry in this country? The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) raises an important point, because circumstances change and we need to reflect on the implications of that change. The question is: what are the right things to do to ensure that the challenge of the future is met, including by the contribution that British agriculture can make?

I do not think that the answer is to go back to where we were in the form of intervention, and the hon. Gentleman does not either. I make a genuine offer to him and to the farming industry, as I have on a number of occasions. I am open to a conversation and a discussion about the right things to do in response to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves.