I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of food, farming and the environment.
May I begin by giving a warm welcome to the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who has joined the DEFRA team and to, in his absence, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris)? I also pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. They did a terrific job and we will miss them both. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and to the House if I am not able to be present for the wind-ups because of responsibilities relating to the oral statement that I made earlier.
I would like to update the House on the difficulties faced by the employees and farmer members of Dairy Farmers of Britain. As I told the House last week, that dairy co-operative, with 1,700 employees and 1,800 dairy farmer members, was put into receivership on 3 June. Since then, the receiver has found it necessary to close three dairies and 17 depots, but he has been able to sell two creameries and five depots, saving about 650 jobs.
I am able to inform the House that, as of yesterday, of the 1,800 farmer members on 3 June, about 1,600 had found alternative buyers for their milk, which represents about 96 per cent. of the 1 billion litres of milk that were being supplied by Dairy Farmers of Britain at the beginning of June. That is a major achievement in such a short time, so I pay tribute to the hard work of the receiver, the member council, the employees at Dairy Farmers of Britain’s headquarters, and the rest of the industry who have stepped in to buy the milk. However, about 190 farmers are supplying their milk to the receiver at the end of this first fortnight. They are scattered around England and Wales, but the majority are in the north-east and the north-west. The job now is for all of us to find buyers for the milk produced by those remaining farmers. Although I am optimistic that buyers will be found for more farmers, we must recognise that some might not be able to find a commercially viable outlet for their milk.
I—like others, I am sure—have been moved by some of the interviews on “Farming Today”, especially those with small-scale milk producers in remote rural locations. The Secretary of State said that “all of us” needed to work hard to find other outlets. Will he tell us who, apart from the receiver, the rest of “all” are? Does he have specific measures in mind to assist farmers in remote locations?
“All of us” includes the other milk buyers, the regional development agencies and DEFRA. Last week, in conjunction with One NorthEast, DEFRA took the step of offering finance to try to provide a little time to determine whether a management buy-out of the Blaydon plant could be achieved. Sadly, the possible source of finance did not materialise the following day, and at that point the receiver decided he would have to close the plant.
I thank the Secretary of State for his intervention last week on behalf of the Blaydon dairy in my constituency. I am worried that some of the work force believe that one reason the finance package did not hold together was that it would take four weeks to set up a bank account. Was my right hon. Friend aware of that and, if not, will he try to find out about the situation for me?
I shall do my best to get hold of further information. In the end, if a management buy-out is to be successful, finance is required. I thought that it was right to try to buy a little time—that was why I took the decision with One NorthEast—and I am sorry that that has not proved possible.
I was glad that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked his question. We will determine whether we can provide any assistance by using the rural development programme for England flexibly, but I assure him that we continue to work closely with RDAs and others, including the Dairy Farmers of Britain member council, which continues to take responsibility for those affected by the collapse. I will, of course, keep the House informed about developments.
Despite such difficulties and other pressures, agriculture overall is pretty strong. When the Office for National Statistics published figures earlier this year showing that every sector of the UK economy had shrunk over the previous quarter, there was one exception: agriculture. As the House will be aware, the food and drink industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, although it is not always recognised and understood as such. It employs more than 3.5 million people. In the EU, we are part of the world’s biggest agricultural exporter. The UK alone exported £12 billion-worth of food and drink in 2007, and farming incomes rose last year. I want—indeed, the whole House wants—a thriving farming industry. Farmers want that, too, but the sector faces some very big challenges and we have to be honest about them.
Food security hit the headlines last year, as soaring prices abroad caused unrest and put pressure on family budgets here at home, and, although prices may have fallen back again, the events of 2008 served as a warning to us all. The question is, how should we react in those circumstances? We should not, I would argue, aim for self-sufficiency, create targets for food production or go back to the subsidies, intervention and environmental degradation of the past. We need to take food security seriously, however, and that is why we will publish an assessment of our food security, setting out how we are doing, and why the UK’s best way forward will be not only to produce its own food, but to trade with others.
As I have said, I want British agriculture to be able to produce as much food as possible, and, as I told the Oxford farming conference, no ifs no buts. The only requirements are that, first, consumers want to buy the food and, secondly, the way in which it is produced sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.
I would not want, in any way, to suggest that I do not accept the Secretary of State’s sincerity on British agriculture. However, does he think that it is helped by the fact that his own Department’s website still publishes the 2005 document on its vision for agriculture? It clearly states that domestic food production is not necessary, as he well knows, because I have chided him on it before, and, in a number of places, the document says that that is the Government’s policy. It does not go along with what he is telling the House.
A document once published is a fact, and it cannot be un-published. It is important that we do produce as much food as possible, and one great challenge that we will face in seeking to do so is climate change. As we discussed during my earlier oral statement, increased temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will affect yield and increase the risk of pests and diseases, so farmers will be among the first businesses to feel the impact of climate change. Indeed, when we surveyed farmers last year, from memory about half said that they had already felt its impact, and they will have a very important role to play in helping to tackle the problem.
We know that agriculture, land use change and forestry are responsible for about 7 per cent. of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, for more than one third of methane emissions—from livestock and manure—and for more than two thirds of nitrous oxide emissions, mainly from inorganic fertilisers. So, bluntly, we need to change the way in which we do things, and, as we increase production to meet demand today, we must ensure that we do not destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow.
The issue is not about a choice between the environment or production; that is a false choice. It has to be about both: agriculture needs to be truly sustainable. Farmers know all about sustainability, because they are, after all, the stewards of our land. They manage three quarters of it in England and play an absolutely vital role in preserving our landscape, our environment and the natural resources that we look after in the interest of future generations. Stewardship schemes have ensured that thousands of farmers and land managers have funding and advice to conserve wildlife and its habitats and to protect the natural environment. Some 5 million hectares are now managed under environmental stewardship schemes—that is, 54 per cent. of our agricultural land.
How do we meet these challenges? First, the industry needs skills for the future. Farming and food production are highly skilled businesses, but we know that skills are critical to profitability, to productivity and to helping farmers and food producers to respond to consumer demand. So, the initiative was taken about a month ago to call together industry representatives to discuss what needs doing, and the industry itself is going to develop an action plan on how it can meet its skills needs and on what help the Government will need to provide. The House will also recognise that we need to attract the next generation—the farmers of tomorrow—into farming. That is why we are providing a new diploma in environmental and land-based studies for 14 to 19-year-olds. It starts this September.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s good intent. However, there is no use in trying to reskill an industry such as dairy farming, given that the number of dairy herds has halved in the past 10 years. That represents a massive erosion of the farming skill base. Recently, I met local farmers at their office in Weekley village in my constituency of Kettering. They said that the introduction of the nitrate vulnerable zones will be the last straw; already, only two dairy herds are left in the borough of Kettering. Given all the slurry costs and gold-plating regulations that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is introducing, there is no use in talking about reskilling—the economics of farming are going down the pan.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the dairy industry has become much more productive in recent years. On NVZs, I claim no credit or responsibility for the original nitrates directive. Those in government at the time, in 1990 or 1991, will have to answer why they thought it right to agree to it. We are required to ensure that the directive is applied properly and we have carried out a consultation on NVZs. We have worked hard to get a derogation from the whole farm limit, and have made progress on that. Furthermore, we have tried to apply NVZs as flexibly as possible.
I do not accept that we have gold-plated the regulation; actually, we have gone out of our way to try to understand the pressures to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. However, we are talking about European legislation, which we have to apply. We all bear the cost of the pollution of our water courses that results from agriculture. I remember visiting a water treatment works in Headingley run by Yorkshire Water. The company’s representatives said that they had to put in kit to deal with the result of the run-off from farming. In the end, we have to pay for the consequences. If we can take steps on farms to reduce the likelihood that nitrates and other things will get into the water course, that is a good thing. However, I recognise the pressures, particularly on dairy farmers, in the current circumstances.
While we are on the subject of European directives, I should say that the directive causing great concern to sheep farmers is the one on electronic identification, which is due to come in on 1 January. I know that the Secretary of State shares hill farmers’ concerns, but will he update us on what he is doing in Europe to make sure that the directive does not come in on 1 January? If it does, the hill farming of sheep will become completely impractical.
I will gladly do that. The hon. Gentleman should bear with me a little; I shall come to regulation and I will tell the House about the latest situation.
I turn back to the issue of skills. We continue to support apprenticeships in agriculture, horticulture and animal care, and about 4,500 young people enrol in them every year. We are supporting the fresh start academies, which are a really good idea. They give business skills to those who are currently farming and those who want to come into farming, and they offer mentoring to new entrants to the farming industry. The initiative is one of the most successful undertaken.
We must also work together on animal diseases. Last year, the industry and DEFRA, working extremely closely together, ran a successful campaign of vaccination against bluetongue across England. That was genuinely impressive, and I pay tribute to all the farmers who vaccinated swiftly. There was a very high take-up of the vaccine—between 80 and 90 per cent.—in the south and east of England, although the rate was not so good further north. The result was that the UK was free from circulating disease; indeed, the only examples of the disease resulted from imports.
That makes the point that farmers importing animals from parts of Europe where bluetongue is found have a responsibility to ensure that those animals do not have the disease before they are brought into the country. That joint action was cost and responsibility sharing in action. That is a better way of doing things and a model for the future. That is why we are consulting on the responsibility and cost-sharing proposals that we have produced.
I would need to check, and then I will write to the hon. Gentleman to give him the up-to-date figure based on the best information. The important thing about the programme that was run last year is that there was a choice between a compulsory and a voluntary programme. The industry reflected on that, and came to me and said, “Actually, you know, we’d like a voluntary programme but we’ll give it all the support and encouragement that we can.” I said, “Well, if that’s what you want, that’s exactly what we’ll do.” That is an example of sharing the responsibility. In the end, it is down to farmers to make that choice, but why would one not want to protect one’s livestock in these circumstances when one has a vaccine that has proved to be effective?
This is a genuine inquiry; I am not trying to make any particular point. The Secretary of State knows that we supported the approach of voluntary bluetongue vaccination, which, as he rightly said, was handled pretty well last year and was a great success. However, we are now facing the future—and, anecdotally, a significant decline in the amount of animals vaccinated this year. That is a great shame but, as the right hon. Gentleman says, it is down to the industry. Scotland has gone for compulsory vaccination; that is its decision to make. As a result, however, we are facing increasing trading difficulties across the English-Scottish border. Cattle and sheep are widely traded across the border; it is an essential part of the industry. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Richard Lochhead, or anybody else, about how we can overcome those problems and ensure that Scotland does not somehow end up with a slightly different status, thus hampering trade?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We have been discussing this issue with the Scottish Government. I know that the industry is very concerned about it. Indeed, if I remember rightly, we talked about it the last time I met representatives of the core group. We will have to find a way of trying to resolve it. One of the other reasons we did not go for the compulsory programme was that although with it would have come the offer of European funding, the industry came to the view, having looked at what would be involved, the time it would take, the bureaucracy and so on, that it was not as attractive a proposition as it might first have appeared. If I may, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that important point, because we need to try to march in step in these circumstances.
On bovine TB, which I could not make this speech without mentioning, the whole House recognises, as I do, how extremely hard it is for farmers and their families living with this devastating disease. We now have the TB eradication group, with which we are working closely. Secondly, we have committed £20 million to the vaccine programme, and we expect an injectable badger vaccine to be ready and licensed for use in 2010. The TB eradication group has considered the six areas in which a deployment project could be started as soon as the vaccine is available.
The third thing that we have to do is get the regulation right. Sometimes there is a clear case for regulation. An example of that would be the decisions that were taken after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. Tough movement controls were put in place—that is a form of regulation—and lessons were learned. The benefit of those was seen in 2007 when, by applying them quickly, the outbreak that occurred was concentrated in a small part of the country and did not spread everywhere like wildfire.
The Secretary of State mentioned the trials for vaccination to deal with bovine TB. Many people would like to know when the announcement will be made on where the trials are going to take place, as 2010 is not far away. Secondly, does he yet have an answer to the question that I have now put to him twice—what will be the protocol when diseased animals are found as part of the capture process involved in enabling the vaccine to be injected?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, in all honesty the answer is as soon as possible. Discussion is taking place at local level, not least because for the trials to be successful we need people in the areas that have been identified to be up for taking part. I hope that he will bear with that process, because I believe that the right approach is to win support and involvement so that the trials work successfully.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, I repeat what I have said before about badgers with TB. As he will be well aware from his knowledge and expertise, there is a practical difficulty in attempting to identify badgers that have the disease, because there is not yet a reliable in-field test. There is provision in legislation for those responsible to take what they regard as appropriate action on badgers or any animals that are clearly very sick and on their last legs, if it is to relieve easily visible suffering. That is on the statute book and has remained there for quite some time.
If regulation is wrong, we take action. Why did we appeal against the judgment on pesticides in the Downs case? It was precisely because we thought it was right to do so. We have opposed Europe’s wish to get us to agree to new controls on pesticides, because nobody can answer the question of what that would mean for the availability of particular substances. The Government have been leading in Europe on arguing that case.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made an important point about electronic identification for sheep. I have met sheep farmers from right across the country, and I know that a lot of them are very concerned about that. I am on record as saying that the costs outweigh the benefits, which is why we pushed for, and succeeded in getting, a delay in implementation and why we were able to get the slaughter derogation. It is why we are currently trying in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health to get agreement that recording can be done by third parties—in other words, at the market, not on the farm. That would significantly reduce the burden on farmers.
I have just written to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers in Europe to say that if we get that change, there will be a pretty strong case for saying that an electronic tag needs to be put on a sheep’s ear only when it is about to leave the farm holding. That would require the European Commission to come forward with a change to regulation, and for that to happen we need other member states to come forward and support the UK and other countries such as Ireland, Hungary and one or two others that have been expressing concern about sheep EID.
That change would save farmers from having to scour the hills and tops from the date of implementation to find their sheep and attach ear tags. As we know, in any given year 10 to 15 per cent. of the tags may fall out, so they would have to be found and replaced. The change would be a practical step. It is different from third-party reporting, which can be brought in by comitology. It would require a revision to regulation, which depends on the Commission. I assure the House the I will continue to press the point, but I need support from other member states.
Before the Secretary of State moves on from regulation, may I ask him whether he would be willing to enter into a dialogue with the industry about fallen stock? It seems perfectly obvious to me that there has been no demonstrable improvement in animal health, or indeed human health, from the ludicrous and expensive restrictions on what farmers have to do with carcases, which are not even enforceable. It would be prudent for him at least to revisit the case for biodigesters on site and take a more relaxed view of what happens to fallen stock in the real world. He knows as well as I do that much of the time, fallen stock is not found before it has been consumed by wildlife.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the facts of geography and remoteness in some of our farming communities. I will happily reflect on his point and respond to him, but it is important that we continue to take steps to prevent any spread of disease. That, of course, is what lies behind the fallen stock measures that we have in place.
The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way. The fallen stock system was introduced because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy prion. We now know that there is no BSE in sheep and that the existence of prions in the cattle population is greatly reduced. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is now time to examine the whole fallen stock system and ascertain whether the regulation is too burdensome and disproportionate?
I think that I shall be writing two letters as a result of the interventions by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). I will reflect on the points that they made and come back to them, if that is okay.
We need all the means at our disposal to meet the challenges that I set out, and research and development will be very important. I was fortunate earlier this week to launch formally the new Food and Environment Research Agency in York. It will help us to monitor and tackle disease and maintain the safety of our food. It is a world-class facility and I urge any hon. Members who have not had the chance to visit to do so.
Indeed, it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). It is very impressive.
Along with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, DEFRA, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, industry and some NGO contributions, we invest approximately £164 million a year. As hon. Members know, we have put more money into bee research because of the concerns that were expressed. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Fylde and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for being part of that process. That is an example of priorities changing in response to changing circumstances.
We have announced five demonstration projects, which will receive funding from our £10 million anaerobic digestion demonstration programme. We formed the anaerobic digestion taskforce to work with the industry to overcome any remaining obstacles so that we can tap that great potential for energy.
We are also working with specific sectors. As many Members know, perhaps partly thanks to Jamie Oliver’s work, the pig industry has been through some tough times. As I said earlier, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree for her work on that. The Select Committee recommended setting up a pig taskforce and we did exactly that. We announced it in February and it has been working hard to get to grips with the issues. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister attended a meeting of the taskforce on his second day in the job. It examines in detail what needs to be done to help the industry.
We are trying to improve public procurement to provide a better market for British produce, and the Government are buying more of it. Ministry of Defence procurement is up to 59 per cent. from 43 per cent. The NHS is up to 70 per cent., and almost 100 per cent. of milk used by Departments is British.
Following an idea from the Council of Food Policy Advisers, supported by the Eat Seasonably campaign, which, I am proud to say, DEFRA has funded, I will bring together people from the horticulture industry to examine how we can grow more fruit and vegetables in the UK and get more people to eat five a day, because we know the importance of fruit and vegetables to our health.
We are all in favour of teaching children about a richer, more varied diet. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that one problem, as Natural England found in a recent survey, is that the number of children who go to the countryside has halved in a generation? Is it not time that we put more emphasis on taking children to the countryside, and getting them to learn about it through any discipline, so that they understand where their food comes from and the importance of fresh, good food sourced locally?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Open farm Sunday, which was the Sunday before last, is important. From memory, about 450 farms around the country opened up. Young people visited the apple farm to which I went in Hampshire. There is a—no pun intended—growing interest in understanding where our food comes from. One need only consider the enormous demand for allotments, the growth in farmers markets and the greater desire on the part of consumers to buy local produce.
It is important that we facilitate that, through clearer and more accurate labelling. That is why we are pushing in Europe for origin labelling to be significantly improved and why, at the same time as maintaining full public confidence about the safety of food, we need to address the 370,000 tonnes of food that is thrown out every year after passing its “best before” date, despite being safe to eat. As the House will be aware, last week I announced steps to look at how “best before” labels are used, because a large proportion of farmers’ hard work ends up in the bin and then in landfill, where it produces methane, which adds to the problem of climate change, which affects the farmers. That is a small example of why we all have an interest in working together to deal with the problem. We have to be clear about what is safe and what is not, because nothing must compromise safety, but we also need to stop throwing away good food and stop wasting money in the process.
Before he leaves this point, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we want to get people to go back into the countryside, perhaps the Government should have a policy of giving back to the English common people the English common land that was stolen from them by the other place in the 18th and 19th centuries, and which is still owned by the same people, in the same landed estates? Is it not about time that our Government gave that land back to ordinary people?
I must confess that I was not anticipating that I would be invited in this debate to include a reference to the Enclosures Acts and the past 200 years of British history or say what we might do about it. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not tempted to travel down the path that he has opened up.
Whoever owns the land, the way in which our food is produced is changing, as is our relationship with the environment, as we come to understand the importance of sustainability much more. However, one thing is certain: the world is going to need a lot of farmers and a lot of agricultural production over the rest of this century, not least because we have to feed about another 3 billion human beings. That is a big task, and we have to be ready. We all have to play our part, and there is a great deal still to do. I know that British farmers and food manufacturers are up for the challenge, and so am I.
We have waited more than six years for a debate on farming in Government time, so this debate is extremely welcome. It is also a timely opportunity, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on being here to move the motion himself.
The recent collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain has sent tremors through the farming community and serves to remind us that farming is not an industry that can be taken for granted. However, under the current Government, one could be forgiven for thinking that agriculture is an afterthought or, worse, an obstacle in the way of DEFRA’s broader objectives. Government policy tells us that
“domestic production is not a necessary condition for food security,”
as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) reminded the Secretary of State. That policy document still stands. There is no mention of farming in the Department’s title; indeed, it is not even mentioned in the Department’s sole public service agreement. If food security is so important, why is it not reflected in the Department’s primary mission?
Farming Ministers come and go with every harvest. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), the latest to exit, left before the harvest, having completed little more than six months in office. I hope that the Minister of State, whom I genuinely welcomed to his place on Monday, is feeling secure. However, he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can console themselves with the thought that they have, at most, 11 months left in their posts.
A lot has happened since the Government’s last debate on farming. The single payment scheme has shaken up the system of support. Farmers face new disease threats, such as bluetongue, not to mention the travails of dealing with foot and mouth and bovine TB—a subject to which I wish to return. They also operate in an increasingly open and competitive marketplace, as the nature of support has changed. However, many things have remained all too familiar since that last debate: dominant supermarkets, inadequate food labelling, and excessive and growing regulatory burdens. All that is set against the backdrop of concern about food security, which the Secretary of State quite properly set out.
But what has been the Government’s response to this looming crisis? Within a very short time the world will not be able to feed itself, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, and a Chatham House report has recently warned that the problem will have a particularly great impact on import-dependent countries and on poor people everywhere, yet the Government’s response has been to preside over an increase in the United Kingdom’s reliance on imports. They have overseen significant declines in the production of cereals, milk, vegetables and meat. In short, they have decreased our productive contribution to food security.
No one is suggesting that Britain either could or should be wholly self-sufficient in food. That would be impractical and, arguably, undesirable. Nor is anyone suggesting, as far as I am aware, a return to production subsidies or targets, and we are certainly not suggesting import controls or any kind of interference with the market—of course not. However, one of the country’s foremost experts on food security, Professor Tim Lang, has said:
“The present Government’s food security policy creates unnecessary vulnerabilities.”
We recognise the benefit of a diversity of supply, but that needs to be balanced against the sustainability of food miles, the importance and value of local production—to which the Secretary of State referred—and the threats posed by climate change and terrorism. Trade will continue to be important, but in our view the pendulum has been allowed to swing too far away from domestic production.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s observations about food security. Does he agree that it is contradictory to talk about having environmental policies on food production while regulations make it almost impossible to run a small abattoir? Would it not be more sensible, from a risk management perspective, to relax the regulations on small abattoirs to ensure that we can re-localise food production wherever that is practicable? Montgomeryshire is certainly one place that is crying out to do that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decline in small local abattoirs has been one of the highly regrettable trends in contemporary agriculture. It undermines the cause of local food production, which people support. I hope that we will be able to arrest that decline in future.
Professor Lang also states:
“For a country blessed with such fine growing conditions as the UK not to grow the food which it could, and to use imports as a substitute for produce which could perfectly well be grown here, is a waste of potential.”
He is surely right about that. We must move away from importing vast quantities of food that we could grow ourselves. We have the infrastructure, the soils, the climate and the skills to increase our contribution to national and global food security, but we cannot do that if we go on seeing farmers as dispensable, as I believe the Government sometimes do. Of course food security must not be an argument for protectionism or for the re-intensification of agriculture. I would be the last person to advocate either of those things. However, there should be no conflict between the environment and food production.
My hon. Friend is making an important point, which I wholeheartedly support, about the need to rebalance our food production and to see the pendulum swing back in the direction of local production. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out that we have seen a decline in the number of local abattoirs, and many dairy farmers have quit the industry altogether. We are losing some of the local infrastructure that could have enabled us to increase the share of locally produced food that the UK consumer buys.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a danger in allowing relatively fragile parts of the agricultural sector, including the dairy industry, to face these difficulties. If we continued to lose them, it would be very hard to restore the agricultural infrastructure that would allow us to rise to the challenges that we face. It is highly desirable that we should retain the means to grow the foods that it is possible to grow domestically.
Our food security ultimately depends on healthy and diverse eco-systems. That is why I do not believe that there is a conflict between the environment and food production. In the past, it was largely the fault of successive Governments of all parties sending out the wrong signals about what they wanted agriculture to do. Violent swings between production at all costs and the environment as the first priority of farming are, in my view, unhelpful. The stop-go approach—payments to rip out hedgerows one moment and incentives to replant them the next—has been enormously damaging, and has fostered the equally damaging notion that farming and the environment are at odds. What we need to pursue is a balanced agriculture.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have seen an amazing diversification of the agricultural products coming from our farms over recent years? He may know that I have an obsessive interest in the English poet John Clare. When we open the John Clare centre on 13 July—his birthday—we will sell a massive range and variety of home-produced local products that were not there 10 years ago.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is increased interest in the local production of food, and there is still unexploited potential there. If that is to continue, we need to rely on a number of things, one of which is correct food labelling, which I shall come to shortly.
I was talking about the balance between agriculture and the environment. Today’s climate change projections suggest profound effects on agriculture and the environment in the years ahead, as we discussed in relation to the Secretary of State’s statement earlier. We will need a more sustainable approach to water management, and we will need to develop technology that can reduce farming’s greenhouse gas emissions, through technologies such as anaerobic digestion. We will need smarter mechanisms to enhance our biodiversity where we continue to suffer biodiversity loss and miss important targets. We will need to promote carbon capture, ensure proper flood prevention and secure other environmental services.
The Wildlife Trusts have called today for a long-term vision for the future of our land, with joined-up decisions on agriculture planning, water management and more. I believe that this call for an integrated approach to land use is right, but it requires a fundamentally different approach, oriented around incentivising the right outcomes rather than imposing further regulation and being so worried about processes.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument; he is engaging in thought processes that many of us, too, are going through. Does he think that it is the duty of farmers and the farming industry to produce more food, or is it their duty to look after their own businesses? If the latter, how are we going to incentivise farmers to produce more food?
I said earlier that I believed in the market, so the trend of agricultural policy towards farmers decoupling and producing increasingly for the market is the right one. Where public support is necessary in the future, it should be oriented towards the delivery of public goods—things that would not be secured by means other than intervention, or public funds, if necessary. In my view, sustainable farming—producing to the market with profitable farms—will ultimately be necessary if the industry is to thrive. Farming can be successful only if it is carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner, which explains why I do not always accept the distinction sometimes made between farming on the one hand and the environment on the other. The balance has often gone wrong when the Government have interfered in the wrong way.
It is our farmers who manage most of Britain’s wonderful landscape, so we must enable them to be competitive in a truly open market, and in harmony with the environment. We need a balanced approach that recognises that we cannot keep imposing regulations and hope that the industry remains viable. Farms are businesses, after all, as I think the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) was suggesting. They need to make a profit, and we need to remember that. Farmers cannot be told both that they must operate in a global marketplace, and that they have to compete with cheaper foreign produce that can be labelled “British”.
Ministers have been promising a voluntary agreement with the supermarkets on country-of-origin food labelling for more than a decade, but consumers still cannot have full confidence that “British” actually means “British”. There is still misleading labelling. Six months ago, the Secretary of State told the Oxford farming conference that labelling rules were “nonsense” and had to change. He said that he would meet processors and retailers to discuss how to bring about a voluntary agreement. Can he tell us what progress he has made? If he wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to give way.
I have been meeting representatives of the supermarkets as well, and I regret to say that although Waitrose and Marks and Spencer support our “honest food” proposals for clear country-of-origin labelling for meat and meat products, it is clear that Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda do not. I believe that while consumers are still being misled, if agreement in the European Union—which the Secretary of State says is slow to be secured—is still not on offer and if the supermarkets will not agree to the voluntary scheme that the Secretary of State appears to have been trying to establish for six months, the Government themselves must act. Consumers cannot go on being misled.
I urge the Government to support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), which is due to receive its Second Reading in a few months’ time. However, I can give an undertaking that if the Government do not act and introduce a domestic labelling scheme—which is possible under European Union law—when our consumers are being misled, the next Government will do so. Farmers and consumers alike value action, not hollow promises.
We hear the same story from the Government about the proposed electronic identification of sheep. In Yorkshire recently I met a group of hill farmers who left me in no doubt about the damaging impact that that costly and absurd new requirement would have on an already fragile industry. When I questioned the Secretary of State about the matter in the House on 21 May, he said that the Government
“showed leadership in arguing that the cost…outweighs the benefits” .—[Official Report, 21 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1620.]
If only that were so. Back in 2002 the Government’s negotiating position was set out by the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who was then the Minister responsible for animal health. He declared:
“I am convinced that electronic identification of farmed animals is the way forward—especially in respect of sheep”.
Let us be clear. Following the example of Senator John Kerry, the Government supported the electronic tagging of sheep before they opposed it. Is that what the Secretary of State meant by leadership—leading on the imposition of another expensive and unnecessary burden, and then claiming to be trying to tackle it? I regret to say that on electronic identification of sheep, food labelling, pesticides and reform of the common agricultural policy, the story is the same: it is the story of a Government who have failed to stand up for British agriculture.
Farmers are striving to reduce their environmental impact, and want the industry of which they are so proud to be a part to stand on its own two feet without support. Most farmers to whom I speak would like that outcome. However, if we are to dismantle the market-distorting support which has inflicted so much harm on the developing world, which in my view has undermined our own industry in significant ways, and which farmers ultimately do not want, and if we are to shift resources to the environmental and public goods that farmers could deliver, we must be prepared to allow agriculture to become more competitive so that it can operate in that market. That means less and smarter regulation that delivers proportionate gains for the environment and animal health, and steps to ensure that the market works more effectively in the consumer and producer interest, with honest labelling, fairer supply chain arrangements and strong co-operatives. It also means action on TB, which is undermining the beef and dairy industries across large swathes of the country.
Since the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree left her post, she has given an interview in which she indicated her belief that the Government’s position on the culling of badgers could or should change. It appears that the Secretary of State is increasingly isolated in his position, which is to oppose such a measure. The Welsh Assembly has decided to go ahead with a more robust measure. My understanding is that the Liberal Democrats support a targeted cull. We have consistently done so. We cannot continue slaughtering 40,000 cattle a year, or preside over a bill now rising to £600 million a year and heading towards £1 billion, and do nothing, simply waiting for a vaccine that may or may not be effective.
The Secretary of State says that agriculture is pretty strong, but underlying that is a continuing fragility in important sectors. The dairy sector is one. We have already lost a quarter of our dairy farms. I referred to the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain and listened with interest to what the Secretary of State had to say about the measures that the Government are trying to take to support farmers who find themselves without a buyer. Only today I received an e-mail from a constituent who tells me that as a Dairy Farmers of Britain supplier, he has 34 days of unpaid milk, amounting to £17,500. He is concerned about the attitude that his bank is taking and whether, even if he can find an alternative purchaser, it will supply. He wants to know what can be done to put pressure on the bank to honour its milk cheques. It is important that we recognise the fragility of the industry and the continuing need to ensure that a viable dairy industry remains in existence in this country.
The fragility also extends to upland farming. Again, the Secretary of State says agriculture is pretty strong but it is clear that even with the improvement in prices we have seen since their low point a couple of years ago, upland farm incomes are almost wholly dependent on the public support that those farmers are receiving. Therefore, both sides need to think hard about the long-term future of upland farming, as we consider the next round of CAP reform.
There are things that the Government can do, and public procurement is surely a good example. The pig industry is in dire straits, so why is it that not a single rasher of bacon served to our armed forces is British? At the very least, why cannot we move towards a system whereby all publicly procured food meets British standards of production? That is a legal requirement that we could impose.
There is no more important industry than the production of food. Food security sits alongside climate change as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Indeed, those two issues are intimately linked. But at this critical period the department responsible for the industry has lost its way. We need a new mission for the Department, which occupies such an important role in the health, security and well-being of our nation. We need a commitment to the irreplaceable role of our farmers as custodians of the countryside and producers of food, and we need the actions to back it up. We need an approach that views farming and the environment as compatible, not in competition. We need a radical new policy framework to ensure the sustainable and integrated management of natural resources, including water. I regret to say that it is increasingly clear that the only thing that will bring about that much-needed change in approach is a change of Government.
It is an honour to be the third speaker in the debate and to follow the two Front Benchers, both of whom made splendid contributions to a debate that will be a good one. I do not want to detain the House but there are a number of things happening in my constituency that may be happening in other areas, especially if they are rural. I welcome the opportunity to draw these to the attention of the House and hope that the Minister will be able to respond later today.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked about Dairy Farmers of Britain, the collapse of which has been a real tragedy for all involved and traumatic for all those who suddenly found themselves as members of a co-operative that had gone into receivership. Dairy farming is not king in my area, but that has in fact worked against us finding a resolution to this problem. Only last night, I was speaking to Keith Wilson, a dairy farmer in the Isle of Axholme in the south-west of my constituency. He is one of only three dairy farmers now left in the area. Although we all welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s announcement today that 1,600 of the 1,800 affected farmers—along with 96 per cent. of the milk—have now been placed with new companies, that still leaves 200 who have not, and anyone who is among that 200 faces a very bleak future indeed. Mr. Wilson and the other dairy farmers in my area find themselves in that position through no fault of their own. They have currently been given the receiver’s standard four-week rolling contract. Under that, the milk gets taken away, which they welcome, although at a 10p a litre minimum price, and nobody needs to be a rocket scientist to work out that that is an extremely low price that does not cover even the most basic costs of running a farm. This situation clearly cannot continue.
I am sure that many Members present in the Chamber have constituents who are in similar situations. Many of the farmers who are finding it difficult to get a contract would like to get out of milk in the near future, but they need a contract for six months or a year at a decent price in order to plan their exit from the industry and ensure that they get the best price for their assets so they can reinvest in another form of farming in the future. Would it not therefore be a good idea for DEFRA to get involved and see whether it can encourage those contracts to be put in place?
I endorse that comment entirely. DEFRA is always chanting the mantra to farmers that diversification is the way ahead and they must move with the times and look for new ideas, but they cannot cross the River Jordan instantly, and I think there should always be support for farmers who are trying to do the best for their companies and trying to keep farming going in their communities. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister might be able to respond to that later.
The dairy farmers in the Isle of Axholme are annoyed that they have so far been unsuccessful in their attempts to get placed with other contracts. The Isle of Axholme is quite remote, and there are only three dairy farms there, none of which is a large concern, so the problems are clear—except that the tanker that currently comes to collect their milk every day is collecting on behalf of the other companies, and there is therefore a slight frustration that it is the tanker of the same companies that will not take their milk that is coming to their farms. That seems absurd. Also, Dairy Crest has contracts placed in Gainsborough and Retford, neither of which is very much further away. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might speak to the receiver about this. I understand that attempts are being made to try to get contracts for the farmers who are left, but might these companies, who are picking up milk now and who have already placed new contracts for farmers who are not far away, be encouraged to go that bit further? I hope that that might be achieved even if it is only for a period of time so that, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) said, people can consider their options. That would be better than the situation they are in now—one in which they face a very bleak future and could be forced out of the industry very quickly. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to this point in his reply. For these 200 farmers, including the three in my constituency on the Isle of Axholme, it is no consolation that so much progress has been made for everybody else. They face a very bleak future, and DEFRA should do something to help them.
Of course, like most representatives of a rural area, I have meetings with my local farming representatives. I had a good meeting at West Butterwick recently with the local members of the National Farmers Union, at which I was heartened to learn that many of them are doing quite well at the moment—much of my area is arable—despite all the problems facing other farming sectors and the British economy generally. A lot of that has to do with exchange rates, subsidy and so on, and before we get too carried away it should be borne in mind that those farmers have been through a pretty rough time too, so if they are having a window of opportunity now, where things are a bit better, I say “More power to their elbow.”
“Farming” is not a generic term. One sector may be doing well while others are struggling—and not just dairy farmers; the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned pig farmers and I cannot help but agree with everything that he said. That is an unsubsidised part of farming that does a really good job producing an excellent product and it genuinely does have much better animal welfare standards than are found in other countries across the world—I say that as someone who has a passionate interest in animal welfare—yet the magic premium that we all seek for it never seems to come through, certainly not at the level it should. We must support the sector because if, as I do, hon. Members believe animal welfare is not an add-on for people involved in agriculture but should be an integral part of what they do, we should back British people who take that view and deliver it. There are a number of ways to back them.
We know that pig farming is an unsubsidised industry, but we can change things through procurement. It is a disgrace that the pork procurement rates of national and local government are as low as they are. I am sick to the back teeth of having this discussion with people who say, “We have to put things out to tender and we must have the same specification and so on.” I see no reason, and never have done, why an animal welfare standard should not be part of the specification. Let other people meet it and compete on it, but for goodness’ sake let us not ignore it. We must ensure that it is part of everything we do. I am certain that if the Minister could get Departments to add that to their procurement specifications, it would make a real difference and British pig farmers would rightly be the beneficiaries.
This debate on food, farming and the environment is wide-ranging, and I welcome that because about six months ago—I am not claiming any glory for the fact that we are having this debate—I asked at business questions whether we could have such a debate. I did not quite use the phrase “food, farming and the environment”; I think I was more interested in having a debate on land use. However, what I was asking for could almost be fitted into that title, because we are in a quandary over land use in rural areas, and the Government, across all Departments, have to start thinking through what their response is going to be. I am sure that my area is not that different from everywhere else and, as I have mentioned before, people have concerns about food security, so they want to ensure that we keep good agricultural land, we keep Britain’s farmers farming and we keep a high level of ability to feed ourselves.
Alongside that, there are pressures from people who want more rural housing—in particular, affordable rural housing. I have seen the effect of that housing need in my constituency. I feel helplessness, as much as anything else, when, as happens time and again at my surgeries in one of the villages, I meet a young couple or their parents who want to be able to say that they have lived as a family for generations in the same village, but they cannot afford to pay the current house prices—these are very nice places to live and the market is king—and there is hardly any social housing for them to move into. I have no problem with the policy, but when it was decided that council houses could be sold off under the right to buy, it was inevitable that tenants in very nice rural parts of the country who could get a big discount on their houses did so—they would be fools not to. Nothing came after those houses and, as a result, there is a real shortage now and we need to do more about that.
We need to encourage local authorities to invest more in the social housing in their rural areas and we need to have a sensible—I plead for no more than common sense—approach to sustainability. There was a planning application in my constituency—it was in the East Riding of Yorkshire—a few months ago by somebody who wanted to build a new house for a family who had lived in the village for years. There had been a house on the site previously, but it had been demolished and they had been living in a mobile home, admittedly for some years. They simply wanted to replace that mobile home with a house again, but the application was turned down because it was an “unsustainable development”. It was simply the same people wanting to live in the same village. While we are making decisions like that, we are getting into a quandary about our use of rural land, and that needs to be addressed.
Flood defence is another key issue. My constituency is split by several rivers—the Trent, the Humber and the Ouse—and the Environment Agency is trying to draw up flood defence risk strategies and plans for the future. That is difficult for everybody, because people are concerned about the extent to which they will be defended in the future. It is clear that the Environment Agency’s thinking, given the pressures that it is under—and the fact that climate change is making such planning difficult for the next 50 to 100 years and beyond—increasingly includes the use of wash land. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall the DEFRA document “Making Space for Water”, and it is driving much of the consideration.
We have three competing pressures for land—the need for more rural affordable housing, the aim of food security in the future and the need to ensure that rural areas remain dry. The Government need to think carefully about a land use policy for the future. The farmers in my community accept that they are potentially part of the solution to flooding, but they do not want to lose good agricultural land. If it is to be used only occasionally during extreme weather conditions, they want reassurances that they will receive adequate compensation for anything that they lose, such as crops on flooded land.
I plead for common sense. The Government need to ensure that the different Departments and agencies that are considering how land should be used talk to each other and come to sensible conclusions. It may sound as though my whole speech is about the Isle of Axholme, but that area has had terrible problems. It is reclaimed land below sea level, and is no longer an island—although it used to be. For those hon. Members of a Methodist bent—as I am—it is where John Wesley was born. It was reclaimed by Vermuyden, who was brought over from Holland to drain it. Drainage in the area is already complex, but as pressures grow—on surface water drainage because of increased building, and from the Trent, which flows through the isle—there are real fears about protecting the area for the future.
The Environment Agency started its review of the Trent strategy, which includes the isle, by saying that it probably did not need to be as well defended in the future as it has been in the past. That is not a great message to send to people who live on land that is below sea level. It took an enormous effort, but in the end we managed to get all the agencies together and the Environment Agency is now spending £1 million on a specific Axholme strategy to try to work out who will do what in the future.
The problem is that the agency was looking only at what it did, and was not talking to the internal drainage boards—the people with the real local knowledge of the area. They know where every drain goes, which pump is on its way out and which pump will last for a bit longer. We have solved the problem now, and everyone is sitting around the same table—I have the great honour of chairing our flood strategy—but that was not the direction that the agency was taking in the beginning, and I am worried that it is working in isolation in other areas.
The other problem with the agency is that all the river defence strategies cover particular rivers and particular areas, stopping at county boundaries, but water does not stop at the boundaries. For my area, there are several different strategies affecting the East Riding of Yorkshire, west Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, but—as I have told my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before—there is not enough co-ordination by the different teams in the Environment Agency that are working on those strategies. I am sure that they are doing a good job on each individual strategy, but where they meet is crucial.
The East Riding of Yorkshire council shares my concerns and has been in very difficult correspondence with me. In fact, I think it is still subject to a judicial review of the way in which the Environment Agency has done its work. We want to avoid that. We do not want to get into litigation about it; we want to get people to sit round a table, sorting it out. The Secretary of State has told me before that he is reinforcing that message to the Environment Agency and that that is what will happen in the future. I can only wish him more power to his elbow and I look forward to seeing the results.
May I finish on one other point that I think is important? It is certainly important in my area. It is the whole issue of composting and landfill. Composting is growing, and I represent several farmers who have moved into it as a way of diversifying. We need to ensure that there are good standards throughout. The example that I am going to give involves not a farmer but the local council.
North Lincolnshire council is now doing all sorts of things about collecting garden waste, and its recycling rates have increased enormously as a result. The council is using open air windrow composting, however, which is causing concerns. There are two reasons. One is obvious: it is not nice for people near it, because it smells. I do not care how many times I have sat around a table with all sorts of experts—I willingly admit that I am not an expert—who tell me all the things they do to take the smell away and that it does not have to be a smelly process. That is bunkum; it smells. Sometimes it smells worse than others, but it always smells. In some respects, that is almost the least of our worries.
The other reason is the health risks posed by spores that spread from the site. The risks are well known, but the controversial point is the extent to which they spread in a concentration that could genuinely pose a health risk to an area. In the United Kingdom, we have gone for a minimum distance that is quite far compared with that in many other European countries. Germany, for example, is coming to the view that it should be only half the distance that we allow.
I went with a delegation of hon. Members to see the Secretary of State about the matter—we all have the sites in our constituencies—and I understand that the Department has commissioned research, which is being peer-reviewed. I accept that it is a job in hand, but all I would say is that while that job is in hand people are living near the sites. They know that there is a health concern and they know that the sites smell. They want to be reassured and they want the Government to move quickly. The compost should be covered, because that would help with the spores and with the smell. We all know why it is not done that way: it is cheaper not to. It is cheaper to do it the way it is being done, but finance is not everything. The environment that people live in is important.
I have several landfill sites in my constituency, and one of the great ironies is that every one who has a landfill site in their constituency wants it to be filled as quickly as possible, capped as quickly as possible and finished with as quickly as possible, but as councils increasingly hit their recycling targets, less and less goes to landfill. The date until which the sites might still be around moves further away. In terms of the greater good, that is not a bad thing, but we must be tighter and tighter on the operators, because they are going to be there for longer and longer.
In Roxby in my constituency, where Biffa runs a landfill site, there have been horrendous problems with smell over the past year, so much so that the company is undergoing a prosecution from the Environment Agency. Biffa is a very experienced company in this regard, but—although this is not true now because of the action that the Environment Agency took—on visits to the site, we found it uncovered and there was no apparatus to extract the gas. From the company’s point of view that was plain daft, because on other parts of the site it was extracting the gas, generating electricity and making some money. On the part of the site I am talking about, the company was just letting us smell it and it was not very good.
Perhaps I should declare an interest. I live in Winterton, next to Roxby, and Mrs. Cawsey would want me to say that it is pretty bad where we live, too. That is not the key reason why the situation needs to be sorted out, however. It needs to be sorted because, thanks to recycling, such sites will be around for a lot longer than we thought. People who live near them need to know that they are safe, and that the smell can be taken care of.
I welcome today’s debate. There is so much going on in rural areas at the moment, and people are looking for the Government to plot a way through it. People know that flood defences and housing have to be dealt with. Food security is rattling up the agenda at a rate of knots in a way that it was not only a year or two ago. We are looking for a comprehensive, cohesive way forward from the Government. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will be able to give some reassurance on that.
First, I ought to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who cannot be here for family reasons; he would, of course, otherwise have contributed to the debate.
We often talk about Government’s primary duty being to defend the people, but there is a second primary duty, which is to feed the people—to ensure continuity of food supply. There has been a feeling in recent years that perhaps the Government have forgotten the key priority of ensuring a prosperous farming and processing industry that enables us to maintain continuity of supply.
There is a widespread feeling that agriculture has somehow been airbrushed out of the political system altogether. It does not appear in the name of a Department, and it does not feature in our regular Question Times to anything like the extent that it did. It has been almost impossible to get a debate on the issue. That is why I welcome today’s debate so greatly. I have called for such a debate year after year, in various contexts and wearing different hats. At least we have perhaps again established the principle that we should have regular debates on agriculture.
I invite Ministers to engage far more with the agricultural community than they have in the past few years. Of course, they attend the Oxford farming conference, but I would like to see a Secretary of State at the Royal Bath and West of England Society agricultural show. One always used to, but in the past few years, we have not seen a Minister at the Royal Bath and West, or the annual dairy industry dinner in my constituency. I think that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) snuck into my constituency and visited the Royal Bath and West; I am always happy to see him. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) visited, too. If they had only written to me to tell me that they were coming to my constituency, I would know these things, but they are very welcome. I always attend the show, and I always take a great deal away from it, in terms of making contact with my constituents.
I feel sure that we all let the hon. Gentleman know that we were visiting his constituency, and I apologise if we did not. I just wanted to draw to his attention the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, also attended the Royal Bath and West, and spoke strongly in support of the farming industry.
He did, and he was the only one who wrote to tell me so. Perhaps he has a better support system.
This country is amazingly blessed in its agricultural land. Despite the depredations in the dairy industry and the varroa mite, this is literally a land of milk and honey. This country has huge potential for agricultural production, yet there has been a decline. It cannot be a sensible way of managing our affairs to encourage imports of agricultural produce and for there to be reductions in our industries. There is not only an economic but a moral imperative to reverse that trend, particularly given what we all know is coming—climate change and the need to feed an ever-increasing population across the world. We should be making best use of our natural advantages.
The decline in what we consume of our produce is quite noticeable. During the lifetime of this Government alone, 10 per cent. less of the meat that is put on tables in British households comes from home-produced sources. Only 50 to 55 per cent. of the vegetables eaten in this country now come from British sources, with the rest being imported. That is partly due to purchasers—not just consumers at the point of sale, but the supermarkets and retailers—and partly because of deep-rooted ignorance among a large part of our population who find no connection between the produce that comes from rural parts of Britain and what they actually eat, and who see things as coming in packets, rather than from fields. A farmer in my constituency was taken aback when a teacher—not a schoolchild—asked him whether it was necessary to kill a cow to get its milk. Such ignorance and lack of connection between urban and rural Britain is astonishing. It is imperative that that approach is changed.
The Secretary of State talked about employment. If nothing else, there is a need to recognise the number of people who are still employed in the sector. Even though fewer people are now directly employed on the land as primary producers, we should recognise that a large sector of our economic production and national employment is engaged in the whole business of food and produce.
Let me deal with some of the problems. Dairying is the big issue for many of my constituents in my part of the world of Somerset. I still say—in the absence of any Cheshire Members in the Chamber I can do so without a great deal of argument—that Somerset has the finest dairy land in the country, as is recognised. However, let us consider what has happened to dairy farming. There are now 13,600 dairy farmers in this country—the actual figure that I have is 13,601, but we are losing two dairy farmers a day and I do not know which day of the week that number was printed on. There were 14,296 in 2007 and 28,119 in 1997, so half the dairy farmers in this country have gone out of production in just 10 years, which is extremely worrying.
It is not just the farmers who have disappeared, of course, but the beasts in the herds and flocks. There are now 300,000 fewer cattle, 200,000 fewer pigs and 100,000 fewer sheep in the national herds and flocks than there were in 2006. Our capacity to produce food is shrinking, especially in the livestock sector. There are several reasons for that, and the one I always highlight is milk price. Until we have a sustainable price that allows our producers to get a return on their investment in milk, the dairy industry will continue to shrink. I return, as I have done many times in recent years, to the principle that we must do something about the horribly skewed chain in milk production between the primary producer and the supermarket. The huge economic strength of the oligopoly of retailers means that although we get a slight alleviation on milk price every now and again, the problem constantly returns when times become a little more difficult. That has an effect on not only dairy farmers, but processors, albeit to a lesser extent. Processors are often lumped in as part of the problem, but any who talks to cheese makers knows that the retailers squeeze them every bit as hard as the milk producers, which puts them at a disadvantage. We will not do that by relying on a market whose structure is fundamentally skewed; it is absolutely clear, as has been shown many times, that, to rectify the anomalies in the market, we need a statutory code of conduct that is enforceable and backed by an ombudsman. The sooner we get that in place, the better, and the sooner the dairy industry will experience more stability.
Several Members have touched on the difficulties of Dairy Farmers of Britain, the co-operative that is now in receivership. The situation sends to dairy farmers throughout the country a terrible message—that, even when they think that they have a stable market for their milk and a co-operative arrangement that they hope is going to prosper, it can suddenly fall down. Although I hear what is said about the recovery arrangements that are being put in place, as far as I am aware, even those producers who have found new contracts have not received a milk cheque for May—effectively up until 3 June. For the average producer, that means £10,000 to £15,000 of lost income, and possibly more, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said. The average bank manager is not just going to ignore that, so we need to ensure that producers are able to see themselves through the next few difficult months until they have a stable income stream again—without some computer somewhere telling them that they can no longer cash their cheques because the bank says no.
My hon. Friend points to an important part of the problem, but the other part of the problem is that Dairy Farmers of Britain encouraged some of its producers to put money into shares rather than receive it for their milk, so there is a double loss.
There is a double loss, but I do not deplore the practice entirely, because a good co-operative includes a degree of member involvement in the business. None the less, it just shows how fragile the whole set-up is. Indeed, to return to my point, until we can be sure that liquid milk prices are sufficiently high to ensure producer and co-operative profitability, we will experience such fragility in the market.
We have already mentioned nitrate vulnerable zones, and I accept entirely what the Secretary of State said: the problem was not of his making and what was signed up to in Brussels predated this entire Administration. But, what was signed up to in Brussels was daft and needed unpicking, and some of us have argued strenuously over the past couple of years for proper derogations to ensure that we do not put our producers in considerable difficulty, given not only the capital investment that they will have to make, but the agricultural activities into which they will be forced. Those activities are not sensible in terms of proper land management and slurry spreading, given the latter’s confinement to limited periods. They do not make sense for the land, for good husbandry or for the people who live around those farms and who, for a couple of days a year, will be subject to misery as a result. We should strenuously argue that case, and, until we have the right response from the European Union, the directive should be quietly put in a box somewhere, because it is too difficult to implement.
Bovine tuberculosis is a national scandal. In 2008, 41,718 cattle were slaughtered—a huge increase. One can almost see the front line, and the little arrows with bovine tuberculosis on them, spreading up and across the country from the south-west, like the introduction to “Dad’s Army”. But we are not prepared to do what is necessary to arrest the advance. It is no good saying that the principal vector is cattle-to-cattle transfer. We know that; everybody does. However, I know of all too many closed farms in my constituency that have had no cattle movements but where tuberculosis comes out of nowhere. But it does not come out of nowhere, of course; we know that it comes from the feral population. Yet we are not prepared to deal with that endemic badger disease, although it has to be addressed for welfare reasons. The situation cannot go on. Even if we did not believe that acting for welfare reasons was necessary, the situation is a nonsense in economic terms as the cost to the taxpayer is enormous.
Furthermore, when a farmer sees his or her herd slaughtered, the effect is catastrophic and appalling. That is especially true if the herd is of pedigree or organic stock and irreplaceable, or if it is destroyed on the basis of a gamma interferon test and the Department refuses to carry out a corroboratory test to see whether there is an infection. In such cases, the Department acts on the basis of a test for tuberculosis that has already been shown to be far from conclusive. We have to grasp that issue. I know that it is politically difficult and why the Government do not want to act, but that is not an excuse. The time has come, I am afraid, to do something about it.
We have mentioned the electronic identification of sheep. Again, I hear what the Secretary of State is saying; he is attempting to delay the introduction of the measure and trying to argue for a derogation. However, that is another nonsense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) pointed out. The rationale behind the directive—if ever there was one—has already gone, and in practical and economic terms it is a nonsense. Why are we proceeding? Sometimes we just have to say to the European Commission that some directives are nonsense and that it is not sensible for the country to implement them in their current condition.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) mentioned the pig sector. I am very fond of it, because I used to breed pigs myself—albeit only four breeding Tamworth sows, which hardly made me a major producer. The pig sector has to compete in a totally artificial and unfair trading environment, as it is not getting the benefit from the high welfare standards that it has rightly introduced. I do not argue for one moment against the pig industry’s welfare standards, but the issue of food labelling is critical. It has been pushed by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon); I am a co-signatory to his Bill, which I support strongly. Until we let the consumer know and give them the confidence that they are buying meat produced in the most welfare-friendly environment, they will not have the option of choosing British and knowing that British is best. It is important that we give them that confidence.
Others have mentioned the problems of regulation. We still vastly over-regulate the industry in too many ways. The Rural Payments Agency, which got itself into one heck of a mess—an absolute fiasco—recovered slightly, but I fear that it is getting back into a mess. All the indications from my constituents are that it is again not doing its job effectively. I ask Ministers to intervene now to stop it getting into yet another disastrous situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned abattoirs. What a nonsense it is, when we are trying to develop good welfare systems and reduce mileage, that we should be closing all our local abattoirs and having to move animals over long distances to go to the abattoir. That confounds common sense.
My last point about the industry concerns marketing effectively and finding the right markets for our goods. I agree with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole about public procurement policy. However, I am not sure that I entirely accept his remarks about the effects of what we used to call the compulsory competitive tendering regime, which the previous Government introduced for local authorities. I seem to remember cases going before the courts where it was said that it was impossible to add a moral dimension to the tendering process because that was anti-competitive behaviour. That led to the absurd situation whereby one could not specify the origin of the produce or the standards that it was required to meet. Surely we can do something about that. We are now 15 or 20 years on from CCT, and it is now right that public procurement agencies—whether the military, local government, or the national health service—do the right thing, which is to buy British, and to do so in quantity, to support our industry.
Let me finish by linking agriculture to the environment. We need to have systems in place that do not go back to the encouragement of over-production but reward good practice in agriculture and environmental stewardship. We need to protect the marginal areas of production, such as hill farms, which are very fragile, and wetlands, which are very difficult to farm, and ensure that they can be farmed effectively, not only for the inherent benefits that that brings but for the better management of the land and the success of the communities in those areas. We should ensure that farmers are able to enter into agreements for whole river catchment area schemes to maintain wetlands in order to reduce floods.
We should be encouraging farmers to be involved with anaerobic digesters. I remember arguing that case when I was a county councillor 20 years ago. I asked why on earth why we in this country did not have anaerobic digesters, as that was so obviously a better solution than many of the other forms of disposal. Yet the industry in this country is still in its infancy.
I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, but I am having a brief respite from the Equality Bill. Does he agree that the problem with anaerobic digestion is not only one of capital costs but of local authorities’ unwillingness to consider dispersed solutions to waste? They are still obsessed with the idea that one size fits all; I have to say we suffer from that in Gloucestershire.
I do agree. They used to think of using the biggest possible hole in the ground, and now they can no longer do that, they think of using the biggest possible incinerator. That is not the solution.
Just like energy production, waste disposal is best done locally. I would like farmers to get a direct benefit for their activities in relation to carbon capture. We say a lot about methane release in farming, but agriculture, particularly horticulture and arboriculture, is capable of acting as a substantial carbon sump, and it would be nice if that were recognised in Government thinking. We should ensure that planning processes understand the needs of rural areas, particularly the agricultural dimension, but I fear that that is not the case. We talk about diversification, but as soon as anyone tries to produce it, or tries to produce rural housing, they find that some newly qualified planner—because planning authorities usually only have those nowadays—says no. It seems to be difficult to break through with any level of common sense as regards planning in rural areas.
We should be encouraging much more recreational use of the countryside, in combination with food production. The recreational capacity of the countryside is much greater than its current use. We could have a whole network of bridleways and much more equestrian activity if we planned for it and were prepared to stimulate it. I would like that to happen.
We have to find better ways of supporting the agricultural sector and rural areas in this country, and we can do that best by producing the context in which they can prosper, not just by feeding them money. We need to innovate and make available the skills that they need, and we need to find the markets for their produce, which is eminently marketable because British produce is still some of the best in the world. We ought to recognise and celebrate that. At the moment, I fear that we are doing neither.
It has become quite normal for some people to believe that Labour Members have no interests in farming or rural issues. That idea was clearly put to bed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). I come from one of the oldest industrial areas in the country, but a large proportion of my constituency is rural, and I wish to pick up on some of the issues that have been raised in the debate.
An issue that came to my mind while the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was speaking was rural payments. It was like a bad ghost coming into the room. We probably had a smaller work load on that issue, but for the people concerned it was a serious problem. He said that it was possibly going to come back, and I hope that the Minister will get up to speed, so that if it does come back he can nip it in the bud and people will not have to go through what they did a couple of years back.
In our area, farmers have done tremendous work. There is some really good partnership work, and we are developing the Great North forest across the whole north-east and down into Yorkshire. That is possible only because of the work of farmers who have been prepared to work with local authorities and organisations such as Natural England to make it a real success.
Another example that comes to mind is the reintroduction of the red kite in my constituency. It was wiped out in the north of England sometime in the mid-1800s, and over the past five years there has been a tremendously successful reintroduction scheme. It is probably the first such scheme anywhere in the world where, within 3 miles of where the birds were introduced, there is an urban centre—the Metro centre, the biggest shopping centre in Europe. That scheme would not have been possible without the co-operation of farmers. There was great help from organisations such as Northumbrian Water, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Gateshead council, but if local farmers had not been prepared to buy into the scheme, it would not have been the success that it has been.
On the back of that, a red kite trail has been developed and is bringing tourists into the area. The local bus company has branded nine of its buses with the red kite, at a cost of £9,000 a bus. It has taken that cost on itself and won a national award, but it did not do it for that reason, it did it to publicise what was happening. The scheme has been very successful, particularly for young people. There are not enough kites for each school that wants to adopt one to do so, and we pray that the kites will get on and do what they should be doing. Some 94 were released, but there are a lot more than 94 now, thank goodness.
The scheme has been a huge success, and there has even been feedback from the kites to the farmers. The farmers report to us that on a farm within 400 yd of what was a huge council estate, the red kites are now eating sheep’s afterbirth when lambs are born. The farmers calculate that they are saved two days of work a year in cleaning up afterbirth, so the kites are already giving their thanks to the farmers for helping them flourish again. It really is a success story.
I spend every moment that I can—like everybody else in this place, I do no have much time—trying to get away and get some peace. My place to go for peace is Teesdale, a fantastic area. To survive there is a tough job for the farmers, including hill farmers. Some Members in the Chamber—looking around, probably all of us—are old enough to remember the story of Hannah Hauxwell, who was featured in a 1970s television documentary about where she was living in the dale. The conditions were very tough, and she had no running water and no electricity. Thankfully, most places there are not like that now, but some of the arctic conditions remain.
There is a reservoir in Teesdale called Cow Green, and the weather station up there maps weather models like those of Reykjavik. That gives some idea of what the conditions are like. The people who work there are the salt of the earth. I have the great pleasure of meeting some of them in a fantastic public house called the Langdon Beck hotel. I would welcome the Minister there. If he really wants to see farming in the raw, he should go there—we would make him welcome. We disagree about many things in the House, but we should all agree that we owe a tremendous debt to the people who work the farms of this country. We should never forget that.
I want to talk specifically about the dairy in Blaydon. This time last week, we thought that we were close to getting a deal to keep it open. The Secretary of State was very supportive and involved himself personally in getting the receiver to give us some breathing space last Thursday. We thought that there would be a deal. The union and the work force worked hard and the bank that was involved seemed to be saying all the right things. Sadly, on Friday morning, the news came through that the bank had decided not to go ahead.
As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, there is a rumour—I would like to think that it is just a rumour, not a fact—that the plug was pulled because a bank account could not be put in place for four weeks. If we are facing that sort of bureaucratic nightmare in this country, the problem must be resolved. The outcome is that 299 dairy staff are out of work. The 288 farmers who fed into the dairy may, thankfully, have been relieved by the Secretary of State’s words today. However, problems clearly remain for many people in the north-east. I hope that, if there is any more we can do, we are doing it.
The regional officer for the FBU—I mean the NFU; I said FBU because the former fire Minister is on the Front Bench. Dennis Gibb, the National Farmers Union regional officer, said about the impact of the dairy closure:
“The thought of Blaydon having to close down fills me with absolute horror… The worldwide milk market will be partly to blame. The world is saturated with dairy produce at the moment, which has undermined the milk price, which has of course made it more difficult… Over the last few years we have seen the gradual erosion of dairying in the North East and I fear this closure will be another hammer blow for milk production in this part of the world.”
I would like to think that that is not the case. If the Secretary of State and the Minister can do anything to support the reintroduction of the dairy business in the north-east, I urge them to do so.
The debate on the rural economy on Monday was closed by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris). I cannot believe what he said—I thought he must have meant it as a joke. He said:
“It is difficult to provide any further information at this point, because the situation is very fluid.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 85.]
The situation is not very fluid; it is very sad. I hope that the Minister can give us news about any possible help for the people in Blaydon. Even if the dairy cannot open, is there a role for DEFRA in helping those people try to find work?
I compliment the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on a moving speech, in which he alerted us to the importance of integrating the environment and farming in the context of the exploitation of his lovely part of Northumberland through the example of the red kite and the benefits of its reintroduction and farmers’ work to sustain interest from urban dwellers in rural Northumbria. He also reminded us poignantly of the human situation, which has tragically evolved, of Dairy Farmers of Britain.
The hon. Gentleman put his finger on a crucial issue as we debate some of the long-term factors that affect the security of supply of food and the short-term developments in the marketplace, which operates on a day-to-day and sometimes an hour-by-hour basis. One of the challenges that I would like to address is how to reconcile the long-term aspiration of a safe and secure food supply with the fact that, on the journey, the marketplace will have its ups and downs, as the hon. Gentleman just discussed.
I stand before the House as the president of the Shepherd Road allotment society in my constituency. I know from bitter experience the genuine problems that the producers of agricultural produce have to face. In August, I face an army of caterpillars. If I am not there immediately to administer the coup de grâce, that rampaging horde undoes all my hard work to ensure that I have a brassica crop ready to eat in the winter.
I mention that little personal anecdote because when we consider the provision of food, we realise that we have all become entirely reliant on somebody else producing our food for us. More than 40 per cent. of our food spend in this country is outside the home. Mention has been made of supermarkets, and when we go down to Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Marks and Spencer, we see that they are absolutely full, seven days a week, of an unbelievable array of produce.
I can remember my mother taking me when I was a little boy in the ’50s to a fruiterer’s shop in York, where I grew up, and showing me an avocado pear. In those days they cost £1, which would be £10, £12 or £15 now. Today, people can buy avocado pears for less than 40p. They have become a commodity. In those days there was wonder—there was something different; there was seasonality—but today we have a 52 weeks-a-year supply of a glittering array of produce, because the world of agriculture has so adapted to meet the demands of the consumer.
That is one of the dimensions of the debate which has been missing to date, so let us reflect for a moment on what the 21st-century food consumer is asking of the supply chain, of which farmers are a key part. However, that perhaps also reflects the context in which I make that remark, because the food and drink industry in the United Kingdom is worth a staggering £162 billion. It generates the equivalent of 7 per cent. of our GDP and employs 3.7 million people. Food and drink is very big business. Depending on which estimate we use, the food part of the industry is worth somewhere between £65 billion and £80 billion. If we consider that on a global basis, we see that we are dealing with a very big industry indeed, which employs many millions of people globally, and that ensuring that the supply chains work on the 24/7, 365-days-a-year basis on which we operate is incredibly complicated.
When we as politicians give our views about the industry, we have to take into account the aspirations of the consumer. Consumers want affordability, availability, high quality, variety and choice. They also want things that taste good and they want to know more about the provenance of their food. We could have a debate on any element in that list. Ensuring that we in this country enjoy the food that we have is a complicated business. Indeed, given certain other targets, which I shall talk about in a moment, we have some genuine challenges for the future.
It is against that background that I want to address a remark that the Secretary of State made, which I wrote down. He said, “I want British agriculture to produce as much as possible.” One of the problems with which I have concerned myself, and which the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, also looks at, is the difference between the declaratory statements of politicians, who perhaps believe that if they say all the right supportive things, something will happen, and the policy levers that they have to pull to make things happen. Saying that we would like something to happen is very different from actually making it happen.
One of the themes underpinning agricultural policy is a withdrawal by politicians from the decision-making processes by which farmers decide what to do with their land. The reforms of the common agricultural policy; compulsory modulation; the ending of payment schemes based on the quantity of agricultural produce that a farmer grows or, in the case of livestock, raises on his land—those days have gone. Farmers throughout the European Union now have to make their own commercial decisions. Because of the scheme under the mid-term review that we adopted, the United Kingdom is further down the road than more or less anybody else in Europe. Against that background, it is interesting that, in discussing the arguments that will shape the 2013 reforms, Mrs. Fischer Boel, the Agriculture Commissioner, is talking about possibly withdrawing the Commission’s agricultural remit further, by not using the public’s money for anything that affects what farmers produce.
However, we face certain challenges that will pose important questions for political decision makers about how they can meet the consumer’s aspirations for a safe, long-term, sustainably produced food supply, yet as legislators have less and less to do with the commercial decisions that farmers make daily. We understand from the debate on the Dairy Farmers of Britain that short-term fluctuations in the market could affect the long-term achievement of those aspirations. In this debate, we have heard about the restructuring of the dairy industry and about the decline in the number of pig producers and in the number of animals produced in the livestock sector in general. We can see the difficult interplay between the short-term market situation and the long-term aspirations of consumers, who hope that the decision makers will play their part in fulfilling them.
Some of these matters have formed the work of the Select Committee. We have covered fields as diverse as animal disease, the reform of the common agricultural policy, the milk industry, and, more recently, pigs and the rural economy. The work that we are undertaking on food security at the moment is highly germane to this debate. I do not want to anticipate the findings of the Committee, because our work is still at a formulative stage. However, hearing a great deal of evidence on the subject has inevitably conditioned my own reaction to some of the issues that we have been discussing today.
One of the most interesting aspects of this work was the Secretary of State’s appearance before the Select Committee last November to talk about his Department’s policies. Given that climate change had been removed from his Department’s principal areas of activity, I asked him what his main priority had become. He hesitated briefly before answering, “Food”. It was almost as though DEFRA had rediscovered one of the key activities for which it was responsible. It is, after all, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I do not blame the Government for having attached a high priority to climate change issues, but I think that that had resulted in the Department taking its eye off the ball when it came to its food policies. The fact that we last debated this subject in Government time in 2002, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) reminded the House earlier, perhaps tells its own story.
I am glad that DEFRA has rediscovered food, because the Select Committee was concerned about the joint DEFRA-Treasury document produced in 2005, which suggested, when discussing reform of the common agricultural policy, that everything would be all right because the world’s markets would ensure supply and that we should not worry about food security. Only a short time later, in 2007, we saw the first signs of what became a major increase in world food prices, at which point real questions started to be asked about the world’s food supply chain.
A combination of crop failures in places such as Australia, the intervention of speculation in buying commodities such as wheat and rice, the sudden restrictive activities of countries such as Argentina, which decided not to export their products, and the rise in the price of fertiliser in China as it attempted to deal with its own agricultural problems meant that, after a decade of falling prices for food, we suddenly had a price spike. All of a sudden, decision makers around the world got very interested in food.
In the United Kingdom, the Cabinet Office was commissioned to undertake a study. It produced a remarkable document that dealt with everything one ever wanted to know about food. It did not contain much about farming, but it had a lot about food. Then, we had “Food Matters”, another glorious publication from the Cabinet Office, after which DEFRA entertained us with the start of the process that the Secretary of State has said he will soon bring to a conclusion, with the publication of its own strategy. Behind all that, there has been a plethora of activities, meetings and all kinds of other things that I shall come to in a moment. So, all of a sudden, now that we have rediscovered food and had a kick up the backside from what was happening in the world markets, food security is marching up the agenda and we have to do something about it.
What worries me is that, having got past the food price spike, we might well relax. It is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that the world food price index produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation stood at 208 in April 2008, but had fallen to 143 just one year later. For cereals—a key ingredient of concerns about food and food security—the index was at 274 in April 2008, but has dropped to 179 today. The paradox is that during that period, farmers responded and increased the amount of cereal that they were producing. Some American farmers produced perhaps a bit less biofuel, deciding that the food-fuel paradox could be put to one side for a moment, and we saw an increase in production. In the short term—surprise, surprise—prices fell.
It is against that background that I draw again on my theme of the juxtaposition of the long-term supply challenges we face and the short-term operation of the market. The Rome summit of 2008 was a response to and addressed world food security issues. I had the honour of representing the Select Committee in Rome over two days, and it was a remarkable meeting. There was such a diversity of opinion that it illustrated the intermingling of complexity in dealing with food supply chain issues, the relationships between modern western agriculture and development issues, the problems of sub-Saharan Africa, the challenge of developing economies around the world and some of the important political issues that are starting to emerge and influenced the conference.
Let me draw the House’s attention to a worrying development, which was a sub-plot to what was going on in Rome—the development of food colonialism. The phrase “the world will supply” in the vision document, to which I referred earlier, was predicated on the facts that organisations such as the World Trade Organisation would come to a conclusion, that we would have a more liberalised trade regime, that everybody would play fair and that the rules would apply. It is also very clear—and borne out by the Select Committee’s visit to Brazil during its recent inquiry into food security—that an awful lot of international investors, particularly from countries such as China, are going around the world and buying up productive capacity in other people’s back yards. International investment is making its way to places such as Brazil because of the country’s huge potential, but that begins a transformation of the supply chain of food in the world in a way that could be quite threatening to our quarter of the globe.
If we view that against the background of what we should be doing to bring us full circle back to questions about the common agricultural policy and our domestic agricultural policy, it is evident that we have a more complex situation to deal with. Let me make it even more complicated by saying that there was, sadly, no DEFRA representative at the conference; the Government were represented—very ably, I am sure—by the Department for International Development. This demonstrated that the UK Government’s perspective at the time of the conference was that it was more about development issues than about making a rounded response to food security issues.
Targets were set at the conference by both the FAO and the UN General-Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, demonstrating that we needed a 50 per cent. increase in food production by 2030 and a doubling by 2050. That made me stop and think for a moment. I am getting on a bit—I am in my last year in the House; this may be the last speech I deliver on a major subject. Here we are, I thought, nearly on the doorstep of 2010—to make the maths right—and we need to achieve a 50 per cent. increase in our food supply in another 20 years. If we add on another 20 years, we have to double it.
By the time we have addressed the technological and sustainability challenges and a good many policy issues, time starts to run very quickly indeed. When we add to that the complexity of global warming, which we discussed earlier today, we have an interesting mix with which to deal.
When the Committee was working on its report, we went to Rothamsted and talked to the scientists there about the potential of UK agriculture. They made the point that while we are very good in the arable, livestock and dairy sectors, we should ask ourselves how we can maximise those advantages against the background of the demands of sustainability, but also within the complex world picture that I have painted.
A fact from which we cannot run away in a debate such as this is that, however much we may urge our own Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do all that it can to support UK farming potential, in a world of uncertainty where, for example, an unknown animal disease can suddenly decimate a particular part of our livestock sector and climatic change can dramatically alter the food chain, we must ensure that we have security at home. That does not mean saying, “I want to keep out Johnny Foreigner’s food,” but it does mean saying, “I want our population to be safely fed.” We need to exploit both our national—in the sense of large-scale—agricultural potential and our localised food chains, because that will add another dimension of security. If big fails, small can at least make its contribution. In our discussions about policy, we need to focus just as much on smaller-scale as on large-scale agricultural activity.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I made my living in horticulture. The enterprise for which I worked as marketing manager had 12,000 acres of horticultural crops to manage, and 400 acres that we grew. I understand what it is like to operate in the non-subsidised sector—to live or die according to one’s ability to meet the demands of customers or consumers—but I recognise the incredible change undergone by our horticultural industry in order to survive. We have the world’s largest indoor protected facility in Planet Thanet, which is a remarkable facility to have in this country. It shows that we can be innovative in a way that enables all parts of our agricultural potential to contribute to the task of securing our long-term food supply.
I want to say a little about reform of the common agricultural policy. One of the subjects on which the debate on the Lisbon treaty, for all its controversial nature, chose not to alight was a change in the treaty obligations. I welcome the new Minister to his post. He follows the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), who did a great deal of work to get up to speed with a complex brief in as short a time as possible. One of the issues that he will have to tackle is the question of what drives Europe’s agricultural policy.
The question posed at Rothamsted can be widened slightly. What is the responsibility of western agricultural nations for meeting their share of the long-term targets that I mentioned earlier? That does not mean British Ministers going along and pledging an X per cent. increase in production. They cannot do that. It is not like setting an aspirational target; they must do something else to encourage our farmers to play their part in helping to meet the challenge. But what about the rest of Europe? We know how politicised French agriculture is, and how domestic Italian agriculture can be. We know that there is big agri-business in Germany. All those countries have very different perspectives, but they must all operate within the terms of the common agricultural policy.
Article 38 of the Lisbon treaty refers to the establishment of a common policy for agriculture and fisheries. Article 39 states:
“The objectives of the common agricultural policy shall be…to increase agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and by ensuring the rational development of agricultural production and the optimum utilisation of the factors of production, in particular labour”.
That is shorthand for “Let’s keep lots of small farmers in Germany going because it’s politically difficult to do otherwise.” It talks about assuring the availability of supply, and the particular nature of agricultural activity that results from the social structure of agriculture and from structural and natural disparities between the various agricultural regions. I could go on, but the treaty makes no mention of sustainability, climate change or the kind of global challenges we face. Commission officials and commissioners are fond of terms such as “multi-functionality” at which the eyes of most people in this country would glaze over, as they would not recognise it as an expression that tries to describe the integral role of agriculture in rural communities, providing the glue that holds them together.
I am sad that the Lisbon treaty did not address the need to bring up to speed the approach that will guide the common agricultural policy for some time to come, and make it a 21st-century treaty obligation to help with the reform process, which must get real; in fact, the comments from both Front-Bench speakers about, for example, the pesticides directive, the tagging of sheep and so on illustrate the fact that in the short term the things that drive change in the CAP do not give much chance to enable Europe to address the fundamental questions in a part of the globe where we have a tremendous productive advantage and where, against a background of climate change, we will be able to produce. We will have water and we have good soil. We have the techniques and the technology, but what are we going to contribute to meeting the global targets when Ministers cannot press buttons to set targets for individual farmers?
That brings me to the question of how DEFRA is organising itself to interact with that matter. One of the things on which we cannot fail the Government is that apart from the documents that I mentioned earlier, we now have a Cabinet Sub-Committee dealing with the matter; we have an official food strategy task force and a council of food policy advisers and so on. The only slight problem is that apart from the council of food policy advisers, nobody has a clue what the rest of these good people have been doing. Nobody knows how many times the ministerial Sub-Committee on food (DA(F)) has met, let alone what it has been discussing. I heard today on the radio—I think on the “Today” programme—that we are in the decade of transparency. If we are, may we have some transparency about what this Cabinet Sub-Committee is actually doing? If DEFRA is using this as a chance to reassert leadership in the UK Government, that is good, but may we know what it is actually trying to achieve?
Rightly, the Department of Health is involved; dealing with food security means that we have to address questions such as how much food we do not eat and how much more food we should not be eating—the obesity issue. Many of the business issues that affect our great food companies are more in the province of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills than that of DEFRA. I have touched on DFID, which is also important in the issue. The Sub-Committee is made up of the right players, but we need to know its agenda and what it has been doing.
Likewise, I know through meeting people from the food industry that the food strategy task force’s meetings pop up all over the country. I do not know what the outcomes of those meetings are, or what DEFRA has been discussing. The Department has a real opportunity to start achieving one of its objectives: helping the food chain to respond to long-term challenges and to know what the agenda is. I looked at DEFRA’s own document “Ensuring the UK’s food security in a changing world”, and some of the questions are so general that they make one wonder whether it has thought through some of the issues. However, I am sure that it has, and I look forward to the publication of the strategy, and I also hope that our Select Committee, which aims to have its report out before the summer recess, will be able to make a contribution to that exercise. We recognise that an agenda for action must be set, and that we will not solve all the problems of our food and farming industry overnight.
I shall now concentrate on an issue that underpins all that I have said. In order for farming sustainably to achieve the aims and deal with the challenges of world food security, the Food and Agriculture Organisation targets, global warming, world disease, pandemics and the growth in population, it must have the right degree of knowledge. It is ironic that within the last few days we learned that Manchester United had sold Mr. Ronaldo—yes, a talented footballer—to Barcelona for, it is alleged, some £80 million, as that sum somewhat exceeds DEFRA’s annual research budget. That puts into context where our priorities lie. The budget of John Innes, a remarkable research institution, is £25 million. It is among the world leaders in analysing the DNA of our plants and dealing with the diseases that could threaten crops on a global basis, yet how much money can it rely on annually from Government? The answer is £12.5 million. The other £12.5 million of its earnings have to be derived from competitive contracts. I want the best scientists we can get hold of to be working on these problems, for this country and also for the world.
I say “for the world” because, although Rothamsted made it clear to us that the paucity of funding in this area is making it difficult for it to keep its talented scientists, we know that those that we have are recognised internationally as among the best. That is why the Brazilian EMBRAPA organisation, which handles all its agricultural research and spends some £375 million a year on research, has invested in an exercise called Labex at Rothamsted. It wants to work with our scientists to help solve its problems. That is an indication of the quality of our science, but it needs to have some support.
I acknowledge that in addition to DEFRA’s money, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council put £185 million into agricultural research, but the chief scientist, Professor Beddington, indicated that we needed to have an uplift of some £100 million a year of spending on agricultural research. Although the BBSRC’s sums have increased, we know from evidence that the Committee received from the National Farmers Union that between 1986 and 1998 there had been a 45 per cent. real-terms cut in publicly funded agricultural science in the UK. I say that that situation is unacceptable. A lot more investment than we are currently making is needed if we are seriously to take on the task of securing the world’s, and our own, food supply, because we must have more knowledge if we are to learn how to increase sustainably, and securely so as to deal with crop disease, the potential of UK agriculture from, for example, our 4 to 4.5 acres a hectare arable to perhaps 9 or 10 acres.
That came out when the Committee visited Pirbright to look at the whole question of how we can deal with the world challenge of transmissible diseases. When I found out that DEFRA had pulled out of the redevelopment of Pirbright, leaving that to the BBSRC but giving Pirbright an annually renewable £5 million contract only for monitoring animal disease, that told me that somewhere in the middle of Government we are, yet again, not getting right the sustenance of one of the world leaders in monitoring animal disease. We are the reference point in the world for foot and mouth outbreak. We are also dealing with avian influenza, bluetongue and West Nile disease, and various other diseases are out there champing at the bit to get into this country. We need to make our defences as strong as possible.
If, when the new Minister is looking at his diary, he decides that he wants to spend a profitable morning, he should go to see what is being done at Pirbright, and he should visit Merial to see how to defend against animal diseases. That would allow him to understand without a shadow of a doubt why, if we are to be able, as we have been, to deal effectively with our animal diseases, and if the sharing is to mean anything in terms of cost, we must ensure that places such as Pirbright are properly equipped with the right scientists, we must reform the Institute for Animal Health properly, and we must establish a proper working relationship with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Those are high priorities for DEFRA if we are to have a comprehensive and viable livestock sector.
Hon. Members will be aware that this is a challenging subject, and I shall conclude by making one or two observations about what we saw in Brazil, because it is sometimes extremely useful to see how other people do things. Brazil is very different from the United Kingdom. Brazil is an agricultural giant in terms of its potential. There, one can visit a farming enterprise that has 220,000 hectares under cultivation, which is, by my calculation, about 500,000 acres, and meet people who will say that they want to expand—for example, in soya, cotton or coffee production—by doubling the amount of land on which they operate. That is put into context by the fact that Brazil could bring into production anywhere between 90 million and 200 million hectares, which allows one to understand not only the potential but the need for capital, science, infrastructure development and sustainability. One can see the need for the west to give Brazil sufficient assistance—but not to direct it—to safeguard the rainforest and ensure that the removal of certain forest areas and the turning of them into savanna is done in a sustainable way.
All that emphasises the fact that if we are to draw a modicum of security from the fact that Brazil is out there with the potential to help our food supply, we need to contribute to what it is doing. Brazil takes its responsibilities seriously; it contributes to help sub-Saharan Africa deal with its agricultural problems and overcome the lack of productivity, the difficulty of post-harvest handling and so on. I make that point merely to say that the UK has a role to play in helping, but it also illustrates the global nature of food, farming and the environment, which is the subject of this debate. We cannot solve the problems on this subject on our own; we have to solve them, in policy terms, in both a European and a global context. We must develop the right bilateral relationships with other countries if we are to be assured of a safe, secure, affordable and sustainable supply of food, which would be a source of pleasure to consumers, and indeed electors, in this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate briefly in this extremely important debate. First, may I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other hon. Members for the fact that duties elsewhere in the House have meant that I have missed portions of this debate?
As has been noted, this is the first debate in Government time on food and farming in five or six years, so it is long overdue. There are some serious issues facing our food producers and our farming industry, and they have not been addressed sufficiently in Government time or in Opposition time on the Floor of this House in recent years.
I genuinely welcome the new Minister to his post. He has an opportunity to recalibrate things and demonstrate again that this Government are committed to the UK’s agricultural industry. Personally I could not care less whether he is a vegetarian—that has nothing to do with the issue; what matters is his commitment, and that of his Department and his ministerial colleagues. He has a fresh opportunity to show that.
I wish to focus on two particular issues in the time available to me. Hon. Members should be in no doubt about what a disaster bovine TB is for many farmers up and down the country. It has hugely damaging consequences. I have sat with a farmer who has just lost his herd and seen his business subjected to huge movement restrictions, and that tough, practical man was reduced to tears—a very sad thing to see.
The disease is spreading, as the most recent map of the disease zone shows. Farming representatives come here every year to lobby Members of Parliament and to speak to Ministers and officials. They can be forgiven for thinking that it is like “Groundhog Day”, as they keep making the arguments and providing the evidence, but see precious little real action. Given that the evidence base from which Ministers are working is the same in England as it is in Wales, why is it that the Welsh Assembly Government have adopted a different—and far more progressive—approach to tackling the disease? I am not known as someone who lavishes praise on the Welsh Assembly, but it has got it right in this regard.
I want a clearer explanation from the Government of why a targeted cull is still out of the question. Is it just because the politics are too difficult? That answer will not cut it with the farming community, which is sick of the issue and wants some real action and solutions. I encourage the Minister to address that question and to liaise closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to see what lessons can be learned.
The second issue, which has been referred to several times by hon. Members, is the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain and, more generally, the state of the UK dairy industry. My first Adjournment debate, which I secured shortly after becoming a Member of Parliament in 2005, was on the state of the dairy industry, which is hugely important to my constituency. Dairy farming is woven into the very fabric of life in Pembrokeshire, but it lurches from crisis to glimmers of hope—so farmers start investing again—back to crisis. Just in the last few days, I have received six or seven e-mails and letters from farmers in my constituency who have supplied Dairy Farmers of Britain and are under considerable financial pressure as a result of the collapse of that co-operative.
One of those letters was from a medium-sized dairy farmer in my constituency, and it tells me of his membership arrangements with the co-operative. He says:
“I am a dairy farmer milking 110 dairy cows, and was a member of, and supplied our milk to DFOB.”
He says that his membership investment over the past seven years has seen
“£32,000 deducted from our monthly milk cheque—this figure was calculated based on our milk production figures.”
“In October 2008, DFOB failed to pay the interest on our Membership Investment, stating that the global financial crisis meant that it was not prudent to pay the interest. This set alarm bells ringing”—
as it did for other farmers in the area supplying that co-operative. His story goes on:
“From 1 November 2008, DFOB introduced a price cut of 2p per litre—this money was supposedly used to close down two of their factories…and put the company back on its feet. We estimate that this price drop cost us £10,000 from November to May.
On 3 June 2009, DFOB went into Receivership, calling in PWC to administer the Receivership.”
He also says that between 3 and 10 June, PWC—PricewaterhouseCoopers—will pay him a nominal fee for his milk, rumoured to be about 10p per litre, but what really concerns him is what will happen to his main milk cheque, which should be more than £14,000. That will be lost, and other farmers in my constituency are in the same position of losing payment for a whole month’s worth of milk production. Those farmers are in no position to lose that money. They have been operating on a knife edge for some years, they have been trying to invest where they can and cash flow has been very difficult. To lose such sums—an entire month’s worth of milk payment—is very severe.
I do not expect the Minister to be able to wave a magic wand, but will he inform the House what discussions he is having with his colleagues and the industry about how they can support farmers affected by the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain? I appreciate the financial constraints that he and his colleagues are under, and I do not think that anybody expects him to start writing cheques to bail out farmers who have been hit, but farmers want to see that the Minister is alive to the issue and is taking it seriously.
In particular, I would welcome his thoughts on the behaviour of the banks in this case. One concern that several farmers have raised with me is the timing—the calling in of Dairy Farmers of Britain’s loans in such a way that suppliers would lose their entire May milk cheque. I would welcome the Minister’s response on that point.
I remind the House of my interests as registered.
Although I obviously accept the apologies that the Secretary of State has given, I am sorry that he could not arrange his affairs so that he could be here, because he has missed a good debate. He has missed some very sensible, wise contributions from both sides of the House, without exception, from colleagues who have described issues in their constituencies from a heartfelt position. It is a great shame that the Secretary of State was not here for that.
The Secretary of State started his speech by referring to the general recession and suggesting that agriculture was the one industry that was doing quite nicely and was not in recession. Many farmers would say that that is because they have been in recession for the past 10 years. Indeed, many of the statistics would support that. Other Members spoke about the decline in production overall and in livestock numbers; they referred to the 500,000 fewer dairy cows, and the fact that beef production is down from 110 per cent. of consumption to 80 per cent., as well all the other statistics.
One statistic that has not been mentioned but that needs to be mentioned is the Government’s figure for total income from farming when considered per capita. Hon. Members should remember that that is the total income from farming—it includes diversification such as holiday lets, adding value by turning milk into ice cream and so on. Yes, that figure went up last year. That is good news. The bad news is that it went up only as far as £18,000 a year. That is the figure across the whole work force, from the tractor driver to the cowman to the farmer and their investment. I do not think that there are many sectors of our economy where the average income per person employed in it is just £18,000. When we add in the capital investment to which so many hon. Members have referred, that puts it into context.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) referred to housing, which we discussed at length in Monday’s debate. He said a lot of wise things. He also referred to composting, to pig farmers and to a number of other issues, most of which I agreed with. In particular, I agree with him about the smell in Winterton, because I have been there myself.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly reminded us of the importance of the industry, and he quoted some statistics. I am assured by my office that his office was informed that I was going to the Royal Bath and West show—I have checked that since we spoke about it.
Indeed, my hon. Friend says the same, but whatever. We had a good time—that is the important thing. The cider was excellent. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome also referred to the importance of public understanding and knowledge of the industry.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) made a heartfelt, moving speech. He spoke about the red kite, and I share his joy at the success of its reintroduction; it has been reintroduced all over the country, and not just in his part of the world. It is a great joy to drive up the M40 through the Chilterns and see them in the air, by the dozen sometimes. I was also touched by his reference to the debt that we all owe to farmers. If I may say so, it was all the more heartfelt and appreciated for coming from a Member on the Labour Benches. Many years ago, in the days when everybody had car stickers, there was one that said, “Don’t criticise farmers with your mouth full.” That sums it up, in some ways—we should not forget that most of our food comes from them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) raised the level of the debate to take in global issues, the international aspects of policy, trade and the development of agriculture. I want to come back to his comments about the common agricultural policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) referred to the harsh, difficult and personal aspects of bovine TB, and to Dairy Farmers of Britain; I wish to refer to both those subjects, as virtually every other Member has done.
I said in the debate on Monday that I hope that those who are less enthusiastic about co-operatives than I am do not use the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain as a stick with which to beat the concept of co-operation. I fear that the management of DFOB will have some pretty testing questions to answer in coming weeks. That is not an issue for us politicians; it is a matter for the former shareholders, and perhaps for DFOB’s creditors and others. It seems quite clear that there have been some odd management decisions. Frankly, it has been an open secret for months that it was in serious trouble. I was told by the dairy industry back in September or October that DFOB would go down this summer; that was widely expected, and there are questions to answer.
In the short term, the issue is the state of the supplying farmers. Obviously, it is extremely good news that such a huge proportion of them have found other outlets—that is great—and that the receiver has managed to sell some of the factories, despite the failure to find a buyer or a management buy-out for the Blaydon plant. However, we should not run away with the assumption that for the vast majority of the dairy industry everything will be all right. Apart from other issues, which I will come to, there is the fact that milk prices are falling, generally. The farmers who contract directly with supermarkets to supply liquid milk are paid a reasonable price—nobody would say that it was excessive—but those who are selling to the manufacturing side, which is half the marketplace for British milk, face much lower prices, with worse in prospect. Global prices for cheddar, skimmed milk powder and other products are low and falling.
I wish to mention one of the issues that must be at the heart of the problems of our industry. I cannot fully understand why, with the major exception of Dairy Crest, British investors do not invest in British manufacturing. Other investors do. Müller, a German company, invested a large sum in the yoghurt plant in Shropshire, which is doing quite well, as are the producers involved. Arla, a Danish co-operative, came to this country and invested massively in our milk production. Yoplait has done the same. There are many other such examples, but where is the domestic investment? If we are to fight back against the imported dairy product market, we have to make that investment.
The Secretary of State and others referred to food security. I am concerned that, in some quarters, the attitude still seems to be that the issue is just the flavour of the month, and that we can forget about it. Some of the conservation bodies are saying such things, which is a great shame, and is counter-productive. For all the reasons that the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned, food security is hugely important. No country can say, “It’s up to everybody else.” Just as with climate change, we cannot say, “We’ll do our own thing and leave the matter to somebody else.” Every single country on this planet has a responsibility to improve its food production—our country, too.
I want to address something that has not been mentioned at all in the debate: set-aside and the question mark over whether the Government should allow the industry to address the issues raised by an abolition of the voluntary scheme or, as some would have it, a further move to a compulsory scheme. A consideration of where we go with set-aside gives us the opportunity to take a quantum leap forward. Over the past few years, set-aside has provided environmental gains, although that was not the intention behind it. The Government and most of the farming industry, as well as the conservation groups, wanted to retain that benefit, even though it had been achieved by accident, so the first idea was, “Let’s keep setting land aside.” However, when we look at what else has happened, we find that although there has been considerable take-up of the entry level stewardship scheme, many farmers are saying that they will not continue with it and are fed up with the bureaucracy involved for relatively little money, so I fear for the scheme’s long-term future.
Whether we are talking about set-aside or the ELS, we know that we will miss most of our biodiversity action plan targets for 2010. The farmland bird index continues to decline, despite 16 years of set-aside, which we are told is important for such birds. We are missing the whole point. We need to be thinking about managing, maintaining and enhancing biodiversity on a whole-landscape basis, rather than having a situation in which some farmers opt in and others opt out, or taking bits of land out of production. We need to farm and manage our landscape in the way that has the best effect, but I am worried that the response to the consultation on set-aside showed that some, including Natural England, still say that there need to be targets on taking X thousand hectares of land out of production. We should be thinking not about such targets, but about genuine biodiversity targets. We should be looking at indicator species of birds, wild flowers and insects, and all other aspects of biodiversity and our wildlife. If we can start by getting the real targets that we want, we can then devise schemes and involve the whole industry so that rather than some farmers doing a bit and their neighbour doing nothing, they can work together. They are worth far more together than the sum of their parts because that can lead to such things as the creation of wildlife corridors between natural habitats. Everyone needs to engage to make a voluntary system work and to recognise the huge step forward that can be achieved if we can get that right.
I do not believe that the future for farming lies in a choice between producing food or looking after wildlife—we must have both. However, if farming is to have a role in producing our food, we must make the marketplace work. I will not rehearse again the arguments that have been made about the importance of food labelling, and we have heard about public procurement. Although the Secretary of State was anxious to advance the improvements—no one can deny that any step forward is welcome—there is still a long way to go, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) clearly pointed out. To hark back to the milk market, although we have heard the Secretary of State refer to the fact that all the milk that we publicly procure is British, we must ask an interesting question: what price are our Government paying for liquid milk and how transparent is the supply chain?
If we are to make the marketplace work, we need to consider the quality of imports. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole that public procurement can be dealt with through proper specifications, which is why we say that the specification should be the little red tractor standard. It cannot be the little red tractor itself, because that means that the product is British, which an import cannot be; however, we could lay down such a standard, and it would at least create a more level playing field for our producers.
None the less, we would still have the absurd situation with the pesticides directive and thematic strategy, to which the Secretary of State referred, whereby our farmers will be prevented from using a range of active ingredients, yet we will still be able to import products on which overseas farmers have used them. That is ludicrous and patently daft. If there is a human health, animal health or animal welfare issue, the directive should apply wherever the food comes from and whoever grows it. Even if the risk is only to the operator, are we actually less concerned about an overseas spray operator than we are about a British operator? It is just crazy.
These problems are not all in the future, either. In my constituency, manufacturers from the fresh product sector, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde referred because of his experience, are already withdrawing products; next year, some existing lettuce crop products, for example, will not be available. The problem is here and now and the Government need to claim whatever derogations they can.
We also need to do more to make co-operatives work more effectively, and that is why I made my comment about DFOB. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, in his opening speech, also referred to supermarkets, and we strongly support the Competition Commission’s proposed code, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned. It is a very robust code, but it must be properly enforced. I am not too worried whether it is enforced by an independent, self-appointed ombudsman who is paid for by the supermarkets, by the Office of Fair Trading or by anybody else; what matters is that the code is properly enforced.
If the supermarkets genuinely care about long-term British food production, they have to think about their supply chain. When I speak to certain supermarkets, I find it quite galling when they say, “Oh, we never buy any livestock in the market; it is all procured direct from farmers and we have a jolly good relationship with them.” The directors may believe that, but it is not the case on the ground. I can take Members to livestock market after livestock market to talk to real auctioneers, who will say, “That guy there is buying for Tesco.” It is fair to say that those bullocks will not go straight from the market to the abattoir; they will go on to a farm for a week—and then they will go to the abattoir, together with dozens of other bullocks bought for Tesco from other markets to go to the same abattoir. Strictly, then, supermarkets are not buying directly from the market but, if anything stretches credibility, it is that sort of practice. When everybody knows such practices occur, it makes people take all the supermarkets’ other protestations with a significantly large pinch of salt.
Surely the problem is now with the ombudsman. Some supermarkets are resistant and reluctant to agree to the idea, but if the Government are seen to roll over, given the time that the issue has taken up with the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, the supermarkets will for ever think that, if they just hold out, the Government will give in. That cannot be right.
I am not quite sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman. If he is saying that the Government should impose the ombudsman quickly, I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. We certainly cannot let the current arrangements go on ad nauseam.
Several Members referred to research and development, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde referred to the fact that DEFRA now spends less on R and D than Barcelona spent on Ronaldo. That puts the matter into some context. What is equally worrying is the fact that the amount has gone down dramatically. In one of DEFRA’s own parliamentary answers, it said that its spend on agriculture R and D was down from £82 million in 2001-02 to £63 million last year. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has partly compensated for that, but the amount is certainly going in completely the wrong direction. Wherever I go, and wherever the Minister goes, as he will find as he gets into his job, he will find the industry saying that we have to invest more if we are to increase production from what, after all, is a limited and shrinking area of farmland in this country.
Several Members have referred to electronic identification. The Secretary of State said that he had written to other Ministers and that he is successful in persuading the European Commission to put the issue on the agenda. However, little has been said, except by the Secretary of State, on the issue of cost sharing. I agree with him that last year’s bluetongue exercise was a significant step forward in co-operation, but that does not have much to do with the Government’s consultation on cost sharing, which does exactly what most of the industry feared it would do—provide justification for getting the industry to pay half the costs of the Government’s current disease control system. That is the wrong way round, and it does not even take into account the possibility of delivering the strategy more cheaply. The industry must be involved in developing the strategy.
The nitrate vulnerable zone issue has also been raised by a number of hon. Members. I cannot think of a more ridiculous piece of legislation. Of course it is true that it goes back to a directive that is itself long outdated; some of the science is hugely dubious. The Government should have gone back to the European Commission and said, “Come on, let’s review the directive on which this thing is based.” The Secretary of State will go down in history as the politician who put national muck-spreading day into statute—four national muck-spreading days, to be precise. Laid down in the statute of the United Kingdom are four specific days on which farmers can start spreading their muck. It does not matter what the weather is, whether the farms are on flat or hilly ground, whether it is pouring with rain or there is bright sunshine or whether the county in Cambridgeshire, Cumbria or Cornwall—those days are laid down in statute. What a ridiculous situation!
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) rightly raised the issue of fallen stock and the fact that sheep and scrapie have been taken out of the whole BSE equation. Why do we still require sheep to be removed? Why can we not return to the on-farm burial of sheep?
Above all that hangs the whole issue of regulation. I do not suggest that the Secretary of State does not genuinely desire to lift the burden of regulation, but it is clear that it is not happening. One of the reasons is that the Government are still obsessed with process—with how one complies with a regulation, not with whether the necessary outcome has been achieved. That approach has to change; farmers have to be trusted. That is what we are trying to achieve, whether the issue is a lower nitrate level in ditches or higher standards of animal welfare. By all means, give farmers the target and tell them what they have to do; yes, jump on them if they do not achieve the objective. But do not lumber them with books and books of guidance, and inspectors to check whether the right boxes have been ticked. That is where the cost burden on business falls.
Several Members have referred to our uplands, and nowhere could the plight of agriculture be clearer. There has been a huge flight of stock from the uplands. I want to stress how important it is that we keep an adequate level of stock in such areas. We need to keep farmers in the uplands, for socio-economic reasons—they are important, and often the main part of the rural community. Furthermore, if the stock is not on the hills, there will not be the right vegetation; if that happens, the wildlife will go. Incidentally, gamekeepers are also important for the preservation of wildlife. If the wildlife is not there, the tourists do not come and the cycle continues in decline. All those issues are interlinked. We need to put more resources, even if from elsewhere, into the rural development programme for England and into the uplands.
It would be lovely to a debate on forestry, which applies to the uplands but also to the whole of Britain. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome touched on that issue, which falls within the broad subject area for this debate: time, however, prevents me from addressing it.
Members referred to the Rural Payments Agency. I share the view of those who think that we are rapidly going back to the shambles that we faced at the beginning. Only this morning, I had a letter from a constituent who has still not received much money, and the payment window closes next week. In April I was promised a full reply from the RPA about what the problems are—and there are many others—but I still have not got it. All the indications are that it does not reply to letters from us, and it certainly does not deal with communications from our farmers; indeed, they regularly report that every time they phone up they get someone different. That was supposed to have been resolved years ago. There is also slowness of action in other spheres. As regards speciality produce, where the Government recently lost a legal case, the RPA is digging its heels in about implementing the legal decision.
The rural development programme for England is hugely important. It involves a lot of money and, as I said on Monday, there are big question marks about how effectively it is being spent—most importantly, about how axis 1 is being spent. Axis 1 of the RDPE is about equipping our farmers for the future. It is about farm modernisation, improving their competitiveness, and enabling them to meet a future where there will be a declining single farm payment, which we would all see in our crystal balls as being inevitable. I hope that when the Minister has got his feet under the desk he will have a look at how ineffectively that money is being used in equipping farmers for a future where, as Mariann Fischer Boel has said, there will be a shift of resources from pillar 1 to pillar 2, and other major problems will need to be faced up to in the next couple of years.
Our farming industry has, in one way or another, provided the food for the population of this country for thousands of years, and it is only right and proper that we expect it to do so for the future. It is not just an industry of some ancient, quaint past, but one with a massive part to play in the long-term future of our country. It will not always be as it has been—it will change. Farmers are learning to look after their soils better—to conserve organic matter because of its water retention properties, and to reduce erosion. If we look back using today’s standards and values, we see that some practices of the past have proved to be wrong. There are huge challenges about fertility, with the decline in the supply of phosphates as well as nitrogen from fossil fuels. These are all big challenges.
All the industry expects, if it is to play such a huge role in the food security of this country, is that wherever possible the Government get off its back and create a better environment with more research and a more understanding means of dealing with competition from abroad as regards regulation and cheaper, lower-standard imports. Given those opportunities, I am certain that our industry has a great and profitable future—but, by goodness, things need to change to enable that to happen.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is highly regarded for his knowledge of and commitment to farming, as well as for his courtesy as a senior Member of this House. He spoke, as ever, with great authority and summarised many of the excellent contributions that we have heard; I agree with him wholeheartedly in that regard. I assure him that the Secretary of State will not miss any of the issues that were raised, which will be picked up from his officials, from Hansard, or from meetings that he and I have planned in the days ahead.
We know that English farmers are doing an essential job for us all. I am honoured to have been appointed to this job by the Prime Minister. I know that there have been many raised eyebrows given the view of some that, as an inner-city MP, I may have a credibility gap to overcome. I was a child of the ’50s and ’60s, like the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). I was brought up in a more respectful age, and I was brought up to admire and revere the countryside, even from the Gorbals, Pollokshaws and Pollokshields in Glasgow. I know that in my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), I have a hard act to follow. I hope that I will be able to live up to the standards that she set and the expectations of those who are watching us all.
This morning, I was fortunate to be able to visit the farm of Mr. Peter Kendall and his brother Richard in east Bedfordshire. We enjoyed the hospitality of Peter’s wife Mrs. Emma Kendall, who provided tea, toast and coffee to me and my officials, which was most welcome. We went to hear at first hand about the issues facing the farming industry today. They are proud of what they are doing, and rightly so. Listening to them and to others whom I have met in my first week or so in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I have become more aware of the challenges that we need to address. Set-aside, which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned, was high on the agenda this morning. As I am sure he is aware, the Secretary of State is scheduled to announce his conclusions on that before the summer recess.
Notwithstanding the challenges, at the same time there are real opportunities to ensure that we meet our agreed long-term vision for the farming sector—a thriving industry that is resilient and focused on sustainability. There are challenges facing the industry, however, and we are taking steps to address them. For example, I was pleased last week to be able to chair the pig meat supply chain taskforce, which was established earlier this year. It is looking to address some of the challenges that right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. The long-term sustainability of the pig industry must be safeguarded, as it has a significant contribution to make to a thriving farming sector and a sustainable, secure and healthy food supply that offers consumer choice.
I know that many farmers are concerned about the need for proportionate, sensible legislation. We share their concerns about the implementation of the electronic identification of sheep, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned at great length. He said that although there are benefits, such as enhancing disease control and providing management benefits for the keeper, the costs of EID outweigh the benefits for the industry as a whole. We are working with the industry to find a way to implement EID, as he outlined, while minimising the burden.
Climate change is another key issue for agriculture. The agricultural, forestry and land management sector is a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, being responsible for 14 per cent. of total global emissions and 7 per cent. in the UK. I have taken to heart the warning on Monday from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire not to hide behind a barrage of statistics, but one has to refer to some statistics in any contribution. The Government are currently developing a policy framework to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector.
Further, we are committed to making the most of the potential of anaerobic digestion to contribute to climate change policies and wider environmental objectives. The aim is to publish by July an implementation plan on practical measures identified by the task group on the matter, chaired by Mr. Steve Lee.
English farming has an important part to play in ensuring our food security, which many colleagues have mentioned this afternoon. The types of food that we eat, the cost of food and ensuring the supply of food have become hot topics. It is not simply a matter of domestic self-sufficiency. In response to questions asked by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said on a number of occasions, including today, that he wants British agriculture to produce as much as possible, provided that consumers want what is produced and that the way in which our food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.
Food labelling has a part to play in that, so we are pressing the food industry to provide clear and accurate origin information. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, met representatives of the food industry, including retailers, to stamp out inaccurate labelling practice. The pig taskforce has started to consider solutions to help halt such practices, including developing a voluntary agreement for the whole pig meat supply chain. In parallel, the Food Standards Agency is carrying out more detailed research into consumer behaviour in relation to origin labelling and the uptake of the origin labelling guidance that it issued last November.
We are also pushing forward in Europe with supporting the European Commission’s proposal to tighten up origin labelling and claims such as “British bacon”. No options have been ruled in or out of our consideration of what more can be done to improve origin labelling for meat.
We are pleased to hear that no options have been ruled out. I hope that the Government will consider a compulsory scheme, should it prove necessary. Will the Minister clarify the status of the negotiations with the supermarkets? As I said earlier, the Secretary of State talked about the matter months ago and I wonder what progress has been made towards a voluntary agreement. We would all prefer a voluntary labelling scheme, if possible.
All I can say at this point is that the matter was raised at the taskforce meeting last week. Progress is being made. Final conclusions have not yet been reached, but we hope that the work stream will be concluded as quickly as possible. Further on in my notes, I noted the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of introducing a domestic scheme if European measures fail. My understanding from advice that I received is that that may not legally be possible. However, the hon. Gentleman said that it is, so we would be happy to receive his legal advice, which we can share with our advisers. Perhaps they can then decide whether we have a case.
The UK needs to become a leader in sustainable food production, developing solutions that reduce the use of natural resources and reduce pollution, as well as having leading and competitive businesses.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs accused us of obstructing British farming. I fully accept that I have been in the Department for less than two weeks but my brief experience of chairing the dairy forum and the pig meat taskforce and of meetings inside and outside the Department suggest to me that there is optimism in British farming. Earlier, I said that we accept that there are challenges, difficulties and some issues about which we will disagree, but there is an underlying optimism throughout British agriculture and I believe that we need to continue to engage with and support the industry.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the increase in imports and the decline in domestic production. The positive messages are that 2008 produced a record cereals harvest and that beef and veal exports were also higher. The UK is currently 73 per cent. self-sufficient in all indigenous food—a higher proportion than at any time since the 1950s. Again, we can exchange statistics. I am not saying that we cannot improve the situation or that we should not assist more, but it is not all doom and gloom. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman implied that, but we want to ensure that we convey the positive message that I am getting from British farming as part of the wider debate. Most colleagues have also communicated that message.
The hon. Gentleman raised the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree about her support for a badger cull. Of course, she is fully entitled to her opinion and she has clearly examined the matter inside and outside the Department, and we respect her view. However, we all know that the decision is not simple. The factors that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed earlier are clear. The decision not to cull badgers was based on careful consideration of all the evidence, including the conclusions of the Select Committee’s report, and we are still working closely with the industry on that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information, about which I was not aware. I have not read any of Lord Rooker’s comments in recent days.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) asked about DEFRA funding farms to exit the milk business. I can only repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said: we have been engaging with farmers, the receiver and banks to try to get the best deal we can. However, I will provide a little more information to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about Blaydon.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) expressed apologies on behalf of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his absence, the reason for which we appreciate. I know that Labour and Conservative Front Benchers have communicated our best wishes to him for dealing with the problem at home this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised a number of issues, most of which, if he will forgive me, were either covered by the Secretary of State or raised by others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole expressed his concern about the smells and the health risks associated with composting and landfill. The Environment Agency provides a clear steer about the minimum distances between composting and farms and rural housing, although I am happy to explore the issues that he raised and the additional information that he supplied, in my capacity as the sponsoring Minister for the Environment Agency, and will write to him in due course.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the issue of housing, which, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, was covered extensively in our debate on Monday afternoon, in which there were statistical exchanges. The Government have a commitment to build 10,000 homes over three years, in communities of fewer than 3,000. We were given some credit from comrades—[Interruption]—from colleagues. Sorry, they were indeed comrades. We were given credit by comrades and colleagues on our Back Benches, but notwithstanding that welcome, there was also criticism from those who said that our commitment was not enough. However, that commitment has been made and we need to ensure that we deliver on it.
May I just say, in a comradely manner, that it would be helpful for smaller communities if there was a clear steer on providing affordable housing through community land trusts? I know that the Department for Communities and Local Government takes a lead on that, but DEFRA could be an important vehicle for encouraging that form of housing.
I hear my hon. Friend’s point. As he said, DCLG takes a lead on that, but our officials and Ministers obviously have an interest in such matters too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also asked whether we should or could include an animal welfare criterion in our public procurement. I can inform him that one of the sub-groups of the pig meat supply chain taskforce, which I mentioned I chaired last week, is looking at precisely that issue and exploring how we can step up the public procurement of products made with higher welfare standards. We agree entirely that the criterion that he outlined should be a consideration.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that no Minister had attended the Royal Bath and West show for several years. I can only apologise on my predecessors’ behalf, although I am pleased to be attending the royal show on 7 July and the Royal Norfolk show next week. I give as strong as a commitment as I can now to attend the Royal Bath and West show next year, but it may be immediately before the general election or immediately after—I am not quite sure which month it is in. I believe that purdah got in the way of an attendance this year; otherwise I understand that a Minister was committed to attend.
The hon. Gentleman talked about his concern at the decline of the dairy sector. However, as we have mentioned previously, the long-term prospects are encouraging. To put that in context, dairy farmer numbers have been reducing at a fairly steady rate in the UK for many years, as they have across the EU. On the other hand, milk production stayed relatively steady from the end of the milk marketing board in the early 1990s until 2003. Since then, there has been a steady decline, from a little over 14 billion litres a year to somewhere under 13 billion litres a year. The latest quarterly figures show a decline of just over 1 per cent. That is against a backdrop of extreme volatility in prices in the global market, with record prices in 2007-08, followed by a steep decline in 2008-09, which was driven by the global economic downturn and increased supply. However, as I heard yesterday at the dairy forum, UK dairy farms are among the most competitive in Europe and, in the medium term, are well placed to take advantage of continuing deregulation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon raised a number of issues. I am delighted to hear of the success of the red kites locally, and I acknowledge his invitation to visit one of his local establishments to enjoy the fare. He talked in his speech about the banks and the Dairy Farmers of Britain, as he did when he intervened on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I assure him that all that can be done is being done, and I am sorry that I can add little to what my right hon. Friend said earlier, other than to say that One NorthEast called DEFRA officials this morning. It has worked closely with the National Farmers Union, using a funded project within the English food and farming partnership, to help to put small farms together with local dairies, now that the dairy at Blaydon has closed. That has been quite successful, and the increased work for the small dairies has enabled them to take on 10 ex-Blaydon employees, so there has been some take-up of the unfortunate individuals who lost their jobs through the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain.
The right hon. Member for Fylde is highly regarded as the Select Committee Chair; more significantly, he now serves as the president of the Shepherd Road allotment society. We acknowledge the challenge that he faces from caterpillars, and wish him success in dealing with it. He mentioned his memories of the 1950s, and I have already mentioned mine. However, I do not remember seeing avocados in Glasgow. I am sure they were probably there, but I have no memory of my mum taking me to see the price of them.
The right hon. Gentleman made some significant points about food security, food production and food neo-colonialism. His warnings were telling, and serve only to reinforce the fundamental importance of this debate to what is happening in the real world outside. He raised the question of the common agricultural policy and my need to work hard to get up to speed on that subject, as my predecessor did. I can assure him that I have a lot of homework to do before the Agriculture Council next Monday and Tuesday in Luxembourg. I have already spoken today to the outgoing Czech presidency and the incoming Swedish ministerial presidency in advance of those events next week, and I shall be receiving quite a lot of briefing tomorrow and over the weekend.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) talked about bovine tuberculosis and about Dairy Farmers of Britain. I think that I have covered those points as best I can, but in answer to his question about the different policy of the Welsh Assembly Government, he will know that that is a result of devolution. Policies differ between Cardiff, London and Scotland as different conclusions are arrived at, but, as the Secretary of State said, the matter is under close consideration and will continue to be so.
The hon. Gentleman said that this was only the second debate on these matters in six years, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that when I get my feet under the table I will be able to study the issues a lot more. I have to say that if every other week is going to begin with a farming debate on the Monday and finish with another on the Thursday, I am not going to have time to get my feet under the table or to do any further study. I am sure, however, that the pace will not be quite as hectic as it has been in the past few weeks.
I hope that I have provided some additional clarity on what the Government are doing, but we cannot and should not do it alone. We will continue to work in a strong partnership with farmers and the representative bodies, and I look forward to helping to continue to build that partnership over the coming months. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am proud to be the Minister of State at DEFRA with responsibility for food, farms and the environment. Without guaranteeing agreement on anything, I hope to be an effective champion in the Government for farming, but I suspect that that is a judgment that others will have to make.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of food, farming and the environment.