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Biotechnology and Food Security

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue. I want the debate to be fact-based and to be about the science. I want it to be an unemotional and genuinely open debate about the future of this country’s food security and how we ensure that the people of the United Kingdom are well fed into the next generation. I acknowledge that this issue is not the responsibility of the UK Government or the Minister, but a European Union issue. It is for the EU to decide whether it uses genetic modification and biotechnology to solve such problems. This debate is an appeal to the Minister to push for and facilitate discussion, so that others can join in and we can have an open discussion about how to ensure that this great nation of ours is fed.

I am no historian, but following the second world war Winston Churchill said that this country should never again allow itself to be exposed to the food security issues we faced during that war. We have had two or three generations of consumers who have no concept of what food security is, or what it is like to go to the supermarket and find that a product is not on the shelf. My wife will go to the shop and if the product she requires is not on the shelf, she will storm down to customer services, bang on the desk and say, “What do you mean you haven’t got any paprika?”—or some other wonderful product. My grandmother, however, would go to the butchers and say, “I’d like lamb chops” and the butcher would say, “You can’t have lamb chops. You can have beef dripping because that’s all I’ve got”, and she would have to take it. Consumers now have no concept of what food security is, and it will be a big shock if we find ourselves in those circumstances again.

I turn to where we as a country have come to. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said last year that since 1997, the UK dairy herd is down by 22%, which is 500,000 fewer dairy cows. Fresh vegetable production is down by 36,000 hectares; the pig herd is down by 40%, which is 3 million fewer pigs; fresh fruit is down by 9,000 hectares; and the lamb flock is down by 25%, which is 10 million fewer lambs. Despite the fact that self-sufficiency in food production had dropped from 72% in 1996 to 60% in 2008, the Labour Government said in that year that the

“UK currently enjoys a high level of national food security”.

It is true that this country is still able to source and import food very easily, and nobody would stand here today and say that we will ever be 100% efficient in producing our own food. I, like many hon. Members, enjoy bananas, oranges and fruit from all over the world. However, the figures paint the picture of our diminishing ability to feed ourselves, and if that pipeline—the amount of food flowing into the country—were cut for any reason, it would have dramatic effects on our ability to do so.

There are four factors in the world today that will have enormous consequences for this country’s ability to feed ourselves: climate change, the global population, the global economy, and energy prices and our ability to supply energy to the world. I shall take them separately.

There is little debate over whether the climate is changing, and frankly, it is irrelevant whether we agree that that change is man-made or carbon-based. There is extreme weather: we need only look at Russia, which has suffered drought, and at Australia, which is suffering terrible floods at the moment, or at the terrible snow and frost in our country this year and the impact that had on vegetable producers. Trying to harvest carrots and parsnips from frozen ground was an enormous challenge for British farmers, who were trying to put those vegetables on to our plates for Christmas. Extreme weather brings huge challenges and will have a big impact on the cost of food.

Hon. Members who are familiar with commodity prices will know what this summer’s drought in Russia did to the value of wheat. Almost overnight, the value went from £90 a tonne to £160 a tonne for next September’s wheat, simply because the Russian Government said that they will not export any wheat but will retain it within Russia. That pushed world commodity prices up dramatically, which has affected general consumers. When they go to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread, they find that quite a cost has been added to it.

In 2003 Europe experienced a long, hot summer, which reduced the EU’s agricultural output in that year by 20%. There is a fine line between over-supply and under-supply. We need only be 2% under-supplied for the market to react and push up prices; we will feel that more in future. Farmers need to find new technologies to assist them, so they can cope with the changes in climate.

Secondly, global population will impact dramatically on our ability to feed ourselves. It is predicted that there will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2050. Where is the food to feed that number of people going to come from?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. He is right about the huge increase in world population and its impact on food security for the UK and Europe. Does he agree that the only way to tackle this is through new technology and science—for example, research to improve disease resistance and drought tolerance of staple crops, not only in the UK but across the world? We must not close the door on science and new technology.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is correct, in that we need to harness new technologies if we are to solve the problem. I will talk about that a little more later.

We have clearly been effective since the second world war in harnessing such technologies and in scientific advancement. The common agricultural policy, which came out of the post-war period, is often ridiculed as an enormous monster of a policy, but it was probably the most single most effective policy ever devised by politicians. It was designed to feed Europe and was enormously successful—so successful that by the 1980s, we had grain mountains and milk lakes. We all remember those stories in the media.

We have an enormous and growing world population, and we will have to try to feed all those people. It is important to recognise that the amount of land on the earth is not expanding, and we are using land for other things, not only food production. “They have stopped making land,” as they say.

At the same time, the issue is absolutely linked to the global economy. There have always been hungry people on this earth, but all of a sudden, we have countries with people who are not only hungry, but wealthy. On the other side of the globe, the economies of countries such as India and China are expanding, and diets are becoming western. The impact on the European Union will be enormous. In 1985, the average Chinese consumer ate 20 kg of meat a year, but it is now said that they eat 50 kg a year. Across the globe, economies are expanding—in India, the far east, south America and many African countries. Countries are moving in a similar direction to China, which will have a really large effect on our ability to keep ourselves fed.

The third relevant issue is world energy prices and our ability to ensure that we have enough energy. As economies expand, so, too, does their desire to consume energy—a country’s GDP is almost directly linked to the amount of energy it consumes. How will we produce enough energy and how will we do that sustainably? Sustainability is the key. It is all very well saying that we have enough gas and coal to keep ourselves going, but the impact of that carbon will be quite dramatic.

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s discussions with constituents will, like mine, have indicated that there is particular concern about the price of fuel—the fuel prices that the farmer pays to run his tractors in the fields. Those prices have also affected the price of fertiliser, which has risen from £100 to £300 a tonne. Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as many of us do, that concern about food prices will rise and that the days of cheap food are perhaps disappearing? We once sourced cheap food from south America, but demand from China, India and elsewhere may mean that our markets for cheap food will disappear. Does the hon. Gentleman share those concerns?

I thank you for that intervention. Those are exactly the concerns that I am expressing. You sum up very neatly what will happen to global markets. We have been importing from south America, Africa and many other places. When the almighty dollar takes hold, and China tells countries, “Don’t export your meat products to the United Kingdom. Export them to China and we’ll pay you a dollar a kilo more,” producers will naturally say, “Thank you very much, United Kingdom, but we’ll sell to China. We’ll export to you if you pay £1.50 a kilo extra.” That is exactly where the problem materialises.

Energy is very much linked to this issue. As you indicated, the cost of agricultural fertiliser—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is making an impressive speech, but there are too many references to “you”. Members should always refer to each other as hon. Members or hon. Friends.

I am grateful to you for your intervention, Mr Streeter.

World energy prices are very much linked to the issues that we face. The simple fact is that the price of petroleum directly affects the price of agricultural fertilisers and pesticides and has a knock-on effect on them.

Energy production itself requires land usage. Erecting a wind turbine takes out land that could be used for agricultural food production. The erection of a refinery takes land out of agricultural food production and uses it for industrial purposes. More importantly, as we move towards sustainable energy sources, such as bioethanol and biodiesel produced from rape seed, we will be using agricultural crops to produce those biofuels, taking land out of food production and putting it into energy production. That might seem like a wonderful, modern technology and a wonderful, modern thing to do, but when my grandfather started farming in the 1930s, 30% of his land was used to produce oats, which were the energy source for the horses that he used to pull the ploughs. There is, therefore, nothing new in farmers using land for energy production. What has changed, however, is the number of people we have to feed and produce for. The changes will be quite dramatic, and we need to make sure that we have technologies available to assist us.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, said:

“by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”

Those are dramatic statistics. If we are to solve such problems, we really will have to set our stall out and meet those challenges. I hope that we all recognise that there are enormous challenges out there.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he is putting the case. One area of influence that has not been touched on is the UK media’s attitude to some of the topics he has discussed. Does he have a view on whether their attitude, particularly to developing technologies, has been a hindrance and has impacted negatively on our farmers’ ability to meet the challenges he has set out?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he says is true, and the purpose of today’s debate is to have a much more mature, science-based, focused discussion, which looks at the facts rather than the hysteria. My hon. Friend will recall headlines such as “Frankenstein foods”, which do nothing to inform people, and only make them scared of new technologies. To a certain extent, that is human nature. I stand here today unsure myself as to whether these new technologies will assist us. My point, however, is that we need to have the debate, to look at the facts and to explore the opportunities to see whether they offer a solution to the problems we face.

The human race has always been scared of new technologies. If we went back in history to the first time a surgeon suggested doing a heart transplant, we would see the furore that that caused. It was very dramatic to take a heart from one human being and transplant it into another human being. That was quite scary at the time, but it is now run of the mill. As a Member of Parliament, I am lobbied by people who say that we need to improve organ donation and to make sure that we are all informed about it. The technology is accepted and warmly embraced.

To an extent, we are going through the same debate with stem cells, because people are concerned about them and about whether they can assist us. Of course the human race is sometimes scared of change, but we have always been quite adaptable. In the end, we get there, we embrace technologies and we make use of them. That is why we have been so successful as a species at looking after ourselves.

I want to draw attention to Sir Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel peace prize for his work in changing wheat varieties and improving the way in which we feed ourselves. Many Members have mentioned the fact that we have been able to feed ourselves since the second world war, and we have done a very good job of that. Sir Norman Borlaug was the lead figure in the field. After the second world war, wheat yields were very low. As part of a long and painful process, Sir Norman used a paintbrush to cross-pollinate different varieties of wheat. He was able to take the correct strains from one variety and put them into another. That made the wheat yield vastly more per acre. It also made varieties shorter so that they did not fall over. As I said, we were able to feed Europe; we were able to keep what is now the European Union well fed. That process took a long time. We are talking about tens of years to make advancements in the science.

I am led to believe that genetic modification can speed up that process of genetic change. We have been doing such things for a long time. We have been changing the genetic make-up of those varieties through the long and laborious process of cross-pollination. Genetic modification can speed up that process and lead to advances that will reduce the disease susceptibility of those varieties and make them easier to grow and more drought-resistant. That has to be a good thing. At this stage, it is worth recognising that the genie is out of the bottle. Countries such as the USA, Canada and Brazil are using these technologies. Those crops are being grown in other parts of the world, where technological advancement is starting to move faster than it is here.

It is suggested that yields could increase between 6% and 30% using the same amount of land. If we were able to harness that technology, we could increase yields by 30%. Given the figures and the global changes that we are experiencing, even that degree of advancement might not be enough to keep us all fed to our accustomed level. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned fertilisers, a subject that will prove important as we move forward. Imagine a technology able to produce a wheat variety that had the same root structure as lucerne, which is nitrogen-fixing. Lucerne—and clover, which is very similar—takes nitrogen from the atmosphere, absorbs it into its leaves and produces nitrates in its root structure.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is fitting that a debate on food security should be initiated by a Member with the name Mark Spencer. He stresses the importance of new technologies. Does he agree that is fundamentally important that the Government invest in them, to ensure that the farming community can avail itself of the technologies so that the prospect of feeding the population is more easily achieved?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that we need to invest. We are actually reducing the amount that we are putting into research and development in the industry. We have not been very good at that. This Government are assisting a little bit, but it is a small step back in the right direction. We have not put enough into research and development. The amount that we spend is dwarfed by the amount being spent by other countries around the globe. We are going to lose our reputation and position at the forefront, the cutting edge of those developments and technologies. This country has always succeeded by leading the way. We were the leaders during the industrial revolution, which gave this small nation a global position, making it the Great Britain that it is.

Globally, farmers have earned an extra €34 billion since the introduction of biotechnologies, 44% of which resulted from yield gains and 56% from the reduction of production costs. I mentioned the benefits of nitrogen-fixing wheat. Improving the root structure of wheat would enable it to be grown in other countries, such as central and northern Africa—places where at the moment it is too dry. The benefits would include not only the ability of this country to feed itself, but the chance for African countries to feed their populations and improve their lifestyle. It could also have massive implications for the environment. The amount of nitrates we use could be dramatically reduced, which would assist in the management and protection of the environment. The amount of pesticides that we use could be reduced. I have never met a farmer who likes using pesticides—they are very expensive. Finding a technology that would enable us to spray fewer pesticides on to crops—which themselves could be more disease-resistant—would benefit farmers and consumers.

In the UK, yields of oilseed rape since 1995 have risen approximately 0.5% year on year. In Canada, they are rising 3% year on year, simply because it is making use of those new technologies. Its farmers' ability to produce more from the same amount will make them more competitive than ours.

It is exciting to see technologies open up. Imagine producing an apple that reduced cholesterol or a tomato that prevented bowel or breast cancer. All of a sudden the media perception of “Frankenstein foods” as something to be feared and avoided would be turned on its head. Consumers would be clamouring to make the most of the new technologies and these “wonder foods” that were cures and were helpful. There is a lot of work to be done and there is a lot of speculation; I acknowledge that, but the technologies are there to be explored and could be of great benefit.

There are clearly concerns. The consumer is concerned about these products. We referred to the fact that people worry about change. We need to recognise that and ensure that we take people along with us in an open debate. It is also worth recognising that technologies used in the past have occasionally broken down. There have been mistakes. Those involved in agricultural industries will remember a wheat variety called “Moulin”, which was marketed, but when it came to the point where it should pollinate it did not work. That was disastrous: farmers had zero yields, having grown the crop for a year. We need to ensure that we do this properly, that the scientific evidence is correct and that we explore the technologies in the right manner. The only way to do that is to do the research and the trials. I ask the Minister to assist in facilitating those trials in the UK, so that we can test the water and try out some of the technologies under controlled circumstances, to see if they have anything to offer to solve the problems that we shall face globally.

The organic sector often expresses concern that there will be cross-contamination—that bees will fly from GM crops to organic crops. In the US there is a thriving organic movement and both systems sit side by side. Consumers have the choice of new technology, traditional or organic food, and it seems to work well.

Who is leading the way? I have mentioned the US and Canada, but China is doubling the amount it is spending on agricultural biotech research and development in the next five years. It is currently spending $400 million on research and development—20% of world investment. The European Union will be left behind if we do not step up to the mark, get stuck in and try to keep pace. Genetic modification technology is currently being used by more than 14 million farmers around the world. That is a landmass equivalent to the whole of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is no small trial. It is happening on the other side of the globe as we speak. More than 2 trillion meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed over the past 13 years without a single substantiated case of ill health.

Given the fuss that we make about peanuts because every now and again someone has an allergic reaction to them, it seems unbelievable that we are not out there in white suits and little masks tearing up peanut fields because of the impact that peanuts have on people’s diets. However, whenever somebody mentions new technology people with placards want to wreck the trials and research.

I appeal to those who feel the need to wreck those trials not to do so, because we need to find evidence that they work and to establish the technology. If those people are correct in thinking that the technology will not work, we need to do the trials to establish the fact so that the technology can be stopped. My appeal to all involved is to engage in the debate; supermarkets, growers, retailers and producers should come to the table to talk it through, to do the research and development and to settle the argument once and for all. If the technology is available to assist us, we need to enhance it.

What is the implication for UK producers and consumers? Clearly, GM is in production and in circulation. Soya, maize and tomatoes are intrinsic to our diet. I put it to Members that at some point we will all have consumed a GM product without realising it—probably as a soya-based product, perhaps in a pizza or in processed food. The country has a choice. Should we go down the same route as the Austrians and be completely GM-free, not having GM and labelling all our food to ensure that we protect ourselves from the perceived problem; or do we embrace GM and label our food so that people can make a clear choice?

If we go down the GM-free route, our farmers and producers may be able to attract a small premium. However, I believe that commodity prices will continue to rise, and that the global economy and the increase in the global population will have an impact.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work that has been done by universities across the United Kingdom on GM foods, particularly by Queen’s university? They have been in contact with companies and businesses to perfect GM foods and move forward. The advantage that Queen’s university has for those businesses is that everyone gains. Is he aware of that, and if so will he comment on it?

I am aware that a number of universities are participating in research, and I appeal to those institutions to give the universities the support that they require to continue with it. It emphasises the fact that the United Kingdom has the scientific brains to do this. We have the willingness and the intellectual power. What we need now is a fair crack of the whip—a bit of financial support and some understanding among the population of the technology. We need to debate the matter so that people can understand it and embrace it—or, if it is not the correct route, to say that it has been considered but that it is not the direction to go. The only way to achieve that is through good scientific research, and I am grateful that Queen’s university is involved in that great work.

I return to my scenario. We have a choice. We either go down the GM-free route or we embrace the technology. If we choose to go down the non-GM route, however, it will be difficult to ensure that our borders are GM-free. For example, meat products will be important but we will have no means of testing whether those animals have been fed on a diet of genetically modified feed. UK producers will be producing free-range chickens for the supermarkets, but those birds could be sat on the shelf next to Brazilian chickens that had been fed on cheaper GM wheat and were being sold for £2 less. Will the British consumer know why the Brazilian chicken is £2 cheaper, or be aware that the other chicken is more expensive because it is GM-free? It will be almost impossible to police. As commodity prices start to increase, the consumer’s unwillingness to tolerate or accept new technologies that give them good, healthy, quality food at the right price will diminish over time. That is why we need to push forward and ensure that we are competitive.

Enormous global changes are afoot that are out of our control. The United Kingdom has no control over global population. We have no control over world energy prices. We have no control over the climate; we should acknowledge that the human race cannot control what happens to the weather. However, we are in control of our ability to use the available technologies. We should embrace those technologies, consider them, discuss them and ensure that we are at the cutting edge as we move forward. If we are going to be sustainable, and if we are going to keep ourselves fed, we need to use all the tools that are available to us. I believe that we should explore the prospect of biotechnology being one of the tools that we should be using.

I apologise for being a few moments late, Mr Streeter, and I thank you for calling me to speak and giving me the chance to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing the debate. Like my hon. Friend and others here today, I believe that the subject is rather more important than is suggested by the coverage that it receives in the Chamber. Perhaps this debate is a precursor to a bigger one on the Floor of the House.

I speak as a new Member who had a career in biotechnology. I dealt mainly in biomedical technology venture capital, but come from a farming background and once, many years ago, worked for the National Farmers Union in policy development. I have long taken an interest in the subject, and I believe that there would be substantial public interest in it if enough of us were prepared to talk about it in the right way, as my hon. Friend did so eloquently this morning.

To that end, Mr Streeter, I declare an interest. I worked in biotechnology for 14 years, and I have a number of small shareholdings in small companies which are all declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I serve as a non-executive adviser to Elsoms seeds, Britain’s last independent family-owned seeds business, and to the Norwich research park where some of our leading agricultural science is being carried out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood spoke eloquently about the huge opportunities of biotechnology and the huge challenges faced by the Government, Parliament and the country in the years ahead, given the pace of globalisation and population growth and the enormous pressure on farmers around the world to grow more from less. He mentioned projections for explosive population growth and the huge pressure to reduce inputs, particularly energy and water that will result—and, I might add, the potential for those problems to lead to serious geopolitical tensions. If we look around the world today, we see that underlying some of the most acute regional conflicts are issues to do with poverty and with tensions around resources. Therefore, this is about not just science and agriculture but geopolitics and major issues around international security.

Like my hon. Friend, I feel strongly that agricultural biotechnology holds enormous potential to help us solve some of the biggest issues that face our generation. Moreover, it is a matter that transcends party boundaries, and I suspect that we shall hear much of that from the Opposition Benches this morning.

Let me highlight three personal experiences that endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I have recently had the great privilege to visit the John Innes centre and to see the work that is going on to develop a blight-resistant potato. If we were to explain properly that stunning piece of technology to the public and to the people who do their weekly shop in the supermarkets, they would quickly understand the benefits. The technology would enable us to grow blight-resistant potatoes without having to use the 14 different applications of pesticide that are currently required. There would be huge environmental benefits with massive reductions in energy input into agriculture in the field. That is British technology, developed in this country, and it has enormous global potential. We should be proud of it; we should be talking more about it and celebrating it.

I also had a chance last summer to see another wonderful piece of work at the John Innes centre. Scientists are looking back through historical wheat varieties and cross-breeding varieties of wheat from different parts of the world. In one case, they have taken traditional Afghan breeds with short stems that are well adapted to grow in the Afghan climate and genetically manipulated them—others would describe it as cross-breeding them, which is what people have been doing in agriculture for thousands of years. They have been trying to produce a short-stemmed wheat crop that is well adapted to grow in Afghan conditions but with a much higher yield. Imagine the geopolitical implication that that would have for helping our development and military objectives in Afghanistan. Such a project provides a very good example of the technologies that we are developing in this country.

In my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, I met two delegations from Brazil and Uganda. The Ugandan delegation was led by a gentleman who is pioneering the use of biotechnology in the banana industry in Uganda. In Brazil, the delegation comprised a huge consortium of soya bean farmers. It was pioneering not just the application but the science and research of genetic technology in the soya bean sector, with huge environmental and economic advantages. I confess to having been taken aback by the scale, professionalism and the commercial application of these technologies in countries that we sometimes refer to in this House as the developing world. Such countries are more than developing, they are very developed, and they are trading with each other very fast and growing into a position of global leadership. Although we should be proud of the science that we have in this country, we are in danger of lagging behind in the application, commercialisation and international roll-out of such technologies. I know that the Minister feels strongly, and has talked eloquently, about that.

Biotechnology sits right at the heart of this coalition Government’s programme in so many ways. First, on the environmental agenda, the Prime Minister has spoken eloquently about this Government being the greenest Government ever, and agriculture biotechnology sits at the heart of that. Secondly, the Government have set out a radical programme for growth, rebalancing the economy and reducing our dependence on financial arbitrage in the City. I argue that investing in and backing British science and technology companies would give our City financiers more substantial things to invest in and to back and it would do wonders for our growth potential.

Biotechnology sits at the heart of the health agenda. If we are to develop the healthy society that we all crave and to get into health prevention, we need to explore some of the enormous benefits and economic opportunities that come from functional foods and nutraceuticals. If we put our traditional strength in food—retailing, manufacturing and processing—and combine it with our science, this country could lead the world in what I believe is a coming revolution in functional foods and nutraceuticals.

The Government have, rightly, put overseas development at the heart of their programme. Biotechnology can help the developing world to move away from its dependence on aid and to strengthen its development through trade. This is a vital agenda that sits right at the heart of the coalition Government’s programme in so many ways.

Given the economic potential and the political and international importance of biotechnology, it is odd that the debate in this country is so skewed by a very noisy, cynical and, at times, hysterical anti-science lobby that is given too much air time. All of us who understand the power of this technology need to speak up, as we are today, and explain the benefits. There has been quite a lot of public concern about some of these technologies—my hon. Friend referred to stem cells, with which I am familiar. My own experience in biomedical science is that once the benefits are clear—and nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of having one’s life doubled in length by heart surgery—and, crucially, the public are satisfied that an appropriate regulatory framework is in place, which means trust in this House and trust in the process and regulation of science, there is the potential to unlock public support for this revolution. We must concentrate on the benefits of such technologies and have a cross-party commitment to transparent regulation. It is crucial that we are science led and evidence based. We must take scientific evidence properly and create a framework for policy making that is science led, on which, I know, the Minister is strong.

I enjoy knocking on doors and saying to voters in my constituency, “Aren’t you excited by the technology that is being developed just across the boundary in Norwich at the research park? Imagine, madam, what a blight-free potato would do for the environment, the bird life in our hedgerows in Norfolk, productivity, Norfolk’s farmers, the quality of the food you eat and for the world potential for trade and development.” Unless we say such things, the consumers are not aware of the benefits. If we speak up, we will find that there is huge popular support and that the sometimes hysterical media coverage does not adequately or correctly reflect public opinion.

I will finish there because I know that Members are waiting for the Minister’s comments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing this debate. He made an extremely wide-ranging, comprehensive and thoughtful speech. I also commend the remarks made by the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who gave the House the benefit of his expertise in this area.

This debate is particularly timely because of the recent spike in global food prices. Yesterday, the Financial Times reported:

“Global food prices have reached a nominal all-time high, surpassing even the peak seen in 2007-08—when bread riots rocked poorer countries.”

Although rising food prices may be a great inconvenience for consumers in the United Kingdom, they are particularly worrying for the poorer economies, such as Brazil and India. In India and China, food costs account for almost 50% of household outgoings, so the impact of rising global food prices will be particularly badly felt in those countries.

I commend the remarks made by Professor John Beddington about 18 months ago at the sustainable development conference. He said that if we do not take much more intensive action to increase global food production, we face “a perfect storm” of problems by 2030. He said:

“Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.”

It seems clear that the use of biotechnology and policy across the EU and G20 must focus on producing more hardy crops, less wastage in terms of crop yields and better use of existing water supplies.

In responding to the debate, there are three areas that I want to touch on. The first is biofuels, which the hon. Member for Sherwood referred to. Through my role in a previous life—my first Front-Bench responsibility, as shadow Minister for Transport—I know that the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Transport are engaged in a consultation on the renewable transport fuels obligation. There is no question but that sustainable biofuel production has a great deal to offer, both to our economic output and to reducing CO2 emissions. However, we must be careful about which biofuels we support and invest in. The Government have already taken very welcome action on palm oil; however, there are concerns about some biofuel production, including some bioethanol production, which the Institute for European Environmental Policy has expressed. The IEEP has calculated that the indirect effect of the switch from food production to biofuel production could be to take between 4.1 million and 6.9 million hectares out of food production across the EU. As a result, that could lead to between 26 million and 56 million tonnes of CO2 emissions being put into the atmosphere.

When the Minister responds, it would be useful if he told us what efforts the Government are making to shift investment and support in research and development and other incentives away from first-generation biofuels and into second-generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, the use of biofuels from algae and the use of woodchip, all of which are much more sustainable means of biofuel production than simple bioethanol production. It is clear that we must do nothing to put small-scale bioethanol producers in difficulty, but we need a real analysis of what large-scale bioethanol production is going to contribute, in order to establish whether it might be damaging overall in our fight against CO2 emissions. I hope the Government will be able to conduct that analysis in the next few months.

The second crucial point is the importance of increasing investment in agricultural research and development. Work has recently been done by the academic community on this subject. The two authors, one of whom is based at the university of Bournemouth, of a paper I have been reviewing this morning entitled “Agricultural R&D, technology and productivity” make an excellent point about the benefits—in a sense, the disproportionate benefits—that accrue from investing in agricultural research and development by boosting both global food production and the overall investment in science. Since the second world war, increasing agricultural productivity has allowed food output to keep pace with demand, but that link will perhaps not be evident in the next few years.

It would therefore be useful if the Minister told us today what representations the Government have made at EU level about how the EU can boost R and D investment. Such investment must be boosted in the public sector. It is an aim shared absolutely by Members across the House that we want the EU to spend less on direct subsidies and more on investment in science and agricultural R and D. However, the Government must also consider how to improve the levels of private R and D. For example, what discussions is the Minister having with his Treasury colleagues ahead of the Budget to develop new initiatives that will strengthen private companies’ ability to invest in R and D, building on measures such as the R and D tax credit that the previous Government introduced? Also, can he give the House an assurance that levels of agricultural R and D will be higher at the end of this period of government than when the coalition took office?

The scale of the investment that will be needed is staggering. The paper that I referred to says clearly:

“By 2050, the world population is expected to grow…to 9.1 billion…and allowing for increased incomes and changes in diet”—

the hon. Member for Sherwood referred to those changes, including the immense growth in meat consumption in China—

“global demand for food…to grow by 50 per cent by 2030 and 70 per cent by 2050…The estimate”—

for the increase in agricultural R and D investment—

“is 1.34 per cent…per annum.”

That would be a massive step change in the magnitude of investment from current levels.

The Government must address this issue here in Westminster, but frankly, they must also address it at EU level and at the G20. Has the Minister discussed with the Prime Minister the latter’s raising the issue of biotechnology in discussions at the G20 this year? It is clear that if we do not start to increase the levels of agricultural R and D spend now, it will be very hard to meet the targets for increased food production and innovation that will be required by 2050.

The third area that it is important to address is, of course, genetic modification. The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk was absolutely right that the debate about genetic modification must be rational and based on science. However, I depart slightly from the hon. Member for Sherwood’s analysis, in that my understanding is that last year, the EU decided to devolve down to member states the issue of determining whether genetically modified technology should be used. Therefore, GM technology will be an issue for the UK Government to decide on by assessing the best available science, the level of commitment to such technology, and whether they will permit its large-scale roll-out.

Clearly, there is an important national debate that we need to have. Many people in the food production industry and many academics who have looked at the problems we will face have said that there are clear benefits from investing in GM technology, for precisely the reasons, including innovation, that we heard about from the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Mid Norfolk. However, there are also concerns—very reasonable ones—that we must all address about the potential health issues that may arise decades down the line. It is important that we continue to invest in the science in order to gather the best possible data we can get, so can the Minister tell us what levels of investment in research in GM technology the Government will provide by the end of this Parliament?

The title of this debate is “Biotechnology and Food Security”, and it is clear that conventional biotechnologies such as breeding techniques, use of tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation have been readily used and accepted. Between 1950 and 1980, before the development of genetically modified organisms, modern varieties of wheat increased yields by up to 33%, even in the absence of fertiliser. Modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted. For example, the industrial enzyme market in the US reached $1.5 billion in 2000.

However, we now need a step change if we are to produce higher crop yields, make better use of water and increase sustainable food production—without increasing our overall emissions of CO2 or other greenhouse gases—such that we can meet the competing but necessary objectives of reducing and alleviating climate change, and achieving greater levels of food production.

I hope the Minister can address those points. There is a consensus on the Front Benches about the need to increase food production. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the Government are committed to increasing R and D levels, particularly agricultural R and D, in both the public and private sectors, and that we can move forward together to tackle this issue, which is of enormous interest to our constituents and to people in many other countries across the world.

Good morning, Mr Streeter. It is good to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing it and raising the issue of food security. He highlighted, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), the challenges that the world will face during the next few decades.

I was going to refer to Professor Beddington’s comments about the perfect storm, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East has already done so, I will not repeat them. It is clear from this debate and many others that there is a growing recognition that many issues are coming together: climate change, population increase, population prosperity, and the consequent demand for more and better-quality food and the problem that due to climate change, some arable land may cease to be suitable for arable production. The coming together of those issues creates a huge challenge that affects many areas: the European situation, the single market, the competitiveness of our production and the interface between food science and our approach to innovation and technology, on which much of this debate has focused.

This is an important debate. I was impressed by the opening comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood about the desire to have a serious debate that eliminates much of the emotion, and indeed the emotional nonsense, that we sometimes hear, avoids the over-generalisation and simplification incorporated in many comments and addresses the issue seriously. The Government’s overall policy is to enhance the competitiveness and resilience of our food chain and, as I have said repeatedly, to reverse the decline in UK production.

However, we seem to be in an invidious position. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East referred to global food prices, specifically the spike of two years ago and the current all-time high. Obviously, one concern is the impact that that is having on the ability of consumers, particularly poorer consumers, to sustain a reasonable diet. Back home, Finance Ministers and Chancellors around the world are concerned about its inflationary impact. Yet at the same time, the rise in global food prices is in many ways a direct consequence of moving agricultural policy, not just in Europe but elsewhere, closer to the world market situation rather than maintaining the sorts of protectionist arrangement used in the past. Many have always argued that consumers overpay for food under the common agricultural policy, but now that we are not subsidising food production, they pay even more. Some of the simplistic arguments used in the past are not very accurate.

Some people argue that what we do in the UK is of little consequence as agriculture is not a big industry, and that in global terms we do not need to worry very much about it. I emphasise that that is not the Government’s view. The whole food chain contributes some £85 billion per annum to our economy, or 7% of gross domestic product, as well as 3 million jobs. Food manufacturing is the biggest individual manufacturing sector. It plays a major role in delivering our economic growth and, obviously, in the environmental impact of our food industry, so we want to support it in any way we can.

The long-term challenges that we have been discussing also offer great market and productivity opportunities for our agriculture. Achieving our food security objectives sustainably is also important to achieving the biodiversity outcomes that we all want to achieve, such as the convention on biological diversity to which we signed up in Nagoya a few weeks ago and, closer to home, our climate change objectives and millennium development goals.

As most Members have said, there is obviously a great EU angle on the issue, and I will return to that in a few moments in the context of genetically modified foods. As my hon. Friends have said, we have already achieved a tremendous amount in the 50 or 60 years since the second world war and the food shortages that caused countries in different parts of the world to develop their own forms of policy. Our guaranteed price system was introduced in 1947, and the EU intervention system was introduced when the common market was first formed.

The varieties of our major crop plants have improved massively. Initially, they improved predominantly in yield, then in disease resistance and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk said, in suitability for different climates, pest resistance and other aspects. That has all been achieved, but biotechnology opens up a whole new range of possibilities. The term “biotechnology”, as he also said, covers a multiplicity of different techniques. GM is often described, but biotechnology also includes genomics, cloning, the use of enzymes, marker-assisted selection and gene sequencing. As with all science, it is moving faster and faster. In the 1990s, the characterisation of the human genome took 10 years; our current technology could do it in two days. That is the rate of acceleration in scientific development.

There is no doubt that biotechnology has huge potential to provide quicker and more efficient developments in plant breeding. Biochemical or DNA testing can identify specific genes responsible for different traits, and biotechnologies such as marker-assisted selection or genetic modification offer further tools for ensuring that such genes can be used. However, it is important to emphasise that whatever aspect of biotechnology we consider, Government policy must be science-led and science-based. There should be no other basis for it.

The different technologies that I have listed pose different challenges. Some, like marker-assisted selection, do not seem to pose any risks and create little public concern. Others, such as GM, have raised concerns. Obviously, health and environmental safety must be absolute priorities when we consider GM technology. I believe that the combination of EU and UK risk assessment and regulatory regimes demonstrate that, and that we will proceed on that basis using the latest available evidence.

Much of this debate and many of the understandable challenges posed to me by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East relate to research. He knows full well the answers to some of the questions that he has asked me. I do not criticise him for that; it is a traditional form of opposition, as he knows that I cannot answer some of them. However, I will try to respond to all the points made.

I emphasise that the Government are spending about £400 million a year on agriculture and food research and are working directly with industry to support competitiveness and innovation in food through the Technology Strategy Board’s sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform, which the Labour Government introduced. That was a good idea and a good innovation. Funded jointly by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Technology Strategy Board is investing up to £90 million over five years to provide match funding to industry for technological research and development. I cannot narrow down precisely how much of that is spent on GM, but it is part of the totality of spending.

On the wider issue of research spending, as the hon. Gentleman knows, clearly research could not be immune to the pressures of reducing the public deficit, but the fact that the Government have maintained spending in cash terms over the whole spending review demonstrates the importance that we attach to it commensurate with all the other demands for public spending.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the private sector. Obviously, what the TSB is doing with match funding is important, but the role of the private sector must continue to increase. In fact, a large proportion of the development of GM technology has occurred in the private sector. That is the reality of where it has come from. We can be pretty critical of how at least one major plant breeder has handled the public relations aspect, which has caused some of the problems with public opinion on GM.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk mentioned the John Innes centre in Norwich, and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany is based in my constituency. Both are freestanding research organisations that are doing a tremendous amount of work. Some of their project work is funded by the Government, but much of it is funded by outside organisations.

On the question of funding for science, I endorse the Minister’s point about the relative protection for science funding provided in the recent settlement. My experience of talking with science research institutes is that they recognise that in a time when Government funding is severely constrained, the Government have done as much as could be expected to protect the core research budget. The point I want to make relates to the technology innovation centres, which are part of the Government’s policy for promoting integration between research and the private sector. Does the Minister agree that there might be a case for having a food science-related TIC to try to pull together our strengths in places such as Norwich, Reading, Liverpool and other centres that might otherwise fall between the stools?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As he knows well, there is already a huge amount of collaboration between the organisations I have mentioned and other important plant science centres, but it is an area where one can never do too much. I entirely share his overall approach, which is that we need to do all we can to ensure that we deliver the maximum benefit and that there is no risk of duplication.

Before speaking specifically on GM, I wish to pick up on a couple of points that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East made on bioethanol, biofuels and their sustainability. I appreciate his point about the measures that we have already taken on palm oil. I am afraid that I cannot give him a figure off the top of my head for research into second generation ethanol and biofuels, but I will be happy to write to him on that, and on EU spend, with all the information I can give.

That obviously leads to the question of CAP reform and where we go from here. I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s view that we must concentrate CAP resources on moving agriculture forward, rather than on our current direct payment system—there is a degree of unanimity across the Benches on that—although in no way do we propose that the direct payment system should go in the short term, as that would destroy agriculture as we know it in this country. Clearly, however, we want to see a gradual shift away from that to more clearly identifiable public benefits, and in our view R and D is a key part of that. We definitely want to see more CAP expenditure spent on R and D, and I can assure him that that is part of our approach to reform, although it is terribly early days—we probably have a two or three-year programme of debate and discussion.

I will now turn specifically to genetic modification, an area of huge emotion and oversimplification. GM involves the insertion of foreign genes carrying a specific trait into an existing plant. It is the only technique—I differ slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood on his description of this point—that allows one to cross-breed genetic material from unrelated organisms, which means overcoming a specific barrier. It is not just a case of speeding up what would happen anyway, but involves doing things that could happen in nature only by a completely unpredictable mutation. The insect resistance that has been bred into maize, which has been of huge economic value to the industry, was achieved by taking a gene from a completely unrelated plant. The same was the case with the early work that made oilseed rape and soya resistant to the chemical glyphosate, thus allowing the overall crop to be sprayed. That required a gene from a plant that was resistant to be inserted into a plant that was not, so that it became resistant.

There is a great risk of over-generalising, and those who call for a moratorium or freeze on all GM work are missing the point. Every individual trait must be separately assessed and tested, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is right about the importance of field testing before deciding whether to allow commercial production to proceed, because each is a unique development and one cannot make those generalisations.

I am afraid, Mr Streeter, that I am taking advantage of the fact that I have a little more time than is normally available, but I think that these are key issues. It is important to recognise that the traits that are the subject of GM are moving themselves. Critics saw the early tests as a way of simply putting more money into the hands of chemical companies or farmers, but we are now beginning to see traits in GM that are more relevant to the consumer and the wider community, such as the work on genes that encourage high omega fats in oilseed rape and other plants. Drought resistance and the ability of plants to grow with much less water have been referred to. That will be of huge benefit to the developing world in the short term, but because of climate change it could also become far more relevant in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood suggested, the holy grail in such research is to breed a grain that is leguminous. That brings us back to sustainability, which must be a cornerstone of agricultural development in coming years.

The Government are close to finalising our overall policy on GM. It is a sensitive issue and obviously there are many views. We want to get it right, so the debate and the speeches that have been made this morning are timely. It is not desperately urgent, although we need to move on quickly. No commercial GM crops are being grown in this country at present. We had two research trials last year, one by the Sainsbury laboratory on blight-resistant potatoes and one by Leeds university on nematode-resistant potatoes. The issue of vandalism was raised in the debate, and I am pleased to say that those trials were not attacked—security for them was paid by BBSRC, and a little was paid by DEFRA. I share my hon. Friend’s view that if we want to know whether there is a risk with those crops we need to test them, rather than rip them up in the first place. I want to assure the House that if we decide to approve the planting of GM crops, it will be based not only on science, but on strict criteria for crop segregation, both in the field and post-harvest, together with effective rules and protocols on the liability that comes from that, and my hon. Friend referred rightly to organic farm production in that context.

One issue is particularly topical—imported animal feed. The world price of grain and soya has rocketed in recent months, meaning that our livestock producers are facing immense problems in obtaining sufficient volumes of GM-free soya, which is what they have to use. That is partly because the current EU rules for the import of soya do not allow for any contamination by an unapproved GM product, which means that most shippers are unwilling to take the risk because the detection of even the slightest amount of GM product would mean that the whole consignment was rejected. The EU has tabled a proposal that would effectively set a 0.1% tolerance level in grain imports for certain GM materials that were not yet approved in the EU, but that were in the approval process. That seems to be a common-sense way of proceeding that would reduce the risks posed to grain imports by the present rules. No decision has been made and we are looking at the detail of the proposal before the vote in February. As I have said, we think it is eminently sensible.

Insect-resistant maize and starch potatoes are being grown commercially elsewhere and other crops are in the regulatory pipeline. Overall, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said, Europe grows far fewer GM crops than most of the rest of the world. Those crops now cover more than 9% of the world’s arable land—an area five times the size of the UK—and involve 25 countries. We cannot ignore those facts. That has all happened in about 10 years, and production is rocketing year on year.

It is clear that many farmers see the advantages of using GM, and many experts such as those at the Royal Society believe that it could provide benefits if it is used safely and responsibly. However, it is not a panacea. We should not kid ourselves that GM will be the answer to all our problems—the answer to Professor Beddington’s perfect storm—but it could well be one of the tools that we need to address the longer-term challenges of global food security, climate change and making agriculture more sustainable.

That is why the Government are determined to move forward with these issues. We do not believe that we can put our hand up and say “stop” to science at any point. We have to see what scientific development is producing, and ensure that it is safe for humans and the environment and that we have the necessary robust evidence on which to make decisions. We believe that GM has a potential benefit in the context of food security, and we are looking hard at developing a final policy to enable it to be realised.

Few people have referred to the role of the consumer, which is critical in all of this. The law already states that any foodstuff that contains genetically modified material has to declare it if the GM in a particular ingredient exceeds 0.9%. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned pizza. If more than 0.9% of the soya—not the pizza but the soya in the pizza—is GM, it has to be declared.

Consumers have information with which to make their choices. Sadly, as my hon. Friend and others have said, those choices are often influenced by emotion based on some rather hysterical press notices. I hope that this fairly short but important discussion will enable us to move the debate on. It is more the format in which it ought to be carried on, and I hope that the more serious parts of our media will engage in genuine discussion and debate about the benefits of using and potential concerns about GM products.

Sir John Beddington will be publishing the foresight study, “Global Food and Farming Futures”, in two or three weeks’ time. I cannot say much about it as I do not want to pre-empt what he will say, but I know that the report will have a great deal to say about the role of GM in future food production.

Mr Streeter, I am sorry for usurping the opportunity to speak longer than is normal in these debates, but this is an important issue. GM has an important role to play in our future food security, for all the reasons that colleagues on both sides of the Chamber have given, but we have to take precautions. We must ensure that individual elements are properly assessed and measured before we take risks with either our food safety or our environment. As I said, my Government hope to introduce our own overall proposals in the near future. I am grateful to you for chairing this debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood for raising it.

Sitting suspended.