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Select committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 583: debated on Thursday 3 July 2014

Select Committee statement

We now come to the first of two Select Committee statements. The Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Miss Anne McIntosh, will speak on her subject for no more than 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on its subject, and call Miss Anne McIntosh to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in the questioning.

On behalf of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, may I say how delighted we are to have secured this time to launch our report on food production and the supply dimensions of food security? I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) to his place. The Committee would like to thank all those who contributed to the inquiry, submitted evidence or appeared before us. I give special thanks to the Committee staff who drew all the evidence together and helped us to reach our conclusions.

We believe that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the key to providing leadership on long-term food security. I should say at the outset that the food and drink sector accounts for 3.7 million jobs and 7% of the overall economy. Food security has been described by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as

“when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

That implicitly includes future generations and requires food security methods in the UK and elsewhere to be sustainable.

The UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, but we believe that there is no room for complacency. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to all the farmers across the land who work so hard in all weathers to ensure that we have food on our plates. Food security is under severe challenge from changes in weather patterns, growing populations and rising global demand for food. The report therefore focuses on what food production, supply and systems we need to ensure that we have long-term food security.

What can we do? Our core recommendation is to have a single champion for farming and food security, and we believe that it should be the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. While it is right that other Departments are involved, such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, there is a real need for cross-departmental communication, and DEFRA should step up to the plate and take the lead. We also urge DEFRA to appoint a food security co-ordinator from the Department to ensure a coherent and co-ordinated approach.

Self-sufficiency is in decline. Over the past 20 years, it has reduced from some 75% to around 62%. We need to stem and reverse that decline. We need to look to become more self-sufficient in food, but also aim to be a major exporter in those products that we can afford to export and that are surplus to demand in this country.

We applaud DEFRA’s efforts and congratulate it on its budget and on the work of the Secretary of State and Ministers here and in the other place in leading a vibrant export campaign to ensure that our farmers export more. On a visit to Denmark that the Committee undertook during the Danish presidency, we were struck by the ability of Danish farmers, often working through co-operatives, but with Government support, to export, particularly milk, cheese and other dairy products. We therefore applaud the Department’s efforts to open up new markets where demand is growing.

However, barriers remain, not least in certain emerging markets. I do not wish to single out China, but let me give a particular example. There is a joint operation between the Malton bacon factory and the Cookstown plant, and there will be many pig parts, such as pigs’ feet, that humans do not eat in this country but for which there is wide demand in China. That is a wonderful opportunity for export and we urge the Government—whether DEFRA, the Foreign Office or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—to intervene. Having just removed the barriers to cheese exports, we must act urgently to remove the very real barriers to pigmeat. In my constituency alone, in Malton and the hinterland, that will mean thousands, if not millions of pounds every year. We urge the Government to press for opening up those markets to allow such exports to grow.

The boost to food security is challenged by some food production systems and threats such as the impact of extreme weather events. We call for several measures. We need supermarkets to use shorter supply chains, and we applaud efforts on that and look forward to Professor Elliott’s final report and recommendations. We need to diversify if supply is to be safeguarded against disease, severe weather or other domestic supply disruption, and we must be open to imports where they are needed.

We also call on UK farmers to satisfy home consumer tastes and extend seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in co-ordination with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, and working with central and local government. We urge the Government to work hard to reduce dependence on imported soybean or animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines.

I ask the Government to produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agriculture sector. Agriculture currently accounts for 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock production accounts for a staggering 49% of farm-related emissions. The headlines this week mentioned flatulence from animals, and we wish to reduce that wherever we can. The report applauds the work that is going on, particularly that being trialled by Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets, as well as the research that we have heard about to grow high sugar grass that will singlehandedly reduce such emissions.

We also welcome the £410 million that the Government are currently spending on agricultural research, and the £160 million for agri-tech strategy. We urge the Government to act, perhaps as a sort of Cilla Black, and to unite, go out and find partners and bring them to the marketplace—a sort of “Blind Date”, urging research institutes in this country to find other such institutes, including across Europe and internationally, and to ensure that farmers benefit and that research is brought to farmers and to the marketplace.

We believe that there needs to be an urgent public debate to allay public concerns about genetically modified crops, and the Government are best placed to do that. On extreme weather events, thousands of acres of land were flooded and taken out of production during the recent flooding, and we need better long-term forecasting so that farmers know what crops to grow and when. We welcome new entrants and believe that with land in limited supply, and with its conflicting uses such as for housing as well as farming, younger farmers and new entrants will embrace the technology available.

This is the first of two reports and it draws on the work of the previous Government, on which the Committee reported in 2009. I believe that it will be warmly welcomed by farmers, supermarkets and retailers. First and foremost, it is a vote of confidence in British farming, and places DEFRA as the champion for farming and food security.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her comprehensive statement, and the House is obliged to her for providing Members with a helping hand through her graphic descriptions of what she had in mind. It is always useful, in my experience, to have a bit of information.

There is much to be commended and debated in this welcome report, and I hope we will have the opportunity to do so in short order, not least the acknowledgement that:

“Food security is not simply about becoming more self-sufficient in food production.”

as well as the imperative for the UK to boost its productivity for domestic and export reasons.

Why does the Committee feel it necessary, as its first recommendation, to urge the Government to

“identify Defra as the lead Department for food security”

given that that should be the Department’s raison d’être and a core part of its mission? Why is it necessary to highlight that, even though it is welcome?

I welcome the welcome from the hon. Gentleman, and we are grateful to BBC 5 Live for using such graphic language, which I felt would also be acceptable in the Chamber. We stated that DEFRA should be a champion and a lead Department because in areas such as farming and—dare I say it?—also outside farming in tourism, which impacts on the rural economy more broadly, policy often cuts across many different Departments. In this instance, the agri-tech strategy is important in promoting and boosting food security and increasing self-sufficiency, and it potentially goes to the heart of exports, and cuts across the three Departments I mentioned. We just want to give DEFRA a little bit of welly to go out and be confident in discussions with other Departments. Farming remains at the heart of DEFRA. It is our fourth priority to grow the rural economy, and I believe that DEFRA is best placed to lead on that.

As a member of the Committee, I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s report. It is right for us to talk about food security not only in this country, but throughout the world, because the world population is 7 billion and will rise to 9 billion by 2050. We can grow good grass, good meat and good vegetables in this country along with cereals, but with climate change, we will need to be able to adapt our crops more and more. Biotechnology is out there—there is a blight-resistant potato that does not need spraying—but we close our minds to it. We need the Government to be much more proactive so that people can believe they are safe, and so that we can produce more food in this country using fewer chemicals to do so.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I should take this opportunity to thank him for the expertise and knowledge he brings to the Committee. On precision technologies and new technologies such as genetically modified foods, we must ensure that the public have an open mind. If it is the case that there is no cross-contamination, we need to go out there and sell the message. I believe it is for the Government to lead in that regard. Denmark is probably more focused on organic crops, but the UK has many producers in a niche market of organic foods. They need to know that their crops will not be cross-contaminated in that way. An interesting piece of research that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could ask for is precisely on the yields compared with organic production—my hon. Friend gave an example. I understand that that work has never been conducted.

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her Committee on the report. I am glad she raised the rather uncomfortable issue—it is uncomfortable for some of us—of the lack of progress in reducing emissions in the agricultural sector. She mentioned a taskforce and spoke of a wind of change running through the sector—that is just a pun—but what action could the taskforce take? Does she have any evidence that DEFRA and the Department of Energy and Climate Change are working together well to bring about further progress?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and her eloquent description of the problem—it was much more eloquent than the one I was able to come up with in the time available. There is evidence that DEFRA, DECC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working closely together. The evidence we received in writing and on the visit to the Rothamsted institute showed the long lead times needed in respect of research on the long grass with the extra sugar content that can lead to the wind of change to which she referred. I make a plea to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: we need longer-term security of research funding. That was the plea of the Rothamsted institute in its evidence to the Committee. If no other good comes from the report, it would be a positive step if we left that message with the House today.

I hope you have had your Weetabix this morning, Mr Speaker—if you had Weetabix, it came from the Weetabix plant located in Burton Latimer in my constituency. In congratulating my hon. Friend on her Committee’s excellent report, and with specific reference to the parts of the report that focus on supply chains and export opportunities, will she join me and take this opportunity to congratulate Weetabix, which sources all the wheat for its products from farms within a 50-mile radius of the Burton Latimer plant, and which is increasingly looking to export its product to help the British balance of payments?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work, and I also congratulate Weetabix. The price of wheat was the talk of the barbecue held by the National Farmers Union and Morrisons this week. It is worrying indeed. It is to be commended that Weetabix turned to British producers to source its wheat.