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Agriculture: UK Food Production

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the current self-sufficiency rate of United Kingdom food production; and how consumers can identify food produced in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, UK self-sufficiency in all food currently stands at 60 per cent and was 59 per cent in 2007. UK self-sufficiency in indigenous food—food which can be produced domestically on a large scale which is economically viable—stood at 73 per cent in 2008. Under European legislation, there are specific requirements to label certain food groups with their country of origin. For other foods, the food labelling regulations require the labelling of origin if failure to do so might mislead.

My Lords, the more eagle-eyed among your Lordships will recognise that I have had to pull my Question on set-aside because the Secretary of State is making a statement at the Royal Show today—the last-but-one day of the Royal Show. Next year, I urge people to come to the Royal Welsh Show, the most successful show in the United Kingdom.

Will the noble Lord acknowledge that self-sufficiency of UK agriculture production has fallen disastrously, by 10 per cent, over the past decade? Will he confirm that the cost of temperate food production imports into the UK now stands at approximately £23 billion? Will he seek to reverse this trend, including urgent action to stop the food-labelling scam of imported food being labelled as British just because it has been packed and processed here in the UK?

My Lords, we are certainly concerned about scams where food is misleadingly labelled, and we have powers to deal with that. However, the noble Lord will know that food labelling is mainly a European issue. He, together with the House, will take delight in the fact that the Commission is currently consulting on strengthening European legislation on food labelling regulations, and we expect that work to bear fruit in the not-too-distant future.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and grower. Does the Minister agree that the days of assuming that there is plenty of food in the world for British consumers to access are over? What measures are the Government taking to give support and encouragement to British growers and farmers to increase production in this country?

My Lords, I agree somewhat with the noble Lord’s original contention. It is, of course, the case that British self-sufficiency in food has increased very significantly over the past two or three decades. That is a reflection of the productive work of British farmers and their international competitiveness. We should take delight in the progress being made. Of course, the Government are very concerned to ensure that British farming is competitive and is supported in all possible ways so that it can play its part in international markets. The noble Lord will also appreciate that the strongest position for British agriculture is that it should be internationally competitive as, in so many areas, it is.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a small farmer. As oil is a finite resource and as agri-industry is so dependent on oil, not only for fuelling tractors and machinery but also for pesticides and fertilisers, will the Minister say what forward planning is being done to ensure that we retain our ability to produce food in the event of oil running out?

My Lords, of course the noble Countess is right to say that we have to have regard to changes in demand for oil products, the importance of oil as regards carbon emissions and the limitation on world oil supplies. At this stage, it would not be right to suggest that the very significant problems faced by many small farmers, which need consideration by the Government, such as the question of oil supplies running out, should not be a significant priority for the Government.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the 2009 farmers’ intention survey which highlights a fall in dairy farmers’ confidence and records the lowest numbers intending to expand since the survey began in 2004? It seems almost certain that there will be a fall in GB milk production over the next year or two of the order of some 5 per cent. From my own experience in Devon, I know that few new entrants to farming intend to enter the dairy sector. If dairy farming is not in crisis, as the noble Lord firmly averred in this House last week, does he agree that we seem to be at a tipping point, especially in the context of increasing pressures on world food markets, and that that ought to be a matter for real concern?

My Lords, we are concerned, as the right reverend Prelate has suggested, about dairy farmers in Britain. Of course last week I was commenting on the collapse of a significant dairy and its consequences. Last week, I wanted to emphasise, and this week I wish to reiterate, that the medium-term perspective for the dairy industry, far from being depressing, is encouraging. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right to say that we have a difficult 18 months to two years to go through. That is why we are taking what measures we can to give support during this interim period. We were pleased, and the House will have rejoiced in the fact, that all farmers affected by the collapse of the dairy to which we referred last week had been offered new contracts and, therefore, are able to stay in production. The vast majority have accepted those contracts. That is not to deny that we will have difficulties over the next 18 months.

My Lords, I should declare that I own and am landlord of farmland. The right reverend Prelate, who is a friend of mine, is quite right in what he says about farming, particularly dairy farming. We should be self-sufficient in liquid milk, but UK dairy farmers and co-operatives have to compete within the UK with overseas suppliers with a huge home market share, sometimes as high as 90 per cent. Competition is very important. Nevertheless, will the Government ask the Competition Commission to investigate the market share allowed to UK suppliers? They should be able to achieve greater economies of scale and be enabled to compete more fairly with their overseas competitors.

My Lords, of course it is right that the Competition Commission should ensure that British farmers compete on a fair basis but, as I indicated last week, we export considerable amounts of milk. That is not to say that we do not import considerable amounts too, but we are exporters of milk and find a market for it. The noble Lord is suggesting that there is unfair competition. I shall certainly draw that to the attention of the competition authorities, but I imagine that the House will appreciate that the issues are somewhat more fundamental than the aspect of unfair competition.