My Lords, almost exactly 10 months ago, on 12 February, I rose to my feet in a debate on another outstanding report produced by a different team of concerned experts, the Good Childhood report. Reaping the Benefits is about a different problem in a different context but it, too, deals with a situation that will simply not go away. It also lays down imperatives for the Government. It is well written, packed with facts and punctuated with recommendations that certainly make sense to me.
This report has appeared just as the Royal Society celebrates its 350th anniversary. It is a worthy tribute to the work of the society, and has been produced at a time of great importance in the history of our planet. I am quite prepared to believe that the subject was chosen carefully to chime in with the society’s celebrations but I think the heavens themselves must have had a hand in the conjunction with the climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is an impressive text to accompany such vital discussions.
Looked at in one way, the past 50 years of global agriculture is a tale of surprising progress. Population has more than doubled, but the amount of food available has risen too. The greatest improvements have been in China and in Asia generally, but the Americas are also on a rising trend. Figures for Africa are no better than they were in 1960, while figures in Europe have declined slightly in recent years.
In the UK, according to the 2008 agricultural statistics, the trade gap in food, feed and drink has widened by 52 per cent in real terms since 1998 to £15.2 billion. At the same time, self-sufficiency in indigenous food has fallen by 9 per cent, from 82 per cent in 1998 to 73 per cent in 2008. The number of dairy cows has fallen by 22 per cent, beef cows by 13 per cent and pigs by 40 per cent. I could continue giving such figures about a variety of other items. Clearly this situation is unsustainable in the long term and the report reiterates the challenges we face.
The National Farmers’ Union publication, Why Farming Matters More Than Ever, points out that relying on trade and imports to buy our way out of any possible food shortages is naive in the extreme. If food worldwide becomes really scarce, there is nothing to stop countries from placing restrictions on their food exports. The World Bank counted 31 countries in July 2008 that had reduced or suspended their exports. We cannot simply continue to rely on importing food as and when we need it. The question is not how the world can continue to produce food for the UK market but rather what the UK can contribute to world food supplies.
In his foreword to Why Science Matters, NFU president Peter Kendall stated:
“Funding priorities should include proper resources given to applied science and translation to practice on the ground”.
This call for practical transfer of knowledge to farmers and the need for increasing UK skill levels is reflected in recommendation 5 of the Royal Society’s report. There a call is made to reverse the decline in subjects such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany science. The need for these skills was raised with me by the principal of Harper Adams, who explained the difficulty in accessing higher education funding. So the challenge is to develop the science base and provide a workforce able to understand and implement the new innovations through Defra, the BBSCR, universities and specialist agricultural colleges.
The need to work together across all departments is restated in the Royal Society’s first recommendation, which calls for research councils to develop a cross-council “grand challenge” on global food crop security. It believes that it will require between £50 million and £100 million per year of new government money in addition to the existing research spending. It urges central government, DfID and Defra to work closely together and calls for the benefits of such research to be made available to the poorer farmers.
The report clearly states that our technology should be harnessed to improve productivity overseas. This is particularly important in the struggle against the big bad trio of weeds, pests and diseases, which the report blames for up to 40 per cent of the losses worldwide over eight major crops, with the rider that without chemicals, resistant breeds and crop rotations, those losses could be between 50 per cent and 80 per cent.
In some parts of the developing world, crop losses are also caused by the lack of basic infrastructure, such as poor quality roads, no piped water and no organised way to put one’s produce up for sale. Farmers in the UK are aware of the difficulties faced by African families and in 1988, in response to their dilemma, a group of dairy farmers came together and sent pregnant cows to Uganda. Six years later, after experiencing a number of setbacks, they amended their arrangements so that the livestock were given to the woman of the household. Three years after that, they put in place a social development team to train the recipients of the cows in organic agriculture, environmental sustainability and livestock husbandry. It has been a wonderful success and is all written up in a set of papers called the Foundation Series.
GM crops have become well established in parts of the world and will surely be an important contributor to world food expansion. I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to the John Innes Centre at Norwich earlier this year to learn about the plant breeding programmes on which it is currently working. Although the European Union has so far decided against the importation of GM crops, many of us feel that this technology has much to offer. We should perhaps look at the possibility of having perennial wheat crops. I was also pleased to see that more than 100 scientists from overseas were working at the centre on up-to-date research.
Over the years, UK farmers have responded to the lead given them by Governments. UK food production doubled between the 1940s and the 1980s. Wheat, barley and oats increased sixfold after 1945 but UK yields have now levelled off, falling from a 4 per cent annual increase up to the 1980s to around 1 per cent.
Today, we expect farmers to produce food sustainably. In other words, we expect them to have regard for the environment and biodiversity. As the president of LEAF, I am a firm believer in integrated farm management systems. It would be difficult to imagine returning to prairie-type farming with the accompanying sacrifice of wildlife and biodiversity. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust also believes in farming in a sustainable manner. On its farm in Loddington, minimum tillage instead of deep ploughing, the planting of ground cover in the early stages of producing a wheat crop and the use of beetle banks are all part of its current research themes. Individual farmers are also committed to looking at new ways of producing food in order to benefit society as a whole.
In the past, UK farmers have not been known for close collaboration but this, too, is changing. For example, the Plumgarth Hub is a facility for farmers and cottage industries to reconnect to their food chain within the Lake District National Park. This was established in 2001 in response to consumers’ interest in locally produced, fully traceable food. Food security is not simply about producing the basic commodities; it should also allow consumer choice. Key to that choice is proper commodity labelling—an issue which I believe the Government have not taken on board—and country of origin labelling should be mandatory.
The world population will go on increasing for at least the next 40 years. At the same time, interruptions to the established pattern of weather, temperature and rainfall—what we call climate—are expected to continue and may well become more marked. Effects will be felt all across the globe but will impact differently in different parts of it. There can be no one solution, as this report makes abundantly clear.
It is also now obvious that developments that earlier were hailed as miracle workers—nitrogenous fertilisers, certain types of fishing nets and equipment that allowed fields to be tilled to the very roots of the hedges—have had unimagined and unhealthy side-effects. We are in the unfortunate position of having to cope with both the onset of the unexpected and the ramifications of our own mistakes.
The situation is grave; it may even be very grave. However, this learned report, in all its erudition, gives me great cause to hope that if those who govern us and those who have the required knowledge and experience will only study what is written and act upon it, things will start to improve. Having said that, I stress that everyone can play a part, however small. For example, we can all turn off lights at home, when we leave the office and when we go into the garden; we can have a quicker shower in the morning, wash the dishes in a bowl instead of using running water, make a new year resolution to ban the sprinkler from the lawn and recycle our Christmas cards. In addition, all of us could waste less food—in this country, we waste a third of all we produce.
Industry has been aware for a while of what faces us. Glancing at year-end reports and accounts tells a story of diversification—of oil companies growing vegetation for biofuels and construction companies testing solar and photovoltaic equipment. I think I am right in remembering that K-glass was a private invention, but it is now a standard for replacement windows.
Companies in the animal feed and animal health businesses have been prolific in their advances. Thank goodness they have, as with the speed at which disease is travelling around the world with the changing climate, they will need greater agility in the future. On the crop side, the discovery of plant genomes and how to unlock them has already resulted in considerable advances. However, I am assured that there is much more to come.
As I said, GM crops have become established in some parts of the world and will surely be an important contributor to world food expansion. So, too, will research into tillage systems designed to conserve soil quality. Concentration on the environment and how to operate in harmony with it is not a new phenomenon, and, as I said earlier, I am proud to be associated with LEAF here in the UK.
The world has a problem with food supply, and the UK has the knowledge and expertise that can help to defeat that problem. There is a need for co-ordinating effort, for pump-priming and for development funding that cannot be undertaken purely by private companies —in other words, there is a need for input from government. However, that input has to be effective. There will be a place for targets and monitoring but, most importantly, there must be involvement, encouragement and resources so that there is no let-up in constructing the solutions.
The next farming generation does not expect subsidies but it does want the Government to recognise the importance of farming and food production for the welfare of the nation. That next generation looks to have less unnecessary regulation and desires more joined-up thinking across government departments.
I apologise that I did not declare at the start my family’s farming interest and my interest in many rural communities.
Here in Reaping the Benefits is the blueprint. I hope that, unlike 10 months ago, the Government are listening and that they will resolve to take the Royal Society’s message on board. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on bringing forward this debate on the Royal Society report, Reaping the Benefits. It is extraordinary how history repeats itself, especially in agriculture and food production. The Royal Society, not for the first time, comes to the rescue. In 1755, progressive farmers and landowners in Breconshire, my home county, consulted the Royal Society because farmers and rural dwellers were struggling with rampant poverty in rural areas. With Royal Society support, they founded the Brecknock Agricultural Society—the first agricultural society—and the first agricultural show in the whole of Britain. This far-sighted act furthered what were then modern farming techniques and the transfer of modern technology to farmers in order to reduce rural poverty, and it was a resounding success. In 2005, it celebrated its 250th year. In times past, it introduced the Norfolk four-course rotation system, which was phased out only in the 1960s. There is cattle and sheep-breeding excellence, and likewise, there were projects in the First and Second World Wars. The war agricultural executive committee in the Second World War put in place progressive farmers all over Great Britain. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a revolution and, as I have mentioned before, I was part of that, working for ICI’s agricultural division. Many of my colleagues worked for the advisory service at NAAS, which became ADAS and on research stations.
Post-Second World War, UK self-sufficiency rates went up from 40 per cent to 75 per cent. Today, UK self-sufficiency in home-produced food is only 60 per cent. At the same time, the world cannot feed itself. Make no mistake, this is a crisis. Add to that climate change, which Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, described as the biggest challenge to face us in the 21st century. We have a lot of problems, and it is not surprising that the Royal Society has produced this timely report. It is in five sections: the challenge of food security, both UK and global, scientific targets, capacity to innovate, making science make a difference and governance. It is a large subject, but I shall address the first point only—the challenge of food security, both UK and global.
I am concentrating my remarks because I believe that this is the most important aspect confronting us. Indeed, section 5.1 covers many aspects of the importance of achieving food security both within the UK and across the world. It makes the cogent point that the world does not have the ability to feed itself at present. There are many other aspects pointing to increased global food production, but that has to be achieved without damage to the environment and the long-term interests of the globe.
The UK could lead the way, but one has to re-establish research, particularly agricultural education, and reinvent agricultural extension and advisory capacity. These points are made in the report, along with the importance of public funding to bring it about. Agriculture and farming must come to the fore. Defra’s cuts in the budget for agricultural research have been devastating. I believe that they are the result of undue pressure by the Treasury, which has been extremely negligent of the future of farming and food production in this country. It has downgraded the importance of the science over the past 20 years, and the amount spent now on research is minimal. The closure of many research and experimental stations was unforgivable. In our debate in this House on 20 January, I outlined clearly what had gone on in research stations that no longer exist.
It will be only if we restore our lost capacity and get on-farm technology transfer again that we can help to solve the global food production crisis. We cannot rely on corporate company research to solve our problems. I say that as someone who has worked for a large corporate company in my time. GM research cannot rely on the Monsantos of this world. It needs independent, publicly funded research and development with truly objective independent assessment. All risk factors must be evaluated. The Treasury must stop ignoring agriculture and Defra must get itself properly organised to meet these challenges.
I believe that the crisis in Africa is extremely serious. Indeed, the issue of climate change is impacting very seriously. However, I believe that the problems of feeding the world are not insoluble. The primary recommendations of the Royal Society in a British context can be achieved with imagination and courage, and many of these problems can be solved both in the UK and globally.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Byford for giving us the opportunity to consider what the United Kingdom could and should contribute to the agenda of addressing the challenges of global food security. We need globally co-ordinated programmes of research that can be translated rapidly into sustainable food production, particularly in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where food security is an immediate and urgent issue.
I declare several interests. I am a farmer. I chair the Living with Environmental Change programme, which is a co-ordinated programme of publicly funded research. Indeed, food security is one of our major priorities, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Services Research Council. I should also put on record that I was on the review panel for the Royal Society’s report. It said in so many words that it did not have to take any notice of members of the review panel, but nevertheless, there I am on the list.
In the context of global food security and the research needed to ensure food supplies, we should note that this report from the Royal Society is dealing with the potential for food crop production. One must recognise that animal husbandry, agricultural engineering, and indeed, the social sciences all can and should make a contribution to this great issue of global food security. It is not to minimise the role of food crop production. Clearly, it is absolutely key, but we should be under no illusion that food crop production in itself will only be part of the solution. I emphasise once more how important the social sciences will be. Without understanding how research can be transferred into appropriate technology, as has so often been seen in the past, research fails to be effective.
I like the concept of sustainable intensification in the report. To many people that sounds like an oxymoron. After all, those of us who farm intensively—I have never made any secret that my farm is certainly intensive—have always been upbraided, sometimes fairly, for the impacts of leakage into soil, air and water and the effects on biodiversity. Sustainable intensification is an important concept. Extensive use of land, or land that could be better protected to provide ecosystem services is an important concept. To be greedy on land will clearly be self-defeating.
Agricultural research has been an enormously successful story, not just since Malthus, who is always mentioned in this context. If we compare the food available—theoretically available, although there are availability issues, but the food grown—it is about 29 per cent more per capita, bearing in mind the increase in population, than it was in 1960. I say again, of course, that many people simply do not have access to that food. We need agricultural production systems that do not leak into soil, air and water, which conserve and enhance the soil’s organic matter, which buttress the resilience of our ecosystems and which contribute to habitats. Let us take, for example, pollinator insects, which is a topical subject. There is a lot of interest in how to restore the ability of insects to add to food production. We recognise that by losing habitats we have lost pollinator insects. We need to use land for flood protection and carbon sinks. It is not just trees but soils that provide that. We can also expect farming systems to replace fossil fuels with energy crops.
There is a long list of issues that some would have said are irreconcilable. I do not believe that at all. Like my noble friend Lady Byford, I am eternally optimistic. This report from the Royal Society points out the enormous opportunities. Remember, after all, that the biological sciences are serving us well and, although there have been the swingeing cuts to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred, in the applied research in agriculture, the biological sciences have done well. The report refers to the enormous advances in genomics and molecular biology. Where we are short—this is where I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Livsey—is that we lack the soil scientists, the agronomists and the agricultural engineers. I remember that in the 1980s, when I chaired the Agriculture and Food Research Council, long since subsumed into the BBSRC, I had the gloomy job of presiding over closure after closure, which continues to this day. That was because there was simply a lack of understanding as to how transferring the great advances in the biological sciences into food production in this country would be a useful public service. Secretary of State after Secretary of State said that food security was not on the agenda. That changed two years ago, rightly.
We need to recognise that this country can contribute to the underpinning science, to capacity-building in the third world and to the conservation of natural resources, including biodiversity. To do that, we will have to bring all our research institutes, botanic gardens and agricultural colleges in line with the departmental priorities not just of Defra but of DfID.
My Lords, I too, must declare an interest as a farmer, and a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust at Rothamsted. I focus my remarks on the crucial agricultural research that that goes on in this country but which is for the benefit of farmers in the developing world, notably Africa.
The UN believes that by 2030, one in every three births will be in Africa, and that by 2050, every other birth in the world will occur there. Although the political instability that goes with food shortage should be avoided—I, too, am an optimist—in most of the rest of the world, the disaster that is waiting to happen in Africa is sure to spill over and affect us all, unless we now redirect our efforts to reinvigorate African agriculture.
Most African farmers, 70 per cent of whom are women, are struggling to enter into commercial farming. Indeed, how can a lady farmer in Africa invest in irrigation or crop storage—two very important missing pieces of the jigsaw needed for African agriculture—when she cannot establish ownership or rights to her land? What is the point of her paying for modern seeds, even if they have the potential to triple her production, when she says, “What do I do with the surplus when I have fed my family and my village?”. There are no local markets. There is no market infrastructure. There are few roads. A village with surplus might be only 60 miles away from a village with famine. Only last year, in 2008, northern Tanzania was short of maize, while southern Tanzania had a surplus, but it was easier and cheaper to ship maize in from abroad than to transport it from the south to the north of the country.
However, there is huge potential for agricultural growth in Africa. It has abundant resources and 12 times the land area of India, with only half as many people to feed. Tanzania, for instance, reckons that it is using only 23 per cent of its arable land. We need an agricultural revolution to take Africa out of poverty.
Asia has shown that it can be done. In the 1970s and 1980s, Asian Governments kick-started their green revolution by spending 15 per cent—sometimes more—of their budget on agriculture. For instance, that allowed Vietnam to turn itself from being a net importer of rice into being the second largest exporter of rice in the world. It allowed China to take 400 million people out of poverty by focusing on smallholder agriculture. Always, agriculture is the key. The World Bank estimates that a 1 per cent increase in agricultural GDP in Africa reduces poverty by four times as much as a 1 per cent increase in non-agricultural GDP.
Yet donor countries spend less than 5 per cent of ODA on agriculture. The UK is one of the worst offenders. Our aid to sub-Saharan Africa has declined by 30 per cent since 1997. There are numerous examples where research and extension have worked. For instance, the introduction of Mosaic disease-resistant cassava varieties into West Africa during the 1980s is estimated to have contributed to feeding an additional 29 million people in the region on an ongoing basis. That is but one example of many. It is vital that we continue to provide the science to enable us to repeat such breakthroughs.
However, the main point that I want to make today, which echoes the message of the Reaping the Benefits report, to which other noble Lords have referred, is that any renewed investment in R&D is completely useless unless it is translated into work on farms and in communities. The point is that knowledge transfer is a two-way process. It is a partnership between growers and scientists. If the link between the two is broken, everyone is wasting their time. Blue-sky research with no bearing on the growers’ ability to produce is pointless. We used to have a revered reputation for agricultural extension in Africa, which we are losing. We were way ahead of the rest of the field, but DfID now talks about not having “a competitive advantage” in agriculture, which, frankly, is meaningless nonsense.
Modern seeds and fertilisers could already triple production on many farms if only the lady farmer could find the training and finance package from her local government. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? She could bring money to her village if only she could find storage for her crop and the means to market it and transport it away. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? She could invest in her own land—for example, in irrigation—if only she were allowed to own it. Does that need a competitive advantage in agriculture? Focusing on agriculture does not require DfID to have agricultural expertise; it is about helping African Governments across a variety of departments to invest in a range of rural infrastructure, without which most of our agricultural research and extension will go to waste.
I believe that there are serious political dangers ahead if we do not invest in agriculture in Africa. Our foreign policy and overseas aid must be targeted at ensuring that our scientists can bring their research and solutions to bear on these problems.
My Lords, it is always a privilege to support my noble friend Lady Byford, especially on this problem. I crave the indulgence of the House and of the Minister if I have to leave before the wind-up—my wife has just come out of hospital and I think that she needs me at home. I declare an interest as a farmer who is involved in many farming organisations. I am president of the food research institute at Chipping Campden and president of the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council, which is worldwide.
As to reaping the benefits, we are talking about the benefits of 50 years of international research since the green revolution. Of course, now we face the challenges of securing the food supplies for those suggested 9 billion people by 2050. That has to be done by facing the change in consumption patterns, the impact of climate change and, since they are not making any more, the scarcity of water and land.
Of course, we must see this in globalised terms. In Britain, only two years ago, no Minister could accept that there could ever be a food shortage or a need for security. We lived through a period of surpluses in Europe, many reforms of the common agricultural policy, fixing intervention prices, creating quotas and then taking 10 per cent out of the land to reduce the surpluses that we had. “Why expand production if we could import food cheaper?” seemed to be the thought in the minds of many. Over the past decade, as my noble friend Lady Byford said, dairy herds have halved, livestock numbers have decreased and the pound to euro relationship has been to our disadvantage. The Minister for Climate Change, Ed Miliband, recently said, or was reported to have said, that we should reduce livestock numbers by one-third to reduce gas emissions. The answer is that we have already done that, but for economic reasons.
To meet the needs of the future, we must obviously reverse that trend. We need to reduce the food miles and fill more shopping baskets with local food, in fair competition with other European products. That is a tall order and cannot happen overnight, but we need to sow the seeds for a better future in order to reap the benefits of the research—benefits for the consumer and the nation and benefits enabling and encouraging food growth in those developing countries where it is needed. That is often a problem, but more one of distribution than of growth.
The summary of the report makes some interesting comments, which have already been mentioned. It states that,
“the UK needs to maintain and build its capacity to innovate, in collaboration with international and national research centres ... but training in agricultural sciences and related topics has recently suffered from a lack of policy attention and support”.
With the background of the world recession, it will be difficult to meet the target of feeding the hungry and to meet the needs of the growing population and the ever increasing average human lifespan. In practical terms, that means doubling production and tripling crop yields with less land and water. This is a problem, mostly for developing countries, such as China and India.
The urgency also lies with dealing with climate change, which we debated yesterday. The two are inescapably linked. The impact of climate change is often promoted in simplistic and fragmented ways. To suggest that we should stop eating meat because of its higher energy inputs and the methane production from ruminant animals, when they are key to maintaining biodiversity and are often the only effective utiliser of grass—one of the best converters of sunlight into digestible crops and essential for maintaining soil fertility and soil structure—cannot make sense.
The problem is the failure to put a value on biodiversity. Next year, 2010, is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity. There is little sign that the world is taking much notice. The techniques of biotechnology take plant breeders one step further when they are applied to food. They refer to an alteration in the genetic make-up of a certain food, animal or plant. To meet the needs of world hunger, we must find methods of boosting growth.
GM crops were introduced in North America in 1995; last year, more than 125 million hectares of GM crops were commercially grown worldwide by more than 13 million farmers in 25 countries. Consumers are happily consuming soya milk imported from the United States—where 90 per cent of the soya crop, from 62 million hectares, is genetically modified—yet they complain about using genetically modified seed in this country. That is understandable when many are led to believe that genetically modified products are Frankenstein food. The main arguments against GM crops are based on their unknown environmental impact, yet 12 years’ commercial experience suggests that insect-resistant and disease-resistant crops reduce the number of pesticide applications, since plants have an inbuilt ability to protect themselves from certain pests and diseases. All this takes account of the use of feedstock for biofuels in response to the rundown in the supply of high-priced fossil fuel.
The lack of availability of water will inhibit production. Sixty-seven per cent of fresh water is now, rightly, used in agriculture but, as the population increases and prosperity spreads, the demand will increase still further, so there will be a shortage and, in the battle for priorities, food production will suffer without sufficient water. Farmers have to rely more on scientists to find alternatives in the growth of new crops. Interesting research is taking place in countries such as Israel and that is important to the growth of food elsewhere where it is needed in the world.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. Rather a long time ago, I was a member of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee when he was its chairman. In those days, I think he thought that the late Barbara Castle and I, the Labour members on the committee, caused him a certain amount of grief—he is nodding—but I remember him as a diplomatic and wise chairman in a challenging post.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on initiating this debate and pay tribute to her for her long-standing commitment to British agriculture and the countryside. I know that a couple of weeks ago she flagged up this debate in her contribution on the Queen’s Speech. I hope that she will not mind if I take issue with a point that she made concerning the siting of the new Marine Management Organisation in the north-east of England. I think she said that she thought it was being put there simply because we have a Defra office in the area. However, Newcastle University has the largest and most broadly based marine school in the country and we have the excellent Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. While I would not denigrate the other strong candidates for the location of the agency, I urge the noble Baroness to visit the north-east to see the excellent facilities and become aware of our long maritime tradition, which means that the area will be an excellent location for the organisation.
The report to which the noble Baroness has drawn our attention is important in dealing with food production and food security in a world with an expanding population that is confronted by climate change and resource depletion. Its recommendations are important for the UK and the wider world. We are all familiar with the sobering statistics, but it was telling that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to specific examples of what is happening, particularly in Africa, about which we need to be concerned.
The report also highlights the importance of working with EU partners on some of these issues. As we know, British agriculture has to be looked at within the EU context because of the existence of the common agricultural policy. I must say that I find it frustrating that much reporting of the CAP still tends to be in old-fashioned terms, as if it is still the policy that existed in the past. Guaranteed prices were offered for some crops and products, often at the expense of others, and that led to bad environmental as well as other effects. However, not only has the agricultural budget been reduced—it now represents 35 per cent of the total EU budget instead of 70 per cent as it did in my day and that of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb—but, with the emergence of the second pillar of the agricultural policy, we have potentially a much better approach that will allow for more market-friendly activities and a policy that respects the environment more than was the case in the past. At the same time, this approach will allow funds to be used for some of the important goals quite rightly highlighted in the report. I hope that the movement away from the traditional funding approach towards more funding under the second pillar will continue. If the public see money being spent in a way that delivers public goods and helps the environment, support for agricultural spending will be much greater in the future than it was in the past.
Recently the Franco-British Council, of which I am chair, organised a debate on agriculture which attracted participants in equal numbers from Britain and France. Instead of the stereotypical arguments of the past, where we were at loggerheads with each other, it was good to see broad agreement on the importance of the environment in agricultural policy, the importance of research and the need to get away from the traditional type of CAP to something more positive for the future.
In her speech, the noble Baroness mentioned the importance of farming sustainably and biodiversity. I should like to conclude with a couple of remarks on each of those. I pay tribute to British farmers on how they have increasingly adopted an environmentally sustainable approach to farming. The contrast between organic and mainstream farmers is now much less marked than it used to be. We ought to recognise that and pay tribute to it. Biodiversity and the quality of our countryside are also important. Next year is the International Year of Biodiversity, so while we ought to do our bit to support the survival of threatened plants and animals throughout the world, we also need to do that at home.
In saying that, I conclude with another parochial issue dear to my heart, which is the survival of the red squirrel in Northumberland, where I live. A lot more needs to be done if this charming creature is to be safeguarded for the future. This year we have seen greater encroachment by grey squirrels than ever before, so we need to establish an effective buffer zone. It would be tragic if, in the International Year of Biodiversity, we saw even fewer of our precious flora and fauna in our own country, so I urge the Government to do their bit in that respect.
My Lords, this is a timely debate, initiated by my noble friend Lady Byford. As we all know, the Copenhagen conference on climate change is now in progress, which in turn is timely since the future problems of the globe will be upon us in a matter of a generation. As has been mentioned, by 2050 some 9 billion people will inhabit our planet; the issues that growth raises are global in nature and in urgent need of attention. Other speakers have therefore mentioned global warming, environmental degradation, water shortages and even social unrest, which is already upon us in certain countries. Such burgeoning populations will demand new approaches to food production and security, as well as to disease control.
In his foreword to the Royal Society report, the president, the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, notes that a multi-pronged approach that includes using essential modern genetic technology is identified. He notes the,
“big gap between sophisticated UK laboratories and the reality of subsistence farming in Africa”.
I would add that there are other areas of the world, such as parts of Asia and South America, where farming is still carried out at the subsistence level. Ronan Keating, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s good will ambassador, has stated quite bluntly that the fundamental way to address global poverty and food security must begin with putting agriculture back at the top of the international development agenda. Some 500 million peasant farmers across the developing world face a daily struggle to produce and provide enough food for their families and the people they support.
The report identifies the issues that lead to food insecurity, and I wish to deal with two of the eight that are listed. The first is the increasing demand for livestock products—meat and dairy—especially from animals fed on grain, and the second is the growing demand for biofuels. My noble friend Lord Plumb illustrated the amount of grain that is grown by farmers globally. It comes as no surprise that 90 per cent of the world’s soy is destined for animal feed and that for every kilogram of beef produced, nine kilograms of soy have to be used.
Livestock have come in for serious criticism because of their consumption of grass, their production of methane and for other reasons, but it should not be forgotten that in many parts of the developing world livestock are absolutely essential to provide the draught power for cultivation. Animals such as oxen, yaks, buffaloes, donkeys, camels and, occasionally, elephants, are essential providers of energy without which sustainable agriculture would not be possible.
The other driver of chronic food insecurity on which I wish to dwell is the use of food crops for biofuels. Again, this has been identified by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and several international institutions as a key cause of the food crisis by increasing the demand for crops such as grain and corn and increasing competition for land between food and fuel producers. As has been detailed, intensive fuel production destroys the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in places such as Brazil. Of course, not all biofuel production should be dismissed. Marginal land, properly used, can probably be used to produce biofuel crops.
Alain Lipietz, a French MEP, poses the question:
“How can we dedicate land to biofuel production when 25,000 people are dying from hunger each day?”.
In a world where 1.4 billion hectares are cultivated, this statistic is alarming—and yet 4 per cent of crops that are grown for food are dedicated to biofuel production.
The Royal Society report maintains that many areas can be addressed by scientists in this country. The executive director of the European Environment Agency has said that Europe should seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible itself without compromising the situation elsewhere in the world, and has given some hard-headed facts about this. The first is that business as usual cannot attain, and the second is that bold imagination and action are necessary. The report contains bold suggestions and is worthy of close attention and, I hope, action.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Byford for introducing the debate and particularly for the way in which she did so. I declare an interest as a trustee of trusts that own agricultural land in the north of Scotland and as a chartered surveyor who is no longer active in that capacity in the farming world.
In 1974, Henry Kissinger, then the USA’s Secretary of State, told the first food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within 10 years. Recently, at another UN food conference in Rome, we were told that about 15 per cent of the world’s population will go to bed hungry. That is an indictment on all of us but it is only part of the sorry saga. The report of the Royal Society not only helps to identify ways in which it is possible to feed these people but is also a crucial addition to the wider debate on how to secure intensified global food production in a sustainable manner to feed a burgeoning population. It produces a range of evidence to support its message that food security is one of this century’s key global challenges.
There are no quick and easy ways to produce sufficient nutritious food for a population approaching 9 billion while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of food production. The immediate objective must be to sustain stable, high yields in the face of soil erosion and degradation, finite non-renewable resources, losses through pests and diseases and increased climate variation and change.
The husbandry and farm management technologies needed for this will differ greatly, both internationally and nationally. Much will depend on climate, soil, topography, current crops and, as my noble friend Lord Plumb has just reminded us, society’s view of crop production; for example, GM crops. The EU has been guilty of allowing decisions to be based on emotion, not science. The latest regulations on the licensing and use of plant protection products, which make obtaining approval for products hugely expensive and a constraint on industry, are a good example. Such attitudes are hampering the putting into place of solutions now to the very problems that my noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, highlighted, thus perpetuating poverty, hunger and malnutrition. But not just crop yield is important. There is a need to maintain the health of the cropping system and reduce its external impacts. The great driving force in improving agricultural production, maintaining profits, improving habitat and reducing external impacts throughout the world has been farm machinery. This is likely to continue. What are the Government doing to make sure that the UK is a force in this market?
Improving our scientific knowledge is also a key factor and was stressed in the Royal Society’s report. In this country we are fortunate to have world-leading scientific and research institutions. One of these is the Scottish Crop Research Institute, which will shortly amalgamate with the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute to form the biggest such institute in the UK, and it will be unique in its remit in Europe. The SCRI has for many years taken its scientific research and converted it into products for the marketplace. Given this expertise and great resource, can the Minister tell me what contracts, together with their value, Defra and DfID have placed with SCRI? Can he also confirm today that the Scottish and English research bodies obtain equal access to all the funding from the research councils? If not, the RCUK is a misnomer and recommendation 1 of the Royal Society’s report is undermined.
Chapter 2 of the report looks at the constraints on future food crop production and points out:
“In most areas the effects of climate change will further exacerbate the stresses on crop plants, potentially leading to catastrophic yield reductions”.
I have the privilege of serving on EU Sub-Committee D. We have just launched an inquiry into the EU policy response to adaptation of agriculture and forestry to climate change. The starting point for our inquiry is the European Commission’s White Paper of April 2009, Adapting to climate change, and the related paper on the challenge for European agriculture and rural areas. The White Paper recognises that most adaptation measures will be taken at national, regional or local levels, but states that measures can be strengthened by an integrated approach at EU level, as climate change does not recognise national boundaries. We aim to conclude our inquiry and report to the House by the end of March next year. We are clear about some of the key issues that we need to explore and, not surprisingly, these parallel those in the Royal Society’s report. The effect of climate change will be variable and unequal in the EU and even within the UK. Climate change may also mean greater uncertainties in weather patterns with more extremes. This raises questions of improving resilience of crops and soils to such shocks.
What will this mean for the British farmer? There is no clear-cut answer yet. What, however, is clear is that, first, scientific evidence indicates that we will be luckier than most other countries and, secondly, farmers will need to change and years of tradition will be swept away. Stock numbers have declined hugely recently and I have never seen the hills so empty of sheep. As we increasingly turn our attention to land management, public environmental polices as well as habitats and species protection, so farming methods will change. For example, we have plenty of what is an increasingly precious resource, water, but we do not manage it. If farmland is to become a better holding ground for water, those who manage the land will need to be compensated accordingly if it is at the expense of agriculture, production and income. Have the Government given consideration to the value and cost of the new impositions on farmers, and how they will help them retrain to be more land managers than solely producers of crops and stock?
Our reaction to these huge problems depends on finance. The Stern report and the Royal Society’s report highlight the possible cost of mitigation and adaptation. Will the Minister confirm that he agrees with the Royal Society that RCUK should receive at least £2 billion of new money and that the Government will provide it?
My Lords, I declare several interests. I am the president of the British Trust for Ornithology, president of my local wildlife trust and a member of the climate change adaptation sub-committee.
I welcome in broad terms the Royal Society report and in particular the concept of sustainable intensification, although there are elements of the report that I do not agree with, and I shall come on to them. There is no doubt that there will be a genuine societal need to increase food production in the UK and the rest of north-west Europe in the coming decades, as climate change restricts production elsewhere and populations continue to grow. The last time that there was such a need to increase food production, the research, new technology and state-funded advice all swung pretty smoothly into action and, in combination, were very successful, but at a terrible cost to biodiversity. We cannot afford for history to repeat itself, not only because of the impact that it would have on biodiversity and on other land-based values—landscape, carbon emissions, soil conservation and water quality, as well as flood attenuation—but also because it would be ultimately self-defeating, undermining the ecosystem services on which agriculture depends. It is not inevitable that history has to repeat itself, but there are some strenuous technical and policy challenges, which the Royal Society report outlines.
I ask the Minister to grasp three issues arising from this report and from the challenge of intensifying food production. The first is really about the framework of controls, regulation and incentives for sustainable agriculture and managing the impact of agriculture in the future on biodiversity and other ecosystem services. At the moment, it is clear that the framework is not working. The farmland bird index, the Government’s own index for sustainability in the farmed environment, has not improved for many years. It is clear that some of the current incentives are not working. Shortly, further scientific work will be announced on the biodiversity impacts of the environmentally sensitive area scheme, which will demonstrate that there is still little improvement in farmland birds.
We have a voluntary scheme in the shape of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. It is early days for that yet, and it is very much a voluntary scheme, although we welcome the initiative from the farming organisations. But the big player in town on the issue of agriculture is the framework of the common agricultural policy. We need the Government to grasp the task of the reform leading up to 2014, to ensure that substantial money moves from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the common agricultural policy.
The second issue that I urge the Minister to take up is recommendation 11 of the Royal Society report of an EU regulatory system for new agricultural technologies, including genetic modification. I was chairman of English Nature at the time of the first world war on genetic modification, when concerns were raised about the impact of GM on biodiversity. We should learn from the history of that as well, because many in the conservation movement are not against genetic modification of agricultural crops to intensify food production. Rather, they are against ill advised release into the environment without proper testing. We would not release medicines into the human population without lengthy and proper testing, and we need to ensure that the regulatory system for all environmental technologies and all the adverse impacts that could have an effect on our ecosystems and biodiversity are properly tested before they come into play. That means getting ahead of the game. A drug manufacturer knows exactly how long in advance of putting a drug into production it needs to get its testing processes under way.
On the broader issue of land use, we are not making land any more. We have a finite resource on this small island. There are hugely competing claims, which will intensify with climate change, rising population and potentially increased immigration. The Government, with great wisdom, have instituted a full study by the Foresight programme, and it will report early in 2010. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government will take up the recommendations that I hope the report will make on a land use strategy and the creation of a new decision process for rationalising competing land uses.
I shall finish briefly with a naked and unashamed plug before the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, tells me that I have exceeded my six minutes. Today is the day when the climate change committee’s adaptation sub-committee is launched. Many of your Lordships helpfully and collaboratively combined to ensure that the committee was brought into being as part of the Climate Change Act, and I thank your Lordships for that. I hope that all Members of this House, and indeed the Government, will welcome the work of the committee and give it support in future to help to ensure that this country transforms to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for bringing this report to the attention of the House and for giving us the chance to debate it today. I declare my interests as a livestock farmer, particularly one in what are called the “less favoured areas”.
The report exemplifies the high standards and expertise that we all expect from the Royal Society. Particularly impressive is the survey of the world’s current and future constraints on food production. For those involved in food production, it is not all for our comfort or complacency. As the report says,
“Current approaches to maximising production within agricultural systems are unsustainable”.
It also quotes from a report by the FAO, the UN and the World Bank which says that,
“the dominant model of agriculture needs to change”.
The encouraging side to this is that farmers in this country are always ready to respond to change, and take a great interest in innovation.
The context of where we are is encapsulated by the statistics that the report gives: while 1 billion people are currently malnourished, 1 billion are overweight. To take further the quote mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, about the people who die of starvation and related illnesses, I have a figure of 35,000 in the past 24 hours—but the finer point is really academic.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, in British agriculture we find that production in many areas is shrinking and we are relying increasingly on imported food. The outstanding characteristic of the report is the emphasis on sustainability and the contribution of science and technology. A major part of this has to be the uptake of new ideas in areas of the world where there is poverty and malnutrition, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned.
I have always been impressed by the work of a Scottish academic friend of mine who teaches at the University of Harare. Some of his evidence, on pages 31 and 32 of the report, deals with the elimination of diseases and viruses. For over 20 years, he has been training Africans in modern methods of crop improvement. Using technology that initially meant, for lack of funding, that he was using jam jars instead of Petri dishes to produce virus-free stock, he has helped to found an indigenous biotechnology company in Zimbabwe whose products are now feeding 3 million people. This pioneering work has increased the sweet potato and cassava yield from six tonnes to 30 tonnes per hectare. This means that 1.2 hectares is sufficient ground to feed a family for a year.
Financed by local and international NGOs, including Save the Children, virus-free plants have been supplied to 60,000 African smallholder families. After the first harvest, each family is able to sell to 10 other families. Taking each family as five people, that means that one-third of the population of Zimbabwe is being reached with the economic means of commercial farming as well as their own sustenance. The plant material is distributed along with graduate-level trainers who understand the farmers’ culture and guide them in the new processes. The FAO has now commissioned Agri-Biotech to supply 50 million rooted cuttings to 77 separate projects across the country.
I do not know whether this will offer any comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, but the report draws an interesting distinction with regard to that emotionally loaded phrase, genetic modification. It distinguishes between transgenetic GM and cis-genetic GM. Some elements of cis-genetic GM have been used for centuries, but now it is able to be carried out with much more precision. Even now, I would feel that should be much more acceptable to the sceptical European public. Just think what my Harare friend would do if presented with a few cis-genetic solutions. The question of how much already-available technology is not being transferred to poor farmers around the world is vital. Virus elimination by means of simple biotechnology should work for a number of crops. Aid channels such as DfID, as well as the countries themselves, could do more to enhance the status of young scientists, and Zimbabwe, once settled in a productive new phase, could again be a hub for agricultural advance in the region.
As my noble friend Lord Plumb has pointed out, there has been a contraction of livestock production in the UK. That has contributed to some statistics that are rather relevant today, when we are talking about Copenhagen. These were provided to me by NFU Scotland, which points out that agricultural emissions of methane and NO2 have fallen by 17 per cent since 1990, with CO2 falling by 5 per cent since 2006. Yet in some areas, that approach is really unsustainable. Taking figures from the Scottish Agricultural College’s report Farming’s Retreat from the Hills, it has been achieved mainly by a 12 per cent drop in beef cow numbers and a 23 per cent drop in sheep numbers. Yet in the half of Scotland which is the Highlands and Islands, the contraction of the sheep flock is nearer 30 per cent—and, in some districts, it is 60 per cent.
While it is always a virtue to consider what our farmers can do to enhance our national food security, is it not time that we began to think more of what, by pioneering technology, our farmers could do to alleviate the fate of the starving people in the other parts of the world?
My Lords, I start by thanking and congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on initiating this important debate. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my declaration of interests: I am an owner and landlord of agricultural property, and my law firm has a large agricultural department.
Governments and Parliaments the world over are usually and understandably fixated on the immediate and current problems. It is therefore all the more welcome that I and other noble Lords are able today to congratulate the Royal Society—and Sir David Baulcombe and his working group—on producing such a profound and prescient work on a matter of such vital importance to the citizens of the world. The ability of the world to grow enough good food for all without depleting and degrading its ability to continue to do so is, I believe, the nub of the paper. We are very grateful to the Royal Society.
There are many other aspects to and consequences of that challenge, such as global warming, international and national stability, population growth and migration. On that side, I would be interested to hear whether the Minister knows what effect chaos and mayhem in failing states have on world food production. Zimbabwe was once one of the most successful agricultural economies in Africa, and it is not alone. Is there academic research on food production loss in such states? The fundamental and pivotal problems, and proposed solutions, are highlighted in this important report.
First, exactly what do the Government intend to do with the report? Will they respond in writing to it, and when will they do so? I hope that the House will then have an opportunity to debate that response. One great advantage of this House is that we can find time to highlight such significant anticipatory work as has been adumbrated in this report, and continue to press the Government not only to take the report seriously but to act upon it. Secondly, are the Government aware of whether this report will be considered and discussed by the United Nations and—as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, who was a distinguished Agriculture Minister, suggested—by the European Union? Are the Government taking an active role internationally through the Foreign Office to highlight the report and canvass for international co-operation in reaching solutions?
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, is correct when he says in the foreword to the report that government support is crucial. Governments of the world can learn from science, which sets an enviable example of international co-operation in the sharing of learning, research and expertise worldwide. What action are the Government and their EU partners taking to secure better soil management and to promote agronomy, soil science and agro-ecology? The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, with his wealth of experience, described the lamentable reduction of expertise in these fields. Figure 2.1 on page 14 of the report illustrates that Britain and other European Union countries suffer extensively from degraded or very degraded soil. What research is being undertaken or supported by the Government into the use of pesticides, organic modes of production and new crop varieties? What is our contribution to international science and our own science in these fields?
UK agriculture and our farmers are the most innovative and enterprising. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, reminded the House of the altruistic work carried out by groups of farmers in the United Kingdom. I am aware of several such initiatives and schemes. Great credit goes to our farmers, who make considerable sacrifices directly to improve the lives of individuals in emerging countries. What steps is Defra taking to join the UK agriculture industry in this important work, and what is it doing to connect our farmers to these innovations? This point was rightly stressed by my noble friend Lord Livsey, who has considerable knowledge and experience in this field.
The report graphically illustrates that, however important our national priorities may be, we live in a small world and are utterly interdependent. We can and must work together as one world, acknowledging and embracing our common humanity.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer and a grower. We are members of LEAF, the organisation that links farming and the environment, and of which my noble friend Lady Byford has spoken as its president. I have for a long time, like other noble Lords, been involved with organisations connected to the industry, and have maintained my involvement with many of them.
I thank my noble friend Lady Byford, as have many noble Lords, for introducing this important debate. Noble Lords’ contributions have set a very high standard. They have been authoritative and have covered the wide range of the subject area. They also reflect the authority of the Royal Society’s report, Reaping the Benefits. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, who unfortunately is not in his place, and Sir David Baulcombe, the chairman of the committee that produced this great and seminal work. It crowns the 350-year existence of the society with a work in an area of immense importance. Together with the concept of the perfect storm from John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist, it sets the agenda of feeding the world against a background of climate change, soil degradation, water shortage and population growth. Food security is a topic of our time. There is a moral imperative on British agriculture to seek to address it.
Only today in the Metro newspaper, which many noble Lords will have picked up on their way here, there is talk of 100 million people starving as a result of climate change. I did not see the “Horizon” programme that showed just how great the pressures are on the world’s food resources, but it was reported to me earlier today.
The theme of this report is the international nature of agricultural research and science. It is of global relevance. We heard very evocative speeches from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about the ways in which British science and what we do in the United Kingdom can support, and is vital for, continents such as Africa and others where food security is an even greater threat than it is to this country.
There is strong consensus across the Chamber on this matter. Earlier today I spoke at a Lantra conference where I reminded the delegates of the importance of agricultural skills. I said that I did not think the Minister would be greatly out of sympathy with the views expressed by noble Lords, and I expect that will be so. However, it has not always been the case. It is only a relatively short time since the former Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, suggested that it would be possible for the United Kingdom to feed itself in a world market, for it was perceived that there was a world market of plenty. Those days and those perceptions are gone for good, but their consequences are serious. My noble friend Lady Byford gave the relevant figures. A reduction in self-sufficiency of 1 per cent per annum over the past 10 years is a serious loss to the resources of this country. University faculties have been run down, as have research institutes. I was a trustee of the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, which has gone. My local experimental horticultural station became part of the Institute of Horticultural Research at Kirton in Lincolnshire, which has gone. Indeed, the Institute of Horticultural Research at Wellesbourne is under threat—I spoke to Professor Stuart Palmer only the other day—as a consequence of lack of funding. Lack of funding is causing stress on research facilities.
I was taken to task by the Minister in another place, Mr Jim Fitzpatrick, for saying that the Government had failed to support research and development. However, Defra funding has declined dramatically, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated. Much of the funding lies with DBIS and is difficult to trace and sometimes difficult to use. Levy boards, now combined with the AHDB, are looking at ways in which they can joint fund, with the Technology Strategy Board, projects across the range of agriculture and horticulture. However, their levies are considered to be a proto-fiscal tax and therefore joint funding with government funding is not allowed under competition laws, so there is no possibility of a partnership between the growers of this country and the Technology Strategy Board. That money which the Government are setting great store by cannot be used in the most effective manner unless they solve this problem. It must be a nonsense.
Returning to Lantra, I should say that skills play a key part in making the most of farming as a resource. In this matter, the Principal Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, has decided that there should be only six skills groups, rather than the industry-based groups, as at present. There may be room for some rationalisation. There are, after all, three media-training groups; but it is not even clear to Lantra where it fits within this grand design—if at all. How can we give priority to food security without recognising the importance of skills in the sector?
While on funding, I heard this morning from a very authoritative source that, under yesterday’s Pre-Budget Report, £81 million has been taken back into the Treasury from the Rural Development Programme for England, whose funds are important for training and knowledge transfer. I should be grateful if the Minister could advise me whether that assertion is correct. I certainly hope that it is not, as this is an important element in technology transfer—getting the work from the scientists to farmers and our horticultural growers.
We have talked about technology transfer, because it is important to understand that science on its own is not sufficient. It needs to be applied on farms and taken up by growers. In the ideal solution, science should work alongside farmers and growers. My noble friends Lord Selborne and Lord Plumb pointed out that this is very important to any way of increasing the productivity of British agriculture.
Farmers should be confident of their role as feeders of the nation—and they should be proud of it—because this is good for science, good for the industry and good for consumers and the country. We should seek to build more competitive, efficient and productive agriculture in this country, within a sustainable environment.
I conclude by thanking the Royal Society for providing, through its report, the catalyst for change. I should thank it for pointing out the imperative of doing something about the issue and outlining the opportunities for which a future Government must prepare.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on introducing a debate of great importance. It has produced a series of speeches that have addressed some of the most significant issues that our country and our society have to face.
It is clear that more and more food will be needed to feed global population growth. The most recent figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations suggest that global food production will need to increase by more than 40 per cent by 2030, and 70 per cent by 2050, compared with average 2005-07 levels. Those are demanding targets indeed. They bring forth not only a range of questions but some potential solutions whereby we can address the issues.
Farmers are crucial not only to the production of food but to the protection of our countryside and natural resources. They make a huge contribution to the rural economy and our way of life. We have a growing understanding of the extent to which agriculture is at the centre of the two great global challenges that we face—food security and global warming. The extent to which those two themes have intertwined in almost every contribution that has been made in this debate has been interesting.
Finding ways to produce more food but have less of an impact on the environment is a huge challenge. We will do so only by having a thriving farming industry that is competitive, profitable and innovative and that makes the most of new technologies and techniques. We must communicate these developments to others who need to benefit from them, too. That is why I greatly welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on this dimension. It might be thought that this part of the debate would be best addressed by a DfID Minister, but we know that the relationship between my department, Defra, and DfID is absolutely critical to producing a strategy for addressing the issues which the noble Lord identifies.
There were several comments about the problems in Africa. I do not have the research figures which the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, asked me to provide on the disaster in Zimbabwe. We may not know about it in a statistical sense, but we know how a country that looked as though it could develop into the food basket of a great deal of Africa has been reduced to importing food and desperately coping with hungry citizens. That is a measure of how things have gone catastrophically wrong. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, indicated that that is not the only failed state. We look forward to Zimbabwe recovering and improving, but it has had more than a decade of those disastrous circumstances.
That is not the only situation in Africa, but let us draw hope from the fact that Africa has vast potential. It will be part of our task in driving towards meeting those world targets to ensure that Africa, and indeed other parts of the world, significantly increase their productivity. We can help, encourage and develop through the expertise that we have. As noble Lords have indicated in the debate, the situation in Africa also shows how enormously important it is that we maintain our own research functions and recognise that the increase in food production will depend quite critically on applied science. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and the Royal Society have, quite appropriately, addressed in this 350th anniversary year the critical issue of the relationship between science and food. We need science to address itself to food production. Indeed, that is the basis of today’s debate, which, as I have already indicated, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing for us.
In August, we produced a detailed assessment of how we would address our issues of food security. The assessment shows that Britain enjoys a high level of food security as a developed, stable economy that is integrated into Europe and that has a diverse supply base, but that does not mean that we can be complacent in any way, shape or form. Given the many challenges that the food system will face, the Government have been developing a vision for a sustainable and secure food system. Our aim is to bring together the various aspects of food policy into one coherent strategy for a healthy, sustainable and secure food system. The strategy will define what an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable food system will look like in 20 years’ time, and will then describe how businesses and consumers can contribute to it. We are aware; Defra has the necessity of addressing itself to that fundamental issue up front, and Defra and DfID are collaborating closely on international food security. Ministers attended the world food security meeting in Rome in November. We are working on a joint narrative on international food security and sustainable agriculture, and are co-sponsors of the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project, which is due to report in October next year.
Given the strength of noble Lords’ representations in the debate, I indicate that in general terms we are fully seized of the importance of the issues and have already begun to address them in significant ways. However, there are specific challenges. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about translation of research into practice on farms. That is an important consideration. Collaborative projects with industry will continue to be important in the new sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform. The Technology Strategy Board also funds knowledge-transfer partnerships and networks, which work in close liaison with the other programmes supported.
I agree with the noble Baroness—several other noble Lords drew attention to it—that the issue is also about skills, and ensuring that our future farmers are equipped to cope with a change of environment. There is not much point in applying research to agriculture if the practitioners are not sufficiently aware of the processes in which they are involved to apply them intelligently and get the most from them. We all foresee a rapidly changing world so far as agricultural production is concerned. Our skills base is probably inadequate and needs attention. The issue is known throughout the industry. For instance, we all know the rather unfortunate fact that the average farmer is in his mid-60s. If we are to get rapid change in agriculture, and to get commitment, we will need young people who are equipped to cope with the challenges of the future. The Government have an important role to play with regard to the skills agenda.
I have been asked on all sides whether the Government take the Royal Society’s report on board. Indeed we do. It has an authority and substance that adds enormous weight to the issue and will succeed in communicating the priorities wider in the nation. We have been and are committed to addressing those priorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, expressed the view that there might be a decreased spend on research and development. I am not sure that I agree entirely. Of course I accept his statistics on certain facilities being withdrawn; there is no gainsaying that. I have emphasised the skills agenda at present, but I am all too mindful that several agricultural colleges have closed over the past decade and we need to address ourselves to the others to make sure that they are sufficiently productive. Defra’s research priorities have expanded over recent years, leading to a reduction in farming and food research expenditure. That has been compensated for by increasing expenditure from other funders, and overall government investment in farming and food R&D has remained constant. We have been able to draw other resources into the area.
As has been emphasised in several contributions to the debate, it is not as though significant research in agricultural production is not going on. A dimension of British production, in a wide range beyond agriculture, may be that a gap occurs between the development of research and its application. That is a point to which we have to address ourselves with increasing force and energy. It relates to the skills agenda as well as to information and commitment. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, drew upon the National Farmers’ Union report on these issues. I know how strong it is on the necessity of making sure that there is a close relationship between effective research and practice on the farms.
Collaborative projects with industry will of course continue to be very important in the new sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform. I assure the noble Baroness that our response to that is positive.
Inevitably, if one talks about research, there is bound to be some reference to GM foods and crops. Of course GM is not a technological panacea for meeting the complex challenge of ensuring global food security, but alongside other developments, it could help to make crop production more efficient and sustainable. However, the Government regard safety as a top priority on this issue; we will continue to be led by the scientific evidence and will therefore proceed with some care.
I was grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who presented the case for why science matters for farming. I reassure him that we regard research and development as being at the very heart of agriculture in a way that perhaps it has not been to the same extent in the past. Given the demands of our new society, our new world and our new environment, that position is greatly reinforced. I was very grateful for his comments on these matters.
As I indicated, I was glad that the debate broadened beyond the United Kingdom scene. Our major priority—the responsibility that the Government and my department have—is for production in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, began the debate in those terms but the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, followed it up very strongly in terms of the worldwide needs of Africa in particular. I emphasise that we will sustain the closest links with DfID.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned the “Horizon” programme last night on the relationship between food production and population growth. As we all know, certain aspects of population growth are quite unstoppable in the foreseeable future. The programme identified areas in which some restraint might be gradually introduced. It emphasised, for instance, that young women who stayed in education longer also had families later and fewer children. This is as true in India as it is in advanced democracies and an important lesson can be drawn from it. However, that does not alter the fact that over the next 40 years, in order to feed the inevitable growth in population that is bound to occur, we will have to address these issues of effective production, particularly in areas of the world where land is underused or there has not been sufficient investment in it and where they do not apply the techniques that we are used to in our own society, with our relatively high production levels, so that their production levels are so much lower.
I am not allowed under the rules of the House to comment directly on the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, as he has left us, but we all know the strength of his position. We all wish Lady Plumb the fullest and quickest possible recovery.
I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Quin. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, might have expected, she was bound to refer to the location of the Marine Management Organisation in Newcastle. You do not mix it with a former Member of the other place or of the European Parliament, as their territorial imperative relating to the places that they represented will always be extraordinarily strong. My noble friend Lady Quin was true to form in that respect. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will confess, the decision on location was difficult because of a number of competing possibilities. However, I know that my noble friend rejoices in the fact that Newcastle was chosen. She also emphasised the need for us to be concerned about biodiversity, soil quality and water availability, as well as fish stocks, which she introduced into the debate as an important part of our natural resources.
I was grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, addressed the question of food insecurity and whether it is the case that our targets for renewable energy will mean that we lose capacity for producing food. There are of course competing uses. We all recognise that land devoted to biofuels is not producing food, and there is bound to be a trade-off in decisions on the effective use of land. I emphasise to the noble Lord that those dimensions will need to be balanced but he will know that there is bound to be some contradiction between the rate at which we address the targets for controlling climate change and reducing carbon in the atmosphere and the extent to which we are able to increase certain areas of production. However, with regard to carbon production, I accept that agriculture can make substantial steps forward without necessarily producing anything but good.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised some sticking problems to which I do not have direct answers. I do, however, have one answer: I do not think that the Scottish Crop Research Institute is eligible for funds from the Higher Education Funding Council. However, some higher education institutions are, and Defra, and indeed DfID, produces funding as part of contracts put to research institutes, and the institute to which he referred might well benefit from that.
My noble friend Lady Young emphasised, as we would expect, the relationship between production and the environment. I was grateful for her contribution. As she rightly said, these are the real demands of this debate that we all have to confront and meet.
I am not terribly happy about the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor—the concept of the perfect storm—because I am not sure that storms, perfect or imperfect, ever bring benefits, whereas the challenge presented by the collision of these factors is one to which we all have to respond. I know that the noble Lord is thinking constructively about these matters and I know that our own research people, and John Beddington himself, I believe, talked in terms of the perfect storm. We face a difficult situation. However, I want to adopt a slightly more optimistic stance than I would if I were standing at the Dispatch Box in a perfect storm. I am a poor enough sailor in any circumstances and therefore I like the security of addressing the problems that we all have to face in terms of “graphic”, “challenging” and “a way of communicating”.
I was grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for his contribution. He asked what the Government were doing about the report. We are already in action. We agreed with its broad analysis and will look at it in detail. However, I am not sure that I can provide a guarantee of a debate. I am always slightly wary of the usual channels when it comes to such matters, not least because I am occasionally a bit to close to them myself. We will consider the matter, but I reassure the noble Lord that the Government are taking the matter seriously.
On behalf of the whole House I express our gratitude to the noble Baroness for introducing this report from the Royal Society. The debate has been timely and reflective of the great value we attach to this institution which has directed itself to the great challenges facing agriculture, an industry for which my department is responsible. The challenges are enormous. We will not agree all along the line about the strategies to pursue, but I hope that there is sufficient consensus for us to make progress together. I have derived from this debate at least a common analysis of the problems, and that is a step along the journey.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his response. He is right that we have had much convergence of thought around the Chamber this afternoon. We are all aware of the food security problem and the urgency that climate change adds to it.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The Minister need not worry about my regard for her—in some ways it is formidable. We worked opposite each other in my early days when she was in another place, and I am grateful to her for joining us today. I am grateful to all my noble friends.
I have three things to say quickly. First, the question of skills has again been highlighted, and the Minister has just referred to it. I want to tempt him to have serious discussions with his counterpart in higher education, as something could be done about this real problem. Secondly, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I express his apologies for being unable to be here to take part in the debate. Noble Lords may have seen him in the Chamber for the start of the debate, but as he had to leave at 4 o’clock, he felt that he could not take part. I know that he is anxious to read the contributions that he was not able to listen to.
Finally, I add to the thanks and support that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, who has long been regarded as a leading authority and sympathetic supporter of agriculture not only in this country but in Europe and internationally. I know that his wife has just come out of hospital, and he has explained why he cannot be here. To all those who have taken part, I give my grateful thanks, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.