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Defra: Research and Development

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to encourage more research and development work in the areas of food, environment and rural affairs; and, if so, how.

My Lords, the Government continue to invest heavily in research and development in these areas through the research councils, the Technology Strategy Board, Defra and its network and other Government departments. Much of the investment is co-ordinated through large national and international partnerships and is currently supporting world-class basic and applied research to meet the challenge of increasing sustainable food production.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his response, I remind the House of my family’s farming interests. Given the excellent basic research to which the Minister referred, what are the Government doing to get this into practical use on farms?

My Lords, my noble friend will know that the Government have taken on board the findings of the Taylor review, which is a commitment of Defra’s business plan. As the Minister responsible for science and research in the department, I can assure her that the issue is high on the department’s agenda.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most vital aspects of effective food production is the success of the honey-bee in this country? Does he agree that the honey-bee is currently under threat in a variety of ways, including from the Varroa mites, which may or may not cause colony collapse disorder, and, now we learn, from the probable arrival of the Asian hornet? Will he reassure the House that research funding into the survival of honey-bee colonies will be maintained and will he also stress, wherever possible, the importance of domestic bee-keeping—I speak as the mother and the daughter of domestic bee-keepers—particularly in cities and towns?

I assure the noble Baroness that this is high on the agenda. Indeed, as she probably knows, the Government are funding a pollinator programme—not just bees but other pollinating insects are vital for the biodiversity that we are seeking to maintain. I have seen for myself the work being done at FERA in York, where not only are the problems affecting bees being looked at, but we are very alert to the Asian hornet and the threat that that poses. I have personal acquaintance with such insects from when I occasionally visit France, so I know that they are a real threat to bee-keepers and honey production.

My Lords, my interests are already fully declared in your Lordships’ Register. Does the Minister agree that the number of farmers has declined sharply in recent years, particularly dairy producers? Is there not, therefore, a need for research on higher value crops to be made known to farmers? Perhaps some of these could replace some imports.

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I come from a horticultural background so am very much acquainted with the enormous potential for import substitution in these markets. I would like to think that the progress that is being made in yield increases from dairy cows is the sort of thing that we can see sustainably projected across the whole of agriculture. However, we need to be aware that it affects the number of viable herds in this country. That is one of the consequences of this investment in this area. However, the noble Lord is correct that giving farmers the knowledge to achieve these challenges is the most important thing.

My Lords, Defra has to make some policy decisions shortly about grass-fed dairy herds as opposed to the environmental and welfare benefits of having intensive indoor dairies. It called for tender bids for research in this area, which resulted in,

“none of the bids fully meeting the Department’s thorough evidence requirements”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/10/11; col. 1399W.]

In that case, will Defra call for bids to be retendered or will it make policy in a vacuum?

It is certainly not my intention to make policy in a vacuum. All policy decisions in Defra on the science front are based on evidence. That, indeed, is a principle which we apply to decision-making in general. I would like to reassure my noble friend on that point.

My Lords, given the Minister’s personal commitment and expertise in this area, I want to be helpful to him in pressing him on the issue. The Secretary of State Caroline Spelman signed up to the G20 communiqué on food security in Paris last June, which calls on countries to invest more in innovation in food science. On the one hand it appears that her department has plans to encourage more research and development, but at the same time she is cutting the overall research and development budget by 27 per cent. Why does Defra sign up to international commitments calling on action from other Governments which it has no intention of meeting in this country? Why is it saying one thing and doing another?

I think the noble Lord is making the mistake of taking a particular aspect of Defra’s activity and not realising that, strategically, the Government have a great focus on the whole need to raise the game. We will need to double world food production by 2050. We shall be able to do that only with science as an ally. The thrust across government, and the whole thrust of the Taylor review, was about leveraging the Government’s investment as a whole in this area. We will be spending £1 billion on R&D in the Living with Environmental Change Partnership and £440 million on global food security.

My Lords, given the desperate need for better agricultural extension in the UK, does the Minister agree that this is as much about learning the lessons of environmental best practice—I refer particularly to soil degradation in this context—as it is about agricultural invention? If we wish the growth in the nation’s agricultural productivity to continue, we must better align environmental research with technical research and not treat them as two separate entities, as is currently the case.

My Lords, we must do that not only in this country but globally, because the problems of water and soil degradation are universal. We are mindful of this.

My Lords, in the promised development of agricultural research, especially in the field of livestock health, will the Minister pay attention to some of the more chronic diseases that are less spectacular than the ones we generally know about—such as foot rot in sheep, mastitis in dairy cattle and parasitism in all production animals?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing to the attention of the House the whole issue of animal health. My right honourable friend David Willetts is going down to Pirbright, where there has been considerable investment. These issues are indeed on the agenda.