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The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made an important point about electronic identification for sheep. I have met sheep farmers from right across the country, and I know that a lot of them are very concerned about that. I am on record as saying that the costs outweigh the benefits, which is why we pushed for, and succeeded in getting, a delay in implementation and why we were able to get the slaughter derogation. It is why we are currently trying in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health to get agreement that recording can be done by third partiesin other words, at the market, not on the farm. That would significantly reduce the burden on farmers.
I have just written to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers in Europe to say that if we get that change, there will be a pretty strong case for saying that an electronic tag needs to be put on a sheeps ear only when it is about to leave the farm holding. That would require the European Commission to come forward with a change to regulation, and for that to happen we need other member states to come forward and support the UK and other countries such as Ireland, Hungary and one or two others that have been expressing concern about sheep EID.
That change would save farmers from having to scour the hills and tops from the date of implementation to find their sheep and attach ear tags. As we know, in any given year 10 to 15 per cent. of the tags may fall out, so they would have to be found and replaced. The change would be a practical step. It is different from third-party reporting, which can be brought in by comitology. It would require a revision to regulation, which depends on the Commission. I assure the House the I will continue to press the point, but I need support from other member states.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Before the Secretary of State moves on from regulation, may I ask him whether he would be willing to enter into a dialogue with the industry about fallen stock? It seems perfectly obvious to me that there has been no demonstrable improvement in animal health, or indeed human health, from the ludicrous and expensive restrictions on what farmers have to do with carcases, which are not even enforceable. It would be prudent for him at least to revisit the case for biodigesters on site and take a more relaxed view of what happens to fallen stock in the real world. He knows as well as I do that much of the time, fallen stock is not found before it has been consumed by wildlife.
Hilary Benn: I accept the hon. Gentlemans point about the facts of geography and remoteness in some of our farming communities. I will happily reflect on his point and respond to him, but it is important that we continue to take steps to prevent any spread of disease. That, of course, is what lies behind the fallen stock measures that we have in place.
Mr. Roger Williams: The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way. The fallen stock system was introduced because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy prion. We now know that there is no BSE in sheep and that the existence of prions in the cattle population is greatly reduced. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is now time to examine the whole fallen stock system and ascertain whether the regulation is too burdensome and disproportionate?
Hilary Benn: I think that I shall be writing two letters as a result of the interventions by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). I will reflect on the points that they made and come back to them, if that is okay.
We need all the means at our disposal to meet the challenges that I set out, and research and development will be very important. I was fortunate earlier this week to launch formally the new Food and Environment Research Agency in York. It will help us to monitor and tackle disease and maintain the safety of our food. It is a world-class facility and I urge any hon. Members who have not had the chance to visit to do so.
Along with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, DEFRA, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, industry and some NGO contributions, we invest approximately £164 million a year. As hon. Members know, we have put more money into bee research because of the concerns that were expressed. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Fylde and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for being part of that process. That is an example of priorities changing in response to changing circumstances.
We have announced five demonstration projects, which will receive funding from our £10 million anaerobic digestion demonstration programme. We formed the anaerobic digestion taskforce to work with the industry to overcome any remaining obstacles so that we can tap that great potential for energy.
We are also working with specific sectors. As many Members know, perhaps partly thanks to Jamie Olivers work, the pig industry has been through some tough times. As I said earlier, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree for her work on that. The Select Committee recommended setting up a pig taskforce and we did exactly that. We announced it in February and it has been working hard to get to grips with the issues. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister attended a meeting of the taskforce on his second day in the job. It examines in detail what needs to be done to help the industry.
We are trying to improve public procurement to provide a better market for British produce, and the Government are buying more of it. Ministry of Defence procurement is up to 59 per cent. from 43 per cent. The NHS is up to 70 per cent., and almost 100 per cent. of milk used by Departments is British.
Following an idea from the Council of Food Policy Advisers, supported by the Eat Seasonably campaign, which, I am proud to say, DEFRA has funded, I will bring together people from the horticulture industry to examine how we can grow more fruit and vegetables in the UK and get more people to eat five a day, because we know the importance of fruit and vegetables to our health.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):
We are all in favour of teaching children about a richer, more varied diet. However, does my right hon. Friend
agree that one problem, as Natural England found in a recent survey, is that the number of children who go to the countryside has halved in a generation? Is it not time that we put more emphasis on taking children to the countryside, and getting them to learn about it through any discipline, so that they understand where their food comes from and the importance of fresh, good food sourced locally?
Hilary Benn: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Open farm Sunday, which was the Sunday before last, is important. From memory, about 450 farms around the country opened up. Young people visited the apple farm to which I went in Hampshire. There is ano pun intendedgrowing interest in understanding where our food comes from. One need only consider the enormous demand for allotments, the growth in farmers markets and the greater desire on the part of consumers to buy local produce.
It is important that we facilitate that, through clearer and more accurate labelling. That is why we are pushing in Europe for origin labelling to be significantly improved and why, at the same time as maintaining full public confidence about the safety of food, we need to address the 370,000 tonnes of food that is thrown out every year after passing its best before date, despite being safe to eat. As the House will be aware, last week I announced steps to look at how best before labels are used, because a large proportion of farmers hard work ends up in the bin and then in landfill, where it produces methane, which adds to the problem of climate change, which affects the farmers. That is a small example of why we all have an interest in working together to deal with the problem. We have to be clear about what is safe and what is not, because nothing must compromise safety, but we also need to stop throwing away good food and stop wasting money in the process.
Mr. Sheerman: Before he leaves this point, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we want to get people to go back into the countryside, perhaps the Government should have a policy of giving back to the English common people the English common land that was stolen from them by the other place in the 18th and 19th centuries, and which is still owned by the same people, in the same landed estates? Is it not about time that our Government gave that land back to ordinary people?
Hilary Benn: I must confess that I was not anticipating that I would be invited in this debate to include a reference to the Enclosures Acts and the past 200 years of British history or say what we might do about it. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not tempted to travel down the path that he has opened up.
Whoever owns the land, the way in which our food is produced is changing, as is our relationship with the environment, as we come to understand the importance of sustainability much more. However, one thing is certain: the world is going to need a lot of farmers and a lot of agricultural production over the rest of this century, not least because we have to feed about another 3 billion human beings. That is a big task, and we have to be ready. We all have to play our part, and there is a great deal still to do. I know that British farmers and food manufacturers are up for the challenge, and so am I.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): We have waited more than six years for a debate on farming in Government time, so this debate is extremely welcome. It is also a timely opportunity, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on being here to move the motion himself.
The recent collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain has sent tremors through the farming community and serves to remind us that farming is not an industry that can be taken for granted. However, under the current Government, one could be forgiven for thinking that agriculture is an afterthought or, worse, an obstacle in the way of DEFRAs broader objectives. Government policy tells us that
domestic production is not a necessary condition for food security,
as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) reminded the Secretary of State. That policy document still stands. There is no mention of farming in the Departments title; indeed, it is not even mentioned in the Departments sole public service agreement. If food security is so important, why is it not reflected in the Departments primary mission?
Farming Ministers come and go with every harvest. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), the latest to exit, left before the harvest, having completed little more than six months in office. I hope that the Minister of State, whom I genuinely welcomed to his place on Monday, is feeling secure. However, he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can console themselves with the thought that they have, at most, 11 months left in their posts.
A lot has happened since the Governments last debate on farming. The single payment scheme has shaken up the system of support. Farmers face new disease threats, such as bluetongue, not to mention the travails of dealing with foot and mouth and bovine TBa subject to which I wish to return. They also operate in an increasingly open and competitive marketplace, as the nature of support has changed. However, many things have remained all too familiar since that last debate: dominant supermarkets, inadequate food labelling, and excessive and growing regulatory burdens. All that is set against the backdrop of concern about food security, which the Secretary of State quite properly set out.
But what has been the Governments response to this looming crisis? Within a very short time the world will not be able to feed itself, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, and a Chatham House report has recently warned that the problem will have a particularly great impact on import-dependent countries and on poor people everywhere, yet the Governments response has been to preside over an increase in the United Kingdoms reliance on imports. They have overseen significant declines in the production of cereals, milk, vegetables and meat. In short, they have decreased our productive contribution to food security.
No one is suggesting that Britain either could or should be wholly self-sufficient in food. That would be impractical and, arguably, undesirable. Nor is anyone suggesting, as far as I am aware, a return to production subsidies or targets, and we are certainly not suggesting import controls or any kind of interference with the
marketof course not. However, one of the countrys foremost experts on food security, Professor Tim Lang, has said:
The present Governments food security policy creates unnecessary vulnerabilities.
We recognise the benefit of a diversity of supply, but that needs to be balanced against the sustainability of food miles, the importance and value of local productionto which the Secretary of State referredand the threats posed by climate change and terrorism. Trade will continue to be important, but in our view the pendulum has been allowed to swing too far away from domestic production.
Lembit Öpik: I support the hon. Gentlemans observations about food security. Does he agree that it is contradictory to talk about having environmental policies on food production while regulations make it almost impossible to run a small abattoir? Would it not be more sensible, from a risk management perspective, to relax the regulations on small abattoirs to ensure that we can re-localise food production wherever that is practicable? Montgomeryshire is certainly one place that is crying out to do that.
Nick Herbert: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decline in small local abattoirs has been one of the highly regrettable trends in contemporary agriculture. It undermines the cause of local food production, which people support. I hope that we will be able to arrest that decline in future.
For a country blessed with such fine growing conditions as the UK not to grow the food which it could, and to use imports as a substitute for produce which could perfectly well be grown here, is a waste of potential.
He is surely right about that. We must move away from importing vast quantities of food that we could grow ourselves. We have the infrastructure, the soils, the climate and the skills to increase our contribution to national and global food security, but we cannot do that if we go on seeing farmers as dispensable, as I believe the Government sometimes do. Of course food security must not be an argument for protectionism or for the re-intensification of agriculture. I would be the last person to advocate either of those things. However, there should be no conflict between the environment and food production.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an important point, which I wholeheartedly support, about the need to rebalance our food production and to see the pendulum swing back in the direction of local production. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out that we have seen a decline in the number of local abattoirs, and many dairy farmers have quit the industry altogether. We are losing some of the local infrastructure that could have enabled us to increase the share of locally produced food that the UK consumer buys.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a danger in allowing relatively fragile parts of the agricultural sector, including the dairy industry, to face these difficulties. If we continued to lose them, it would be very hard to restore the agricultural infrastructure that would allow
us to rise to the challenges that we face. It is highly desirable that we should retain the means to grow the foods that it is possible to grow domestically.
Our food security ultimately depends on healthy and diverse eco-systems. That is why I do not believe that there is a conflict between the environment and food production. In the past, it was largely the fault of successive Governments of all parties sending out the wrong signals about what they wanted agriculture to do. Violent swings between production at all costs and the environment as the first priority of farming are, in my view, unhelpful. The stop-go approachpayments to rip out hedgerows one moment and incentives to replant them the nexthas been enormously damaging, and has fostered the equally damaging notion that farming and the environment are at odds. What we need to pursue is a balanced agriculture.
Mr. Sheerman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have seen an amazing diversification of the agricultural products coming from our farms over recent years? He may know that I have an obsessive interest in the English poet John Clare. When we open the John Clare centre on 13 Julyhis birthdaywe will sell a massive range and variety of home-produced local products that were not there 10 years ago.
Nick Herbert: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is increased interest in the local production of food, and there is still unexploited potential there. If that is to continue, we need to rely on a number of things, one of which is correct food labelling, which I shall come to shortly.
I was talking about the balance between agriculture and the environment. Todays climate change projections suggest profound effects on agriculture and the environment in the years ahead, as we discussed in relation to the Secretary of States statement earlier. We will need a more sustainable approach to water management, and we will need to develop technology that can reduce farmings greenhouse gas emissions, through technologies such as anaerobic digestion. We will need smarter mechanisms to enhance our biodiversity where we continue to suffer biodiversity loss and miss important targets. We will need to promote carbon capture, ensure proper flood prevention and secure other environmental services.
The Wildlife Trusts have called today for a long-term vision for the future of our land, with joined-up decisions on agriculture planning, water management and more. I believe that this call for an integrated approach to land use is right, but it requires a fundamentally different approach, oriented around incentivising the right outcomes rather than imposing further regulation and being so worried about processes.
Mr. Roger Williams: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentlemans argument; he is engaging in thought processes that many of us, too, are going through. Does he think that it is the duty of farmers and the farming industry to produce more food, or is it their duty to look after their own businesses? If the latter, how are we going to incentivise farmers to produce more food?
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