Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 570 - 579)




  570. Gentlemen, you came in towards the end of the previous session so you probably missed the interchange about localisation that ought to take place, so we have introduced your topic in a sense. Mr Harper is unwell?
  (Mr Allen) He is unwell, yes.

  571. But he will get over it, will he? We have had people collapse in front of this Committee so we are anxious to check.
  (Mr Allen) We are in good health.

  Chairman: You are Paul Allen, the Development Director, and Joey Hughes, who is the Media Officer for the Centre for Alternative Technology. Thank you for coming here today. As you know, or you may not know, we are trying to look at the world after foot and mouth and various options and alternatives which might open up which could be the subject for debate. It is in that context that we have invited you to come and speak to us. I suppose you might say your sponsor is Mr Öpik, if that is a parliamentary expression, so I am going to give him the honours of opening up the batting from our side.

Mr Öpik

  572. I would be grateful, by your leave, Chairman, if perhaps Paul could briefly describe what the Centre for Alternative Technology was set up to achieve and what is its mission?
  (Mr Allen) The Centre for Alternative Technology opened to the public 25 years ago. In the early 1970s there was a lot of talk about what is an environmental solution, what is a green thing to do. A lot of that talk was very constructive but happened very late at night and was very abstract. The Centre was set up to practically test out sustainable technologies to see if they deliver in terms of economics, in terms of reducing the emissions that they claim to do, and in terms of whether they are solutions that real families can live with in real homes. Over the past 25 years we have grown enormously. We now receive 70,000, 80,000 visitors per annum. A lot of those are holiday makers, they are also schools, and an increasing number of businesses are approaching us. Our mission has always been solutions driven environmentalism. There are other organisations better equipped than we are to highlight the problems. Our role, as we see it, is to inspire, inform and enable all sectors of society to take up practical green solutions.


  573. So you are not a back to the Stone Age brigade?
  (Mr Allen) No, not at all.

  574. Not the BBC live on the Shetlands for five years with a spear?
  (Mr Allen) We were technical consultants to the Castaway programme looking at isolated systems of energy generation or dealing with sewage, so we had a hand in it but we do not recommend that is a solution for everybody in the UK.

Mr Öpik

  575. Thank you for that overview. One of the most recent initiatives which, as you know, I have been very impressed by is the "Think Local" Initiative which you launched at the start of April as a recipe for recovery. I understand it aims to promote the importance of robust and diverse local economies. Could you briefly describe what the "Think Local" Initiative is about and whether it is a response simply to foot and mouth or whether you see it having a more strategic importance?
  (Mr Allen) Certainly. It grew largely out of our conversations with the general public and visitors. People want to do something positive to help. They were initially told to stay out of the countryside, that was what a member of the public could do, and then the message was changed that perhaps staying out of the countryside was not the best thing to do but what they had to do was stay away from cattle and farms. It needs to go beyond that if people are to become involved in the recovery. What we are suggesting is not a return to the Stone Age or the Good Life, as Richard Briers would have us live it, but selective localisation, not self-sufficiency that we start making our own shoes and toothbrushes and so forth. Within what a typical family may buy in a week there are things which are very sensible and very ripe for re-localisation. We added the "re" because things did originally come locally but they were de-localised probably in the 1950s and 1960s. There are a lot of positive gains from re-localisation. What it does is reduces the externalities. These are costs which are not paid by the producer or the consumer. In 1998 it was estimated that there were £2.3 billion worth of external costs to the way we do our agriculture which were not paid by producers or consumers, they were in terms of the cost of pollution of aeroplanes travelling food around, pesticides getting into the water, etc. This year with the huge losses faced by small hoteliers, bed and breakfast owners, tourist attractions and so forth, the external losses to the way we do agriculture are likely to be very much greater. Re-localisation would reduce the risk of unforeseen difficulties, such as BSE, where you find that the way we do agriculture with a lot of inputs has caused some unusual outputs. It would also reduce the spread of infections like foot and mouth. I am sure you are more than aware that the profile of the way the disease has spread this time is very different from the 1967 outbreak when we were not moving cattle and food about anywhere near the distances that we are now. It also supports the local farmers, adding value to their produce, because produce that is sold directly to the public has a higher value than produce which is sold to a supermarket chain or a wholesaler. It also reduces consumer concerns. The butcher in Machynlleth has struggled for many years to keep his independent local slaughterhouse open and now for the meat he sells he has a big list of all the farmers and their telephone numbers and challenges his customers to ring any of the numbers and ask any questions about the produce. As well as that it also meets an awful lot of other targets and drivers which are approaching us. I am sure you are all aware of the summary of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Report, Energy in a Changing Climate, which set us targets of something like 60 per cent CO2 cuts by 2050 if we are to achieve contraction and convergence. We cannot hope to achieve those sorts of targets if we are still driving food 750 miles to do a 50 mile journey. Also, de-localised systems become very fragile, as the fuel protests showed us, the shops become empty after three days with no means of stocking locally. Future crises may be less self-inflicted than the last fuel crisis, they may be outside the control of the population of the UK, it could be an America-China war or whatever, and we may find that we are without fuel for very much longer than last time. Re-localised systems give a better chance of providing food and you keep the infrastructure in the area, you keep the skills and resources in the area.

  576. Who are you aiming to perform the function of re-localisation?
  (Mr Allen) The free market system depends upon the whim of individual consumers. We think that if individual consumers were made aware of the external costs, social and economic, of a lot of the de-localised systems, then they would make more informed choices. Also, if everybody wants to help the local economy and if the links were made and consumers could clearly see that buying local has a positive effect on the local economy then there would be more emphasis. We spend between ten and 20 per cent of our average incomes on food and we spend much more, maybe 40 or 50 per cent, on cultural items which make a statement about how we are and what we believe in. If some of that cultural spend could be included in the food spend, and part of where we buy our food and what we buy is a statement about who we are and what we believe, then I think more consumers would consider buying local. It is an initiative that is aiming to better inform consumers than it is to bring in legislation that prevents the sale of de-localised food.

  577. Clearly it is an initiative being promoted by the Centre for Alternative Technology but who, in your judgment, should be the key driver to carry this forward?
  (Mr Allen) There are many levels. The first thing we would flag up is we do not have all the answers, there is a lot more research that needs to be done. It is not just re-localising food, it could be re-localising all sorts of other things. It could be re-localising financial borrowing through Credit Unions. There are many solutions appropriate to many locations. There are a lot of practical examples working in the UK and across Europe but there is no organisation working across all the sectors. For example, the Soil Association's Local Food Links looks at food but it does not see how that relates to re-localising other aspects of what we do, like our borrowing or clothes manufacture or whatever is appropriate to that region.
  (Mr Hughes) To some extent there is a need to look into what kind of local economy mix you want and that may well be site specific depending on your region. There is not really that integrated look with regards to the research of local economies, it always seems to be sectoral. No-one is looking at what kind of mix makes a local economy work. I think that is where there is a definite need for research to be done.

  578. And Government's role in this?
  (Mr Hughes) The Government has a role in sponsoring research and in encouraging research.

  579. What about promoting the strategy of re-localisation itself on a UK-wide basis if you see this as at least a UK-wide initiative?
  (Mr Allen) There are organisations that are promoting business development in all the regions across the UK. For example, the WDA does that in Wales. If they were given a brief to include an aspect of re-localisation in their strategy for how they are going to see their economies develop over the next ten or 15 years then that would trickle down.

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