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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1267—continued

2.45 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) on securing this debate and on choosing such a fascinating subject. Organic farming and fair trade are two very important but, as he has indicated, distinct subjects. Nevertheless, it is important to try to wrestle with the principles to which he referred.

I have a long-standing interest in fair trade, both through the co-operative movement and through Traidcraft, which my wife promoted in our home town of Penarth for many years. I am not sure that it is an interest in the declarable sense, but it is certainly an enthusiasm, and it continues to occupy a considerable proportion of our cellar.

Individual consumers can exercise choice in their moral and purchasing decisions. Together we can make a difference and achieve a great deal, especially with the encouragement of the Government's engagement in these issues, and I join my hon. Friend in applauding the work of the Secretary of State for International Development. It is a matter of pride to me that the House can make a difference, and not only in the availability of tea and coffee—the point at which I thought we were getting the message across was when the Churchill Room's selected wine for the month turned out to be Traidcraft wine from a co-operative in South Africa.

I join my hon. Friend in applauding the efforts of the Fairtrade Foundation and others working in this field to promote equitable trading practices for producers in developing countries. The fair trade certification and labelling scheme responds to concerns, increasingly held by our society, about poverty and disadvantaged groups in developing countries whose living depends on fair

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prices and fair terms of trade. Such schemes also respond to the willingness, and indeed enthusiasm, of much of the business community to demonstrate concern for fair trading practices, reflecting the views of their customers.

The Government strongly support organic farming as a sustainable method of production that provides significant environmental benefits. I gave organic farming targeted support when I was Secretary of State for Wales, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs strongly supports it. Last year, we developed our organic action plan for England with a wide range of stakeholders, and it is now being implemented. It concentrates on sustainable growth of the organic sector in this country. We are also very much alive to the potential of organic trade to help disadvantaged producers elsewhere in the world. We are, for example, supporting moves in the European Community to change the legislative requirements to facilitate trade from producer groups in developing countries, while maintaining the integrity of the organic certification system.

The initiative outlined by the Fairtrade Foundation and the Soil Association in January has promising aspects that may help to meet fair trade objectives while also achieving benefits for trade in organic products. Co-operation between the respective certification bodies is to be welcomed, and I particularly support the plan to identify more organic producers in developing countries who can be certified to fair trade standards. I do not think that my hon. Friend's concerns extend to those proposals.

The other stated objective of the initiative is to consider the introduction of fair trade certification—together, presumably, with labelling to inform consumers—for organic products from the UK. I understand that no decision has yet been taken by the sponsors of the project on the form that that could take. The Government do not necessarily have a role in the development of private certification schemes, where those are consistent with existing legislation. However, I recognise my hon. Friend's points about the confusion, and indeed harm, that could arise if fair trade labelling, in the form associated with products from developing countries, were to be applied to products from the UK and other developed countries.

The connection between the concerns of farmers in the United Kingdom and the challenges of helping farmers in third-world countries is interesting. When I first had agriculture responsibilities, particularly in Wales, I was struck by the continual wish for a fair return to the primary producer. In fair trade, much the same concept takes the form of encouraging people to seek an assurance that the primary producer is not being squeezed by those who process and trade commodities around the world.

In many ways, there is also an emphasis on the way in which farmers want to produce to a level of quality, to co-operate to ensure that they have some strength in the market place and to benefit from added value in products. That is very similar to the challenges of ensuring that such things can happen in other countries. Indeed, I have often underlined the importance of co-operation, and I am very pleased that the Curry commission's recommendations suggest that co-operation, quality and connection with the market can

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increase the returns to farmers in this country. At one level, there is a philosophical similarity between the wish to ensure a fair return to farmers, who have gone through extremely difficult times in recent years, and the concepts that underlie fairness in international trade.

As my hon. Friend said, I took part in a conference discussion at Stoneleigh park only last Friday that brought together those two issues. It was fascinating to attend a conference, promoted by organisations such as the National Farmers Union, Christian Aid, the co-operative movement and a variety of others, in which people referred to what can we learn from one another and what are the points of dialogue. Some people might have the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed, but debating the issues is certainly well worth while.

As the later part of the discussion continued and as I was asked questions following my contribution, I was a little concerned about the extent to which people returned to speaking about the need to protect farming in this country or to have an international trade regime that protects the poorer producers in third-world countries and retreated from dialogue to emphasising their priorities. So bringing together the two issues is not easy, and I am certain that the Soil Association, the Fairtrade Foundation and the others who have become involved in that debate will find that some extremely difficult and challenging issues remain.

It is also worth underlining the fact that the Government strongly support world trade liberalisation under the Doha negotiations for agriculture. The Doha mandate makes a commitment to substantial reductions in subsidies and market protection and to special and differential treatment for developing countries. Our objectives in reforming the common agricultural policy are based on a market-led approach that will place the European Union on a stronger footing in the World Trade Organisation talks on trade liberalisation. All those issues are interrelated to a degree, and they are difficult to separate if we want to make sense of the world in which we live and if we believe in ensuring that fairness is achieved, as I know my hon. Friend does from his interest in this issue.

On the other half of the debate, the Government fully recognise that British farmers face very serious difficulties caused by many factors, including declining markets and poor returns. It is important to underline the fact that our strategy for sustainable farming and food, based on the work of Sir Don Curry and the policy commission on the future of farming and food, sets out the new approach that is needed for the future.

Our approach involves moving agriculture away from the constraints of production-related subsidies; reconnecting farmers with markets and strengthening the food chain; improving co-operation, performance and quality; enhancing training and opportunities to learn from best practice; and ensuring a secure basis for the future founded on the principle of sustainability, thus meeting economic, environmental and social objectives.

Many of those principles, particularly the principles of sustainable development, are relevant to producers in the third world and to those economies. In an age in which commodity prices on the international market

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can fluctuate rapidly, the need to find the right way forward, which is not protectionist and does not encourage the production of goods for which there is no market, is extremely important. Certainly, none of that is easy. A resonance exists in terms of ensuring that the primary producer receives a fair return, or the return from adding value, and is well connected to the market, in terms of what consumers wish to receive, and to the point of quality, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred. I endorse strongly, like him, the way in which fair trade products nowadays are of a high quality and are able to compete on those grounds. That is important if they are to have a long-term and sustainable future.

I note my hon. Friend's concerns, and Government colleagues will see what he has said. At the end of the day, however, it is for those who undertake this work to consider the pros and cons in relation to the launch of the consultation in January. I am certain that they will take to heart many of the points that he has raised. The House should consider the issue with care: we must take our decisions on purchasing not only as Members of Parliament but as individual consumers. The issue of how we best promote choice for consumers—whether choice of organic products or choice to purchase fairly traded products knowing that a reasonable return goes to people in those developing economies—are all things that are important for us as citizens and for the House as a whole.

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