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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): Research commissioned by DEFRA entitled "The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development" was published by the Department on 14 July this year, copies of which have been placed in the House Libraries.
Tony Lloyd: I thank my hon. Friend for that full reply. The report is very good, but it is also worrying, because, for example, it indicates that some 25 per cent. of movements by heavy goods vehicles involve the transportation of food. To mirror some of the earlier questions about local supply, in this day and age it is arguable that the distance that food is transported is not only bad for the environment but reduces quality and nutritional value. I note that my hon. Friend has said that he will meet Department of Trade and Industry Ministers to see what they can do about the supermarkets, which are responsible and must play a role if food miles are to be seriously decreased. I wonder what he intends to say
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the report. He is right to highlight the importance of local food for a number of different reasons, but we should bear in mind the fact that the external costs associated with UK food transport are just over £9 billion a year, of which £5 billion is attributed to the cost of congestion and £2 billion to road accidents, and we must make sure that we debate the matter in that context. We are making efforts across Government to ensure that our transport is more sustainable, and I will certainly take up my hon. Friend's points when I meet DTI Ministers.
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Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Is the Minister aware that supermarket lorries go the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back twice every day in this country, which makes an enormous contribution to climate change? [Interruption.] I did say the equivalent. What steps is he taking to encourage the supermarkets to re-examine their wholesaling and distribution arrangements to try to minimise food miles? What will the Government do to help, given that Department of Health figures on the school fruit scheme show that 89 per cent. of pears and 50 per cent. of apples are imported?
Jim Knight: Best practice is at the heart of achieving that goal, which we all share. The Government have encouraged the efficient distribution of food and drink, including by the supermarkets, in our sustainable distribution strategy. In addition, we have challenged the industry to reduce the external costs of domestic food transportation by 20 per cent. by 2012.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one sure way of cutting food miles would be to cut the myriad petty rules and regulations that have closed local abattoirs around the country? Will he commit to look into that?
Jim Knight: We continue to monitor the situation. Local abattoirs are very important for farming and for sustainable management of the land, so we need to keep them open. I am working closely with the regional development agencies, led by Richard Ellis, the chair of the East of England Development Agency, to see what we can do to support that important service.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I find it hard to accept the platitudes about cutting food miles when records show that the mileage of the Minister's own departmental vehicles has accounted for a 40 per cent. increases in their carbon emissions. In the year to March 2003, DEFRA added 1,153 tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere
In the year ending March 2005, DEFRA carbon emissions had risen by 40 per cent. to 1,594 tonnes. How can Ministers preach on food miles when their Department has increased its own mileage to such an extent?
I wonder whether Opposition Front Benchers offset their mileage in the way that DEFRA does. We offset all our emissions, and those offsets purchase credits from the clean development mechanism project. The offset from the G8 presidency has been not only good for the environment but fantastic for the communities of South Africa, where that money is being spent.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): We have received representations from the hon. Gentleman and others about the policy for future maintenance and improvement of those sea defences. Long-term sustainability and the issue of whether it is economically worth while are key considerations when investing taxpayers' money in such works. Over the past 20 years, £140 million has been spent on the maintenance and improvement of sea walls in Essex alone.
Mr. Whittingdale: Does the Minister accept that the Government's decision to stop maintaining parts of the sea wall must mean that sooner or later large areas of agricultural land will be lost to the sea? Will he guarantee that before any such decision is taken there will be full disclosure of the cost-benefit analysis that led to it?
Jim Knight: Only last month the hon. Gentleman had meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, when much of this was discussed. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was also present. We have looked into the matter and will ensure that the Environment Agency publishes information as it becomes available so that people can be properly consulted.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): May I tell my hon. Friend that residents of the coastal village of Corton in my constituency are very pleased with the £3 million that his Department made available for a scheme that gives them much greater peace of mind?
Around the harbour of Lowestoft, there is a great deal of derelict old industrial land that needs to be regenerated but it is within the flood zone designated by the Environment Agency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the agency needs to work with the regenerators and not place unreasonable obstacles in the path of regeneration and of new businesses that want to move in?
Jim Knight: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments and pleased that the Corton scheme has been so successful. Although I would be cautious about flood defence money being used for regeneration, it is important that the regulators work with those in my hon. Friend's community, and I encourage the Environment Agency to do likewise.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East)
(Con): Coastal erosion problems are not limited to the east coast. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Hengisbury Head with the Environment Agency in Bournemouth. Apart from establishing that it is not a very safe place to park one's car, I saw that the sea level and erosion problems are so serious that there could be a breach into Christchurch bay. I understand from the Environment Agency that the shoreline management
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planthe form that is needed for Bournemouth to request assistance from the Governmentis not available because it is being updated. Will the Minister expedite the production of that form? It would be a shame to see an area of outstanding natural beauty ruined because of red tape.
Jim Knight: I shall look into the speedy production of that shoreline management plan. It will be the responsibility of the lead bodyI am not sighted about whether that is the local council or another body, but I shall pursue the matter for the hon. Gentleman.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The borough of Redcar and Cleveland has received much support from the Department, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment visited the constituency. May I press my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary further on the problem of sea defences? Has he received any representations from the borough of Redcar and Cleveland for the people of Skinningrove? If not, is he willing to meet members of the authority and ascertain what support he can give us?
Jim Knight: I am pleased that the schemes in Redcar and Cleveland are having some effect. My hon. Friend the Minister is responsible for the matter, so I do not know whether we have received representations from Redcar, but I would be happy to receive them and to work with my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) to ascertain what we can do about the problem.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): May I press the Minister on follow-up action from the meeting to which he kindly referred? There is a specific problem for farmers who want to maintain their sea walls but are caught by the habitats directive, which means that they have to undertake an environmental impact assessment for maintenance that they have traditionally done for years. We were told at the meeting that Ministers would devise a set of guidelines giving a de minimis level at which farmers could ordinarily undertake maintenance without being caught by the directive. We are still waiting for those guidelines. Will the Under-Secretary request that they are produced as soon as possible?
Jim Knight: I shall chase that up for the hon. Gentleman. He should ensure that farmers are aware that, under the new environmental stewardship schemes, they could access funding for inter-tidal habitat creation. I hope that that will be of some help to them.
Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool)
(Lab): On my part of the east coast, we have a nuclear power station, the highest concentration of manufacturing and chemical industry in western Europe and a world-class nature reserve. Rising sea levels and flooding will have catastrophic effects on those areas for a variety of reasons. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the risks of flooding and rising sea levels are mitigated in my area?
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Jim Knight: I look forward one day to enjoying the delights of the coast of Hartlepool and perhaps I can consider some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises. The decision on whether sea defences are undertaken is made on the basis of a fairly tight cost-benefit analysis. Without knowing the details of my hon. Friend's constituency, I cannot give him a prognosis.
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