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On nitrate vulnerable zones and the nitrates directive, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I would not have started from here, and nor would he; I suppose
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that this question should be addressed to those who agreed the nitrates directive all those years ago, but I think that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), got it right in its recent report. On labelling, the upcoming new EU proposals offer an opportunity to make progress on a number of points that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised.

Looking beyond the recent price rises in global food commodities—which many commentators believe will come down from their peak, but will not return to where they were previously—we need to consider the future. Apart from giving more help to the World Food Programme, the UK—in the spirit of the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—has committed £120 million a year to boost agriculture in poor countries and £400 million over five years for international agricultural research, and Ban Ki-moon has taken an initiative with the taskforce, which is looking at a range of things that need to be done.

Let me make one final observation on the international dimension: ultimately, good governance in countries has a hugely important influence on whether markets work successfully. Zimbabwe, for example, has in the space of 25 or 30 years gone from being the bread basket of Africa to a country that is incapable of feeding itself, not because of any factor except a monumental failure of governance.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Looking to the future, does the Secretary of State agree that we will depend on advances in science, technology and agriculture to a greater degree than ever, and that it would be absolute folly to reject GM technology both in Britain and in order to aid overseas problems, and that we should be increasing research in such technology and building confidence? We should, as my party spokesman has said, be careful not to dry up resources for science and research in this important area, both in terms of reducing insecticides and pesticides in our own crops and in producing drought-resistant crops in the rest of the world?

Hilary Benn: In responding to the scale of the challenge facing us in the fight against dangerous climate change and producing enough food for a growing world population, my view is very simple: we should look at all the means that are available, and we should not be afraid to ask questions. In relation to GM, we have to be able to provide answers to two questions that the public not unreasonably ask. First, they ask whether the product is safe to eat, and there is no evidence that it is not. Secondly, they want to know about the environmental impact of growing these crops. I recently gave approval to a trial that the university of Leeds wanted to undertake with a variety of potato. I am sorry to have to say that the trial has been trashed, and it is difficult to know the answers to the questions in those circumstances.

One step that the EU could take is to speed up approval for new varieties to come in. Imported soya grown from GM sources is fed to a lot of livestock in this country, and therefore becomes part of the food chain.

Mr. Atkinson: On the destroyed potato trial plot, it would help if the Secretary of State changed the Government’s policy and did not publicise the addresses of those trial plots.

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Hilary Benn: I intend to reflect upon that point. I think I am right in saying that this was the first trial to which I have given approval since taking up my current post. We need to find a way of answering the question, which, legitimately, everybody asks, because we should not be afraid of the answers, whatever they are; but those doing research into GM technology also need to be able to demonstrate that it can deliver some of the things that are sometimes claimed for it. That must be shown to be the case if GM is to be increasingly taken up.

The question that goes to the heart of this debate is this: what do we mean by “food security”? I think the House would agree that it means people having, at all times, access to enough safe and nutritious food at a price they can afford. It also means having a food supply system that is reliable and resilient and able to withstand shocks and crises. In other words, we need to think about availability, access and affordability.

We in the UK are not, of course, insulated from global price rises any more than anyone else is. We have seen the oil price rise to unprecedented levels—now almost $140 dollars a barrel, whereas a decade ago the price of a barrel was a tenth of today’s price. We all feel the consequences of that in the shopping basket and on the forecourt when we fill up the car, and this is particularly difficult for households on low incomes, even though there has been a long-term decline in this country in the proportion of household budgets spent on food. The average household spends about 10 per cent. of its budget on food, whereas 10 years ago it was nearer 11 per cent. and 20 years ago it was 13 per cent.—and further back in time it was higher still. However, those averages hide the impact on those with less money. Low-income households currently spend about 15 per cent. of their household budget on food. The Government have been helping pregnant women through the Healthy Start programme, which provides free vitamin supplements and vouchers for essentials like milk, fruit and vegetables. We are spending about £100 million on that programme in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I also know that the supermarkets are acutely conscious of the pressures these price rises have exerted on their customers’ budgets, and in the last week or so we have seen signs of them responding. On a visit to any supermarket it is evident that our major grocery chains have been very successful in providing consumers with choice and a diversity of food products sourced from both this country and elsewhere around the world. Consumers have become highly sophisticated in choosing what to buy. There is also a growing network of farmers’ markets and farm shops, as it is true that we as a society are becoming more interested in where our food comes from; the year of food and farming is in part about trying to educate more of our young people that food comes from farms, and does not grow in supermarkets, thereby informing the choices consumers make.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State will be aware that when addressing the National Farmers Union conference in February, the Prime Minister stated that its members had a core responsibility to grow and produce most of the food consumed by the British people. What proportion of food, by value, that is consumed by the British people is
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produced by British agriculture, and what proportion does the Secretary of State expect that to be in five and 10 years’ time?

Hilary Benn: If my hon. Friend will bear with me a moment longer, I will come on to that point.

The UK currently enjoys a high level of food security. Our food supply chain is, however, highly dependent on energy, and reducing that energy dependency will be very important in addressing the challenges we face. Our farming industry makes a very important contribution to our food supply by producing food that consumers want. I want—we want—a strong, thriving, successful farming industry, and in many respects the outlook is brighter than it has been for some years. Let me say to my hon. Friend that domestic production is necessary for food security, but it is not on its own sufficient.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Secretary of State is trying to paint a very rosy picture—that he is a friend of farmers—but is he not concerned about the large number of judicial reviews that the NFU is pursuing and the growing number of such reviews that it feels forced to pursue because it fundamentally disagrees with Government policy on so many things?

Hilary Benn: Well, we are a free society and individuals and organisations are perfectly free, by those means, to challenge decisions that the Government have taken. I should be very happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the particular context of some of those. We await judgments in those circumstances and we will of course be judged by the courts on the basis of the decisions that have been taken by the Government, but I do not accept the premise that the Government are somehow not trying to provide support. However, if one is talking about regulation, we are operating within a context where a lot of it comes from Europe, and it is indeed society itself that presses for that.

Let me turn to the facts and individual products. Coming directly to the point about self-sufficiency, which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) raised, milk and cereals production is about the same as it was 30 years ago, although it peaked in the early 1980s. It has gone up and down a bit. Self-sufficiency in vegetables has undoubtedly fallen from about three quarters to less than two thirds. Imports from the EU have risen sharply. Self-sufficiency in butter, on the other hand, has risen from just under one third to nearly two thirds over the past 30 years. Of the foods that can be produced in this country, we are about 74 per cent. self-sufficient and yes, it is true that that is higher than it was in the 1950s or, indeed, the 1930s. It is not as high as it was at the height of the CAP, and 60 per cent. of the food that we import comes from the European Union, which is itself about 90 per cent. self-sufficient in the food that it needs.

Would it be sensible to make self-sufficiency a policy aim? What about exports, which are very important for the farming industry? If self-sufficiency means protectionism—the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that he was not arguing for that—is that a desirable aim? We are a trading nation. We export as well as import food, and there are of course some things that we cannot possibly grow ourselves that we
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need to buy. What is more, feeding the population of the UK sustains a very large industry, not just agriculture, and some 3.7 million jobs. It accounts for 7 per cent. of gross domestic product, and for one fifth of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, food manufacturing is the largest single manufacturing sector in the UK.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has talked about self-sufficiency but he has not really put that in the environmental context. Does he not agree that in this day and age, when this country produces food such as apples, it is absolute madness to incur the environmental consequences of importing apples from somewhere such as New Zealand?

Hilary Benn: In the end, consumers have a choice about what it is they wish to buy in those circumstances. Food security cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world. Part of the answer to the question that was raised earlier is that we need an open global trading system and an end to the distorting subsidies.

Mr. Paice: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, not least for the way in which he is addressing the subject. He rightly said earlier that I was not calling for protectionism, but does he also accept that I was not calling for self-sufficiency either? I specifically used the phrase “food security”, which I defined as the capacity to produce the majority of our needs. We have never been fully self-sufficient and nobody is asking us to be.

Hilary Benn: I accept the point, and in asking the question—others have raised it, and I was not attributing that view to the hon. Gentleman—I think it important that we have thought through exactly the argument that he has put, so that we can answer it in relation to those who do say, “Should we not aim to be self-sufficient?” Then, we can get on to discussing what we mean by food security and what the right policies are.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is correct to put this matter into an international context. At the world food summit, the Food and Agriculture Organisation secured its plan to address this issue, but at the same time, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, indicated that the UN was going to produce its own plan to deal with the same issue. The World Trade Organisation has an influence in terms of its market policy. The World Bank also has an influence and so does the European Union, yet so many delegations said, “We’ve talked about this ad nauseam over the last two decades, but what guarantees are there that we will have a course of action that will deliver the increase in food supply that we need?” What role are the UK Government going to play in trying to create coherence among all the players who have an influence on this subject?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. When one looks at the international system, one could describe a similar situation regarding a number of other issues, where there are lots of fingers in the pie. I do not mean that in a disrespectful sense, because those organisations have a view to express.
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Indeed, I was discussing this, in part, with the secretary-general of the OECD only this morning. I think that the answer would be that the UK will do what it has done on a number of other occasions—argue our corner to try to ensure that we have an effective international system.

The single most important priority in improving production is the need to focus on Africa, because it has not experienced the green revolution that Asia went through. We must also consider issues such as getting governance right, markets, communications, water supply, access to seeds, lowering the cost of fertiliser, helping with transport and getting products to market. Some of the food grown in the developing world rots. The rats get it before anyone can eat it because the infrastructure is not there to get it from where it has been grown to where it needs to be. That is why progress on all those fronts is required if we are to solve the problem.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the common agricultural problem as part of the —[ Interruption. ] Sorry, that was a Freudian slip; I meant to say that he is right to refer to the common agricultural policy as part of the problem. Does he agree that the common fisheries policy is also dysfunctional? If so—I guess that I will not get very far down this line—will he therefore explain why the Government’s policy is not simply to withdraw from them? Given that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is present and that apples have been mentioned, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the demise of the honey bee will have a major impact on our agriculture and biodiversity, and what will he do about spending more money on research into that problem?

Hilary Benn: I understand that the policy that the hon. Gentleman has put forward is that of the party that he now plants his standard in; it is not the policy of either of the parties represented on the Front Benches. However, the sustainability of the world’s fish stocks is a really important issue. If, in the end, we fish the seas out, we have all got an even bigger problem on our hands.

Mr. Curry: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hilary Benn: I will—for the last occasion, seeing as it is the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Curry: May I invite the right hon. Gentleman, in response to the question that came from his back-bench colleague, to assert that trade is a good thing—that if we do not buy New Zealand apples, they may not buy our whisky, for example—and that the environmental damage of a long sea voyage is almost certainly a great deal less than that of the final bit by lorry from the port to the processor to the supermarket? Trade has done a huge amount to advance the cause of civilisation, and I hope that none of the Front Benchers is going to suggest that we should do anything but seek to promote it.

Hilary Benn: I happily say, since the right hon. Gentleman invites me to do so, that trade is indeed a good thing, which is why I have just told the House that we need an open global trading system. However, I also said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy)
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that individuals have a choice. If they are going to eat apples, which lots of people do—doing so is very good for them—they can decide where they want their apples to come from. [ Interruption. ] “Kent”, says my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) from a sedentary position—and who am I to argue with him?

In bringing my remarks to a close, I want to come to the question whether our food supply is secure. Currently, the answer to the question is yes, both because we produce a lot of it ourselves and because we are able to buy the rest of the food that we need on the world market. Will the answer to the question be yes in the years ahead? The truth is, none of us can answer that question for sure, which is why this debate matters so much. We should therefore ask ourselves how we can watch what is happening and set up a system of warnings—if I might use that word—to alert us to changes that we ought to be worried about. That is the starting point for this debate. In the document that I promised the House at the last departmental questions, I intend to suggest what those warnings might look like. I intend to produce the document alongside the Strategy Unit’s report on food, and I genuinely look forward to contributions. As a starter for 10, the things that we might want to watch include the overall global availability of food compared with population growth; the pattern of UK food imports and supply diversity; the changing patterns in domestic land use here and elsewhere in the world; the energy dependency in our food chain and food chain resilience; affordability of food, and especially whether low-income households can afford nutritious food; and public confidence in the food system to deliver. There will be many other suggestions—

Rob Marris: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Hilary Benn: I will give way one final time in a minute, as it is my hon. Friend.

What is striking about this debate is that all of us can think of things that we might need to worry about— [Interruption.] I did give way to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). However, the answers are not clear. While the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire listed a series of things about which he wished to complain, his speech was light on answers. I do not say that because I doubt his ability, but because, in truth, all of us are trying to work out the right policy to adopt to respond to this issue.

Rob Marris: My right hon. Friend probably knows what is coming. One of the big factors that we have already had warning of is the change in climate to which he has adverted. Those changes will accelerate in the United Kingdom as well as elsewhere. I urge on my right hon. Friend a policy on food production and security in the UK that keeps a close eye on climate change, because it is one of the biggest issues facing UK agriculture.

Hilary Benn: I am happy to say that I agree completely with my hon. Friend. What is the best way to ensure our farming sector can meet this challenge? We need to support farming in producing food that consumers want in a way that maintains the natural resources on which farming and food production depend—the quality of the soil and the availability of water—and increases
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environmental resilience, because there is not a competition between the two. We need to be more aware of where our food comes from and how it is labelled and to find ways of producing food with much less dependence on fossil fuels. We also need to encourage farming to play its part in reducing emissions and to encourage the next generation of farmers to see the great opportunities that exist.

One thing is beyond doubt, and that is that the world is going to need a lot of farmers and a lot of food over the next 50 years, and it is the job of every one of us to respond to that global challenge. The truth is that all our lives depend on us getting it right.

8.23 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I draw the House’s attention to my declaration of interests in the register.

In July last year, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), about food security, and she replied:

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