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That was a fairly good answer, but what disappointed many of us was that there was no mention of British agriculture and the part that it can play in food security.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a good point. I listened with interest to the Secretary of State, but I was disappointed that he did not focus a little more on that question and on the Government’s role in at least ensuring that single farm payments are made in time to farmers who rely on them to invest in the sorts of things that we want to see— [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that the Government are making progress, but they recently had to revise downwards their estimation of how much they would be able to achieve. Although things are improving, they still have a long way to go.

Mr. Williams: I thought that the Secretary of State was more encouraging towards British agriculture than I have heard him be recently. My hon. Friend makes the point about the single farm payment and what a sapping effect the problems with it had on the confidence of British agriculture and its ability to invest and carry on its business.

The Secretary of State defined food security as having sufficient food and access to food unhampered by bad governance, substandard infrastructure or the inability to pay for that food. As several hon. Members have said, this is an issue not of self-sufficiency, but of security of supply and where we get food from. The issue is greatly affected by national agricultural output and European agricultural output. Indeed, the EU is a great exporter of food and is an important source for food security in the whole world. Many analysts of climate change predict that northern Europe will increase its importance in global food production.

As an historical perspective on food production, I point out that in 1900 there were some 2 billion people on the planet; in just over a century we have increased
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to 6.5 billion. Food supply has kept up with that increase in population until very recent times because people have been innovative and engaged in research and experimentation. Mechanisation, plant breeding, fertilisers, agrochemicals and herbicides have all contributed to a great increase in food production, so much so that food prices have fallen in real terms over that period, especially in the past 20 years. That has been a big disincentive to investment in British agriculture. When I did my training, we were in the midst of the green revolution that did so much to bring improved food security to Asia, including the use of F1 hybrids and other technical developments. Many millions of people are alive in Asia today as a result of the improved food supplies provided by the green revolution. Many children have also gone on to better and more productive lives as a result.

Individual food security is about not only sufficient calories, but sufficient vitamins, essential amino and fatty acids and minerals. We need not only food, but a range of foodstuffs that meets our nutritional needs. Where disasters have happened, it has often been a case not of insufficient food, but of an inability to get the food to people fast enough because of civil unrest, poor infrastructure or delays in transportation. The problem has been logistics failure rather than food shortage, but many people are undernourished. It has been estimated that their numbers have increased considerably as a result of the increase in food prices.

Why is food security a hot topic and why does it cause concern for Britain and the British Government? The Government were initially sceptical about food security implications for Britain, or our responsibilities for the rest of the world. Britain’s own food production has fallen as a percentage of our needs, and world food stocks recently reached an all-time low. Food on shelves and in store is likely to be inadequate if transport is disrupted, either by industrial action or by fuel shortages. Recent threats of industrial action have shown that food is spread so thinly across the nation that getting it to the shelves is a real issue, and it is one for which the Government must take responsibility. The Government’s reaction was that although food production was falling in Britain as a result of decoupling, Britain was resilient because of its secure home base and diversity of supply. More work needs to be done on the resilience of the distribution network.

Other factors have already been touched on this evening that have implications for food security: the possible increase in the population to 9.5 billion by 2050; the increase in wealth of India and China, as well as the fact that they eat and want foods of higher quality and cost; and the competition for land from biofuels, with all its implications in causing a tighter market for food supplies.

What should the Government do and what can they do? First, it is a question of attitude. I call on Ministers to show more pride in British agriculture, to stand up for it and to be proud of what it has achieved in producing good, wholesome food over a long period and in ensuring that people in this country have access to that food and to variety. Secondly, Ministers should invest in the greatest resource in British agriculture—the men and women who work in it. There is too little demand for many agricultural courses in our colleges of
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further education. Let me give a little example. In my local agricultural college, which is in one of the biggest agricultural constituencies in England and Wales, only one person wants to go on to level 3. As a result, he will have to travel 50 or 60 miles to another college to take part in that training.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman asked Ministers to take a greater pride in British agriculture. Does he include in that their taking a more robust attitude in Europe in matters of labelling, for instance? It is absolute lunacy that pigs that are grown for slaughter and slaughtered in, say, Denmark can be brought to, say, Kent, processed and then presented on the supermarket shelves as a UK product. That is barmy, is it not? Why are we not taking the other EU nations to task on it?

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We seem to have been talking about labelling for as long as I can remember. It would be a huge step forward for British agriculture, and for the Government in the eyes of British agriculture, if they could do more on the labelling question. It seems to me that the issues are relatively straightforward and that a little bit of determination and guts could lead to a success story.

The Government could do more to promote the use of second generation biofuels. The problem with food security and biofuels comes from the first generation of biofuels, which involve making bioethanol from foodstuffs such as wheat. The second generation, which involves cellulosic enzyme technology, uses crop waste rather than foodstuffs. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Select Committee on Environmental Audit have both published reports that made that recommendation, yet the Government do not seem to be taking it forward. The next thing that the Government could do is invest in research into plant breeding, which might mean using genetic modification as a research tool.

Kerry McCarthy: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from biofuels, let me say that although great emphasis is being placed on the fact that biofuels are increasingly taking up agricultural land and that that is forcing up food prices because of the scarcity of such land, is not another factor the fact that agricultural land is increasingly being used to grow soya that is then used as animal feed? Everyone knows that it takes 7 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. Is that not as much of a factor as the fact that biofuels are being produced?

Mr. Williams: The hon. Lady makes a good point. As we go on, in terms of global food security, we will have to look at how much food is eaten in vegetable and plant form and how much is eaten as meat. The ruminants do not have a good conversion factor in converting corn and soya into meat, but species such as pigs and chickens are relatively efficient. Two thirds of all agricultural land is grazing land and if we can use that land more efficiently to produce food in the form of meat, meat production still has an important part to play in food security. I do not think that people always realise that arable land takes up only one third of the total global agricultural land.

By investing in research, the Government could do a great deal to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of agriculture in this country. By exporting that technology,
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they could do a lot for other countries, too. I referred earlier to the green revolution, which is an example of how research and technology can take forward production to an extent that is difficult to anticipate.

The next issue is preventing waste, which the Secretary of State has already mentioned. More research and more investment in infrastructure and transport are needed. Some 30 per cent. of all food is wasted. Some is not even harvested, and some deteriorates in store. Much is wasted in processing and in retail when it is not sold during the time in which it is meant to be sold. It is wasted in the home, too. If only a small amount of that waste was used for its proper purpose as food, food security would be addressed.

British farming must not be discriminated against by uncompetitive regulation. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) talked about pig production, and we have seen the pig herd in this country reduced by about a third or a half of its total. Part of the problem is that it has to compete against imports of pigs that are reared and produced in conditions that would not be allowed in this country. That is where labelling comes in. If the Minister and the Secretary of State can do anything for the pig industry in this country, they should ensure that imports meet the same standards and regulations as apply here.

Mention has also been made of the situation in much of the EU, where full decoupling has not taken place. That puts British agriculture at a disadvantage, too. Some of the compliance cost for agriculture seems unnecessarily complicated and oppressive. Mention has been made of all the inspections. Yes, we must have a compliance system to ensure that public money is properly accounted for and spent, but some of the compliance requirements do not seem to go that way at all.

Nitrate vulnerable zones have been mentioned. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say, “I wasn’t there when the agreement was made,” but we have to deal with the issue now, and ensure that Britain is not disadvantaged while other countries are not made to sort out their difficulties— [Interruption]—or fined. There is another issue that the Secretary of State must take up during the mid-term review: the move towards pillar two must not be done at a rate that makes British agriculture uncompetitive and unprofitable. We want to move towards pillar two, but in a considered manner, and the profitability of agriculture must be borne in mind. I believe that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who spoke for the Conservatives, said that we should move away entirely from direct payments to management schemes. That is the first time that I have heard that suggested. He must mean that to be done at the end of 2013.

Mr. Paice: I think that the phrase I used was a “phased programme” of transfer; that has been our approach to common agricultural policy reform for several years now. It is about shifting resources from pillar one to pillar two over a reasonable period, precisely for the reason that the hon. Gentleman describes—to give farmers time to adjust. That shift should happen across the whole of Europe.

Mr. Williams: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been able to clarify that point. He also talked about co-financing for nations that wanted to spend more on agriculture. I am not sure how that would work within a
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common agricultural policy. I understand the issue of co-financing within the CAP, but it seems to me that if one country wanted to spend more on a particular aspect, that would destroy the concept of a common agricultural policy.

People should take responsibility for their own food security. That is a point that a number of people have taken up. When towns or developments are being planned, allotments and other land should be set aside so that people can get involved in food production. People not only want farmers’ markets and other local food production, but want to produce food for themselves, and they should be given the opportunity to do so.

I call on the Government to take action on the Competition Commission report on supermarkets. There is no doubt that there have been uncompetitive practices. Supermarkets are reaping the rewards of their actions; the fact that food prices have risen substantially is partly due to supermarkets having paid farmers so poorly that food production has been reduced. Representatives from supermarkets are now going around the country trying to find produce to fill their shelves. The Competition Commission recommended establishing an independent ombudsman for the supermarket and retail trade. I ask the Minister to say, when he replies to the debate, when the Government will act on that issue.

My last point is that we should secure the hills. The hills are a huge jewel in the crown for the UK. The profitability of farming in the hills is decreasing so rapidly that no young people will take up the farms there in future. Unless the Government come forward with plans to address that problem, we will end up with dereliction in the hills, rather than the management that so many people want, so that they can enjoy their walks and their recreation in the hills.

This has been a useful debate. It is one that the Secretary of State wanted, and all Members have engaged in it in a positive way.

8.43 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I was inspired to contribute to the debate after a meeting held last week by Sir Ben Gill, who gathered together 100 brains from different parts of the United Kingdom to consider the issue. The problem with such debates is that 100 issues come flooding out into the ether, rather as they did in the last speech. The subject requires some concentrated focusing down on what the important issues are, in both the short and the long term.

I want to thank two friends of mine, Professor Ian Crute from the Rothamsted research laboratory in Harpenden, and Professor Chris Lamb from the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury laboratory in Norwich; the people there do sterling work on plant genetics and developing food crops. I shall say something more about them when I focus on the issue, but I start with the comments of the new chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington. At a GovNet sustainable development UK conference in Westminster, at which the Secretary of State spoke, Professor John Beddington said quite clearly:

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That is a strong, political message from our new chief scientific adviser. I am sure that more will be said about that issue in the coming months.

The year 2008 is distinguished by the fact that fewer members of the world population derive their livelihood in rural areas than in towns. More people buy food produced by others than are involved in its production. A few years ago, land workers in this country disappeared. In my part of the world—East Anglia—there were always strong Labour constituencies, because farm workers knew which way the cookie crumbled. It all changed when new factories were built and so on. We lost a lot of that technology and skill on the land.

This year is the centenary of a discovery that has probably saved more lives than any other discovery in the history of mankind—the Haber-Bosch process of making ammonia from gaseous nitrogen and hydrogen, which was discovered in 1908. It provided the ability to manufacture nitrogen fertiliser, and it is estimated that without access to synthetic nitrogen fertilisers there would be half as many humans on the planet, or we would have had to cultivate double the land area. Either way, there would be major ecological destruction, conflict and suffering. Some people argue against that view, but whether one loves them or hates them, pesticides and insecticides have made an important contribution to farming development across the world. We feed 6.5 billion people from 1.5 billion hectares of land. The area of land used to grow grain globally—about 2 billion tonnes per annum—has hardly increased in the past 50 years, but crop productivity has kept ahead, as we have heard, of rapid population growth, which has been achieved through foresight and sustained investment in agricultural science and technology, from the period between the wars until 20 years or so ago, when we became rather complacent. That may cost us dear.

With global grain stocks at an all-time low—less than 10 days’ worth, it is estimated—and with ever-increasing demand from an urbanising Asian population; with the losses of arable land to degradation and urbanisation; and with the impact of climate change and the rising cost of oil, we can be sure that high food prices will be with us for some time to come. The only response is to increase the food supply. There are only two ways to increase food production: plough more land or increase the yield per hectare. I shall deal with the first proposal and discount it as a solution. The total land area of the earth is about 13 billion hectares, but more than a third is desert, high mountains or covered in ice, so it does not support the growth of crops. Of the remaining two thirds, we cultivate 1.5 billion hectares, which is only 18 per cent. of the land area of the planet, leaving more than 7 billion hectares, which support plant growth. However, we would be ill advised to use that land because it is stable pasture, forest and savannah, and harbours a vast supply of stored carbon. If we plough it or cut down forests, we release carbon into the atmosphere and reduce the earth’s capacity to fix carbon. That is not a sensible thing to do, although we know that deforestation is taking place and that the pressure to bring more land into cultivation is indeed very great in some parts of the world, and there is a strong political pressure.

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If we are not going to plough more land, how are we going to achieve more productivity per hectare to meet global demand? Scientific knowledge comes into it, as does an understanding of plant genetics, soil science, plant pathology, and pest biology. In fact, we must harness our understanding of the components of agricultural ecosystems. Science will enable us to remove some of the things that constrain agricultural productivity, and we must invest in it quickly. Since the years of the previous Government, we have believed that as a wealthy nation we will always be able to buy what food we want on world markets and that affordable food will always be available. As a result of that complacency, we have under-invested and severely damaged what was, and still can be, a world-class capability in agricultural science. The point is that as food prices increase, it is the poorest of the world, and even the poor in rich nations like ours, who suffer. In Europe, and particularly the UK, we have fertile resilient soils, a favourable climate and excellent skills, so we have an obligation to the future to ensure that we obtain maximum productivity with minimum environmental disturbance from that natural resource.

Let me return to the science. Five things constrain plant growth. Science and technology cannot deal with all of them, but it can address most of them. First, radiant energy for photosynthesis is all about latitude. We cannot do too much about that, but through molecular genetics it is possible to make photosynthesis more efficient and therefore fix more carbon for growth. The work at Rothamsted research laboratory in Harpenden introduces the prospect of higher crop yields by increasing the efficiency with which radiant energy is converted to chemical energy. The UK has a jewel there—the longest established agricultural research centre in the world, and a deep reservoir of knowledge and expertise which we must do more to foster and exploit.

Another constraint is temperature, which is a feature of latitude and altitude. We can use modern glasshouse technology to conserve energy and prolong growing seasons but, more importantly, we must anticipate problems of extreme temperature, even here in the UK, where it could have catastrophic effects on cereal yields. Mathematical simulation and modelling from Rothamsted point to the need for emphasis to be placed on breeding crops with resilience to high temperatures, which are predicted to become more frequent.

A further constraint is water. The only reason why we can grow food in some parts of the world, such as India, is that we move water from places where it is plentiful to places where it is scarce. We can use sophisticated technology to use water more efficiently, and 70 per cent. of fresh water on the planet is used for agriculture. The competition for water for urban, domestic, industrial and agricultural use is becoming more intense. It could, indeed, become the source of warfare and strife. Science can deliver to us crops that use water more efficiently—a really green and valuable application of the science of genetic engineering. That is the target of several research groups, and in particular, that which I have spoken about at the John Innes centre in Norwich.

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