Previous Section Index Home Page

At the beginning of my contribution, I mentioned nitrogen fertiliser and its importance for cultivation. Adequate crop nutrition—sufficient provision of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and trace elements—is essential for high yields. We need crops that are nutrient-use
30 Jun 2008 : Column 681
efficient, and we need to use high technology to ensure that nutrients get to the right place at the right time to bring about their effects. Nitrogen fertilisers require fossil fuels for their synthesis and they can pollute watercourses; we must use them more efficiently. The world experts in that arena are also located in the UK, at Rothamsted. In Norwich, we have groups working on the prospect of transferring to other crop plants, such as wheat, the genetic capacity of legumes, which fix their own nitrogen through associated bacteria. We can transfer them across plants. We surely must resource better and encourage more important work, because it is vital to our future.

The fifth constraint, and the source of much wasted water, energy, labour, nutrients and so forth, are pests, diseases and weeds. Some 25 per cent. of all crops are lost to those causes before or after harvest, and the control of pests, diseases and weeds would go a long way to providing the extra 50 per cent. of food that we will need between now and 2030, when the world’s population will reach about 9 billion. How do we do that? In Norwich, at the Sainsbury laboratory at the John Innes centre, and at Rothamsted, pioneering work exploits natural plant defences and their genetic control, aided by green chemistry to deliver a new generation of pest-resistant and disease-resistant crops. The threat of resistance to pesticides, the agricultural equivalent of MRSA, is being countered and responded to at Rothamsted, with the application of new molecular diagnostic methods and management practices that will sustain the effective lifetime of those valuable chemicals.

In conclusion, Members will realise from what I have said that the challenge is great, but we have the tools, technology and intellect to meet it, and we must nurture, encourage and resource the science. This is my message: we must sweep away any regulatory environment that impedes that progress and makes the lives of farmers who grow food more difficult. We ought to ensure that safe pesticides exist, and as the argument develops we ought seriously to consider genetically modified crops again. We all know the arguments in respect of GM crops, and I do not want to go through them now, because we will do so on many future occasions, but about 300 million Americans have consumed food derived from GM crops—without a single tort in the most litigious society in history. [ Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) laughs, and we could continue the argument until the cows come home.

The use of Bt cotton in, for example, China benefits small-scale farmers. Other people will point to the monopolies of the various pharmaceutical companies—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and so on—and how they develop the technology. The argument is there. However, as the Minister said, we have to look seriously at GM as part of a key breeding tool in the context of a shift to science-based, targeted and predictive breeding underpinned by some kind of plant genetics.

GM is not the whole process, but it is a part that we have to contemplate seriously and get back to. The arguments are not all about how the technology is used; they are also about how such crops are produced and what good they are. As was said in a debate on human embryology, when GM was used to produce insulin in human cells there was no argument whatever; the development was quite tolerable. However, when we try
30 Jun 2008 : Column 682
to make plants that are resistant to certain bugs and viruses, resistance seems to develop among certain parts of the community.

The science-to-crop-improvement pipeline is fractured internationally and it requires significant capacity development in developing countries. Today we have read in the papers that not enough physicists are coming through; we also need more plant geneticists. We need people who want to work on plants and develop new, efficient crops that are resistant to drought and so on. We must get such people into our education system. Plants are not always popular; animal and medical techniques and technologies seem to take many of the best people. We have to keep hammering home the message that we need to produce more food and we need to use science to do it.

8.56 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) managed to secure this important debate on the security of our food supply. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said that we all ought to do something about the issue, so for the record I should say that Sunday afternoon saw me on my allotment harvesting my first courgettes, nurturing my peas and onions and battling against the overwhelming forces of the weeds.

Doing a little horticulture made me reflect on the fact that at least I had at my disposal a range of sophisticated chemicals to deal with the creatures that—in spite of my most persuasive words to the snails and slugs that keep coming on to the allotment—want to take away the food that I am growing. I realised how fine the margins are between having and not having a food supply. The hon. Member for Norwich, North rightly reminded us of the enormous progress made by science and technology, as far as western agriculture is concerned, in increasing the margin between having and not having a crop.

Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked in the horticulture industry. I remember standing in a field of leeks that had been hit by a severe cold spell. They had effectively melted. No amount of science was going to stop the loss of that crop. It is important that we recognise that all our discussions on the availability of food are surrounded by natural forces over which we—mankind on this planet—have very little influence. Yes, we can do something to address the vagaries of climate change, but the limits are there for all to see.

I had the privilege and pleasure of going to the world food summit in Rome on behalf of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I sat through the presentations of all the Heads of State there, and that gave me an interesting perspective into the whole question. In the west, we have effectively subcontracted our supply of food to supermarkets and major caterers; 80 per cent. of the food spend in this country happens in supermarkets. The idea that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has some command-economy role to play in respect of the price of food or its supply is not credible. However, the Department can influence some of the key policy instruments that can ultimately affect the purchasing policies of companies
30 Jun 2008 : Column 683
such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer. We have subcontracted our food supply to them; they make the procurement decisions.

It is important to distinguish between the factors that have led to a short-term rapid rise in the price of food and consider them against the background of the period five or 10 years ago when my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire would have talked about falling real rates of return to producers and the impact that they were having on the structure of the United Kingdom’s agriculture. Those falling real rates of return were a contributory factor in the restructuring of the dairy and horticulture industries, and in pig producers going out of business and so on. They are also one reason why people in the arable sector have looked, enviously in the first instance and now with enthusiasm, at biofuels, which represented an opportunity to use set-aside land productively to produce something rather than nothing.

From the western point of view, we have to look at the relationship between the overall policy framework, namely the common agricultural policy, and its effect on the supply side of the equation. The world food summit taught me that there is another view of agriculture, and the Secretary of State alluded to it when he talked about Africa. When one listens to the Heads of State from the less developed parts of the world, it is clear they take a very different view. Those countries have very small-scale micro-agriculture. There are some medium-sized and large-scale producers, but nothing compared with the very large-scale agriculture in the United States and some parts of western Europe. Their challenges are the affordability of seed and simple fertiliser, the availability of water, and the opportunity to get their food to market—all the things that the Secretary of State mentioned. It is a question of how we in the west can stimulate production in those countries and address the fundamental issue of the supply of food for their indigenous people. At the same time, that will take some of the pressure off the west having to make up for the fact that, in the less developed countries, the margin between feast and famine is wafer thin.

It is interesting to look at the statistics showing the priority that we in the world give to agriculture. In the past 12 months, we put $1 trillion into propping up the world’s financial system and $4 billion into aid for food production. It is also interesting that it costs the world $20 billion annually to deal with the consequences of obesity. Perhaps if we ate a little less, there would be a little more for others.

There are so many ways of looking at this multi-faceted subject that it is difficult to come to a neat five or six-point conclusion on what we need to do. I am firmly of the view that it is vital to knit together the many and various world bodies and policy-setting forums. The World Trade Organisation has been talking about market liberalisation and opening up opportunities. That is right, because the returns that farmers receive fundamentally change the supply-side equation. If one wants more from farmers, give them the return and within 12 months they will react to it.

However, there are downsides to reform. For example, the change in the sugar regime under the common agricultural policy resulted in the price of sugar within
30 Jun 2008 : Column 684
the European Union falling, which brought forth immediate criticism from Afro-Caribbean producers who said, “We can’t supply sugar at that price—it’s not high enough for us.” We can open the door to market access, but the price consequences can have the wrong effect, and unless one can help those countries to modernise their agriculture, we will lose an important resource. It is vital to link together the work of the European Union, the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and then to make certain that the grand plans that they talk about really happen. At the world food summit, the President of Senegal got up and said, “Look, we’ve been at this for 10 years. We’ve heard all this before. Just give me the budget of the FAO and I’ll go and sort out the world’s food supply.” He was saying that we had had too much talk and not enough action.

One of the themes that came out of the conference was that, because there had been a green revolution, people thought that agriculture had started to motor forward in the less developed world and the development agenda had moved on to health and education. Then, all of a sudden, we found that agricultural production had been falling, just when the world’s population was increasing and climate change was threatening some of the major centres of world agricultural production, such as Australia. If we bring the two together, we get a shortage of supply, rising demand and rising prices. Therefore, optimising the opportunities to use our agricultural knowledge to address those issues is one of the most important things that we can do.

I have one or two other points of contrast. President Lula da Silva of Brazil made a passionate defence of his country’s production of biofuels. He pointed out that Brazil has 340 million hectares of agricultural land, 200 million hectares of which is pasture, with 63 million devoted to crops and only seven million used to grow sugar cane. He pointed out that 77 million hectares of land could be brought into production in one of the most interesting areas in the world for agricultural production and he said that that could be done without destroying the rain forest. I have to take what he said at face value, but against the background of rising arable crop prices, the demand for biofuels and the important issues of sustainability raised in western circles, I asked myself why those 77 million hectares were not being used for production. Constraints exist, some of which are agronomic, but some are influenced by market access.

That brings us full circle to the European Union’s policy on subsidies versus exports, and its attitudes to the World Trade Organisation talks. There are interesting lessons to be learned from some of the speeches at the conference, and for me, the cameo speech was that of the President of the Republic of Madagascar. He did not stand up and say, “I want lots of aid”, but said that there were certain things that his country could do for itself. His first point was that

the things that his country produced. He wants a level playing field with regard to the economics of world agricultural production. He went on to make a number of points, but the next one that caught my eye was that

30 Jun 2008 : Column 685

Simple things can give a sense of security to the local farmer, such as the provision of resources and credit, which is where the World Bank can make such an enormous difference.

The President talked about the initiative going on in Madagascar—a new vision that he called “Madagascar naturally”. He went on to talk about the liberalisation of the price of rice in that economy, which had led to a 25 to 30 per cent. increase in production in the past three years. That shows the simple relationship between return and an increase in production. He also said that

He did not want to become dependent on western nations, but wanted to improve his storage and transport facilities. He wanted to standardise and improve his product; he wanted to develop new products that would meet international demand; and he wanted better marketing strategies. Against that background, he said that his country also produced some of its own biofuels.

While I was sitting there listening to all that, and we were discussing the food chain, climate change, agricultural science, environmental issues, the role of aquiculture and the challenge of pests and diseases, I kept saying to myself, “Where’s DEFRA?” It was not represented. There was no DEFRA Minister and no DEFRA civil servant. The UK representation was left to the Department for International Development. I am sure that it did a very good job of putting forward the UK’s position, but given that DEFRA has the prime responsibility for food, it has the levers to mobilise our food chain by disseminating information and using technology. It has learned many of the lessons that are so vital in other parts of the world, it leads on climate change and, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North has pointed out, it holds the levers on agricultural science.

The John Innes Centre has a budget from public funds of £12.5 million and earns another £12.5 million from contracts. That makes £25 million, which would hardly buy a really good premiership forward. We have to address the priority that we give to the science and technology issues that are vital not only to our agriculture but to that of less developed countries. I would like the Secretary of State’s Department to become fully engaged in providing what the President of Madagascar said would be a key ingredient in improving the performance of his agricultural sector. For Madagascar, read many other enlightened countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

It comes down to this: we must consider the factor that has caused us to consider this matter now—the rising price of food—but at the same time, we must minimise the risk to the world’s food supply chain. We must use our technology and knowledge not only to increase total food productivity from our excellent indigenous agriculture but to maximise the potential of Africa, the east of Russia and other parts of the world, such as Brazil, that have tremendous potential. Then we might rest a little easier in our beds about the world having a secure supply of food.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say to the House that we have probably a little under half an hour to go? Three
30 Jun 2008 : Column 686
Members are seeking to catch my eye, and if each can manage to restrict his remarks to a little under 10 minutes, we might fit everybody in.

9.12 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall take careful note of your remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and be as brief as I possibly can, particularly as I rehearsed my arguments in the debate that we had on 3 June, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs knows. I shall make my speech and he can make his, and we can reconsider food security.

I wish to address some matters that are different from those that I raised that day, at the time of the Rome conference. I am delighted to follow the comments of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on the conference. I shall park the matter there, but it was an important conference and it is good to hear for the first time the contents of some of the speeches.

I wish to address some of the major themes and discuss some slightly different issues. It is a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is no longer in his place, because he does the science bit and I do the anti-science bit. Long may that continue—we are very good friends, but we do not agree about everything. I wish to say a few things about genetically modified crops, as people would suspect.

I shall begin with a couple of points that are more general. As I said in the debate on 3 June, I never felt that the era of low food prices would last for ever. I also felt that low food prices sometimes have counter-productive effects. We have abused food and used it in ways that we should not, and it has been taken for granted. As the most basic of all God’s supplies, we have taken far too liberal a view of food and of how to face up to future challenges. I would argue that at least we can now debate the matter—I suspect that, a year ago, we would not have held such a debate. Perhaps the Government took food security for granted, and there was a general context in which it was believed that food would remain cheap, that that was a good thing and that we would never have to debate the matter. However, that is clearly not the case and we are having the debate, which concentrates the mind.

The reasons for being where we are have been well rehearsed. As no one else has done so, let me give a plug to the Cabinet Office paper, which the Select Committee examined. It remains a good analysis of the different criteria whereby our food is produced, who can buy it, the international consequences and the impact on health. The latter has not been mentioned, but it is important and we ignore it at our peril.

Next Section Index Home Page