Previous Section Index Home Page

We talk about food security as a global or a national issue, but it is sometimes highly personal. I shall say a little about the impact of rising food prices on the poor, which should concern us, shortly. There is a live debate about what we should do with the school meals service. The School Food Trust now says that it can do nothing with the money that it has set aside to provide school meals, and that, despite Jamie Oliver, there has been a decline in the take up of school meals. That has a huge impact in two respects. First, it means that some children will have inferior food and, more particularly, if we
30 Jun 2008 : Column 687
cannot educate children appropriately at school about good food and catering, there is little chance, given the way society has gone, that they will have that education.

I am grateful to July’s edition of Green Futures, which states that Washington state has decided to put $600,000 into locally grown food and vegetable snacks for the school meals service there. The Americans had no hesitation—partly because they support their agricultural system in that way, but also because, when they have a problem, such as rising food prices, they put resources into it—in subsidising those who most need it. Such initiatives, which are perceived as “nanny state” if this country introduces them, are part and parcel of the operation of American states. We should take more such action.

Let us consider the impact of rising food prices on the poorest. Again, the Americans have had food stamps for generations. If we consider the link between production and support for the producers, we might like also to examine the impact on those who buy food. The impact of rising food prices in the past few weeks and months has been greatest on those who buy. I do not suggest food stamps per se, but one of the advantages of a deficiency payment system was that we provided food to those who could least afford to buy it. The whole EU has moved away from that to a minimum price system, and that has an effect. Those who cannot afford to buy food of quality and variety are adversely affected. It is therefore a great shame that we do not consider a more flexible system. As a long-standing opponent of the EU, I wish we had more national control because there can be reasons for intervening. For example, I have considered the school meals service, supporting the poorest through flexibility in providing food, and the price at which the food is being made available.

To some extent, we are still debating the last war, although things have moved on. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, there are new opportunities for production and new people are going into production. People are growing more in their gardens and trying to get allotments. Community agriculture means that people are genuinely coming together—there are two examples in Stroud, as hon. Members can imagine. People are making the best use of their time and are willing to consider how they can produce food. That is at least interesting, and we need to encourage it and see it as a different way of really localising the food chain. Again, I stress that we must see food security not as a global or national issue, but as a local one.

It was interesting to hear some of the things that Sir Iain Anderson said about biosecurity and biosafety in a private meeting last week. I have felt for a long time that the biggest threat to this country is animal disease, whether imported or created indigenously—we all know about the impact of that. I have never been sure what we would do if a series of animal diseases all hit at the same time. I did not receive a terribly satisfactory answer to my question a week or so ago, but I continue to bang on about how important it is to look at the strategy, because I do not think that we will get animal diseases in single order anymore. Rather, it is quite possible that we will have a number of them all together. We need to have the means to bear down on them, otherwise our whole food chain will suffer.

30 Jun 2008 : Column 688

But on to GM. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the issue being safety and the environment. I also heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said about how we must continue to experiment. I would introduce a third factor, which has always worried me, which is this: who owns the means to propagate GM? My greatest concern has always been about the concentration of our retailers and supermarkets—we are increasingly seeing this with the globalisation of the control of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and the rest of it. Until we can break those monopolies, I will always be fearful. That is my fundamental opposition to GM. It is interesting that people have recently begun to look into both the entry costs and the exit costs of GM. There is always the terminator gene, too. I know that it can be greatly exaggerated, but it is nevertheless something that we must face up to.

In conclusion, I am not nearly as sanguine about GM. I do not see it as the answer. More particularly, the worrying thing is that GM is moving in the direction of increasing concentrations of power and the ability to influence the food chain in a completely different way from how I would like it to develop. My way would be to encourage localisation, encourage more people to do things for themselves, and recognise that there are farmers’ markets and ways for communities to come together and effect changes in what we now call food fundamentals. Again, those things are happening out there, but it is a great shame that we in this place do not look at those local initiatives and see them as important to the huge strategic issues that we face regularly. As long as that is heard and understood and as long as there is some recognition that this issue is as important as some of those other debates, I will be quiet and let others continue the debate.

9.23 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In the few minutes left, I will try to add something new to this debate.

I always think that food security needs to be considered in the context of the fragility of our food supply. That was brought home to us recently by the fuel strike, during which we saw photographs—they may have been in the Daily Mail, but they were there nevertheless—of empty shelves. If I want to scare myself as I cross the M25 coming into London, I think for a moment about how many eggs, pints of milk, loaves of bread, bags of peas or tonnes of fish have to cross that line just to feed this city on a daily basis. The way in which that is achieved daily is a triumph of market forces. I try to imagine how it would happen if it was controlled by a central agency—by DEFRA, perhaps. I suspect that there might be a few people fed in the suburbs, but food riots in Chelsea. We have to learn from the successes of the free market in order to make ourselves more self-sufficient.

That is why I support the idea of places such as Thanet Earth. I have not been there, and there might be all sorts of problems locally that I have not heard about, but I have always believed that there was a market for proper, large-scale, home-grown food production near to centres of population. I have never subscribed to the belief that low wage costs elsewhere in the world would drive food production inexorably away from these shores. I have seen at first hand how food is produced highly
30 Jun 2008 : Column 689
efficiently in places such as Kenya. However, given the wage inflation in the developing world—it stood at 43 per cent. in parts of China last year—I believe that there is a huge market for places such as Thanet Earth. Furthermore, I never believed the GM theory that was propounded a few years ago—that we could feed the world from a farm the size of Delaware. There is a great future for British agriculture.

I am amazed that the Government’s proposed amendment to our motion says that

It is worth putting that statement into context. When Winston Churchill spoke at a National Farmers Union dinner in the 1950s, he said:

I wonder what heights of hyperbole he might reach if he were able to consider the situation today, with double the population and the declining level of food self-sufficiency.

Given the global changes in demand, our own consumer needs and the effects of the rise in the price of oil, we are faced with either a serious problem or a great opportunity. Huge challenges face our agricultural community, but there are also opportunities, and we need to embrace them. Unfortunately, at present, there appears to be a widespread lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of agriculture in this country. This sometimes leaves farmers with a sense that they are redundant, undervalued and misunderstood. I think that I am the only dairy farmer in the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) will correct me if I am wrong—but I will not be one for much longer. I am selling my herd this autumn. Regulations relating to nitrate vulnerable zones and the cost of complying with an overburdening regulation scheme are driving me out of milk production. I should have reminded hon. Members to look at my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.

Farmers are the main users of land in Great Britain. Farming is a significant economic sector, but it is easy to forget the contribution that it makes to other income earners in this country, including tourism. The present Government have failed to give confidence to the agricultural community as a whole. We have seen their incompetence over the single farm payments and the needless red tape, gold-plating and bureaucracy that have been imposed on farmers and landowners. I remember my father talking about the agricultural community’s fear of Labour party manifestos which talked, year after year, about the nationalisation of land. It is wonderful that that is no longer in Labour manifestos; it has not been in them for years. I submit, however, that there has been a nationalisation of the use of the land. What we can actually do on our farms is now so restricted, and the quangocracy now controls so tightly what farmers can do, that we no longer have the freedom that we had in the past.

In conclusion, I want to make a plea, and I use these words with great caution. I believe that there needs to be a reassessment of the power of the environmental and conservation lobby. Actually, I call it the conservation industry. I am part of it; I have chaired a conservation organisation and I am a member of a variety of
30 Jun 2008 : Column 690
conservation bodies. I consider myself a conservationist. I have won conservation awards, for what that is worth. The problems of the 1970s, which included hedges being taken out to produce more food, represented appalling excesses. I can remember being encouraged to use appalling pesticides, such as Hostathion, which killed everything and had a wide impact on our environment. However, since the 1970s, the pendulum has swung much too far the other way.

I heard recently about a prime management objective on an agreed management policy of a farm in Scotland, which was

I have nothing against raptors; in fact, I am very fond of them and take great delight in the red kites on my farm. I would, however, question whether we have the balance right. In an era of food shortage, is it morally right to have such a—dare I say it—smug first-world attitude in saying that farms in this country should no longer have the prime objective of producing food? I submit that we can produce food and maintain the environment. The moral issues were clearly put by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice): when we cannot grow something here, we have to buy it on the world market, and when we buy it on the world market, we are competing with poorer countries. That is something that we should ponder—whether we are getting the balance right.

I wanted to say much more, but I also want to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the eminent chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group.

9.31 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I read the motion as focusing on our own food security here in the UK, although many others have spoken about problems in other parts of the world. I view the motion as relevant to our own country, and the Secretary of State has tried to pour a soothing balm over the whole crisis that we face. He tried to appear both very positive and as the friend of the farmers, but I have to tell him—I want to take this opportunity to explain it to the House—that this country faces a crisis in its agricultural sector. He knows how passionately I feel about dairy farming, and speaking as chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group, I have to tell him and the House that more than 170 MPs across the parties are involved in the group and they all feel passionately about the future of our dairy sector.

In 1997, 47 cattle were slaughtered in Shropshire. Last year, the figure had risen to more than 1,200. I keep repeating those figures: how can we go from 47 cattle slaughtered in one year to more than 1,200? To me, that seems just phenomenal. It goes over and over in my mind, and it reflects the state of the crisis that we have with bovine TB in Shropshire. This year, if current trends continue, more than 1,600 cattle will be slaughtered in Shropshire.

As the House knows, I like talking about Shropshire, but nationally, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) stated—the National Farmers Union confirmed these figures to me today—28,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2007 and it is
30 Jun 2008 : Column 691
likely that 40,500 will be slaughtered in 2008. That is going to cost the British taxpayer more than £100 million in compensation to the affected farmers—money that I believe the Government can ill afford in current circumstances.

One farmer in my constituency is Mr. Chris Balmer—I want that name to be indelibly etched in the mind of the Secretary of State—from the village of Snailbeach. He had bovine TB on his farm and I had to intervene on 16 occasions concerning the fiasco over his rural payments during the last year. This is a man who has been literally brought to his knees by the incompetence of DEFRA in respect of tackling bovine TB and getting the payments to him. If I could ask one thing of the Secretary of State, it would be to please ensure that that one constituent is treated in a much better way in future. If the right hon. Gentleman is interested to know more about the serious problems that my constituent has faced, I would be happy to talk to him about them.

It does not have to be like this. France has eradicated bovine TB. Less than 0.004 per cent. of herds in France are infected— [Interruption.] I hear some socialist MP saying no, that is wrong. Well, I have spent hours translating Ministry of Agriculture statements from France where those involved are lauding their achievements in this sphere. France has tackled bovine TB through a huge investment in extra testing, vaccines and a limited cull of badgers. If the French can do it, why can the Government not do it? They will not do it because, in their growing unpopularity, they are desperately worried about those marginal seats where there are many members of the Wildlife Trusts.

The Government do not want to offend members of the Wildlife Trusts. I understand that. There are 5,000 Shropshire Wildlife Trust members and it is the biggest organisation in my county. So concerned are those people about my desire for a limited cull of badgers that they insisted that on Friday night my wife and I spend four hours watching a badger sett and looking at all the badgers. They even gave my baby daughter Alexis a little cuddly badger to play with. They desperately want us to stop talking about badgers and a potential limited cull, but my priority has to be my Shropshire farmers, although I think badgers are sweet. I have seen all the evidence that there is a definite link between badgers and the spread of bovine TB.

I must also tell the Secretary of State that I entirely agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire when he raised the issue of illegal meat imports and said that 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat come through our ports. Why is that being tolerated? We need extra security guards in our ports to deal with that illegal meat. Australia and New Zealand have specific border guards who deal with the problem to ensure that illegal meat and substances are not trafficked. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that some investment will be made to ensure that there are more officers and sniffer dogs at our ports to try to deal with the huge increase in illegal meat imports?

Food security starts with encouraging people to grow their own vegetables. That may be a funny thing to say, but one Briton in three is thinking of starting up an allotment and growing their own vegetables. I have 16 raised beds at home and I grow all my own vegetables
30 Jun 2008 : Column 692
for my family, as well as having planted an orchard. I take great pride in looking after my orchard, and nothing gives me more pleasure than looking after my fruit trees and vegetables and providing my family with organic foods grown locally.

The Government should do more to encourage councils to have more allotments. Today, I went to Greenfields, which is part of Shrewsbury, and spoke to the gentleman who runs the Greenfields allotments. There is a huge waiting list of people trying to get allotments and we should do more to encourage councils to give people the chance to grow their own food.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall end my remarks. I have spoken in private with the Secretary of State on this issue, and today I spoke with the National Farmers Union. We all await the Government’s decision on bovine TB, which is one of the worst things affecting my constituency. I hope to hear from the Secretary of State some assurances that the Government will finally tackle the disease and save many Shropshire farmers from going out of business.

9.38 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Secretary of State has said that the

He is right, but failing in the UK makes that problem worse in the rest of the world. He moved from the previous DEFRA position, and we welcome that U-turn. He is a nice chap; he waves his arms around in an inclusive way and I have a soft spot for people with political parents, but he is wrong about food security being an unknown in the future. He never offered solutions on animal health and welfare, deregulation, gold-plating or, worst of all, public procurement, so without leadership on the issue food security will be a problem in the future.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) is a member of the Select Committee, but he failed to mention TB. Perhaps he should go away and read the Committee’s report. He did mention our own farmers with pride. In this year, the 100th anniversary of the National Farmers Union, I can completely agree with him that we owe farmers a great debt of gratitude and we should be extremely proud of the industry.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made a very interesting scientific speech, which I enjoyed—he spoke of such matters as the invention of fertiliser—but it might have come across better as a PowerPoint presentation. It was very technical.

Next Section Index Home Page