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20 Jan 2009 : Column 169WH—continued

I now want to address the issue of water. I mentioned flooding earlier, which is an issue that the Department ought to be looking at very seriously and putting its two halves together, as it were—those officials that are concerned with flooding and those that are concerned with agriculture. I am convinced that one of the major undertakings that we should address in the next few years, particularly in the west country and particularly in the Somerset levels,
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which is an area that I represent, is whole-river catchment management schemes. They involve setting aside water retention areas on agricultural land, where that is the most effective use of that land, and paying the price for that land, thereby allowing farmers to farm water, if that is the sensible thing to do in order to preserve our communities and prevent flooding further downstream. We need to address that issue in a much more urgent and holistic way. Such schemes are a real opportunity to do something for urban and village communities that suffer from flooding and at the same time to provide a basic income for farmers on land that otherwise may not be desperately productive.

I have raised my final point, which concerns bees, on a number of occasions without receiving satisfactory answers from the Department. I am very worried about bees, pollinators, the potential decline in the bee population in this country and the various diseases that are afflicting the bee population at the moment. I say absolutely bluntly that unless we do something about that problem before it gets any worse, there will be catastrophic economic consequences in the world of horticulture and agriculture, because we will lose a significant part of the pollinator population. It does not need a genius to work out that a small amount of investment in research now may reap enormous economic benefits, if it can prevent the sort of colony loss that we have seen elsewhere in the world. I implore the Minister to take that issue seriously and to do something about it as a matter of urgency.

I have taken half an hour on a canter across a wide range of aspects of farming in the south-west, but I return to the point that I started with. I just want to see a healthy farming industry in the west country. We have all the natural attributes that make that aim a possibility—indeed, it should be a necessity. We have the land, the climate and the people, and we should be feeding the nation. However, to do that we must have the right structures in government and in economics to make farming in the south-west work. As I have said, despite a very small improvement in the fortunes of some farms in the past year, I am not yet convinced that we have the sustainability and protection for good practice in this country that are needed to maintain farm incomes. I believe that some of the suggestions that I have made today will help that process, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s comments.

10.4 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing this extremely important debate. I also want to say something that does not come very easily to me; I agree with virtually everything that he has said, both in general terms and with regard to the number of constituency issues and particular matters that he has taken the opportunity to raise.

I will not repeat the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but it is perhaps worth recognising that I agree with so much of what he said on a number of very detailed areas, not least bees and bumble bees. There is a very interesting point, which the Minister might like to contemplate, about the linkage between bees, bumble bees, hedgehogs and badgers. There is a distinct ecological linkage there, which needs some further exploration.

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This debate offers us the opportunity to do more than just take a moment to contemplate constituency issues and other detailed matters. It could form quite an important part of a much broader philosophical discussion, which we in this country, this Parliament and indeed this world ought to be having right now. I am very glad that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, has recently launched a heavyweight and important investigation into food and the way in which we, and indeed the world, are going to feed ourselves over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. In a moment, I will say precisely why I think that that debate is so important.

The south-west plays an incredibly important role within the UK in agricultural terms, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has mentioned. We have something like 1.77 million hectares of enclosed agricultural land in the south-west, which is an extraordinarily large quantity. In the south-west, 3 per cent. of our population is involved in agriculture, as opposed to only 1.4 per cent. elsewhere in England. We are one of the biggest areas in terms of dairy and beef production—a third of all of England’s dairy farmers are in the south-west. Of course, towards the east of the region, in my part of the world in Wiltshire, we also have significant arable production, so we have a significant contribution to make to the agricultural production of England. Therefore, we in the south-west have a locus to speak about a much wider issue—we have a locus to speak for farmers and agriculture across England—and I do not feel embarrassed about doing so.

It seems to me that the EFRA Committee and this morning’s debate must focus on what the world will look like in the next 30 or 40 years. We all know that the present global population of 6.5 billion will rise to some 9 billion by 2040. The World Bank says that global demand for food will double by 2030. Some 852 million people in the world today are chronically hungry; 2 billion people in the world today do not have enough to eat; and 2,500 farmers in India alone committed suicide this year because they cannot grow anything.

The world is running out of water and collapsing through poverty. Diet is changing across the world, particularly in China, where people are giving up eating rice as they move into the middle classes and prosperity and increasingly they are moving towards eating beef and western-type foods. Of course, that will mean that we must produce a vastly greater amount of those foods than we do at the moment. Furthermore, our strategic food reserves in the world are at a historic low. The figure eludes me, but I think that the strategic food reserve available to the world today is 30 days, which is the lowest that it has been for very many years indeed. In other words, it seems to me that, looking forward over the next 20 or 30 years, we are facing a massive food crisis that will affect all of us.

Of course, there is a read-across from food into other areas, such as climate change, which is another hugely important issue, the difference between east and west and the clash, if there is one, between ourselves and Islam. Those issues all interrelate and we should address them all holistically. I hope that the EFRA Committee will do so and that we will do so in this debate.

John Cummings (in the Chair) indicated assent.

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Mr. Gray: I notice, Mr. Cummings, that you are nodding. You are quite right in suggesting that we must focus entirely on the south-west and not range too widely. However, I merely made those few remarks as background information to what I am about to say with regard to farming in the south-west.

The counterbalancing aspect to those concerns about global food production must be our concerns about the environment. Of course, the change in the common agricultural policy in the past few years has increasingly been a move from subsidy for production, which came in after the war so that we could maximise the amount of food that we produced, to concern about the environment. Most of us much welcome that development. In the south-west, we desperately need to preserve the landscape and the environment, which all of us who live there love—it is why we live there. We are a small island, and we cannot afford to waste any of it, so we must be acutely aware of our environment. For example, I think of the south-west regional spatial strategy, which is imposing vast quantities of houses across our agricultural land in the south-west and doing a variety of other untoward things. We must be aware of that strategy and fight against it.

If our farmers in the south-west have historically been doing environmentally degrading things, we should stop them, but I am not aware of farmers who do things that are agriculturally degrading to the environment. Farmers are the guardians of our landscape. They are the people who truly understand and care about our landscape, and their interests depend on our preserving the landscape and countryside as it has always been. I do not believe that what they do is environmentally degrading, but if it has been, they must change their practices.

The pendulum seems to have swung excessively far in one direction. After the last war, we were told that the CAP had been introduced to maximise production—we needed food and wanted to become self-sufficient, so we needed to grow as much as we could. Over the years, that has gradually changed until, a few years ago, the CAP changed and the pendulum swung in entirely the opposite direction. Now, all that we are talking about is the environment and preserving the greenery. Many of the issues that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned in his excellent speech come into this. One thinks of the pesticides directive that was passed so ignominiously last week by the European Union. If it became law in this country, it would desolate our arable land and reduce our arable production by a significant quantity.

On arable land, I think of the 10 m grass verges around all the fields in my area. I enjoy them very much, because I can ride around them, but is it sensible to reduce arable production by that much? Incidentally, simply allowing grass to grow around the edges of our fields does not seem to be all that environmentally sensible. We might as well just grow weeds. Are butterflies more important than starving people in India? That is the balance that we have to think about.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the debate that we have been having in the past few years about badgers and TB. In my area, we have been decimated by bovine TB. Most sensible observers recognise the link between bovine TB in wildlife and that in cows. The Secretary of State recently decided, for his own
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reasons, to ignore the recommendations of the retiring chief scientific adviser to the Government, who recommended a cull of badgers. I strongly welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into bovine TB, which came to the conclusion that a large-scale cull of badgers, under certain conditions, had a role to play.

Mr. Drew indicated dissent.

Mr. Gray: That was the recommendation of the cross-party Select Committee, which included the hon. Gentleman, who is shaking his head like mad. The Secretary of State ignored its recommendation that a large-scale cull of badgers had a role to play in the south-west, and I regret that. It is as plain as the nose on one’s face that there is a clear link between badgers and bovine TB. To pretend that there is not, for the love of the cuddly badger, is simply ignorant.

The same applies to the worrying fact that bovine TB seems to be spreading to the deer population. The over-population of deer in my area is extraordinarily worrying—they are absolutely everywhere. That appalling over-population is not good for the deer or for cattle. That is another area in which environmental concerns seem to outweigh concerns for agriculture.

I came across another example in my constituency this week, in which a farmer had, for personal reasons, lost his cattle breeding records from four or five years ago. DEFRA stepped in and confiscated 78 cattle passports, thereby telling the farmer that he needed to keep those cattle on his farm until they died and then bury them on the farm and that he was not allowed to sell them in any circumstances. He could not bring other cows in or do anything, and it effectively put him out of business. Only under pressure from me did DEFRA, or the Rural Payments Agency at least, agree that it had the cows’ details and could therefore recreate the records from scratch, thereby allowing the farmer to go back into business. But, my goodness, what a situation to have—because a farmer did not have some bits of paper, he would have been put out of business had it not been for his MP’s intervention. That is another example in which political correctness, or environmental sensibilities have overweighed what we ought to be doing, which is growing food.

The whole issue of nitrate-vulnerable zones, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has correctly mentioned, could have a devastating effect on dairy farms, if it is allowed to run its course. Another issue is the electronic identification for sheep, which could be devastating for sheep farmers. We have been told by DEFRA that 5 per cent. of our arable land is to be managed environmentally. That is another 5 per cent. of arable land that might well disappear from useful production. In all these areas, and in so many others, we as a nation, and we as a world, have to think about what we seek to do with our countryside in the south-west.

Of course, there is no question but that we must preserve the environment. I am not one of those who says, “Scrub the environment, let’s get on with making food.” However, as we look forward strategically, over the next 40 or 50 years, surely it is right to acknowledge that half the world is starving, that half the world is
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short of water and that those issues are going to get worse rather than better. With the current economic and world situation in which we find ourselves, including the issues in Pakistan, India and elsewhere across the middle east, those are catastrophes waiting to happen. Here in the UK, including in the south-west, we can make a contribution to avoiding the worst downsides of some of those catastrophes by maximising the amount of food that we produce. We have to find ways not to put farmers out of business or to put things right so that the environmentalists are happy, but to balance the two sides. The south-west is a beautiful environment, and of course we must preserve it, but at the same time, for goodness’ sake, let us find a way of maximising our agricultural production.

10.16 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. Let me start by putting on the record my interest in agriculture, as set out in the Register of Members’ Interests.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate. He is a champion of agriculture, particularly in the south-west, and is very knowledgeable about it. He also has great sympathy with it, and that came over in his contribution.

South-west England is a large and productive agricultural area, which is important to Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. It has about 1.8 million hectares, which is roughly 20 per cent. of the agricultural land in England, but because of its productivity, its importance to agriculture is disproportionate. If one looks through the statistics, one sees that the number of agricultural holdings in the south-west has increased. One would think that that did not make sense, but the detail shows that while many farms are coming together to form bigger holdings, others are being broken down into smallholdings and lifestyle businesses. That is the way that agriculture is going.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman is statistically correct to say that there are more agricultural smallholdings, but there is a direct relationship to the fact that after the mid-term review, the Government started allowing pony paddocks and other enterprises to be registered as agricultural holdings in order to claim very small sums of money. I do not think that the number represents any more serious farmers.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and perhaps we will have the opportunity to talk about such issues, and the Rural Payments Agency, later. However, in our area and in others in the UK, I have witnessed the practice of holdings selling small pieces of land, perhaps to recapitalise the main business, after which there are separate holdings on that land. That is a minor point, though, which I do not want to pursue.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important issues. The one that catches most directly the emotion of farmers across Britain, but particularly in the south-west, is bovine TB. There was disappointment that the Secretary of State, having taken account of the Select Committee report, decided not to pursue any further investigation into the possibility of using culling to contribute to the control of bovine TB. I have never believed that the
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slaughter of badgers would be the key issue that would eradicate bovine TB in this country. However, along with vaccination and better biosecurity on farms, it has a role to play. I have certainly not said that any such avenues of progress should be ignored. I think that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that a badger vaccine might be available in the near future. I was interested to hear that, because it has been on the horizon a number of times but has never actually appeared. Will the Minister report on any advances in finding a vaccination and say whether she has found any way in which we can increase the speed of development, because such a vaccine has a part to play?

The available information increasingly indicates that the proactive culling of badgers leads to a reduction in breakouts on farms and, indeed, reduces the number of cattle that have to be slaughtered because they are reactors. Such studies are ongoing and follow the work of Professors Krebs and Bourne in looking at areas in which proactive culling has taken place. There have been real improvements in relation to that, and the Minister must take into account the information that is building up, because it shows that the slaughter of badgers could have a part to play.

The report that has been referred to advocated a further, larger-scale slaughter of badgers to test Professor King’s hypothesis that that would make a difference. It is still within the Minister’s compass to revisit that decision and see whether something can be done. I do not believe that any hon. Member would say that we should have a large-scale licensed cull of badgers throughout the UK, but we need to continue the work that has been done and build on that knowledge to see whether progress can be made. The geographical make-up of the south-west means that such a pilot scheme could take place there.

My hon. Friend paid due regard to dairying as an important part of agriculture in the south-west. There has been an increase in milk prices, but more recently there has also been a slight decrease. However, farmers are continuing to exit the dairy industry, and young people do not see the purpose of investing their finances, time and effort into dairying as a career, because there has been such a long and protracted downturn in the industry. There has not only been a reduction in the number of dairy farmers, but in milk production. That is particularly worrying for the future of agriculture and the future of young people in agriculture.

My hon. Friend also mentioned nitrate vulnerable zones, which is an issue that weighs heavily on dairy farmers. One can argue about whether the more recent proposals were proportionate in terms of how much they improve the quality of water, but the Minister could go to her Treasury friends now and see whether the tax allowance on agricultural buildings could be reintroduced. The great investment that people have to make in their holding could be mitigated to a certain extent, if they had tax allowances on the big capital investments that they are required to make. Indeed, in some European countries, capital grants are made available for farmers to invest in the infrastructure needed to deal with the effects of nitrate vulnerable zones.

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