Previous Section Index Home Page

In 2006, the National Consumer Council did a survey called “Greening Supermarkets”. It found that fresh vegetables labelled as seasonally available in the UK included leeks from Kenya, watercress from the USA, carrots from Egypt and cabbage from South Africa. All that went on behind the guise of misleading labelling. That is what happens when we try to drive changes through a voluntary process. It is a licence to cheat.
24 Feb 2009 : Column 245
Supermarkets compete with each other for volume of sales, and when one starts to cheat, the pressure for others to join them increases. We have to engage with the case for mandatory labelling—not only for UK meat, but for UK food produce in general.

I want to go on to a second report, about a bigger issue. The Soil Association has just produced “An inconvenient truth about food”, which takes us into the most difficult and challenging food security issues faced in the UK. Historically, UK Government policy, as espoused by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury, has been fundamentally ill conceived on the issue. The problem goes back not 10 years, but to 1817, when David Ricardo wrote “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation”. He set out the theory of comparative advantage; the example that he used was the trade between the UK and Portugal. Since then, the UK has hidden behind a presumption that it did not really matter what we produced ourselves, because there would always be plenty of food “out there”—wherever “there” was. Britain was a trading nation, we should make a virtue of that, and if that meant a decline in UK farming and food production, well, “C’est la vie”.

We are now faced with a fundamental change in the economics and politics of world food supply. Since 2006, there has been a steady escalation in global food prices. There have been food riots in 14 countries, from the tortilla riots in Mexico to the pasta protests in Italy. We are seeing a fundamental shift in the notion of food security and self-sufficiency. Even UK supermarkets are starting to acknowledge that they can no longer move their purchasing plans around from country to country, hopping between continents, because of countries’ increased reluctance to export food when they cannot feed themselves. Since June 2008, the consequence of that in the UK alone has been an increase in staple food prices of 13.7 per cent. That is felt in the wallets and on the kitchen tables of households across the country.

What we are being asked to address as a Parliament, and what the country will have to address, is the word “resilience”. What food resilience is there in the UK? Resilience means the ability of our country to deal with food shocks and long-term changes in food supply. I want to list the weaknesses in our current position that make us non-resilient. We are massively dependent on nitrogen fertilisers. Last year, we imported 1 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers, which are 310 times as damaging to the environment as carbon dioxide. We are heavily dependent in that we do not source our own fertilisers but have to import them from abroad. Sixty-nine per cent. of the pesticides used in the UK were imported from outside. Ninety-five per cent. of UK food is oil-dependent.

Most worrying of all is the question of UK soil. Twenty years ago, the country was warned that almost half of the soil in the UK was vulnerable to erosion. The Environment Agency estimated that in the years 1995 to 1998 we lost 2.3 million tonnes of agricultural soil to erosion, directly as a consequence of our reliance on intensive farming. We have at various times discussed in this House our dependence on peak oil, but we have had no discussions on peak food or peak phosphate. Phosphate is a finite mineral resource that will be under huge pressure, given the increasing demands from China and from India. In the past few months, phosphates have increased in price by 700 per cent. to over £185 a tonne.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 246

We need to address all those issues when we consider how resilient UK food policy is, even before we begin to build into the equation the role of food and the land in meeting UK carbon emission targets. We need a UK plan for food; what we have at the moment is a million miles from that. We have a policy based on a wing and a prayer. This country, and our future generations, require an awful lot more than that.

9.9 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I can keep some of my remarks brief, on the basis that the case for improved food labelling in this country has been made very cogently by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). My job is made easier by the fact that the Minister did not even attempt to say why the do nothing policy of the last 10 years was justified.

Normally, when talking on this subject, I start from the point of view of those whom I represent in Eddisbury—the farmers, producers and those allied to food production in a constituency that is at the heart of the largest and most productive dairy field in Europe. I pay tribute to all those who participate in the farming sector in my constituency, dealing with meat, potatoes and all the other foodstuffs that Cheshire is famous for. I introduced a food labelling Bill very early on as an MP, following my entry after a by-election in 2000, and I did so again in 2002. The matter has since been taken on by others, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Every time, we have come up against this Government, who have mouthed warm words. They have been determined to see us off, but nothing has happened. We have had 10 years of sclerosis over this law, which is needed as much now as it was then.

Instead, I have decided to start with an attempt to interpret the thoughts and motivations of Labour Ministers and the Labour party in government. They came into office very suspicious of farmers—even despising them to some degree. I do not think that was just to do with the fact that farmers were landowners, but because, as they saw it, farmers did not represent consumers, and consumers equalled voters. The Government were obsessed exclusively with voters, rather than taking into account the interests of the whole nation. They got rid of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and got rid of producer representation at the Cabinet table. They introduced the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and then subsumed agriculture and the farming interest into something far more focused on the consumer interest. That was followed by the Food Standards Agency, which began with DEFRA—indeed, it was prayed in aid by the Minister—but as soon as they could, they offloaded it from DEFRA, and gave accountability for it to the Department of Health. It is at arm’s length to such an extent that we have not had a Health Minister talk about that subject for as long as I can remember, and I have been a shadow Health Minister for three years. There is an absence of Government accountability for producers. They have put everything on a consumer basis.

That helps us to understand why something has gone seriously wrong with food labelling. The Government’s instinct is to recognise that our arguments are sound
24 Feb 2009 : Column 247
and well based, and much of the Government’s amendment to the motion, and the Minister’s speech, shows that they agree with many of our arguments. But when it comes to the nub of the matter, what has to change to take us from inaction and ineffectiveness? We still have the same problem. There are examples of Union Jacks on Thai imported chicken stuffed with hormones. There are examples even today—there certainly were 10 years ago—of pork pies coming from Brazil. They are not the problem as far as traceability is concerned. The example I gave 10 years ago was of something called the “swine stamp”—people knew exactly which pig was the source of which product because in Brazil they have traceability down to a fine art. The problem was that it was packaged with a Union Jack on the front once it reached these shores to be processed and sold. The same is true of Swedish meat products, where traceability is provided through—which is interesting nomenclature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has always raised the issue of bacon coming from Denmark, as I did 10 years ago. It has been very uncompetitively produced, as opposed to British production—

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Very competitive.

Mr. O'Brien: Well, it was uncompetitive from our point of view, of course.

Some 10 years later, we still have bar-coding technology and a voluntary code for supermarkets that is not working, despite our praise for their promotions of British production from time to time. We have heard the Government using the same words that they use in the motion today, which is distinct from the mandatory introduction that we propose. They are simply calling for better food labelling provisions, and they are calling on the EU to do something. That has not worked, and in the context of the commoditisation of food production of premium products in this country, our farmers have been left in an unfair position. That is why we have to argue strongly for food labelling. This is not just a narrow point, because it brings to a head many of the issues that give us a fair position in the marketplace, give our farmers a fair chance to compete, and above all, allow the consumer to make an informed choice. That informed choice will ensure that consumers can give the support to the British farmers that they often want to give, but it will be a choice.

I have been much encouraged by some of the statements by the Secretary of State and the Minister, but unfortunately the situation has always collapsed when it comes to actually changing the law. The Government’s approach has shown a clear obsession with the consumer interest and negligence of the producer interest. In fact, the interests of consumers and the nation are best served by ensuring that consumers have an informed choice, and that they have the abilities that we propose.

I shall not run through the detail of what can be done legally, because it is in our motion and our plans, which I am glad the Minister has read in detail. I suggest that, as we have argued for many years, the Government get some new advice, for goodness’ sake try, and above all show leadership. Many people have argued that we need
24 Feb 2009 : Column 248
to ensure that we gain the benefits that the EU gives us in the marketplace, but it has absolutely failed to provide leadership in this area. Instead, there has been followership. The EU has followed the pace of the slowest performer across Europe.

The Government have been given much information and many warnings over the past 10 years, and they need to represent our farmers, who are some of the most high-quality, efficient farmers in the world, let alone Europe. We need to ensure that those farmers get a proper chance to compete and to supply the market. We need leadership from the Government, in the lawful way proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs in his cogent speech. That is the way forward, and it is our policy. The Government should forget pride of authorship and whatever advice they have been given over the past 10 years, which has clearly been wrong. We want to see our policy delivered, and frankly, we are quite happy for the Government to steal it. If they do not introduce it, we will. I hope that the chance will come soon.

9.16 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I read Farmers Weekly, and this morning when I was reading the editorial comment, I saw that Jane King could not tell the difference between what the Conservative party believes in and what the Government believe in. I hope that she will read the speeches made in the debate and see that there is a massive void between a Government who are determined to protect the European Commission from making any decision whatever and my own party, which is determined to make a difference, to fight for our farmers and to allow our consumers to help our farming industry.

The Minister was right to mention the egg sector, but her speech was definitely a rotten one. She did not even manage to answer my question in an intervention about what she was doing to ensure that the Ministry of Defence bought British bacon for our troops. They are fighting for us and dying for us, and they deserve to be fed by us. I hope that she will do what she can to put the situation right.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they are absolutely right in their soundbites and I hope that they get their policies in order so that the dairy farmers, who know that they are being exploited, at least hear something that they can hope will be delivered. At the moment, the Liberal Democrats do not have a policy that has any credibility whatever, and I am sorry about that.

In my constituency, farming really matters. The 2001 census showed that there were more than 3,600 people employed in it, which represents 9 per cent. of the local work force. My constituents need this Government or any Government to do three things, and the next Conservative Government will certainly do them. The first is to examine the red tape burden on our farmers. Compulsory electronic ID tags for sheep have been trialled in my constituency, and one of my constituents wrote to me saying that they had

I hope that the Government will listen to the people who have been trialling such things and do their best to ensure that such unnecessary burdens are not heaped
24 Feb 2009 : Column 249
upon our sheep farmers. The nitrate vulnerable zones that have been rolled out across large parts of our county are simply an extra burden, and I suspect that they will not deliver the benefits envisaged in the Government’s well-intentioned policy. They will cause more trouble, difficulty and cost, and they will not deliver the clean water that we want.

The next problem is the Government’s policy. I do not think that farmers feel that the Government are supporting them, and there is no finer example of that than the cider producers in my constituency. Bulmers has already closed its bottling plant with the loss of 54 jobs, and, in the Budget in March 2008, the Government increased duties on bottled cider by 9 per cent. In last November’s pre-Budget report, they increased them by a further 8 per cent. Nobody could argue that we want anything other than a level playing field on which to compete, but when such extra burdens are added to a fine British industry, one can only despair about what is going through the Government’s mind.

Time and again, I raise bovine TB. Hereford beef is the finest in the world—it is the most popular and the best. I am happy to declare an interest in that I have Hereford cattle—I am proud of that. How on earth can we continue to produce the finest beef in the world when only this week I got an e-mail from one of my farming constituents, who has the oldest herd of Hereford cattle in the world, saying that he had 150 cows taken away because of TB? We have the highest badger concentration—nearly four per square kilometre. Those badgers go away and die in agony in their setts. The disease starts with ulcers in their bladders and spreads to the other organs of their bodies. We can move on from the debate about the £100 million of taxpayers’ money that is being spent on the TB strategy that is not working, but the animal welfare implications of the suffering of those badgers is unacceptable, and the Government’s refusal to do anything about it is simply wrong.

I call on the Under-Secretary to listen carefully to my hon. Friends’ comments. We must stop importing cruel practices and stop badgers’ unnecessary suffering. We must stop misinforming the public about what they buy and start helping consumers to help our farmers. Most important, we must use the Government’s purchasing power to ensure that our troops, our schools and our hospitals get the finest food in the world—that means that it has got to be British and say so on the label.

9.21 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Last November, the Minister, who is unfortunately not in her place, presented the David Black memorial award at the British Pig Executive breakfast on the Terrace, where some hon. Members were present. It went to Ian Campbell for his distinguished service to the pig industry.

In November 2006, the award was presented to my constituent, Philip Richardson, a distinguished farmer, who has made a big contribution to the pig industry over many years—some hon. Members know about that contribution. A few months ago, I was shocked to hear on “Farming Today” at 5.45 am the sound of Mr. Richardson’s voice as he declared that he was leaving the pig sector.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 250

My constituent’s farm had 350 breeding sows. Some hon. Members know that a breeding sow produces, on average, a couple of litters a year of 10 progeny each. The 350 breeding sows therefore produced some 7,000 progeny a year. That puts into perspective the problems that pig farmers face when they lose £20 per animal. That does not sound like an enormous amount of money to lose, but when it is multiplied by the number of piglets produced, it suddenly becomes a six-figure sum. I was shocked to hear my constituent’s comments because he was one of the first farmers I met when I became Member of Parliament for South Norfolk and he has made an enormous contribution to the industry, as recognised by the award that the Minister’s predecessor, Lord Rooker, presented to him only two years ago.

That is only one indication of what has happened in the industry in the past 10 years, during which we have not had the protection—perhaps “protection” is the wrong word and I should say that we have not given consumers the information that compulsory country of origin labelling would provide. I believe that such labelling would have resulted in a greater market share for British producers. The Minister said that the use of the Union flag is known to be a successful marketing device.

I was pleased that, at the Oxford farming conference in January, the Secretary of State said:

That sounded remarkably familiar. Indeed, it could have been lifted from a speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made many years ago when he introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), I tried to introduce a Bill—most recently, last October and before that, in 2004—along the same lines. I welcome the fact that the Government are now on the same page in recognising that labelling is important and that it contributes to better consumer information. However, I cannot understand their reluctance to take on—or at least argue the case with—the Commission more forcefully than they have done.

It is important to nail one thing clearly. It is logically impossible to suppose that providing greater transparency to consumers in a given market could, in itself, favour one product over another. It would not do that; what it would do is improve the operation of the market. Personally, I hope that that market improvement would occur through more consumers, knowing the accurate origins of the food, choosing to buy British-produced food. I make no bones about that; indeed, it is one of the reasons why I would like clearer food labelling.

However, clearer food labelling might not have that result. There might be people who wish to buy Italian salami or French bread. In the days of apartheid, people avoided, for perhaps good reasons, buying South African apples or oranges, which were clearly labelled. They avoided buying them because they wanted to express a consumer choice, and they were entitled to do that. Just after the Berlin wall came down, there were people—I was one of them—who sought out eastern European gherkins to try to support our brothers and sisters in Poland. Having rather let them down in the
24 Feb 2009 : Column 251
second world war and left them behind the iron curtain for 50 years, we needed to do what we could to support their growing markets. I made a conscious decision to seek out Polish products in the early ’90s. The point is that consumers ought to have a choice.

The Government’s voluntary approach has not succeeded and it is not going to succeed. I was talking to a DEFRA official recently who seemed to wallow in his powerlessness. He said, “Oh, it’s occupied ground, there’s nothing we can do.” I say to the Minister—she is not in her place now, but I hope that she reads this debate afterwards—that if she cannot get the right advice, she needs to get new advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, it is notoriously true—of both lawyers and economists—that if someone cannot get the advice that they want, they should find a new lawyer. That is what the Government did over the Iraq war, so why can they not do it over food labelling? They should find the right advice, get in the lead and push hard in the European Commission.

There is now much more support for such moves in Europe than there was. I was over in Brussels with the chairman of the British Pig Executive just last June, meeting a German Christian Democrat MEP who was interested in exactly that issue and who was pushing for compulsory labelling of country of origin in the European Parliament. Things have moved on, but the Government need to push much harder than they are currently prepared to.

Next Section Index Home Page