Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 170

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 14 December 2011

Members present:

Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)

Thomas Docherty

Neil Parish

Amber Rudd


Examination of Witnesses

Witness: Professor Charles Godfray, Hope Professor of Entomology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, gave evidence.

Q118 Chair: Thank you very much for being with us this afternoon. Can we apologise once again for the disruption to our programme? When we called you to give evidence initially, we found ourselves in the position of being inquorate. We are all very grateful to you for accommodating us. We welcome you most warmly indeed.

The questions will enable you to talk about some of the work that you have been doing, so if I could start in this regard with a general question: do you think that the Commission has the balance right between the greening proposals and the need for food security?

Professor Godfray: Not completely. The devil is obviously in the detail. It is very good that greening is being brought centre stage, but I have concerns about the efficiency with which the greening agenda is being brought in. Going back to the work we did in the Foresight project, how prepared will the CAP be for what may happen, certainly looking beyond the next five years to the next decade? It may be a different type of food landscape, where issues such as the increasing demand from a larger and wealthier global population are going to mean there is a possibility-although we cannot be certain-that food prices are going to rise quite substantially. That will change the policy framework or the policy environment in which agriculture in high-income countries will work. I have concerns that the Commission has not taken that on.

I also have concerns that the way they are implementing the greening, by what they have proposed for Pillar 1, is rather formulaic or algorithmic, rather than setting incentives for the production of public goods. Again, going back to the report that the Foresight team produced, it was arguing that going forward over the next couple of decades a reduction in direct payments and a shift towards limited funds to payment on results of public good was the direction to go. Certainly some of the earlier things that were coming out of the Commission were indicating that was one of the options on the table. Then the proposals that came out in October seemed to row back from that quite a bit, and I was disappointed by that.

Q119 Chair: How important do you think the EU is to global food security?

Professor Godfray: It is a critical component. It sounds a cliché but it is more than a cliché, but we are inescapably living in a globalised world; we cannot retreat from globalisation. One of the critical issues is how to make the food production in the EU work in favour of global food security. Probably never, but more so today than ever before, we cannot insulate ourselves from what happens in global food security. It would be foolish to pretend that what happened in the Arab Spring is purely due to food crises, but it was clearly an element.

50% of people live in cities and many of the rural poor now live in cities, and they are intimately connected to global food crises and global food markets. When things go wrong there is no buffering-they are straight out on to the streets. The decisions we make in the EU and in the rich world have ramifications on the poor world, which then feed back to us. I think we are inescapably linked, and-again, this is not my line-but it is how you make globalisation work in favour of food security.

Then there is another point that I know you are aware of. We will increasingly be seeing the effects of climate change over the next couple of decades, and we do not know exactly how that will work out. Again, there is a high likelihood that agriculture in the European Community is certainly going to be spared some of the worst effects of the extreme events we are likely to see occurring in some less favoured regions. Again, I think there is a major role for the EU there. Certainly, our analysis for the Foresight Report was that role would be enhanced if the EU entered more into world markets of food, and some of the trade barriers and other restrictions in EU agriculture were reduced over time. I realise that is a very complex issue.

Q120 Neil Parish: Good afternoon. The seven billionth person has been born, we reckon, so food production will have to increase substantially to meet the demands of a growing population. Do you agree that one of the main aims of European agriculture policy should be to increase food production?

Professor Godfray: Forgive me-yes and no. I do not think it should be directly to increase food production. I think it should be to enable our farming sector to respond to price signals. I agree with your analysis; if the growing, and growing richer, population increases demand, and those other elements, such as increasing efficiency and demand modification, do not work, there will be pressures on the supply side. Then I think the important thing is to enable our farming community to be able to respond to that, and to respond to that in two ways. One, it should enable it to respond efficiently in the traditional economic sense of the word, but also to respond to it efficiently in the sustainable sense of the world.

A leitmotif running throughout the Foresight Report was the need for sustainable intensification, so we will almost certainly have to produce more food from the same amount of land or, conceivably, less land. That does mean, as you say, producing more food, but doing it in a way that has less imprint on the environment. We should be as concerned about kilograms or calories of human food per unit of greenhouse gas emitted to the atmosphere as we are about yield per acre.

Q121 Neil Parish: Where you actually see climate change taking place throughout Europe and throughout the world, you will see it probably more in Southern Europe than you will here perhaps. Is there not also an argument in Northern Europe that there is a need to produce food in the areas where food can be produced? Do you not think that perhaps moving towards 7% socalled green setaside is the wrong direction?

Professor Godfray: Can I address the 7% setaside in a second, but just answer your general point first? I think that we should allow the market to make that response to the price signals, and we should remove the market failures, which might include the way we have wound down extension services over the last couple of decades-both in rich countries and poor countries-so that when those price signals occur, the industry will be better able to respond.

To go to your 7% issue, I have several concerns about the 7%. Maybe you have better analysis than me, and I should say I am not a CAP expert, but it is unclear to me exactly what that 7% is. I have seen different interpretations, and one interpretation could mean that it would have relatively little effect; other interpretations, and I know the NFU are concerned about this, are that it will have quite a lot of effect. If you look at the efficiency of that 7% from the environmental perspective, I think just a straight, formulaic 7% is an incredibly inefficient way of doing it. I do not mean this in any pejorative sense, but it would be gamed by farmers. I understand the motivation for simplicity of going that way, but I think it will deliver rather poor environmental benefits.

We are moving to a new agricultural landscape, where demand is greater for food and reflected in prices, and where there is an ever-greater urgency for the land to produce environmental goods as well. As we do that, we have to take almost an economic perspective, not only to the food production but to the environmental goods, and think about where the comparative advantage is for different areas of land to produce, for example, ecosystem services or biodiversity. I see 7% in Pillar 1 as a poor way of doing that; I would like to see more modularity-more capability for different countries to maximise the environmental benefits that the same amount of funding could produce. I think it would be a shame, just talking about biodiversity as a subset of the environmental goods, if 7% of high-productivity land was taken out of agriculture for some pretty poor biodiversity return, and you then ploughed up whatever in a wonderful, biodiverse, rich, ancient meadow in the Scottish islands just to keep that farm-level percentage.

Q122 Neil Parish: I have one last question on food security. Although the Commissioner talks about food security, much of the reform I can see goes in the opposite direction. I do not disagree with you entirely about the market forces, but is it actually right for Europe to take land out of food production potentially to help drive world prices up? Poorer people in the world would find it even more difficult to feed themselves. Is there not a certain obligation-and this is my pet theme-to produce food?

Professor Godfray: I do not find that the most persuasive argument. If one looks globally at the amount of food that could be produced, it is quite considerably more than it is now. Here it becomes dangerous, because I am a scientist and this is straying on to values and political judgments, but I think an argument can be made of equal moral force that lowering the trade and import restrictions and stimulating agriculture outside the EU would do as much to increase global food production. I am not trying to argue that; it is not for me as a scientist to adjudicate between those two different arguments, but I have concerns with both moral arguments. There is a moral argument for the EU to produce food, and there is a moral argument for us to take away all trade barriers and to relax our import restrictions.

Q123 Neil Parish: I am not going to get into that particular argument with you, but I do think there has to be a balance between how much land you put into greening and how much you put into production if the world is potentially short of food.

Professor Godfray: Yes, there are moral arguments on both sides, and thankfully it is your job as politicians rather than mine as a scientist to choose between them. Personally speaking, I do not think I am as clear as you are about the efficacy of the EU producing more food as a means of reducing global hunger.

Q124 Thomas Docherty: Good afternoon, Professor. Turning towards Defra’s position and strategy, do you think Defra’s position on the CAP process places enough emphasis on food security?

Professor Godfray: Yes, I do.

Thomas Docherty: That’s a very short answer.

Professor Godfray: I can elaborate.

Thomas Docherty: Just a little bit.

Professor Godfray: I should say that I am on the Green Food Project that Jim Paice chairs, which is trying to explore some of these issues with an interesting group of people from the NGO sector and from the industry. It is clear that Defra is trying to reconcile two quite complex issues. What has impressed me recently in Defra has been the move towards high-value nature areas and things like that. That is going back to the reply I made to Mr Parish that I do see one needs to take a much more landscape perspective, and I think that is what is being lost in the CAP proposals, partly because they are trying to be made simple for the whole of Europe. I think some of the things that Defra has done following on from the last White Paper have been going in this right direction.

Therefore, I think the way to reconcile some of these food security and environmental biodiversity issues is by looking at land that is particularly good at producing the food and allowing the industry to respond to price signals going into the future, and then on the other hand, looking for land that is particularly efficient at producing the environmental goods and having mechanisms so that farmers are paid for that stewardship role.

Q125 Chair: We met the incoming President of the European Union Council of Ministers in Denmark-the newly appointed Danish Minister, who made the comment that it is not the responsibility of the European Union to feed the world. How does that fit with what you are saying?

Professor Godfray: I think in a sense that is right. It is the responsibility of the European Union in a globalised world to contribute towards the international governance structures, such that the obscenity of the 800 million people going to bed hungry each night no longer continues. I think a lot of that is almost outside the issues of food production; it is an issue of how best to stimulate incomes of the poor in low-income countries. There are very difficult issues about world trade-WTO rules and things like that-that will make a huge difference, so I almost see the role of the EU as contributing to the global governance that will achieve these ends, rather than an engine of food production in and of itself.

However, I think we will almost get that as a sideproduct. As we see demand going up, as most of the analyses suggest, many of the assumptions on which high-income countries have rested their agricultural policy over the last 30 years will change, and it will be easier for rural communities and farmers to make an income. It will be much more expensive to pay for the environmental public goods than it is at the moment.

Q126 Neil Parish: I think you have partially answered this next question. Do you think the Commission’s proposals to green Pillar 1 will make a significant contribution to increasing the sustainability of EU food production?

Professor Godfray: I think it will make a contribution. It is not the most efficient way to do it. There is a role for greening in Pillar 1, and most of that is done by crosscompliance. I have not been through all the details, but it seems to me that the crosscompliance components of Pillar 1 have not been strengthened as much; a lot of it has gone into the greening agenda. I find Pillar 2 to be a more efficient way of producing those environmental goods, especially as I think there is an extremely strong scientific case that many of the environmental goods need to be judged at a unit larger than a typical farm.

Q127 Neil Parish: There are the three rotational crops that it is talking about where you have monoculture in crops. Is that good or not? I have very mixed views over it.

Professor Godfray: A rotation will be better than the diversification that I think they are actually proposing. My background is in biodiversity science and I find the logic behind that completely opaque.

Q128 Chair: Could I just pursue this? To a certain extent, the Government have been encouraging farmers to take green measures by using the carrot more than the stick. The NFU have said that farmers’ voluntary activity in this way on sustainability could be counted towards their greening measures. The Foresight Report called for sustainable intensification of farming. What levers do you think the CAP could use to achieve this? Rotation is a classic; we used to produce a lot of sugar beet in North Yorkshire until the sugar market fell to pieces. Do you think voluntary activity will be a good way of encouraging that kind of activity?

Professor Godfray: I do not think it can be wholly voluntary. Just in response to Mr Parish’s question, I talked about the crosscompliance in Pillar 1; I do think that is extremely important. The voluntary side is very important and could be funded much more efficiently through Pillar 2. I hesitate to say this, because it may be administratively impossible, but ideally you would almost like to see farmers bidding in to provide the public goods. In exactly the same way as farmers are able to take almost economic decisions about how they produce their crops and maximise their income through that, I would like to see far more of an opportunity for them to do it through the environmental side. That is particularly appropriate on the biodiversity side.

Q129 Chair: I do not want to steal Mr Docherty’s thunder, but do you think this is something that environmental NGOs and farmers could agree on? Obviously rotating and introducing more biodiversity would seem strengthen your argument.

Professor Godfray: They are really interesting issues here. The challenges for the environmental community, both in NGOs and outside, are equally as great as the challenges to the farming community. I mentioned the Green Food Project, and it is a fascinating conversation, or at least a novel conversation, that has been happening on that. There will be some hidden winwins-forgive the jargon-that we do not really realise, where one can maintain farming incomes and one can produce environmental goods. I think there will also be some contested areas; it is not all going to be simple, but there is a really important and interesting dialogue there. One of the reasons I am rather depressed by these proposals is I see none of that innovative thinking; I see none of the response to what a lot of people believe is a rather new food system that we will be moving into over the next decade.

Chair: I hope that leads neatly into Mr Docherty’s line of thinking.

Q130 Thomas Docherty: It could be argued the Commission has argued for a broad and shallow approach for the greening of Pillar 1, rather than focusing and targeting. Do you think that was an appropriate decision by the Commission?

Professor Godfray: No, I would have gone for more targeted approaches. Where broad is important is on some issues that actually benefit the farm itself-soil fertility and greenhouse gases-and I think that broad approach is covered quite well at the moment through crosscompliance. I am disappointed by the lack of innovation on the more targeted areas. Again, going back to this economic approach, we have to ask more of our agricultural land, both in producing more food and in producing more environmental public goods. I think that broad and shallow-sorry, do I have the right phrase?

Thomas Docherty: Broad and shallow, yes.

Professor Godfray: -is not the way to maximise that. I think it is driven by a simplification agenda, which is wholly admirable, although I do know people have argued that it will not produce that, but I do not think it is the right way in more challenging times to maximise both the food and the environmental public goods.

Q131 Thomas Docherty: I am not sure whether or not you have seen the other evidence that we have had.

Professor Godfray: I have read about half of it; I have not read it all.

Q132 Thomas Docherty: Have you seen the concerns of people like, for example, the RSPB?

Professor Godfray: Yes.

Q133 Thomas Docherty: They suggested that actually the agrienvironment activities would be better delivered through Pillar 2. Would you agree?

Professor Godfray: Yes, I would.

Thomas Docherty: That is very helpful.

Q134 Chair: Could I ask you to add a bit more substance? When you said that there may be hidden winwins, can you think of any obvious ones or do you think that it is the law of unintended consequences, in a positive way?

Professor Godfray: Yes. In the positive way-I cannot give you chapter and verse because I am not a soil scientist-there are ways of cultivating the soil that can both have benefits in terms of yields and also, for example, in terms of carbon sequestration. There is a field of agronomy that is looking at those winwins.

I think the more substantial winwins are at the level of the income of individual farmers. You could get winwins by reducing some of the constraints on farmers in the most productive areas to maximise their income through food production and, in a zerosum game, use that money to support farmers in areas that have the comparative advantage to produce environmental benefits-for example, biodiversity and possibly flood protection. Using the same amount of money, you could both protect farmers’ incomes and increase the provision of both the food and the environmental goods. Those decisions have to be made at levels above individual farms. They have to be made at the level of political jurisdiction; that is why I support greater modularity in the sense of moving from the formulaic Pillar 1 into Pillar 2, where Governments can take out contracts with farmers, for example. This has other benefits in providing income streams and allowing the farmers to invest in producing environmental goods over a longer period.

Q135 Chair: You referred to identifying which bits of land could best be used for producing food and which could best be used for diversity. How easy would it be to identify these areas and how would you target this to fit in with the EU’s desire to treat all farmers in the European Union the same?

Professor Godfray: Identifying them is complex, but by no means difficult.

Q136 Chair: Are you approaching it just looking at this country or across the European Union?

Professor Godfray: To begin with, it is this country. We are actually in the lead on this, and an initiative such as the National Ecosystem Assessment, which Bob Watson at Defra led, has gone quite some way in looking at some of these areas. There is also the process that happened after the publication of the White Paper, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, which led to the nature improvement areas. Quite a lot of work has been done already on identifying areas that produce a lot of public goods; you only have to ask a farmer about which are the areas that are best for producing food. I think that is being done quite well.

We are being copied abroad on the National Ecosystem Assessment; I believe, and I can tell you certainly if you would like me to, that there are plans afoot for a European ecosystem assessment. Certain countries are following our model in that, and I think it would be great if it were done using a similar methodology, because that might feed into CAP. You would expect an academic to say this, but one of the things I am pleased with on the CAP is that they are talking about more research. This will be one of the things where I think research would provide public goods as well as goods for me.

Q137 Chair: Do you think biodiversity and the scope of what you are suggesting are in the Natural Environment White Paper?

Professor Godfray: There are components of it in it. Where the thinking has advanced recently in this is by looking at the landscape level and looking at issues about which landscapes can produce these environmental benefits and these public goods.

Q138 Chair: Do you think, from all that you are saying and the Commission’s proposals, that there is a risk that the EU might import more food and become less selfsufficient, therefore exporting environmental damage to countries from which we are importing more food?

Professor Godfray: I think there are complex issues in that, and I am insufficiently expert to tell you the magnitude of that risk. A broader point, looking ahead, is that whatever happens with the postDoha negotiations at the WTO-and my view is that Doha is already based on premises 15 to 20 years out of date-these issues of exporting environmental disbenefits have to be taken into account in a far more sophisticated way in the next round at the WTO. There is a danger there. Again, I speak with some caution because this really is not my area of expertise, but I do not think the dangers are strong enough to act as a brake on doing the right thing in how one might green the CAP.

Q139 Neil Parish: The way that CAP has been travelling up until now is it has been trying to become less prescriptive on what farmers grow, and yet these CAP proposals, in a way, are being much prescriptive on what they grow and how they grow it. Are you concerned that the proposals might result in farmers producing more for subsidy and getting their payment than the market?

Professor Godfray: Yes. I think the formulae being introduced into Pillar 1 are likely to lead to complexities and the gaming that you would expect a sensible farmer to do. The strength of doing more of the greening through Pillar 2 and the success-not uniformly success-of some of the higher level stewardship schemes has been because they have been more flexible and not driven by these rigid formulae. I think I would agree with your proposition.

Q140 Neil Parish: As a supplementary, the Commission’s proposals on retaining permanent pasture will prevent some farmers converting from livestock to arable production. Are you concerned about this in light of the higher environmental impact sometimes of livestock production? There is also the argument that meat production sometimes consumes more cereals than us consuming cereals ourselves.

Professor Godfray: There are a number of issues with permanent pasture. One is that permanent pasture covers a multitude of production systems, with very different environmental consequences. The real permanent pasture that has always been unimproved grassland, which is of enormous biodiversity value, is very different from pasture that perhaps has not been reseeded or is only reseeded ever six or seven years. That has some benefits for greenhouse gases-there is less CO2 coming out-but it is a very different type of land management from the real permanent pasture. I find it a very coarse tool. You will be aware from the written evidence, and I only know it through the written evidence, that there are also major worries about perverse incentives in the short term, although I believe the Commission is trying to do something to prevent that.

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Q141 Neil Parish: That is exactly one of my worries: farmers who perhaps had grassland down for seven or eight years might decide to plough it just to make sure they are not restricted in future. They probably may not have ploughed that at all had the Commission not come forward with such proposals.

Professor Godfray: I think you are right, and if it were seven or eight years that would be a shame, but if it were 100 years and it had never been ploughed, it would be-well, forgive me-a crime.

Q142 Chair: If I could just return to something you said on the WTO, in our earlier report we said that standards of production should be taken into account in trade deals. Could you elaborate a little bit on the environmental disbenefits and how they could be brought into the WTO?

Professor Godfray: I am afraid I cannot, because I really do not know enough about the WTO. Beyond that, I am aware that the WTO is very leery about moving into areas of environmental benefits and disbenefits because of the huge potential for them to be used as cryptic trade restrictions, as we have seen so often, for example, in phytosanitation. I think they call the rules you can apply in greening the Green Box, and I know they are dominated by issues about not affecting comparative competitive advantage and things. That is obviously important, but I think there is time for new thinking on that. With new conceptual frameworks, and in particular ideas about ecosystem services and things, we are moving to a position where there are new ideas and new analytical frameworks for doing something in more detail. I am afraid I just do not have the expertise to talk in any more detail than that.

Chair: Professor Godfray, thank you very much for being so patient with us and for returning a second time to the Star Chamber. Thank you very much indeed. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the witnesses who have been with us throughout the year, my colleagues for their hard work, and especially all members of staff from all parts of the House for all their hard work and co-operation throughout the year. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and hopefully a happy, healthy and peaceful 2012. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 31st May 2012