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Agriculture and Food: Research Funding

Question for Short Debate

7.27 pm

Tabled By The Earl of Selborne

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, agricultural and food research has been in decline for a quarter of a century. We need to take stock of whether this is in the national interest. I hope that this short debate tonight will give us an opportunity to do just that. I start by declaring my interest as a farmer and my commitment to agricultural and food research as a past chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, now subsumed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

In the 20th century, agricultural and food research and development was a key contributor to the great achievements of agricultural production, particularly after the Second World War. To meet the needs of food security, production increased massively and productivity increased even more. By the mid-1980s, priorities had changed. Agriculture was seen as no longer such a key sector and, in my time as chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the 1980s, the Government of the day started on a round of closures of agricultural research institutes and

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experimental husbandry stations, a process that does not seem to have ended 25 years later. In the past five years, we have lost Long Ashton Research Station, Silsoe Research Institute, the Hannah Research Institute and much of the Horticultural Research Institute. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the farming and food science LINK programmes.

The challenges of the 21st century are different from those of the 20th century, but in many ways they are equally urgent. Global food security, the impact of climate change on agricultural production, the need to reduce water used for irrigation and the spread of animal diseases are all pressing issues of global importance to which agricultural research based in this country can and does make a significant contribution. There is a need to ensure that increased agricultural production—which is, after all, essential to meet the needs of a larger, more prosperous world population—does not lead to further adverse environmental impacts. Most people believe that, by 2050, if you take into account increased world population and consumption, global food production will have to double.

The research needs of the UK agricultural sector are not identical to the global priorities, but they are compelling. The case for appropriate publicly funded research and development to support this sector is overdue for reappraisal. Many of the products of agriculture are public goods, which justify public investment in research. Although the industry is highly competitive, it is largely made up of micro-businesses that cannot individually fund and receive the benefit of private research.

The key challenge for the farming and food sectors is to ensure that improved crop productivity can be achieved efficiently without adverse environmental impacts. We need to focus on where production gains are most readily and sustainably achieved. We need to ensure that we retain a competitive agricultural industry. We need to support those ancillary industries that support agriculture, such as crop protection, animal health, animal and plant breeding, agricultural machinery and many others. There are great opportunities for the agri-food technology industry in this country to sell more of its expertise and products overseas, based not least on the products of our publicly funded research.

We need to ensure that our consumers benefit from competitively priced, high-quality food grown in our own country. While food security may not be the critical issue for us that it is in many other countries around the world, too heavy a dependence on food imports is surely unwise. Most of us recognise the very obvious benefits of regional production.

Our national science base, our biological sciences and the environmental research programmes funded by the research councils, higher education funding councils and government departments are among the best in the world. However, when it comes to exploiting this underpinning science to meet the needs of the UK agricultural sector, we are missing out. Without adequate applied research focused specifically on the needs of UK producers or the infrastructure to support field research, we will miss the opportunities that this excellent basic and strategic research offers.

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I pay tribute to the National Farmers’ Union for recognising in its campaign “Why Science Matters” just how great the contribution from publicly funded agricultural research and development has been and how critical it is to recruit a new generation of applied agricultural scientists. The Commercial Farmers Group has called for a new vision for UK agricultural research and development. I agree that the time is right to explore what that new vision should be.

We need to get all interested bodies and funders of agricultural research and development, whether in the public or private sector, charities and levy boards, to come together to share their ideas on just what are the national objectives for agricultural research and then to agree how each can contribute to co-ordinated programmes. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has given considerable attention to the contribution that research can make to sustainable agricultural production, but it is essential that Defra and the BBSRC work closely together to determine what resources will be needed to deliver the national research needs. This has to be agreed before we lose yet more of our research infrastructure.

Producers recognise the key role that research has played in the past, and could play in the future, for their economic survival and prosperity. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask the producers themselves—represented, I suggest, through the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board—to take a leading role on behalf of the industry in developing such a new vision. Obviously, many other contributors need to be part of that debate—for example, the research councils, particularly BBSRC and NERC, agricultural departments, in which I, of course, include the devolved Administrations, universities, including the vet schools, the Food Standards Agency, the Science and Innovation Network within DIUS, the Technology Strategy Board and the agri-technology team within UK Trade & Investment, which is charged with helping us to export the expertise to which I referred. No doubt many other agencies would have a role in this discussion. Since the future of LINK has been in some doubt, there has been talk about establishing an agri-food technology platform. When the Minister responds to the Question, I should be interested to hear what progress, if any, can be reported on this agri-technology platform initiative.

I understand that on 1 April Defra will merge its science agencies into the Food and Environment Research Agency, which I am sure will help the department to play its part in reassessing where our priorities lie for ensuring a thriving, sustainable farming sector. However, perhaps the best way for Defra to demonstrate that agricultural research will be taken seriously after 25 years of cuts would be to put the word “agriculture” back into the name of its research agency. Can we please have an Agriculture, Food and Environment Research Agency?

7.35 pm

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, on commencing the debate. He has a very distinguished career and his knowledge of research into agriculture and food is immense.

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In the space of four minutes it is very difficult to put over what a massive area this is. When the chips were down in the past and Britain was up against it in the First and Second World Wars, scientists, engineers and farmers responded magnificently to feed the people of these islands. They raised the self-sufficiency of home-grown food production from 40 per cent to 60 per cent and then, post-Second World War, to 75 per cent. That fantastic achievement was gained through co-operation and enlightened government policies with vision and commitment. Breakthroughs in plant and animal breeding enabled, through fundamental scientific research and technology transfer, very substantial increases in crop yields and animal production. The fundamental resources of land, labour and capital were put to work to feed the people of these islands. Now food self-sufficiency rates are back down to 60 per cent, and falling, in a world where the population will increase from 6 billion to 9 billion in the next 50 years. In fact, this reduction means that Britain now spends £23 billion making up the difference in the balance of payments. That must be a figure that the Treasury can get its head round and cause it to provide Defra with more funding.

I am proud to have been part of the previous food production revolution, working on the land on farms in the 1950s and 1960s, with the fruits of research with ICI agriculture division and later in agricultural management education. What has shocked me in the past 20 years is the downgrading of the importance of farming to the nation. This has been accompanied by the asset stripping of fundamental objective agriculture research. Many research stations have been closed or sold off to multinationals and former MAFF and ADAS farms have been shut down. Plant breeding institutes have been sold and agriculture colleges and farm institutes have been closed. All were crucial for technology transfer and for producing a new generation of agronomists and farmers. In many parts of the UK the average age of farmers is now 60. One only has to mention the names of the National Institute for Research in Dairying, the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge, Wye College, Seale-Hayne College and the closure of seven veterinary investigation centres and many experimental husbandry farms, to name but some, to see what damage has been done.

In the days of the EU grain mountains and surplus milk production, one could understand, but not forgive, the short-sightedness of ignoring the prospect of inadequate food security. Why did it happen? It was mainly due to drastic cuts in MAFF, and then Defra, funding. What must happen now is a massive reform of funding priorities where scientific research and development is restored to its rightful importance. The future challenges that will have an impact on farming and food production are legion—for example, climate change, flooding and drought, exotic diseases such as bluetongue and bird flu, problems with pesticides, animal feed utilisation with, for example, high-sugar grasses, the whole subject of GM, ensuring food security and increasing home-grown food production. Incidentally, the issue of GM will not be resolved until it is out of the clutches of the Monsanto corporations of this world. Scientific research in this field must be independent

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and objective and not driven by corporate greed. All these issues require substantial increases in Defra funding.

Risk assessments and new technology must be watertight. Public, plant and animal health are incredibly important to the nation. The news of the creation of the Food and Environment Research Agency from within Defra and its science agencies is to be welcomed. The 45 per cent drop in real terms in Defra funding must be reversed. The fact is that only £20 million is now devoted to farming and food R&D which is unsustainable. Where is the vision among government policy-makers? An example is the current paucity of bee research funding, for example at Rothamsted, at a time when our bee colonies are dying off. Surely everyone can realise that pollination is absolutely crucial to food production.

Finally, knowledge transfer must be resurgent and productivity must be increased. Defra must ensure a critical mass of scientists producing quality, independent innovation to ensure the survival of this country and its people.

7.40 pm

Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a farmer and landowner, and as a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, has summed up the challenge for world agriculture by saying that by 2030, the world has to produce 50 per cent more food than it did in 2000, using less water, less energy, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and not despoiling the environment.

That is a pretty tall order. But what is more important is that Britain has a key part to play in the delivery of this tall order. According to the IPCC, northern Europe is one of the few places in the world where global warming will actually enhance food production, so it is really important that Britain is properly engaged in playing its part. The UK must grasp the economic opportunity that this gives us, as well as our social and environmental obligations, and we must ensure that we do everything in our power to maximise our responsible production of food.

The prime message that I—and I suspect everyone in this debate—wish to give the Government is that we must build back the expertise in our agricultural research capability. As the noble Earl indicated, over the past 25 years, 16 out of 20 research institutes have been closed or merged into a university. We must now support and exploit the world-leading capability and facilities that we have remaining.

Certain vital scientific expertise is now in short supply—agronomy, plant pathology, entomology and soil science, to name but a few. We must build back a new generation of scientific competence while we still have those who can train it. We must motivate our scientists to engage with this major challenge of how to provide food for another 50 per cent more mouths.

We also need to build back our agricultural extension capability—scientists formulating research of direct relevance to production problems encountered on farms on the land, and translating research findings, including near market research, into improved practices on the

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land. This involves scientists honing their communication and motivational skills, both here and across the world. This agenda and debate involves Defra, DIUS and particularly DfID. Scientists should be rewarded for improved outcomes on the land, rather than necessarily just for plaudits from their peers.

We need a national strategy for where our investment in science and technology should be directed in the coming decades, and strategies for the protection of our soil and for the genetic improvement of our key crops—cereals, oilseeds, grasses and horticultural crops. That must surely involve the adoption of all available technologies, including GM. This is not the time for the GM debate, but I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, that we must distinguish between what one might call the Monsanto debate, where multinational corporations seem to be driving this agenda for profit, and the Government easily giving free access to drought-resistant maize in Africa, or nitrogen-fixing wheat across the world.

There is also the need for a national strategy for our interactions with the developing world. It is not enough just to allocate funds to other organisations overseas and hope that this will deliver the required outcomes. This agenda used to be a real strength of the UK, and I believe that we can play this part again in the future.

Above all, and in conclusion, we need a research strategy that provides the necessary leadership and resources to enable Britain to grasp this opportunity and play its part in overcoming the potential for massive world food shortages if we and others do nothing.

7.44 pm

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on his eloquent and knowledgeable analysis.

We are all conscious of the global financial crisis, but a number of factors are converging to create a global crisis for food security that is quite as serious as the global financial crisis and is made even more serious by that global financial situation.

The statistics are stark. Each year, the world’s population is increasing at a rate equal to the entire population of Great Britain. By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion mouths to feed in the world. At the same time, UN figures show that each year, drought, deforestation, and climate volatility are already taking out from food production an area equivalent to the size of the Ukraine. Thus, while we need to double food production by 2050, we will have to do so on a reduced area of cultivable land worldwide, and with fewer resources than at present. Climate change threatens production levels on existing land and will make some uncultivable. Worldwide water availability will certainly restrict output. The situation is therefore extremely grave.

I am sure—I hope and believe—that the Government now realise that the world is not awash with food for us to import. Indeed, we should be helping the developing world to feed itself through aid and investment and, at the same time, increasing the domestic production of food that we can grow sustainably.

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Ten years ago, we produced a surplus of pork. We now import a third of all the pork that we eat. We ship in more bacon, lamb, eggs and chicken than we did 10 years ago. Our self-sufficiency in vegetables has collapsed. This is most emphatically not a protectionist point. Trade must play an important part in food security, but surely, given that 2008 will be recorded as the critical year when more than 50 per cent of the world’s population became city-dwellers, we need to maximise our own domestic production.

That means that there needs to be recognition from the Government that the production of food and food security are vital issues, not only domestically but globally, and that there should be a shift in R&D priorities to help us produce more, with fewer imports. That realisation would sit ill with the 45 per cent drop in Defra R&D devoted to farming and food, but the Government could and should take a lead in redefining R&D’s objectives in changing the priorities, becoming a stakeholder themselves and encouraging the industry to follow suit.

It really is hard to think of an issue of greater importance than feeding ourselves and helping to feed the world. The primary duty of the Government is to provide security for its people, and it is vital that they recognise now the importance of reordering their research priorities to enable us to do that.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness a question? I am sorry if I am being impolite in asking this now. In the common agricultural policy, we are obviously talking about reduced subsidy. Does this mean the opposite of that?

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord could not be impolite if he tried. I think that he will find, when he has the chance to read Hansard after the debate, that my request is that we should maximise those things that we ourselves can produce sustainably. That is my argument; I believe it is one with which he would agree and I am quite sure that the Minister will also agree.

7.49 pm

Lord Taverne: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has eloquently demonstrated the importance of agricultural research and he and other speakers have outlined the sad story of the decline in the amount of money that goes into agricultural research in this country.

I have a simple proposal that would improve efficiency and more than double Defra’s limited research budget at no extra cost to the Exchequer. Defra should stop spending the £30 million or so that it now spends, or used to spend, on subsidies for conversion to organic farming and transfer the savings to its budget for agricultural research. Although £30 million may not sound much in these days—millions are not what they used to be—it would make a very big difference.

The subsidies have no rhyme or reason. Organic food costs more. Why? Not because organic farmers rook the public, but because organic farming is less efficient. The advocates of organic farming cannot

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have it both ways. If it is not less efficient, then they are exploiting the consumer. In fact, the evidence shows that, comparing like for like, overall yields from organic farming are between 20 per cent and 50 per cent lower than those from conventional farming, depending on the crop.

With an extra 3 billion or so mouths to feed and a growing shortage of good agricultural land in the world, we have the crazy situation that the British Government spend some £30 million a year to promote the less efficient use of land. For what reason? I suspect that it is because they are reluctant to confront the very powerful and very successful organic lobby that represents a £1 billion industry.

However, the organic movement is wholly founded on a scientific howler, whereby artificial chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals are bad—I am sorry, I should have said that the assumption is that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals are bad. Every independent body that has examined the claims made for the virtues of organic farming has rejected them. Organic food tastes no better than conventional food when subjected to random blind tests. The Food Standards Agency has found time after time that organic food is no more nutritious; and a very carefully conducted Defra study found that organic farming is no better for the environment than conventional farming.

I hope that the Minister will consider my suggestion. Ministers have always avoided the subject of this crazy subsidy when I have raised it in the past. My case is simple: stop spending millions on promoting inefficient farming. Spend it instead on vital research.

7.53 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for clearly laying down the challenges that the Government face in providing sufficient funding for agricultural and food research. Other noble Lords have spoken of the dramatic cuts which have resulted in the closure of research centres, with the loss of more than 100 scientists. I will not repeat the figures, but at best they are disturbing and, in truth, a disgrace. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords of our family’s farming interests, of my membership of the NFU and of my presidency of LEAF.

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