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We live in a world which is seeing huge rises in the human population and the challenges that climate change brings. It is clearly our responsibility to produce much more food—50 per cent more by 2050, as has been said—on less available land. I remind the Minister that there will be less land on which to develop food crops. Scientific knowledge has never been more important that it is today, yet the Government have reduced the amount of money available for this type of research. I cautiously welcome the decision to establish the new agency, but its success will depend on adequate funding, good management of the various projects that the agency commissions and undertakes, much closer working between government and private companies, and the sharing of information directly with farmers for implementation on their farms.

There are gaps. Last year, the Dairy Science and Food Technology Forum produced a report drawing the Government’s attention to the gaps in the UK’s

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research and scientific knowledge-transfer base and highlighted areas that required action. The report runs to 12 pages and I shall send the Minister a copy.

In his presentation to the LEAF conference last autumn, Keith Goulding expressed his concerns about the inadequacy of funding and the long-term loss of skills in research and advice on soil and water management. Has the Minister had discussions with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and, if so, have the Government been minded to commit more, or perhaps adequate, funding to this type of research? There are other research projects, such as the Campden food research station, which is well known to your Lordships.

I hope that the new agency will link food and agriculture work closely. The agency should work with the farmers and organisations involved in promoting good farming practice and not simply reinvent the wheel. I point the Minister to the work being undertaken by, for example, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington, Leicestershire, which balances commercial food with the preservation of wildlife, or the work of FWAG and my organisation, LEAF. I suspect that these and other organisations which promote good farm practice, based on sound science, will struggle financially in the crisis that is affecting all businesses.

I hope that the new agency will look at the way in which it allocates its money. Government, private companies and the industry as a whole must look to new ways of collaboration and promote R&D in future years. We desperately need to attract new scientists. We have lost many in recent years and those who remain are, sadly, at the height of their careers and may retire soon.

This has been a short but timely and worthwhile debate. I thank my noble friend for introducing it and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

7.57 pm

Lord Haskins: My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust and I am delighted to be an east Yorkshire arable farmer in these trying times, when the banks still seem to be falling over themselves to lend me money.

As the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, pointed out, investment in agricultural research was a high priority in the post-war years of shortage and low self-sufficiency. By the 1980s, in Europe at any rate, shortage had turned into excess. The need for such heavy commitment to research seemed to be less. The Government’s view was that the private sector should take the place of the state, especially in near-market research. Even today, the European Union is largely self-sufficient in indigenous food—and we are members of the EU, as far as I know, and, therefore, share the benefits of the single market.

However, the situation is different today in two respects. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, pointed out, globally there is a greater risk of food shortage than there has been for years, given the rising population, affluence in the developing world and more people eating meat. Secondly, climate change will almost certainly exacerbate that situation. Without

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sufficient scientific and technological innovation, a Malthusian crisis could be created. Last year’s hiccup of increased prices produced worrying signs of political unrest in Egypt, Indonesia and other developing countries.

Much of the research that is needed will continue to be carried out by the private sector. It includes the need for more effective and safer pesticides in Europe, more productive plant breeding, and sophisticated technology, such as precision farming. However, Britain, the EU and other affluent Governments must concentrate on three aspects of state-funded agricultural research. First, they should make sure that existing science and technology become available to the poorer farmers of the world who cannot afford to buy them. That would make a huge change to the world’s capacity to feed itself. Secondly, there should be investment in long-term research to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, especially as it affects poorer farmers in countries such as Bangladesh, and British and European farmers who are coping with the impact of extreme weather on their crops. Thirdly, and above all, they should ensure that regulations and restraints do not inhibit responsible research and development. There will be a constant need to insist on higher standards of animal welfare and safer pesticides, and so there should be. However, there is no point in applying regulations that place European farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage against, especially, North American farmers. The proposed pesticides directive might just do that but, being a cynic, I detect a bit of traditional Armageddon forecasting from farmers and the agriscience companies.

Governments must not allow themselves to respond to well-meaning but mistaken demands to outlaw responsible research into exciting developments, such as genetic modification in crops. They must manage the science but not deny it. At a time of severe crisis, with unprecedented demands on Governments to borrow heavily to revive the economy, it may be tempting for Ministers to slash research budgets in order to reduce public sector debt. However, long term, for Britain and the world, that would be a catastrophic mistake. The world will get over a credit crunch, however painful, but it will not get over a food crisis of Malthusian proportions.

8.01 pm

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I declare an interest as a Scottish livestock farmer and a member of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland.

Farming, in many aspects, has been through some pretty dire times recently and now it seems that the banking industry is quite keen on joining it. In spite of this, it seems that the drug that gets to most farmers in the end is the fact that, whatever you try to do, farming is always a challenge on a huge range of levels.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, for many years after the Second World War and under the CAP the challenge was always to produce more. We are now entering a very different scene, where the great drive is for the efficient use of the minimum of inputs and the least effect on the environment. In practical, everyday terms, this is a seismic shift and will need research.

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The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, called for more applied research, and perhaps I may mention a small practical application in the world today. I note that Defra has allocated 0.2 per cent of its research budget to reducing the methane output of ruminants where this enteric fermentation accounts for 2.5 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Can the Government reassure us that this is adequate? As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, in world terms, agriculture will have to go on increasing production and, in order to combine both aims, all sorts of research will be needed.

It is interesting to note that in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review it was expected that Defra’s budget would have an average annual growth rate of 1.4 per cent over the five-year period. Of course, we are now in a very different economic situation, and no doubt the Minister will tell us of areas where the Government expect us to tighten our belts. However, within that review, the Government stated that they expected to be able to achieve an annual saving of £121 million through the increased sharing of responsibility for animal health and welfare with the agricultural industry. Some of this is taking place as we speak in areas such as the disposal of fallen stock and even in the bluetongue vaccination programme.

The fulfilment of this proposal is dependent on the industry’s ability and willingness to pay. There is a rather worrying precedent in the most recent extension of the bluetongue area in England, where the uptake of the vaccine has accounted for only a very small proportion of what is required. Much of the vaccine that has been prepared at government expense is sitting idly on the shelves of veterinary surgeries and at the suppliers. As a Scot, I can say that this does not give me great reassurance that the disease will not try to spread north of the border.

A concern that I have recently come across is that the original figure for the industry’s contribution is supposed to contain an element towards agricultural and food research. In our discussions tonight, this could be quite a critical factor, as the NFU tells me that the Defra budget for farming and food research and development is now only £20 million. Can the Minister say whether the department is still budgeting for a sizeable contribution from the industry for financing any of the core research facilities? I am sure that the Minister is as aware as anyone that, whatever happens, a certain number of our research facilities in the animal health field are absolutely key to our control of animal diseases—both those that we currently experience and the more exotic elements that seem to be migrating across the world. I need mention only avian flu as an illustration.

Of course, much of the finance for these facilities is not wholly dependent on Defra, and a fairly sizeable amount comes from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform through the BBSRC and other sources. In Scotland, we are extremely proud of our world-class scientific research. I was recently speaking to the chief executive of the Mordun Research Institute in Edinburgh. It has received approximately £6 million from government, which gives the institute its core funding. The chief executive has just come

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back from the US, where she has obtained additional funding from major chemical companies, which overall will give the institute a working budget for next year of £18 million. That must be good value for money in the context of the UK economy and the chance to maintain quality jobs in this country. Can the Minister assure the House that, in considering the finances to be made available, adequate emphasis will be placed on the vital asset that these research facilities represent?

8.06 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, this is a very topical and timely debate. I want to concentrate specifically on one major strategic issue that has arisen in the speeches of all those who have taken part. Since the Thatcher era in the 1980s, when the Government decreed that most research led to commercial, profitable development with near-market results, the public sector has not had to take such a big role in that function. As a result, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, emphasised, in the following 25 years we have seen a considerable reduction in public investment for the public interest.

I want to consider animal diseases in particular, as in the other House my area of responsibility was agriculture, food and the rural economy throughout the BSE and foot and mouth disasters. I shall refer specifically to the 2000 report from the Phillips inquiry into BSE because there are extremely important lessons to be learnt from it in the context of our debate. The inquiry concluded:

“BSE has caused a harrowing fatal disease for humans ... A vital industry has been dealt a body blow, inflicting misery on tens of thousands for whom livestock farming is their way of life”,

and, of course, hundreds of millions of pounds were lost to the British economy as a result.

The research identified in the Phillips inquiry—and the research that should have been and still needs to be undertaken—is of extreme importance. However, that research will not be undertaken if the lead comes from the private sector, for obvious reasons. I take one example. The Phillips inquiry came to the conclusion that,

The OP warble fly dressings used until the 1980s—which, incidentally, organic livestock farmers very carefully avoided, which is perhaps a good reason for supporting the organic sector—were clearly identified as needing further research. Since 2000, that research has never taken place.

The critical paragraph from the inquiry reads as follows:

“BSE did not emerge at a propitious time so far as research was concerned. In 1985 Ministers had accepted a recommendation from the Priorities Board for Research and Development in Agriculture and Food that expenditure on research into animal diseases was disproportionate and should be reduced by 20 per cent. Implementation of this policy was resulting in staffing cuts at research establishments”.

As Members of your Lordships’ House have emphasised time and again this evening, that process started because the public sector was thought to be less important than the private and commercial sectors, which could benefit from near-market development. That, again, is

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a very important lesson that we must take to heart. The public sector has to take the lead in setting priorities in research.

Last summer’s Cabinet paper, Food Matters—Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century, on the whole seems to suggest that the nation does not think that food matters. I do not believe that is true; I think that the nation believes that research into food and farming issues is of extreme importance. As the NFU has reminded us, a 45 per cent reduction in investment in this research took place during the 1980s and 1990s and now—again as the NFU has told us—only £20 million is being spent in the Defra budget on those critical areas. As my noble friend Lord Livsey said earlier, given that £20 billion is paid to import food into this country, the disproportion is dramatic.

I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance about the announcement of the merger, to which reference has been made, to form the Food and Environment Research Agency from 1 April—not a propitious date. It will be meaningless if there is no increase in resources, no firm focus on what is in the public interest and, therefore, no firm focus on what should be a priority for public investment.

8.10 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing gratitude to my noble friend Lord Selborne for securing this debate. I welcome his introduction of this important topic.

I declare my interests, both formally and literally in this matter. I am, as many noble Lords may know, involved in my family farming and growing business. We are members of various organisations such as the NFU, have qualified under a multiplicity of crop assurance schemes, and are members of LEAF. In short, we would consider ourselves productive, progressive and dependent on science for success. Surely one outcome of this debate would be that the House would wish to see all British agriculture and horticulture so described.

I have been much interested in research matters in the industry. In the past, I have served on governing bodies, ministerial panels and programme reviews and I was a founder member of the Horticultural Development Council, which is now part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. Over many years, my family has worked on projects with the soon-to-be-closed Kirton Horticultural Research Institute, joining the long list of those we have heard of during the debate. Things are not as they were and the Government need to revisit their priorities in this area.

I will not be using my position on this Bench to call for more government spending. Spending commitments are not to be found here and, given the country's current woes and Defra's impecuniosity, it would be irresponsible to suggest any other line. However, the debate has shown that there is a pressing need to provide support through research and knowledge transfer to an industry that is in the front line of a fast changing world. As noble Lords have said, we need to face issues such as food security, energy from crops, pesticide bans, animal disease and climate change adaptation and we will not do this without proper research and development.

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I mentioned the Defra budget but real encouragement needs to be given to other departments to look at the potential in this area: DIUS, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, suggested; DfID and the need to develop crop science to assist the reduction of food shortages in the thirdworld, such as drought-resistant crops; DECC and the creation of second-generation biofuels; and the Department of Health and the breeding and development of foodstuffs improving health by, for example, producing wheat flour which is able to reduce the risk of rectal cancer. Within existing budgets there is much that can and must be done.

I believe that partnership research can be a very useful way of leveraging government spending. How much are the Government committed to this? CAP pillar 2 allows for part of the European budget to be committed to research. How much have the Government committed under this heading and what percentage of that is currently food-production orientated? The Government have set up the Food and Environment Research Agency. As noble Lords have said, much hope rests on it. It will be vested in April, after a year in shadow operation. What will be the spend on agriculture and on food by the four bodies joined to form this organisation? Current budgetary pressures are immense—all the more reason for making sure that we address waste and inefficiency within the department.

I end by mentioning the 2008 report of the National Horticultural Forum, which drew attention to the way in which reductions in applied research and technology transfer are impacting on an industry which provides for an important part of a healthy diet; namely, fruit and vegetables. The future of agriculture and horticulture is important. The success of farmers and growers in meeting what the nation requires will depend on the application of science. There must be better ways of making this work than at present.

8.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to respond to this very interesting debate. It is remarkable that such a high-level debate can take place within an hour, even though contributors have had only four minutes to speak. As a result, we have much food for thought—if I can put it that way. I shall answer as many points as I can, but I also want to assure noble Lords that my department will take into account the comments that have been made, particularly as we go forward into the new arrangements on research. I am very grateful to the noble Earl for initiating the debate and for what he said about the priorities that he thought should be developed.

Of course I heard what the noble Earl said about the past contribution of research and development to agricultural production in this country going back over 40 or 50 years, a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. He said that in the past few years agriculture has no longer been seen as a key sector. I thought that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State addressed that issue only a few weeks ago at the Oxford farming conference. Although my right

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honourable friend recognised in his speech many of the challenges facing farming, he also gave a very positive vision of the future role of farming in this country. I listened with interest to some of the comments made by parts of the farming sector following that conference.

We all understand the real challenges facing farming at the moment, but I thought that there was a positive message about the critical role that farming has to play in the future. My department understands very well its importance and will promote it. Food security, in the context of climate change, growing world population and instability in many parts of the world, is a point very well taken. I will come back to the issue about R&D in relation to food security in a moment.

Of course research and development lies at the heart of innovation in agriculture. It has never been more important. Climate change will affect production patterns, yields, incidence of pests and diseases, and produce an increased incidence of extreme weather events with the potential to disrupt markets and cause price volatility. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, on the question of bees; from several noble Lords about the need for research into GMOs independent of companies with a direct concern; and from the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, who asked a very pertinent question about what I merely describe as research into cows farting.

There are many important areas where research and development need to take place. I know that noble Lords are concerned about the amount of money that my department spends on research and development. I do not want to go into huge detail about the amount that is spent. Overall, it is £353 million in research relevant to agriculture and food. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council invests £185 million in fundamental science. My department spends £68 million. DfID is investing £400 million over the next five years on agricultural research in developing countries. The Food Standards Agency has a spend of £20 million on research underpinning food safety and healthy eating.

I understand that noble Lords are concerned about the budgetary decisions that have been made. One has to face the fact that inevitably given the pressures on public sector expenditure, and exacerbated by the recent global turndown, the search for greater efficiency is ever-present. We also look to other sources of funding. Noble Lords have already mentioned the EU. There is the question of funding coming from industry—and various parts of industry at that.

Of course we will continue to look very carefully at the budget and at its balance. Today's debate is very helpful to me and the department in making proper analysis of where that resource should be spent. I cannot stand here and promise to put more money into the budget. At the moment, that is very difficult, but we need to make sure that the resource that we have is spent as widely as possible.

Food security is clearly critical, but one must distinguish between food security and self-sufficiency, although I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made a very good fist of describing the relationship in what she described as sustainable food production in this

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country. I assure noble Lords that the question of R&D is important; we are looking to invest more in that area. I understand that a cross-government research co-ordinating group has been set up, chaired by Professor John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, to look into that very question. I take the point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, about the uptake of vaccine and the need for us to be ever-alert to that especially important factor in relation to bluetongue.

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