Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I am delighted that the report by the Select Committee on Agriculture is the first to be selected for debate in the new Session of Parliament. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is beginning to know the architecture of the Room quite wellno doubt he will know it even better by the end of the debate.
As there is a debate on agriculture in the House, I am sure that you will understand Madam Deputy Speaker, if hon. Members pay some attention to that as well as to this debate, particularly given recent cases of serious foot and mouth disease in our constituencies, which is clearly a major preoccupation. As Shakespeare might have put it, there are also things happening in another part of the Palace.
The Agriculture Committee report was preceded by bovine spongiform encephalopathy and followed by foot and mouth disease. In the light of two such terrible experiences, there has been a lot of reflection about the nature and the direction of modern farming, some of which has been fairly far-fetched, some more realistic. People have occasionally forgotten that European policy remains the main framework for agriculture, and have spoken as if there is enormous national discretion. Devolution will, I suspect, give more national discretion within the framework of the common agricultural policy, as consumers in different countries react differently to their priorities. BSE will probably be more of a determining factor in the long-term shaping of agricultural policy than foot and mouth disease, because it is more clearly associated with problems of food as opposed to problems of farming, and has had a wider effect in the European Union.
There has been general reflection on modern farming and on the mechanisms and direction of support. Over the past 10 years or so, there have been attempts to introduce more environmental elements into farmingthe countryside stewardship scheme, for example, has been expanded by the Minister, but it originated under the previous Government. There have also been attempts to crystallise the value and the product that we want from farming. Elements remain of a policy that is driving output up while trying to get other assets out of the system. The relationship between agriculture and the environment has again been brought into focus, above all as regards the demands and aversions of the consumer. The supermarket has done more to change agricultural policy than all the politicians of Europe put together. A consumer-led policy is both likely and desirable.
The Agriculture Committee looked at organic farming not unsympathetically, but in a fairly hard-headed and unsentimental way. Most of us were sympathetic to those who were pushing towards organic farming and who will be the pace makers. We felt that we should look at organic farming increasingly as a business, rather than as a religion. It was understandable that organic farming in its early stage was evangelised. I have no objection to people who wish to cast their farming experience in that light. The Committee felt, however, that as organic farming becomes more and more a part of mainstream agriculture, evangelism should be supplanted by marketing. It felt that as organic farming became an increasingly mature part of the agricultural economy, it should be based on sustainable economics as well as being ecologically sustainable. No matter how many other claims are made, organic farming cannot be sustained if there is no marketplace.
We recognised that there is a temptation to categorise different agricultural systems in language that is too clear cut and exclusive, as if each sort of agriculture had exclusive attributes that were not shared by any other system. Practical experience on the ground suggests that the opposite is true. "Conventional" farming can be very environmentally friendly, and organic farming can be very intensive. Integrated farmingin a sense, a minimum input systemcan be highly profitable. No system trails behind it exclusive attributes. We felt that a great deal was happening in so-called conventional farming that was moving it towards greater sustainability, just as organic farming has moved out of the "three acres and a cow" period of its development and is becoming a more mainstream part of production.
We recognised that some claims for organic production, including that it has health benefits, could not be scientifically proven. However, we felt that the claim that organic production was environmentally friendly was the easiest to maintain, even if the categorical scientific evidence did not support it.
Our belief in the need for sustainable systems led us to a set of assertions. There is a need to recognise the danger that farmers may convert to organic production because of financial inducement and not because a marketplace has been identified. We all know that agriculture has suffered very difficult economic conditions and that farmers have been desperate to find a way to maintain their businesses. Inevitably, some will look towards organic farming as an escape from the financial imprisonment of present economic circumstances. We wanted to ensure that those who did convert had drawn up their business plans, were confident that they could sustain them and would not abandon them if economic circumstances became more favourable in broadly conventional farming.
We expressed a distaste for setting targets for organic production, which we felt could lead to distortions and prescriptions. Nevertheless, one should be aware of erecting a counter-CAP that, in practice, depends on the same mechanisms as the CAP.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The Select Committee found interesting evidence that the organic movement itself is far from united on the idea of targets for organic farming. Much of the organic movement
Mr. Curry : That is true. A few days ago, I discovered, somewhat to my alarm, that I had drawn fifth place in the private Members' ballot. I immediately demanded a recount, but that made no difference. I have since been inundated with demands that I put forward an organic targets Bill. I do not want to make a public announcement that would disappoint many people, although it would have the effect, I hope, of clearing the e-mail on my computer. I am, however, sorry to say that I am not disposed to put forward that Bill. I may, inescapably, have to espouse many other meritorious causes because of the error of listening to the Whips and signing for the blessed thing in the first place.
We question whether a buoyant market sector needs conversion grants. A Select Committee must sometimes question basic assumptions, one of which is that organic farming is increasing. Everyone told us that there was increasing demand for organic products, that supermarkets could not get enough of them and that we spent too much on organic imports. If that is the case, would the public subsidise the opposite of market failure: market success? At the end of the day, we thought that there was a case for Government support, if it were directed at clear market opportunities and given on the basis of clear measurable objectives. We certainly thought that supermarkets had a role in procuring supplies, but doubted whether the public purse was required to subsidise the commercial activities of major supermarket groups.
Mr. Todd : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a strand of policy that one would like to see developed is supermarkets sharing the cost of conversion for organic farmers? After all, they are recruiting people to supply their customers. Simply turning to the state for automatic support would seem inappropriate when we seek a market-led solution.
Mr. Curry : We agree, which is why we decided that we should examine that proposition. It is true that the supermarkets are important forces in determining consumer preference. They respond quickly to consumer taste; the whole experience with genetically modified crops demonstrated the speed with which they react to consumer sensitivities. We thought that, if they are anxious to procure more organic product, they should play a part in commissioning it. Such relationships between the farmer and the retailer are necessary and helpful throughout the food chain. In the agricultural sector there is too great a tendency to regard the supermarkets as ogreish enemies. Some very senior people in the Government have occasionally succumbed to the temptation to subscribe to that thesis.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Why should British supermarkets become involved in that exercise, perhaps to the extent of subsidising a British farmer, if they can import organic food from other countries that has been subsidised by the Governments of those countries?
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Farmers say to me that they are under extreme pressure in dealing with the supermarkets, particularly on price and quality of goods. If the supermarkets were to become too involved in organic production, would not the suppliers suffer quickly due to the disappearance of an organic premium from the supermarkets? Moreover, the supermarkets tend to demand uniform produce. Could that be supplied at reasonable costs through an organic production scheme?
Mr. Curry : We must be careful about the notion of an organic premium. Organic products have a price, as do so-called conventional products. We would all like the price for conventional products to be better. For example, the price of milk has been low for a long time and that has caused serious difficulties to milk producers. Organic milk is probably fetching about 30p or 31p a litre for farmers. That is a good 10p to 12p above the price of other milk. I would not object if dairy farmersthose who are leftwere getting 24p a litre for their milk. That may influence some who would otherwise convert to organic production, but I am concerned that farmers should undertake those activities for which there is a market so that they can sustain their production at a profitable level.
The role of the supermarkets is to offer an assurance of outlet in return for an assurance of supply. We have seen that increasing significantly. It may be that, as part of the aftermath of foot and mouth disease, we will have to look at the future of the live auction marts, which will be one of the inescapable issues that emerges from the experience of the disease. Long-term contracting between supermarkets and producers may become more common, and we may see a more broadly established pattern of interdependence between those two parts of agriculture, which would be helpful.
Mr. Weir : Is that not part of the problem? Farmers tell me that long-term contracts mean that the supermarkets can put too much pressure on them. If markets change, the supermarkets press down the price as an insurance of supply. That is one of the problems of long-term financing for conventional farmers at the moment, and I am worried that if we go down that route, those problems might extend to the organic sector.
Mr. Curry : We have to decide that the organic sector will either remain a boutique sector of agriculture that has a completely separate pricing structure, or become more mainstream. Iceland Frozen Foods tried to introduce organic produce at a conventional price. That was a mistake, because the public wanted a choice. Iceland fell on its face because the public did not wish to have that choice made for them. It is inescapable that supermarkets' contracts will not specify a constant price; price will vary according to demand and economic
Mr. Todd : One way to correct the market imbalance to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is to use co-operatives to bring together farmers' interests to support a particular objective. That idea is well developed in the organic sector. The Agriculture Committee heard evidence of both successful processing co-operative activity and successful farming co-operation, particularly in the dairy sector.
Mr. Curry : That is certainly the case. A totally fragmented farming sector does not need to face that great corporate power, the supermarket. That would be possible if farmers were more organised and could more effectively deliver the quantity of supplies required. Moreover, supermarkets would probably support the idea. We should encourage the co-operative movement in agriculture, which is more developed on the continent than in the United Kingdom. Great benefits would accrue from that, not least that the co-operatives could manage some of the schemes themselvesa proper form of devolution.
We recommended that the Government devise proposals for an organic stewardship scheme as the centrepiece of their review of organic farming support, which forms part of the 2003 review of the English rural development programme. That would enable farmers to receive payments that recognise the benefits that they bring to the environment, which is relevant. However, the stewardship scheme would also mean that all the various schemes could be integrated more easily. Farmers could be monitored for stewardship, for adhering to various support schemes and for their organic qualifications in the same inspections.
The organic stewardship scheme is commendable and is becoming one of the Government's flagship programmes. I commend the recent trials to try to get more benefit out of some of the arable areas and to develop the environmental experience. That development has been extremely positive, and I am glad that the Minister plans to expand that, although I have no doubt that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will describe it as being "rolled out". Everything appears to be "rolled out" these days. I have noticed that even seminars on the aftermath of foot and mouth disease will be "rolled out" by Lord Whitty, which makes the mind boggle. "Rolling out" is clearly part of the Government's modern jargon, about which an article will no doubt appear at some stage.
I look forward to the expansion of those programmes. It makes sense to bring the various schemes within as limited a framework as possible, provided that administrative convenience does not overtake the need to ensure that local particularities and conditions are recognised.
We were concerned about a number of certifying bodies and the different standards that they set. We recommended that the Government ensure that standard-setting procedures in the organic sector were harmonious and rigorous, and that the Government encourage a streamlining of certification and inspection processes. At first, we were tempted to say, "These
Clear information for the consumer is what is important. The qualities that the consumer may attribute to organic production may be different to the quality that is certified. As I said, certification relates to process. A consumer may attribute all sorts of things to a product: he or she may think that the food tastes better, is healthier or is environmentally friendly. Some of those attributes may be true, but we have no scientific basis on which to assess those claims, although we may eventually be able to do so. It is important that the information that arises from certification be made available to the consumer. The consumer may attribute other properties to organic food but that is a matter for his or her perception.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned heavy dependence on imports. It is important that consumers are not led to believe that organic products guarantee absolutesof environment, husbandry or qualitywherever they may come from. We must be vigilant and ensure that products from Mexico or Paraguay are subjected to the same rigorous examination of their use of the word "organic" as those from Shropshire or Worcestershire.
The report made a common-sense contribution to the debate on organic food. It was well timed. The sector began as a small, peasantI use the word in its continental, non-pejorative senseindustry, delivering to the same market as do the French with their designated products of local origin. Business grew rapidly, and the sector gained a larger market share, serving considerable consumer demand. It was sensible to write a report that treated organic farming as an important economic sector that would be significant in the future, rather than as a picturesque element of agriculture.
We wish to support and promote organic farming to aid diversity in agriculture, for its qualities and for the choice it provides to the consumer. Organic farming shows that innovation is important to the mechanisms of agriculture, and will increasingly be a hallmark of policy in the aftermath of the diseases that we have mentioned. We commend the report to the Government and are pleased to find that they broadly support our views.
There was some consensus on what was said and given as evidence. The Government have responded positively to many of the report's recommendations. As the Labour party frequently says, a lot has been done
We should bear it in mind that the organic sector delivers on all the major United Kingdom agriculture policy objectives outlined by the Government. Those include greatly reduced use of pesticides and veterinary medicines in food production; greatly reduced environmental pollution; and protecting the UK's soil and water resources. There is evidence that organic farming offers improved food quality and safety, high standards of animal welfare, rural regeneration, including increased rural employment, reduced cost to the state of agricultural support through market contribution, and a market-oriented farming system.
Mr. Todd : Has my hon. Friend seen evidence that casts doubt on the points that were made about veterinary medicines? The worry is that, in certain sectors and particularly in upland areas, the controls for which the organic sector is looking might not benefit animal welfare.
Joan Ruddock : There are some differences, and I am aware of such evidence. However, other reports make it clear that there are real benefits, as I said at the outset. The temptation is to say that the organic sector must be perfect, otherwise we cannot support it. Of course, not everything is perfect, but there is much that is problematic in the conventional farming sector. When considering the balance in such matters, we should recognise that organic farming is ahead.
The evidence in respect of organic farming is growing. I doubt whether any hon. Member present would disagree with its biodiversity benefits, and good data are already emerging from other European countries. Last year's review of European Community literature made it clear that organic farming brings benefits in terms of not only biodiversity but nitrate leeching: compared with conventional farming, nitrate leeching is 40 to 57 per cent. lower per hectare, and CO2 production is 40 to 60 per cent. lower. In the light of such evidence, we should be careful not to apply tests that are so difficult that the sector is given less recognition than it properly deserves.
There is evidence that the health benefits are becoming clearer. The Soil Association will shortly publish a new review of a small number of valid comparisons of organic and non-organic food, suggesting that, on average, there are nutritional and health benefits in consuming organic food. However, I wholly acknowledge that, as the Select Committee said, there is a need for much more research in this area. Let us get on with it, ensure that the Government listen to the report and that such research is undertaken.
Currently, only about 2 per cent. of agricultural research funds, which total more than £100 million, is invested in the organic farming sector. That is not good enough. It is far less than the organic sector's projected share of United Kingdom agriculture, which, as the Government acknowledge, could be as much as 6 per cent. by 2006.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I hope to deal with that point in more detail in my reply, but as one is always pressed for time I should perhaps emphasise now that it is a mistake to regard the percentage of research and development devoted to the organic sector as 2 per cent. of the total budget. We are paying for an enormous range of research and development that directly benefits the organic sector. The benefit to it is much greater than the 2 per cent figure suggests.
Joan Ruddock : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to further discussions with him on the subject. Despite what he says, those of us who argue with some enthusiasm for the organic sector believe that there is much to be gained from it. However, the Government and the Select Committee say that the current evidence is not clear. If so, we need to get clear evidence. If necessary, more money must be put into the pot so that research can be done. The questions can be answered, and they need to be answered urgently.
There is no doubt that, in the wake of the successive crises in United Kingdom agriculture to which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has already alluded, public and political support for the development of organic farming and food is very high. According to an NOP poll conducted in March, 86 per cent. of the public feel that the Government should be doing more to develop the sector in the United Kingdom. Two thirds of the public would like 10 per cent. of the country's farming to be organicgreater than the Government's target for organic agricultureand more than half of the public would like that figure to be more than 30 per cent.
Mr. Todd : I share many of my hon. Friend's views and agree entirely with the content of the report. However, bearing in mind the figures that she has quoted, can she explain the difficulties that Iceland Frozen Foods had in converting wholesale to organic food, and in persuading its customers to accept that change? She implies that there is widespread, committed and money-led enthusiasm for organic produce.
Iceland Frozen Foods was dealing with a special market. In other retail outlets, demand cannot be met. Imports have risen from 70 to 75 per cent. during the past year, and there is considerable growth in the market for organic foods. Iceland Frozen Foods cannot be the yardstick by which we measure public desire for organic produce. Fresh organic produce is tremendously popular and there are shortages of it. I try to buy only organic food. On many occasions, I have been unable to get the food that I required from local supermarkets.
There is both public and political support for organic farming. I cannot participate in the debate without mentioning the Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill, given that I first presented it to Parliament. I must tell the Chamber that the early-day motion tabled in support of that Bill was the second most popular early-day motion during the previous Parliament: it was signed by 268 MPs, representing all parties in the House. Despite what has been said, targets represent an argument for significant growth in the organic sector, and there is a lot of public and political support for that.
Since the Select Committee report was compiled, my hon. Friend the Minister has signed the Copenhagen declaration calling for a Europe-wide effort to develop organic farming. There is huge impetus behind growth in the sector.
Joan Ruddock : The right hon. Gentleman will know that copper sulphate is being phased out, and his point is not relevant to my argument for continuing support through organic stewardship payments. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response on that issue.
Another idea that the Committee entertained, at my suggestion, was that water companies should give a commitment to reduce charges to organic farmers who are able to demonstrate that, by their particular form of cultivation, they are reducing the amount of pesticides and other pollutants going into the water system. Does my hon. Friend agree with that sort of continuing support?
The Select Committee made several positive recommendations, including the proposal that the Government should consider increasing their R and D budget. The Minister has alluded to that, and I hope that we shall hear more good news when he winds up the debate. The Select Committee also recommended that the Government scrutinise the organic supply chain for bottlenecks and imbalances and devise ways to remedy them; that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foodnow DEFRAreview the conversion costs and aid rates of the different sectors and consider targeting aid at the sectors that were lagging; that the advice to producers be reviewed to ensure that it was adequate; and that the Government ensure that rural development plans are channelled into organic marketing and training initiatives. Those proposals are much to be applauded. It is intriguing that when they are put together, they begin to look like the basis of a strategy, yet we do not have such a strategy from the Government. That may be a failure of the report andalthough I hope that officials may be working on itof Government policy.
Despite everything that has been said about targets, they are a means of focusing the attention of a variety of sectors and operatorsGovernment, farmers, whoeverso that it is possible to pull together and to define clear policy aims. It is no coincidence that the four countries in Europe with the highest levels of organic farmingDenmark, Austria, Finland and Swedenhave all adopted targets for the sector. That is significant. Whether we should accept targets is another matter, but it has concentrated minds elsewhere. We need a coherent strategy, which is lacking.
Help is on the way. The Soil Association has been working in the broad coalition that brought together the Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill and plans shortly to produce an outline organic action plan, which I am sure the Minister looks forward to with great enthusiasm. It will argue that six areasinformation, the supply chain, market development, financial support for production, standards and social and institutional issuesmust be dealt with simultaneously to bring about a co-ordinated approach to driving forward the sector. That is vital, because there is huge potential there.
My final pointit may have been mentioned in the report, but I could not find itconcerns the Government's public purchasing strategy. The Government are currently greening public purchasing policy, but I do not think that they have yet addressed public purchasing policy in the catering sector. The European Commission has clarified that it is legal for public bodies to specify organic food in their contracts.
The public benefits are such that there should be continuing and increased Government support for many of the proposals in the Select Committee report. I hope that the Minister will give us more comfort in his winding-up speech, so that those of us who are enthusiastic about the sector can continue to express our enthusiasm in the House.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) because, last year, I also followed her in promoting the Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill. I shall say something about the targets issue, but I hope to get away from that because it is rather narrow. Although I agree with the hon. Lady that many countries have found targets a useful tool, targets are not the only way forward. We must recognise that.
It is true that we have a target in this country. We now seem to live in a prime ministerial or presidential country. On 1 February, the Prime Minister went to the National Farmers Union and committed the Government to a target of trebling the amount of organic food produced in this country by 2006. I do not know if the target was for the beginning or end of 2006, but it has been set. I therefore welcome the fact that the Minister is attending this debate; he has a long-standing commitment to helping the sector, which he has displayed in opposition and in office. Such commitment is not maintained by everyone who is transferred from one to the other. I congratulate him on that.
I agree with much in the Select Committee report, but I want to identify one or two issues on which I think it is lacking. That is meant as no disrespect to the Select Committeeor to Committee members presentas I think that it has done a wonderful job. I pay tribute to it and particularly to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) who led it so effectively. I hope that he will not suffer at the hands of those nameless people in the usual channels who are doing such dirty work at the crossroads at the moment.
The issue of trade imbalance, to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford referred, is important. Although I listened with interest to what the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, I do not think that the Select Committee gave the issue sufficient attention. With organic food, as with everything, the proof or the pudding is in the eating. We have had an increase in expenditure and research, but we have not increased the percentage of organic food from home-grown producers that reaches the shelves of supermarkets and other shops. Quite the opposite has happened, as three quarters of the organic food that is produced for the very demanding consumer now comes from abroad. Indeed, the import figure has increased from 70 per cent., when I was promoting the Bill, to 75 per cent. now.
There is something basically, intrinsically and philosophically mad about bringing organic food across the world to our shores when so much can be produced in our own climate and soil by our own skilled farmers and market gardeners using their excellent farming practices. Perhaps too much attention has been paid to the agriculture sector and not enough to the horticulture sector. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) will agree that there is probably greater scope for expansion, and for rapid expansion, in the horticulture sector than there is in agriculture. I therefore hope that more attention will be paid to horticulture.
Mr. Tyler : I think that it is and that we shall encounter consequent difficulties. Although many market gardeners can operate competitively now that our climate is, supposedly, warming up, there are others who will find the going extremely difficult. That will be a problem ifas seems still to be the case even within the European Unionother countries are enabling their horticultural sectors to compete more effectively on cost, particularly on energy cost.
Although the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon about trying to sustain the level of certification and public confidence in the criteria that we are applying are, of course, perfectly true, we can be confident that there are standard certification levels within the European Union. What there are not are standard levels of support, and that is something that must concentrate our minds.
I hope that the Minister will respond to this point when he replies to the debate. Despite the Copenhagen declaration, we cannot claim to have harmonised the support that we provide with the best-practice support provided to the organic sector in other EU member states. That is critical because we shall not make progress until our main European Union competitors are unable to undercut us with the supermarkets. If supermarkets do not have an assurance, which they can pass on to their consumers, that they can obtain products with certainty and confidence at a subsidised price, they will surely continue to buy from abroad, especially within the European Union, rather than buying from British producers. That is the central point, which brings us to the nature of the support that we shall give.
I welcome the consensus which seems to be developing that the way forward is an organic stewardship scheme. The Select Committee recommended such a scheme, and the Government have made encouraging noises about the operation of one. I am sure that that is a good way forward as the issue is not only about product, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, but about process and continuing process. It is about ensuring that the way in which food is produced meets certain standards, so that those standards can be maintained in the longer term. We do not want a hit and run arrangement, trying to take advantage of a quick conversion, that we would slide out of when market conditions change.
It is important and helpful that we are moving towards such a scheme, which I hope will be linked to some form of targeting. I do not care how that is done, but as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford saidshe has argued this case eloquently both in this Chamber and on the Floor of the Housewe must establish a competitive framework so that those who want to go into the sector know that there is a long-term advantage in doing so. Farmers in their current state will not have the confidence to enter the sector. They certainly will not have the deep pockets to do so, and they will be unable to persuade their bankers to help them unless there is a long-term commitment.
I agree with much of what has already been said, but I should like to touch on a couple of other issues. I am unconvinced by the argument that the research budget is relevant to the organic sector. It is unnecessary to increase the budget, which is, after all, very small. We know from other walks of life that if it is left to the market to determine where research should take place, research will be undertaken by organisations with deep pockets rather than on behalf of the consumer or the public purse.
Under the Thatcher regime, the Government pulled back from near-market research. That was a mistaken policy. Indeed, there would be a different attitude to many current food and farming issues if the position had not been changed. It provides a classic example of why it is sometimes better to maintain a public interest in research, rather than to leave it to the vagaries of the free market. Supermarkets should not be allowed to determine on their own the sources of their organic food supplies. If we allow them to do so, British farmers and consumers will suffer. That is why the research and development budget is so important.
Finally, I turn to the issue of consumer reaction. When I was promoting my Bill, I was amazed at the extent of public interest in the matter. The amount of coverage that the subject receives in the press and the broadcast media shows that there is huge public interest in where food comes from. That is the sole encouraging consequence of the BSE and foot and mouth disasters. Who is most sensitive to that public interest? The answer to that question is not, I fear, Members of Parliament, let alone Ministers. Retailers are most sensitive to the public's interest in that matter, and they rapidly responded to it. However, they responded not by trying to improve the standard of British produce, but by sourcing their produce from abroad. They did that for a variety of reasons, many of which have been mentioned.
The Government have a responsibility, particularly in the aftermath of the BSE and foot and mouth crises, to try to ensure that the important interests of consumers and of primary producers in horticulture and agriculture hold sway over those of the huge international and multinational giants of food processing and retailing. I do not believe that it is at all inevitable that those giants will deliver the goods to the people of our country.
Mr. Tyler : I am about to finish my speech. As the newly re-elected Government are so focused on delivery, I hope that they will consider delivering to consumers, who want better, British organic products on their shelves.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), and also my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who convinced me of the benefits of the Organic Targets Billbut I shall say no more about that, as there were jousts among various Committee members, and although I was in the minority I tried to fight my corner, and shall continue to do so.
I welcome the Minister to his new position. I am unsure whether there is a term for someone who has spent four years as a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foodalthough someone has just suggested that purgatory might be an appropriate word. The Minister now represents the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am sure that he will listen to everyone who has agricultural interests, and I am certain that we will have plenty of opportunity to continue to discuss agricultural matters.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who chaired the late lamented Agriculture Committee. I am sure that he will return in a different guise, and that there will be many further opportunities for us to discuss food, farming and related matters, now that there is a truly integrated Department.
I also wish to mention our former clerk, Lynn Gardiner, and Dr. George Turner, the former Member for North-West Norfolk, who was not returned to Parliament. He worked hard on the matter under discussion, and it is surely not beyond the rhyme and reason of the way that Parliament works to ensure that a copy of our proceedings is sent to him, and that mention is made of his excellent work.
Initially, it appeared that the debate would not be well attended, but I am pleased that so many hon. Members are presentespecially because the issue that we are discussing is of considerable importance.
I will concentrate on a number of points that directly follow on from the comments that were made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Unless my eyesight betrayed me on Monday night, I noticed that he attended the public meeting that I went to at Conway hall in Holborn. It was a packed meeting on food policy, although it approached the subject from a wider perspective than the present debate, as the politics and policies relating to food in the context of globalisation were discussed.
At the meeting, we listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), Tim Lang and a number of other people, who put into perspective what the hon. Member for North Cornwall said. This is politics in the rawpeople are interested in food. They have always been interested in food, but they are now much more interested in how food is produced and distributed and make their decisions accordingly. I am sure that that interest will grow. I hope that it will be reflected in the new Select Committee and in Government policy.
The report is a good one. It is easy to consider the issues to which it did not refer, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford rightly picked us up on the sourcing through the public sector. We should perhaps have dealt with that matter. However, I think that the report does all the things that a good Select Committee report should do: it covers the ground, enhances the debate and draws on a lot of evidence, and it gave members of the Committee the opportunity to see, as well as to hear about, what is happening out there. It is generally objective, and the recommendations have met with a good deal of interest and elicited a positive response from direct stakeholders such as retailers and producers, and from the general public.
Organic farming not only affects health and environment but has a major impact on rural areas. Building a more sustainable agricultural system will have more impact than anything else on our rural areas. That is why the new Select Committee can help to regenerate rural areas.
Hon. Members have not spoken much about how we can remove some of the bottlenecks in the system. Several sections in the report highlight how we need to ensure that we help the production process as much as possible, rather than putting barriers in its way. We are, as always, indebted to the Soil Association for enabling us to put into context the distance we need to cover, and whether we should support the Organic Targets Bill. It is fair to say that the amount of organic production in this country is far too low. About 3 per cent. of United Kingdom farm land is allocated to organic produce, of which only 1 per cent. is actually certified. We have heard some of the arguments about the definition of "organic".
We need to do more, but at least the consumer is turned on to the issue. We know that from what people are buying and from the polling evidence, which is not always as inaccurate as some people would have us believe. Most people would want to buy organic as long as it is available, it is priced reasonably and they can trust that it is genuinely organic and produced in a humane way that conforms to the consumer welfare standards that they expect.
I was going to say that some members of the Select Committee were troubled by the implications for poorer consumers of the price increases that a wholesale shift to organic farming might cause, and I would welcome my hon. Friend's thoughts on that.
I said that I wanted to speak about the Organic Targets Billnot in order to reopen old sores, but to deal with a misunderstanding. It is not simply the target that is important, but the planning behind it. It was good that the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food accepted that point in his speech to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, and we must not lose sight of it. If we can get the action plan right, the target becomes much less important. I hope that those involved in writing the original Select Committee report and other hon. Members here today accept that.
We have alluded to other important matters, but we could make more of them. One such issue is the support that needs to be forthcoming for organic farmers. I totally support the emphasis on moving towards an organic stewardship scheme, but again the issue is how we get there. We are fooling ourselves if we think that that will happen overnighta great deal of work needs to be put in, which goes back to the issue of planning.
I want to consider a few issues that link into support for organic farmers. This is more of a personal reflection on the needs of farmers who have converted, who are in the process of converting or who, more particularly, are worried about what would be involved and have held back from converting. There is clearly a need for advice and education. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford touched on that in respect of academic support, but training must also be important.
The conversion process in this country is still very difficultlet us not misunderstand that. People are taking a risk and might go without income for a time. We all know that the scheme has been bedevilled by the fact that it has been something of a stop-go process. There is much more demand to convert than we have been able to deliver. Perhaps the situation is as it should be, and people are truly tested. Regardless of whether one believes that we are talking about a philosophical conversion as much as a practical oneI do not want to go into that too much, because it was well covered in the House of Lords report on the subjectone needs to lock into place the way in which people will be subsidised for a time. The issue is not only how they will forgo income in the short run, but what guarantees they will need subsequently: it is all about market openings and what comes with them.
Of all the members of the Select Committee, I was, in many respects, the most scathing about the Iceland conversion, and we need to learn some lessons from it. Iceland was incredibly naive in thinking that people were locked into such a market opportunity and that the company was shooting at an open goal. As some of us tried to tell Iceland, it proved not to be as easy as that. I should hope that the organic movement could learn from it, without being too despondent. The organisation was naive and a little flip in trying to score such a goal. I am more persuaded by the approach taken by Sainsbury's, in studying the subject overall, in a more considered and practical manner.
Sometimes we consider the different sectorsmilk, meat, fruit and vegetables, eggs, arable and the processed sectoras though they are all parts of a great organic movement. We must understand that those sectors have different needs and that the help that they need, from the Government and other sources, will vary. Their needs will change and evolve in various ways. The report covered that issue well, and perhaps it has not been discussed as much as it might have been.
I am still confused, even though I sat in on the evidence, about the issue of regulation, certification and standard setting. We put our finger on an important point in finding that the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards is rather underpowered. That needs to be sorted out urgently and I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister what is happening about the UKROFS review. I know that the quinquennial review is under way and an update would be valuable. We all wanted clarification.
There is confusion about who is setting standards and how much standards differ. That is a problem both nationally and internationally. The report is encouraging about the idea that countries exporting to this country should sign up to the standards of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Some hon. Members would no doubt consider those standards in need of tightening, so that people buying organic food of UK origin or from abroad could be sure of the standards being applied. Confusion and conflict between different organisations was evident. There was majority agreement and I did not push the matter, but despite our belief that there was value in the present diversity and competition, there was a need for clarification for consumers. I hope that that will be forthcoming.
There is a relationship between organic and other forms of agriculture. It is wrong to see organic agriculture as in direct conflict and competition with conventional farming. I know that conventional farmers sometimes get upset at some of the statements of the organic movement, and I shall tread gingerly into that area. There is clearly a role for conventional farming. With the best of intentions, if we reached our 30 per cent. target that would still leave 70 per cent. doing other things. We must keep reminding ourselves of that.
The sector is important, but it is not the whole of agriculture. Some hon. Members were quite taken by the integrated management systems at the Co-operative Wholesale Society farm at Stoughton. That approach may have lessons for the organic movement as well as the conventional movement about ways of improving food production and, by research and efficient organisation, ensuring appropriate agricultural progress. We must decide on some priorities about what was learned in preparing the Select Committee report.
There are degrees of purity within the organic movement. I have tried to explain the biodynamic movement, and if the explanation is wrong, that is my fault, because they are my own words. There is a biodynamic farm in my constituency, Kolisko, at Brookthorpe, just outside Stroud, and I am firmly persuaded that the people involved have a role to play in the wider organic movement. Long may that continue.
A disillusioning fact that came home to usas has already been made clearis that a lot of people tend to buy organic food because they have the notion that it is wholesome and local. I shall not address the issue of wholesomeness, but much organic food is certainly not local. It might well be imported. Most people seem to want us to pursue the idea of sourcing produce locally. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell us how we are helping the organic movement to re-establish local access? It can be done through farmers markets, which have taken off strongly. That is mentioned in the report, and is always referred to as one of the great successes of the Government: we have set up a new structure enabling people to buy other than through the normal retail outlets.
We have a strong farmers market in Stroud. I have mentioned it many times before, so I shall not dwell on it. However, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us how, indirectly, we can help organic productionwhich seems to be one of the mainstays of the farmers market movementhow we can further improve on what is happening, and how we can make sure that resources go into it.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) mentioned the co-operative possibilities. I am a Co-operative as well as a Labour Member. We greatly underestimate the opportunities that we have to restructure in every areaproduction, distribution and, dare I say, retailingin a co-operative way. That can be the answer to some of the conflict that has previously occurred between different sectors. Will my hon. Friend the Minister look ahead and consider ways in which the Government can, by sensitive delivery of grants and in other ways, help potential developments?
It might be something that Members are nervous about in terms of the role of Government, but the Government can set, as a guiding light, the way in which they hope organisations will move, and subsequently fall back.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Chairman of the Committee, on his elegant and excellent summary of the report's findings. It was very interesting.
One of the advantages in preparing the report was that we did not just listen to evidence in the Committee Room but went out and got our shoes dirty by visiting a number of organic producers. We went to Helen Browning's farm and saw what she did, which was an example of high-quality, meticulous farming, using some of the best techniques available. It made us think about that particular farming regime. In so thinking, we contrasted it with the CWS farm in Leicestershire that we visited and which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has mentioned. That was an example
Our trip to that farm raised some interesting questions. For example, what are the objectives of organic farming? Some may argue, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has, that there are advantages in terms of health, safety and consumer confidence. We touch on all those matters in our report. Some have argued that the objective of organic farming is improvements in the agricultural regime. However, I found it difficult, and I have just re-examined the detailed evidence taken by the Committee, to get a definition of "organic". It seems to mean many different things to different people.
We took evidence from Dr. Nicolas Lampkin, who was, to say the least, evangelical in his view of organic farming. He spoke about the ethical nature of it, as if it were a question of organic growers being good people and other kinds of growers being bad people. However, that is not the case. The integrated crop management approach of CWS, in the context of certain environmental and quality targets, could also be described as good farming.
The case of CWS raised interesting questions. One might decide, for example, that environmental targets such as those for the release of CO2 into the atmosphere were farming objectives in one's agricultural regime. Believe it or not, integrated crop management with no-till agriculture, even using genetically modified strains, would be more environmentally beneficialif reducing CO2 emissions were one's objectivethan a full plough-up and use of natural manuring facilities as would be employed in an organic regime. The question of which agricultural regime is the right one to follow is very much determined by the targets that one sets oneself.
That leads me to a conclusion about the report. We must not see organics as in a battle with mainstream or any other form of agricultural regime. It is complementary to other types of agriculture. It responds, very properly, to the desire of some consumersusually those who, at this stage, can afford to pay a premium for their foodto have some of their food produced in a way different from that used in mainstream agriculture.
I was in horticulture before I came into Parliament. I understand what it is like to work in the non-subsidised sector of agriculture and what it is like to have to respond to consumer demand. I understand what it means to undertake research and development in new crops without subsidy. I know that it can be done because, although our horticulture is now somewhat smaller than it was, it has survived. We are now seeing it fight back to retake, with better product such as vine-ripened tomatoes, markets that would formerly have gone to the Dutch competition.
It can be done, and I see parallels between that and the organic movement. To a degree, the whole debate has had an unstated sub-plot. We have been talking about the arable sector, which would benefit from the grants that are available, because it comes under IACSthe integrated arable control system. Likewise, livestock
A number of Government responses talk about the English rural development plan, particularly in the context of marketing. In the light of the huge demands that will be placed on the resources available for improvements in areas such as co-operation and marketing, and considering the vast array of outputs from UK agriculture, does the Minister think there will be enough left to sustain and develop, and to meet all the objectives that right hon. and hon. Members who have so far contributed to the debate suggested should apply to organic production?
What are our objectives? The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford made several claims about the benefits of organic production. However, when considering the health attributes of organic food, one question that begs an answer is whether it would be better for people to consume, regardless of their source, more fruit, salad and vegetables every day rather than to press on saying that some of those attributes can be achieved only if the products are organic. When I walk into my local branch of Tesco, I wonder whether everything is about to have an organic regimeeven organic boot polishbecause of the company's desire to achieve more choice in its catalogue.
In fairness to them, the much vilified supermarkets have expanded the market; they have pushed on. In our report, we mention the evidence of the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operativeOMSCothe collective organisation that deals with the marketing of milk. In that context, Sainsbury's has tried to put a floor in the market by guaranteeing the price. The question of premiums is important because, in those products in which it is difficult to be fully subsidised, making the transition to organic farming is difficult. When dealing with the market for objectives, the Government's response includes the comment that we should be careful about not having too much over-supply in a sector.
The points that have been made so far about farming enterprises having a business plan are important. It is no use farmers rushing into organics, thinking that it is the failsafe way to cope with falling agricultural prices, only to find that it was fool's gold, that premiums have collapsed, that supermarkets have dragged in products from places with lower costs and that, bing-bang, the market has gone and they are back where they started. If anything, the premiums are illusory. One bit of information that we acquiredit was not in our evidencewas the view of some producers that the premiums represent the prices of five years ago. Producers in all sectors were complaining then that the prices were not enough. For commercial reasons, people must be careful when making the move to organic production.
We have heard of some important environmental attributes of organic farming. I have an allotment; it is almost organic, but when those nasty bugs start chewing away at my brassicas, I feel that I have to use the bug gun. However, I am now busy picking off the tops of my broad beans to ensure that I do not have to spray them for black fly this year, and I dig in my organic farm manure. The exercise is good for me, and I feel very virtuous doing it, but it makes me realise how narrow is the dividing line between having and not having an entirely organic farm.
I have a pretty good environmental regime on my 51 ft by 21 ft plot, but I realise that if the bulk of the populationof this country and othersare to achieve a regular maintained supply of food at an affordable price, they will still be dependent on mainstream agricultural production. We should not always do ourselves down. In the days of ignorance and DDT, we did a lot of damage, but we have learned from that and it has been getting better. For example, minimisation techniques in pesticides and herbicides make them too expensive to chuck on as if they cost only tuppence a tonne. People are now learning to manage their growing regimes in a much better way.
Successful agriculture entails having enough money to be properly aware of broader environmental responsibilities. What are the Government's environmental objectives? Where do they want to see the greatest gains? If the Minister can answer those questions, we shall be able to argue about the strategy needed to achieve those gains. The Helen Browning farm shows that organic farming can make a great contributionfor example, in the context of biodiversitybut so can others, such as the CWS farm, which has integrated good stewardship of the land and of the adjoining landscape features with crop management. Horses for courses is a useful expression in that context. We should not regard organic produce as good and everything else as bad. If handled properly, everything can contribute.
My next point is on consumer confidence. Other hon. Members who have spoken, including the Chairman in his opening remarks, said that the fact that BSE was followed by foot and mouth was quite properly bound to make people question how their food was produced. The less intensive regime with more attention to detail that underpins much organic production has plenty to commend it. It enables consumers to know where their food comes from and about techniques of production. Such intimacy with the food chain does not lend itself easily to a supermarket. If someone asks a shelf stacker where a product comes from, he will find considerable ignorance. Much work must be done to educate the public to ask the right questions about what food they should buy with confidence.
I got into deep trouble last Christmas when I saw a large container of organic milk in my fridge at home. It belonged to the wife of my brother-in-law. I was feeling bolshie at the time, so I asked the dear lady, Narissa, why she had bought it. She replied that it had no chemicals in it and talked about its production. I should add that my wife remonstrated with me for being overly aggressive in our argument about the organic regime. Narissa is a lovely person, and I shall have to be careful in case she reads the report of our debate. She had
In fact, the organic regime allows an organic cow to be given two prophylactics if it is in difficulty, as the evidence shows. Why two, rather than three or one? It is an interesting question, and there are other such questions about definitions and people's exact understanding of what organic means. It does not mean without chemical substances, but it may mean no synthetic chemicals. We must try to educate people about the fact that organic production techniques are often underpinned by a philosophy, but that it may not be a common philosophy. The hon. Member for Stroud talked about different standards. All seven different accreditation bodies come to the definition of "organic" from different standpoints. The majority will pray in aid the Soil Association, but some think other definitions better. Around the world, the different definitions multiply, which provides some interesting questions.
When I went to Ashford for the Horticulture Research International conference on fruit, I learned that chemicals that we do not allow can be used on fruit crops in Germany. There are other such examples. There must be greater honesty and openness, and I back the finding in the report on beefing up the resources of UKROFS, the accreditation body, so that it can do its job.
I am conscious that there will be a Division in the House in a few minutes, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. I fully associate myself with the findings of the report on the subject. It is fascinating to ask the difficult questions about what organic means and how organic production is implemented. I strongly support developing the movement, but at the pace that the marketplace wants to absorb the product. Let us be aware that there is no battle between a good regime and a bad regime, but that organic production has a following that we should try to encourage.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I shall be brief. I have a few points, especially on organic standards. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and other hon. Members mentioned the confusion between the various organic standards. It has been said that we can be reasonably certain of standards, at least across the European Union. I draw attention, however, to paragraph 57, which deals with EU livestock standards. Tesco recently found itself in some difficulty particularly because of the EU pork standards. It demonstrates that organic standards that are acceptable in other parts of Europe are not necessarily acceptable in the United Kingdom.
Other examples include organic eggs that came from battery birds raised on organic feed. We in the UK would not usually recognise those eggs as organic, but they are accepted as such elsewhere. In the United States, an attempt was made to change organic standards to encompass genetically modified food. Such a change would be unacceptable to most people in this country. We must therefore be careful when we talk about organic standards worldwide. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said that the standards should be the same for Venezuela, Mexico
We already have a problem with international marketing. When I first started buying organic food some years ago, I could buy a tin of baked beans with the Soil Association symbol on it, which assured consumers that it complied with organic standards. Now, when we now go into supermarkets, we see numerous
Mr. Weir : Before the Division, I said that, at one time, one could be assured of organic quality by buying products marked with the Soil Association symbol. Now, supermarkets sell a wide range of organic goods that are labelled with the stamps of different regimes. It is difficult for consumers to know what is truly organic and what standards apply to the products that they buy. As pointed out in paragraph 42 of the report, even within the UK, there are seven or more different certification authorities under the Register of Organic Food Standards. We must guard against a dilution of standards for organic produce if we are to keep consumer confidence high and boost the organic sector.
The right hon. Member for Fylde made a good point: at present, those who buy organic products tend to belong to a niche group. If organic agriculture is to increase, the challenge is to expand sales to the bulk of the population. However, we must accept that there will be a major cost if we take that route. If we are to tackle food poverty, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to, the increased cost of organic produce will affect the budget of almost every Government Department and, if we do not accept that there will be an increased cost, farmers might be in danger of trading one financial nightmare for another. They will be under the same pressure to provide organic food as they are now to provide conventional food, and that would leave farmers in the same position; it would bring agriculture no further forward.
We should consider a two-stage process. We should move toward organics, but, as an intermediate stage, we should promote a better form of conventional agriculture and encourage farmers to cut back on the use of chemicals. The supermarkets, which are much vilified in the debate, can play a part in that; for example, I note that the Co-operative supermarkets have said that they want reduced residue levels in the food that they sell. I wish to put in a quick plug for early-day motion 82 on the subject. Supermarkets can help without moving totally into organic produce, which was such a disaster for Iceland. There is a middle way that will take farming forward without immediately committing all farmers to the organics path, which would be completely unsustainable and would only substitute one disaster for another.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I congratulate the Committee on its comprehensive report, which is also a very good read. I hope that it will have a wider circulation than other, similar reports, which are not read by as many people as they should be.
Organic farming has come a long way in the past 20 or so years. At that time, I worked for an organisation called Dartington, near Totnes. It was the centre of an alternative lifestyle, which included alternative medicines, education and so on. Organic farming was then considered a strange alternative activity. A restaurant that opened at Dartington, which introduced organic food to the restaurant trade, perpetuated that idea by calling itself Cranks.
Various food scares helped to encourage organic farming, but there was a false start about five years ago, after BSE, when in spite of the demand for organic products they were not promoted and marketed by the supermarkets, which bought the food but shoved it into a relatively small corner of their operation. Organic food was expensive and not attractively presented, and after a few months the supermarkets said that there was no market for it. Fortunately, in more recent times, that has begun to change, and the supermarkets have responded accordingly.
Although the market is growing, there are not a significant number of well-informed, educated consumers. Many people buy organic food because they believe that it has certain properties, which it probably does not have. They take an emotional decision to buy organic food, perhaps for their children or because it is fashionable and they think that it is the right thing to do. Therein lies a danger, because those are thin reasons to purchase such products. A growing market needs to be much more educated and informed. Consumers need to be aware of what they are buying.
Although not necessarily science-based, it must be taken that organic farming offers some public good in respect of the environment and of human and animal health. We need to put that over in a much more realistic and easily understood way, because if the consumer is well informed about organic food and well motivated to purchase it the market will continue to grow.
I hope that the report, our debates on the subject and subsequent Government policy and strategies will help to accelerate the sector's momentum so that with maturity it develops on a solid basis and becomes a serious, although not necessarily huge, part of agriculture and food production.
I agree with much of the report and with what hon. Members have said. The big, magical figure of 70 to 75 per cent. of organic products coming from abroad is often quoted, but as a considerable amount of organic fruit cannot be grown here, it would be more helpful to have figures that show what could genuinely be grown in this country as a substitute for the imported food.
Supermarkets are part of the solution rather than the problem. They need to be brought on board in a much clearer and more concise way, especially in respect of the branding and labelling of information. There is a problem with certain words and I shall use the word "quality" as an illustration. Obviously, there has been a big debate on that issue. Supermarkets often use the term to refer to colour, shape, shelf life or
Quality can have two entirely different meanings. We must ensure that consumers get what they understand to be quality produce, not what supermarkets want to impose on them. Shelf life and colour are advantages for supermarkets rather than what consumers want. I hope that we can begin to have a debate about the quality of food that involves education, because our children should grow up with an understanding of food quality, taste and so on.
In addition, supermarkets must not monopolise or dominate the market. For example, they already buy all the grade 1 fruit that they can, allowing very little to be available in other outlets. The supermarkets may not sell all that fruit, but they deny others the opportunity to compete in the market because they cannot physically buy the produce. We must not let that happen in the organic sector. Supermarkets must not become so powerful that they can scoop up all the organic produce, decide what they will sell and even throw away quite a lot of it. We must ensure that local outlets, box schemes and the other ways in which people can access and buy organic produce are preserved, protected and enhanced. Local markets must be strengthened to enable them to sell not only local organic produce, but organic produce generally.
I certainly support the idea of an organic stewardship scheme to create a more level playing field in respect of support, but it must be based on getting established public goods, as with other stewardship campaigns. That might be a little more difficult, and we need to consider how we can proceed. That is linked to the old chestnut of not gold-plating regulations from Europe. As our organic farmers move into the sector, we must ensure that they are not disadvantaged in any way, including by our Government's imposing increased costs and hurdles on them. We must ensure that our farmers have a good opportunity to compete, which relates partly to certification. Organic produce can be grown in slightly different circumstances abroad, perhaps at lower cost. We need an agreed certification system, which will create a level playing field.
Various hon. Members have referred to increased research into the sector, which I very much support. It is a question not so much of amount as of how the research is conducted. I well remember a considerable number of MAFF research centres in my part of the world, the south-west, virtually all of which have closed down. The centre that was very close to where I live is now a major manufacturer of pasties, mainly because it had a wonderfully large facility that could create a huge heat or go right down to the minus scale. It was an amazing facility used mainly for testing seeds.
That has now all gone, but we must recognise that independent research is becoming increasingly important. Conflicting research material affects too many aspects of Government policy, which confuses the general public and the consumer. It applies to economics, where different accountancy firms or universities may reach vastly different conclusions
It is easy to become cynical because if a sponsor offers a large sum of money to produce a report, it is often expected that it would broadly reinforce whatever the sponsor wants to prove. That undermines public confidence in the integrity of so-called independent reports. We must return to a genuinely independent research tradition undertaken and funded directly by the Government. Far too many commercial pressures are placed on research institutions to produce the right results. Cost hypothecation occurred under the previous Conservative Government, according to which industry should cover the cost of its own research and regulation. That is all right up to a point, but when it starts to become polluted by commercial bias, the integrity and value of the research is undermined.
We need education and training if we want consumers to be informed. Organic farming is not for everyone. It demands a high standard of farming. We must devote the time and effort necessary to ensure that those entering agriculture have the requisite training to operate in the marketplace. Otherwise we shall always be susceptible to imports.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I, too, congratulate the Chairman and the members of the Agriculture Committee on an excellent report. We are pressed for time, with important developments taking place elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster, so I shall be extremely brief.
The report is excellent on more than one count, as it seems to have satisfied all the various parties interested in this important issue. We congratulate the Government on what they have achieved so far and we welcome the various aid schemes. The first organic aid scheme was initiated by the previous Government and continued, as the organic farming scheme, by the present Government. They may have been bounced into reopening the scheme, but we welcome it nevertheless. Such has been its attraction since the launch in January that by May the farming community had already taken up two thirds of the earmarked £13 million.
The expansion of interest among those in the agricultural sector has been matched by an expansion in the market. Organic production and marketing has increased all over the world. Within the European Union the likely demand for organic products far exceeds the supply of land. Within the United Kingdom organic farming has continued to increase, at a rate of about 25 per cent. per annum since the 1990s. The growth in demand is likely to continue to increase rapidly over the next five years. According to Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, its sales of organic food will quadruple and be worth approximately £1 billion a year by 2005. Its consumer research also suggests that one in four households now try organic products, mainly because of concerns about children's health.
"We have seen no evidence to enable us to state unequivocally that any of these claims are always and invariably true." That point was made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).
Mr. Moss : I do not dispute that point. I am simply endorsing the view expressed in the report about some of the claims that are made. I am convinced that there are environmental benefits from organic farming, but it must be right to exercise a little caution.
Value for money is important. Despite pledging to reduce the price of organic produce, many of the supermarkets acknowledge that organic goods will continue to be more expensive, as they say it costs farmers more to produce organic food. Despite the concerns that I have expressed, the statistics show that the market is increasing. However, the majority of organic produce sold in our shops is imported. The figure is about 70 per cent. and rising according to the Soil Association. Sir John Krebs argues that the dominance of imports in the organic market raises further doubts over claims of its advantages, simply because we do not have the checks on the quality of that food and its production before it is imported.
The National Farmers Union recently warned that imports would continue to supply the bulk of the UK organic market unless significant changes were made to the support offered to organic farmers in Britain. According to the NFU, in spite of the rising demand for organic food, the number of UK farmers applying to convert is levelling off or even falling after several years of steady growth. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that. In the light of that decline in conversion rates, the NFU persistently calls for further conversion support for UK farmers.
It was notable that the Committee could not unequivocally state that the many claims regarding organic farming are true. Despite that caution, the Committee concluded, and I agree, that the opportunity for agriculture is enormous. It found that it is vital that the organic sector develops it ability to market its products effectively so that it appeals not to sentiment but to proven benefits.
The thrust of the recommendations was towards marketing, not production support. We fully support the Committee's recommendation that the Government encourage the further development of local marketing schemes such as farmers marketsI mention Stroud in that regard, because it is always mentioned in such debatesand box schemes. The Committee recommended that the Government work with those responsible for the promotion of organic production to ensure that rural funds are channelled into the development of supply partnerships and farmer-controlled co-operatives. We also support the Committee's call to the Government to stimulate the development of new small abattoirs. We do not want to go down that road too far this afternoon, but it is as important an ingredient to the organic scheme of things as it is to our livestock farmers.
The Committee highlighted the problem of certification and common standards. We agree with the recommendation that the Government should encourage the effort of the organic certification bodies to co-operate more closely with each other, perhaps ultimately leading to some mergers. Seven bodies in the United Kingdom can certify organic products, of which the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards is just one. The Committee also advocates discussion between the farm assurance schemes and the organic sector so that common standards and protocols can be met. We believe that to be right. While the Committee did not advocate a single or exclusive scheme, its point about common protocols and standards is vital.
Consumers buy British organic produce because they believe it to be of the highest quality. The Government should work towards establishing an international standard, such as that of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements. After all, under British regulations, it takes two years for produce to be designated as organic. That is far stricter than the rules that apply in many other countries. Yet again, British producers seem to be operating on an unlevel playing field. If and when international standards are agreed to, they should be replicated for food labelling.
The point was made earlier that the CAP reforms and the move towards extensification should benefit organic farmers because of the less intensive and more environmentally sustainable methods that will come in their wake. However, those are medium-term rather than immediate benefits. The Opposition would go further than the Committee recommended on support. All European Union member states support farmers converting to organic methods and we believe that Britain should match the help afforded our continental counterparts. We would fund increased payments
We agree with the Committee's recommendations in paragraphs 31 to 34 on research and development. Research should be increased. The Government's agriculture and research development budget has been skewed by their over-hasty efforts to endorse the movement to genetic modification. We would redirect £120 million of the agricultural research and development budget, to augment the £2.1 million that is currently spent on research and development for organic farming. If one listens to farmers who have attempted to join the organic farming scheme, one finds that there have been hiccups and mismanagement. Far too often, farmers spend money to start the conversion process, only to learn that funding has run out. The Government need to reform the system of conversion support, to guarantee support to suitably qualified farmers before they embark on conversion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : We have had an interesting debate, and I appreciate the way in which it was introduced by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). The Select Committee's report was challenging, thoughtful and pragmatic. It reflected the views of those who made representations, and we responded to the challenges in our response to the report.
I am pleased to participate in the debate, in which all speakers agreed that we should encourage development of the organic sector. There is no disagreement between the Government, the Committee and those who participated in the debate. The issue is how to encourage that development and apply the policies.
The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) rightly referred to the popularity of the organic sector and its enormous expansion, which hon. Members may be interested to know is greater in the United Kingdom than elsewhere in Europe. We should recognise that, but we cannot ignore the way in which foot and mouth disease has affected the organic sector.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the trend in conversion, which has been downwards, but that is almost entirely due to the disruption caused by foot and mouth disease. There has been a problem with getting people onto farms and with compliance with standards for the production of organic livestock. However, the regulatory bodythe United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standardshas provided mechanisms to cover the worst effects on affected farmers. Even with the current problems facing agriculture, in the current year to July, 687 farmers have converted, at a cost of £8.7 million, and we have funds available for more conversions this year.
UKROFS is undergoing its five-yearly review, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said. The review is close to completion and I expect to receive it shortly. I am sure that it will examine some of the issues that he raised. It is important to achieve high quality of service delivery and to make services more responsive to the needs of those who use them. The review does not directly address the shape of the organic sector, so it does not, for example, consider how individual operators should be certified. However, that matter was raised during the debate and we must consider it. The review considers how regulation of the sector is best dealt with, how the interface with European standards is best handled and how advice to Ministers and Departments is best delivered. The answers to those questions will set the framework in which the organic sector operates in future, so it is important to get that right, and the Agriculture Committee examined that closely.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who referred to standards: it is important in the European context to ensure that people understand them. We must also discuss the contribution of organic farming and how to deliver it. Some hon. Members suggested that one way might be to set targets for conversion of land to organic farming or the production of organic food. Targets have a role and can be useful, but we must think carefully about their effects, particularly if they are arbitrary and no one quite knows whether they are desirable or achievable. There have been debates on targets in the organic sector, and there are differing views there about their value and whether they can have a detrimental effect on prices and the strength of the market. I think that the Select Committee's conclusions on targets are correct.
I agree that there is a need for a strategy. We agreed at the Copenhagen conference, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned, to sign the declaration on organic standards. Work is taking place on that: meetings are being held on developing an EU-wide strategy. We are considering how to put together an organic farming strategy.
That strategy might be influenced by our manifesto commitment to set up an independent policy commission on achieving the aim of a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and foods sector within a thriving rural economy. I am sure that that commission will examine a whole range of issues, including organic farming. That will be useful in influencing the debate on how we develop and shape a strategy.
The Agriculture Committee's report provided an important contribution to the debate, especially as we approach the mid-term evaluation of the English rural development programme, which will take place in 2003. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for South-East Cornwall and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), spoke about the role of an organic stewardship scheme. The Government do not rule out the possibility of such a scheme, which has much stronger justification than, for example, on-going maintenance payments of the kind provided by some European countries. However, many people in the
An organic stewardship scheme would have to deliver environmental benefits. It could not be a scheme to which people could simply sign up and get money for nothing. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford said that organic farming can deliver environmental benefits, and I accept that. Much independent research demonstrates that, and I think that organic farming lends itself to organic stewardship schemes, but there are difficulties, for example with the horticultural sector, as the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) rightly said. The horticultural sector is unsupported. It is very adaptable and has a long record of innovation, but in terms of organic development, it is discriminated against by the nature of subsidies. They do not help it towards organic conversion. We should think about that, but the answer probably lies in general reform of the common agricultural policy, which is one of the Government's objectives.
Mr. Drew : I want to tease out the Minister's meaning. I understand completely that horticulture is outside the subsidy regime, but is he saying that we might be able to renegotiate the basis on which support is given? Could we make progress, for example, through using environmental schemes that already exist?
Mr. Morley : One advantage of the way in which we have been developing the countryside stewardship scheme is that it can be targeted at different outcomes and objectives. Horticulture is quite a challenging sector in terms of environmental benefits. It competes with other food sectors that receive production subsidies, which means that making choices is difficult for it. If we have CAP reform, a more unified market opportunity might make things easier for it. That is all I was saying.
Research and development is an important subject, and some confused issues surround it. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, who talked about redirecting the research and development budget into the organic sector, seems to misunderstand the budget's role. It is true that we have doubled the budget for organic R and D, and I am very pleased about that. However, at present 25 per cent. of our R and D budget is committed to agri-environmental research, from which the organic sector will receive benefits. Moreover, research into projects such as biological control, pest and disease forecasting, animal health and welfare, farm waste management, plant nutrition and conservation is funded by our general R and D budget, from which the organic sector receives considerable benefits.
It is sometimes said that the biotech sector gets more funding than the organic sector, but even that is misleading. Biological pest control, for example, which is very important to organic management, is included under the heading of biotech. People get confused when they look at budgets in terms of headings. In fact, we are giving broad-based benefits to the whole agricultural sector. Such benefits go beyond the allocation of particular budgets. We are taking such efforts further. We are funding current projects to discover how to apply some of the conventional sector R and D to the
Joan Ruddock : I hear clearly what my hon. Friend says, but why, then, does the organic sector feel that the Government are not funding necessary research into organics? Is he open to, or has he received, submissions from the sector about research that the Government are not currently prepared to fund in any of the ways that he has described?
Mr. Morley : I am sure that we have received submissions, although I have not seen any detailed ones myself. As with every other sector, we are always open to suggestions and ideas on how budgets are applied. Of course, the organic sector's point is that it would like more money to be spent on it. That is not an unusual requestit is made by all the sectors with which we deal.
In keeping with the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford, we accept the Committee's recommendation that consumers be given sound information on which to base judgments on what to buy. Part of our R and D is based on that principle. We also accept that the Committee is asking for organic and conventional agriculture to be seen as interdependent. Indeed, the way in which we apply R and D is an example of that interdependency. We strongly support the view that the agricultural sector needs to be seen in the round, and that each part of it should contribute to diversity of practice and to consumer choice. We further accept that the issue of sustainabilityon which the organic sector places great emphasis, of courseis at the heart of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned imports, and I accept what he says. Of course, we are stronger in some food productseggs, meat and milk, for examplethan in others. It is in respect of fruit and veg and cereals that a lot of work needs to be done.
I also accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said about our former colleague, George Turner, who made a very significant contribution to the Committee and to agriculture in general. I hope that that is recognised.
The right hon. Member for Fylde raised the issue of horticulture, with which I have dealt. He also asked about environmental objectives. One agriculture objective that we have built in, and which we have made very clear, is our public service agreement target for increasing the number of farmland birds.
The hon. Member for Angus referred to standards and validation, on which I have touched, and they are important issues. A whole range of organisations are involved in providing standards. There is nothing wrong with having such a range, but given that various quality assurance schemes and types of labelling exist these days, there might be an argument for considering some consolidation over time. We understand the point that was made, and I am sure that changesperhaps resulting from the UKROFS reviewwill occur that might encourage such consolidation.