HC Deb 22 July 1953 vol 518 cc547-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

11.34 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

After things ancient I wish to turn to something extremely modern. I make no apology for raising the technical matter of artificial insemination of cattle, the new deep freeze technique being perfected now at Cambridge, and the export and import of cattle semen. If we wish to improve our races of cattle, improve the export of livestock, and maintain this country's somewhat impaired position as the stud farm of the world, these matters have to be given urgent and serious consideration.

Artificial insemination offers, and has offered, fascinating possibilities. The miracle of creation destined for two animals can, by the magic of science, be transmitted so as to bring the principle of selected heredity to the rescue of thousands imprisoned by their environment. This triumphant use by man of the gene and chromosome can be of the greatest benefit.

But this magic also has its dangers. The best can be the enemy of the good. There seems to be a sort of Gresham's Law in reverse that good blood drives out bad or indifferent and thus reduces blood lines and the possibility of variation and selection. So far, this has been largely a theoretical conflict. Through the researches at Cambridge it has become a matter of urgency and importance. We are seeing a conflict arising between the user and consumer of bulls as breeding animals.

I speak as one who has an interest in a small way in both sides of the industry, as an exporter of cattle and in the production of pedigree cattle. From the fact that I have these two conflicting interests I may be able to throw a little more light on these complex problems facing the whole animal husbandry industry of this country.

Until now this possible conflict of artificial insemination has to some extent been hidden by the limitations of present use. But, recently, there has arisen this new and revolutionary technique of a most far-reaching kind by which it is possible to preserve the semen not for a few days but for a matter of at least 15 months, it may be for 15 years and for all we know for 150 years and more. At the same time it is possible for the semen to be further diluted and, therefore, make it more effective in its general action.

This technique, which is in the process of perfection around Cambridge by the Agricultural Research Council and those working with them, undoubtedly must have far-reaching results. At the same time the Government have to consider the Oaksey Report, published in 1952, and on which they have not yet come to any decision—the Report advocating the control of the export and import of cattle semen into this country. I believe that we are at a stage where the Government must undertake a more general review of the whole question of artificial insemination; not only the Oaksey Report, not only this new development, but also the whole issue of how the lines of breeding in this country are best to be preserved.

Artificial insemination has undoubtedly provided a great benefit. A.I. centres have done much good by up-grading the poorer cattle and providing the use of bulls far superior to those available naturally to the small farmer. But we must consider the effect of this new technique. Until now, artificial insemination has been limited by the fact of the full efficient use by domestic cows of the bull only once in three weeks, while, of course, the semen last only for a comparatively short period.

As farmers whose cows are served in the winter are aware, that period is much reduced in the winter months. There has to be a conjunction, which is sometimes difficult to effect merely from the point of view of timing, between the service of the bull and the time when the cow is herself ready for service. This will all be overcome by the new technique. The technique is extremly simple in bringing the temperature of the semen from minus 69 degrees to that of blood temperature. It means that in the future the farmer will not be faced with this old problem.

Those advantages are obviously of importance, and I wish to point out a few more of the advantages which this new technique makes available. As regards foot-and-mouth disease, the advantage will be considerable. Banks of semen can be built up which will last in deepfreezing conditions for a long period, and which can definitely be declared clear of any infection. The same, of course, will apply to certain other diseases which, as hon. Members know, have a considerable effect on milk herds.

It will have obvious advantages as regards quarantine and the export of blood. It will mean that it will be possible, when there is a complete embargo, to send blood in the form of semen overseas. It offers great possibilities for use in tropical areas where for technical reasons it would be difficult to maintain British livestock, where British development would be of great value and cannot otherwise be used.

It will also mean that reserves of semen can be built up so that the problem of whether a bull is proven or not can be overcome. It will mean that a far wider choice of strains can be made by the farmer than is available to him today. It will mean that historical breeding can be carried out, using the blood of bulls which have long been dead. There is no reason to believe that it will not be possible to miss a generation, if need be, and throw back by artificial means to two or three generations behind the contemporary generation.

These advantages are clear, but so are some of the dangers, and it is these dangers that necessitate control. Therefore, the Minister and his Department should look at this question with the utmost seriousness. There is the obvious danger of encouraging the tendency of too close inbreeding, or over-breeding. Even today, with artificial insemination used in its present technique—which is not the fully developed technique—the fact that 4,000 cows can be served by one bull in one year is in itself a point which must eventually have a bad effect on our stock.

At the moment, the farmer going to an A.I. centre is limited in his choice of bull by the time factor of a week or so, to which I have already referred. Under the new dispensation, every farmer will be able to apply for the best bull, and the best may be the enemy of the good. The variation which is so essential to constant improvement may be limited, blood lines will be reduced and the improvement of stock retarded or even adversely affected.

We have seen in the United States how dangerous is fashion in inbreeding. We have seen certain signs of dwarfism in at least two of the American breeds, the Aberdeen Angus and the Hereford. These are real dangers, and allied to these, of course, is the danger of the sudden appearance of hidden recesses where mass breeding is undertaken by these new methods.

I believe that these are real dangers, but I believe that they can be taken care of by various forms of control. They would have a bad and deleterious effect upon the whole of the livestock industry, especially at what I might call the receiving end, the Milk Marketing Board and the so-called producer of meat and milk.

There is another and more immediate problem posed to the producer of pedigree livestock. It is a clear and obvious one. The fundamental and effective excellence of Britain's cattle must depend upon the producer of pedigree livestock and not upon the Milk Marketing Board or the commercial producer. What will be the effect on the producer of pedigree bulls and cattle if a system is allowed to develop uncontrolled, which can make every quantum of semen go much further by dilution, and can substitute the export of a flask worth a few pounds, or even shillings, for the export of a bull worth thousands of pounds?

It will mean the small man will no longer be able to find his market. It will mean a great variety and combination of dangers, which will not be good. Markets may increase and flasks of semen be treated as samples or advertisements. There is evidence in the new Australian market for American Jersey cattle that such export of semen may act as an advertisement. I am sure that if this technique had been available 30 years ago we should have retained our position as the predominant leader of bloodstock throughout the world.

I know that it is useless to talk now of adopting the Canute or Bourbon-like attitude to a matter which has become one of fact. The ease with which this new technique can be carried out is really surprising. It depends chiefly on the presence of dry ice nitrogen to produce a substance commonly used in the milk trade—carbon dioxide in frozen form or nitrogen in liquid form. A firm, with which I am connected, has already sent an export to the East to see the possibilities of artificial insemination.

We have to accept facts as they are, and I believe we have to see that a system is devised, by which the best can be achieved for the people whom we serve and for our own internal and external cattle industry. I believe that the first thing that should be done, and done quickly, is that there should be consultations by the Ministry with all sides of the industry, namely, the commercial producers, the exporters, and those actually producing pedigree livestock.

I believe that there have been delays in this matter, delays which, at first sight, may seem difficult to understand. Personally, I believe it is a subject of such delicacy that these delays may be merited, provided we reach the right answer. I suggest to the Minister one or two matters which come out clearly from the problem. The first thing that needs to be done—this question must be treated equally in importance as it affects the home and export markets—is to see that the hands of the Minister's husbandry officers are strengthened.

In many countries there is linked with the Ministry of Agriculture a department of livestock. Greater strength could be given to that department. People inside the Ministry feel that this department does not carry the weight that it should. It could do something to limit the unlimited use of bulls by the Milk Marketing Board, and it is essential that the breed societies should be consulted in regard to export of semen.

A possible solution of this difficulty—I cannot advocate it as a final one—is the formation of a non-profit making body consisting of the Ministry, the breed societies, and the Milk Marketing Board, and associated with it the animal genetic sections of the Agricultural Research Council, under an independent chairman. That sort of organisation could cope with the question of the export and import of semen. To stand back and say, "This cannot be done," will be completely out of line with the times.

The Minister is slightly—I will not say ill-informed—more dubious than he should be about how soon this defreezing is to take place on a mass scale throughout the country. I have talked with the Agricultural Research Council, I went down to their laboratories in Cambridge, and I have been instrumental in sending one of their experts out to look into this system in other parts of the world. We should strengthen the hand of the Minister to take the necessary decisions, so that British agriculture can give the best service to its customers here and abroad, and see that the excellence of our cattle is not destroyed. What system is to be devised is up to the Minister. I have had pleasure in raising this question, believing it is of the utmost importance to the livestock industry.

11.53 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. H. Fraser) on raising this very important and interesting subject, and on his most interesting speech. He has called attention to the great value that may come from the development which we may expect following the invention of the deep-freezing technique, and to the dangers that may arise from it. I assure my hon. Friend that we have been carefully studying these matters as well. My right hon. Friend the Minister has, under the Act of 1943, a specific statutory duty to be responsible for the use of artificial insemination, and in this context, on the question of export, he has been assisted by the Report of the Oaksey Committee. He has already said in the House that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland have been much impressed by the recommendations of that Report.

However, I have to say immediately that I am not able to say what will be the decisions of my right hon. Friend on this Report. He has decided that it was in the best interests of the livestock industry to invite the opinions of the various leading agricultural bodies and breed societies on the recommendations of the Oaksey Report. This is exactly what my hon. Friend has suggested he should do. It is taking some time for these various bodies to reach their conclusions and communicate with my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Scotland. We have not yet received all of them.

But I think it is perhaps sufficient to say now, as indeed everyone outside the House and many in the House know, that there is a deep division of opinion upon it. There are those who feel that to allow the export of deep-frozen semen is the right thing to do because, as my hon. Friend has said, it is a trade which is coming anyhow, and, as he puts it, we would simply be Canute-like if we denied it and prevented it developing here. Then there are others who say with equal cogency—and these particularly include the beef breed societies—that to allow it will perhaps destroy the living of many pedigree beef breeders.

Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but will he be able to get the views of all the breed societies, particularly the beef breeders, before he comes to a conclusion, because I believe that there is considerable anxiety on the subject?

Mr. Nugent

I have just said that they have been invited to give their opinion. If they do not do so, it will be their fault. They were asked last February, and so no one can say that my right hon. Friend has not been patient and has not given them plenty of time. We are hoping that those who have not given their opinions will now do so. My right hon. Friend hopes that he will then be able to announce his decision in the course of the next month or two. It is undoubtedly urgent that the decision should be announced. I hope that the delay will not continue.

Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

May we assume that these discussions and consultations, and the announcement when it comes, will be in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Scotland, so that they will be for the United Kingdom?

Mr. Nugent

I am sorry if I did not make that clear. I think that was exactly what I said. We are waiting so that this can be a concerted decision, and we are fully aware of the necessity that it should be such. I also give the assurance that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone sought, that when my right hon. Friend comes to make his decision he will deal with one of the points which have been discussed at some length, whether the export of semen, if such is allowed, shall be confined to bulls standing at A.I. centres only. That is a point which we have very much in mind.

We have been giving considerable thought to the major point raised by my hon. Friend. The influence of artificial insemination on our livestock, and our cattle in particular, is, of course, already making itself felt in a very significant manner, and I think—and I am sure the House will feel—that my hon. Friend's remarks were both interesting and timely. To date, in the last 10 or 12 years the development of artificial insemination in this country has been wholly beneficial. It has been based on a great variety of breeding strains, and, therefore, the dangers that he rightly, in my view, adumbrated have not occurred. The dangers lie in the future.

I think, however, that there is no doubt that the influence of artificial insemination will steadily increase. Already something like a third of our cows—1 million—are annually inseminated, and, of course, the direct benefit from that in higher milk yields has been most remarkable. Year by year now we see the average yield per cow going up, and I have no doubt at all that the main influence in that significant and most welcome improvement in average milk yield is undoubtedly artificial insemination—the replacement of the old, and in many cases, scrub bulls that used to serve the small herds up and down the country, by the high-grade bull from the artificial insemination centre.

That has produced a better cow in the first generation, and a better one still in the next generation. So, progressively, we are seeing our dairy herds in particular improving. I quite agree with my hon. Friend, especially with the development of this deep-freeze technique, which is, incidentally, a great credit to our scientists—in this matter we have led the world—that that in itself will make it possible to intensify the use of selected bulls.

For how long we shall be able to keep the semen active no one can yet say. All we can say is that it is being successfully kept active for a period of 12 to 15 months, but it may very well be, as my hon. Friend said, that it will be kept active for a very much longer period. And in this picture, both the selection and the management of bulls standing at A.I. centres will be of steadily increasing importance. It will be a very great problem to keep the right balance between providing what the farmer wants and avoiding continual services from the same bulls.

I think it worth while to point out the necessity to combine the right livestock management with the right commercial policy in the buying, because if the steadily increasing buying power of the artificial insemination centres tends to reduce the number of pedigree breeders that we have then they may find that they are ultimately killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

It is essential that their buying policy should be such that we shall retain in active and sound possession a sufficient number of pedigree herds in this country, so that we have the necessary variety of strains. Those are problems that my right hon. Friend's Advisory Committee on Artificial Insemination have begun to study. I cannot say we have by any means found a solution to them, but that body, under my noble Friend in another place, have begun to consider this very wide and difficult problem.

I can only assure my hon. Friend that we shall study this problem with the very greatest attention, and that both in taking the decision on the Oaksey Report, and in the general problem of the management of A.I., we shall bear in mind the wise words which he has uttered tonight. They will, I am sure, be of considerable value both in the House and in the farming world.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes past Twelve o'Clock, a.m.