HL Deb 02 February 1983 vol 438 cc810-80

3.11 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshierose to call attention to the impact of modern farming methods and financial pressures on the future of the land and the rural communities of the United Kingdom; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It relates to agriculture, which may be no surprise to your Lordships. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for withdrawing his Motion in order to discuss it along with mine. I know that he will have something extremely useful to say.

Agriculture—farming—has been very much in the news. Many people are interested in it and have strong views about it. Recently a number of books have been written about it, one by Richard Norton Taylor, a distinguished journalist, whose book rejoices in the name Whose Land Is It, Anyway? That is not perhaps calculated to enhance its sales among the members of the Country Landowners' Association. Nevertheless, the book is full of interesting views. Anything which causes one to think is very good. Therefore I commend this book to noble Lords, even though it may cause apoplexy in certain quarters. Another book, written by a member of another place, Mr. Body, is called Agriculture: the Triumph and the Shame. So far as I can see, Mr. Body has a number of interesting things to say. He is a direct descendant of "Featherbed" Evans.

At this stage I wish to discuss what is happening in agriculture and food production. We are at a most extraordinary stage; we have achieved surpluses of food within the European Economic Community. Food is available to everybody and we are disposing of the surpluses on the export market. That is a considerable achievement. I am certain that the people of Poland would welcome such a situation in their country instead of the appalling shortages which give rise to queues for up to three hours in order to do the household shopping.

This most incredible achievement is due to the technicians, scientists and farmers. In 20 years it has raised productivity in this country by 150 per cent. Consumers are able to buy their food for 21 per cent. of their weekly available wage instead of for 32 per cent. of their weekly available wage as was the case 10 years ago. This achievement is not wholly understood or appreciated in the country generally. The consumer still seems to think that the farmer is getting an enormous price for his products and is living in the lap of luxury while he, the consumer, is paying ever-increasing amounts for his food. But the opposite is the case. We must give enormous credit to the technical achievement which has produced this result.

If I may give another figure, home production has risen in the last 10 years from 66 per cent. of the food which we could grow in this country to 76 per cent. Had this increase been repeated throughout the country we should be in a very much better economic state than we are today. The common agricultural policy has, of course, cost money. It costs a total of £8,300 million, of which Britain pays about 20 per cent.

Having pointed to our farming achievements, today I want to look at what we are doing for the future of the land, by which I mean the fertility of the soil. We have plenty of examples of immense dangers. People of our age who campaigned in the Western Desert and came across evidence of the North African civilisations know that for many years North Africa was the granary of Rome. It is now a desert. And the deserts in Africa are growing. We know that the soil of the prairies of America is as nothing in fertility compared with what it was when it was first broken up after many thousands of years of grazing. We are aware of the dust bowls which were created there in the 1930s. We are also aware of the immense achievements of Chinese agriculture. China is able to feed its enormous population because the soil is cared for in a way which I wish could be emulated elsewhere.

We are aware of many other things which can happen. For example, when the potato was introduced into Europe it was thought that it would solve the problems of Ireland. The people of Ireland grew the potato in ever-increasing numbers until it was overdone. Along came disease and the most appalling famine. We know of the tremendous efforts which have been made in Britain to build up our soil in a climate which is not 100 per cent. favourable. Excellent work was done by our forbears. Aberdeenshire was described by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries as a blasted heath, unequalled in misery. Aberdeenshire, however, was made into one of the most fertile and productive parts of Britain. A great deal of work and thought was put into the care of the land. Over the years, this built up the fertility of the soil and left each successive generation better off.

Although the great high priests of modern farming have put up the yield of wheat from an average of two tonnes to three tonnes per acre and although some of them can grow nearly five tonnes of wheat per acre, the system has sprung from compulsions which I do not believe have done us any good. At one time, if you had high rents you had high farming. You had high farming because of a rotation system which improved and maintained the quality of the soil. Now there are pressures which force people to go for very high yields. I am talking of the cereal farmer. Again let me say how skilful the cereal farmers are. They have chosen to go for a system of monoculture and have had to back it up with an immense application of chemicals: sprays, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides—suicides! It goes on and on. They kill everything.

From one weekly edition of the magazine Animal Farming I have taken out the advertisements which relate to chemicals. Noble Lords can see that there are some 20 pages of advertisements. One of the advertisements says: Commando is now eating behind the enemy lines. Commando kills. What cereal weed could survive when the harrier strikes?". They are couched in a language which I doubt represents the right kind of attitude at the end of the day; I doubt it. The achievements are great, but when one gets inputs of anything up to £60 an acre in various chemical sprays, then I believe we should examine carefully what we are doing.

One of the great phrases in modern farming is, "You must get a good burn". To me that appears to be quite the wrong thinking, the burning of something like 6 million tonnes of straw—what is 1 million back or fore? That cannot be a good thing to do. Surely this should he incorporated into the soil, to add its goodness and build the humus instead of being burnt in order to dispose of the pests which the system of monoculture farming is bound to encourage. I know that biological control becomes impossible, but if one starts relying on sprays to cure diseases, the people around you who are farming in a different way may suffer.

I have a fertile farm based on stock and for years I scattered the good seed on the land and it was fed and watered by God's almighty hand, as the children's hymn says. I sprayed it lightly once with a herbicide, shut the gate and then harvested—and we achieved good harvests. But when people started to grow winter barley all around, all the diseases on earth arrived and I had to spray because the people around me were doing so. I am not saying that we must go backwards, but that we must look at what we are doing.

Are the Government really satisfied that the method of control is working as well as it should do? It is done by BASIS, which is the trade association. They are meticulous, and various headlines appear when they place sanctions on chemical firms which have broken the rules. I would like to go further and have us look at the much longer-term effects to see whether we can deal with this matter. Obviously one cannot go back in time. The fact is that this high input method of producing grain, which is going into surplus, is actually doing us harm.

Secondly, I want to look at the financial pressures. In this country at the turn of the century, 90 per cent. of the land was owned by estates and let to tenants; only about 10 per cent. of land was in the hands of owner occupiers. Today, something in the region of 60 per cent. of the land is in the hands of owner occupiers and only just over 30 per cent. let to tenants. The landlord-tenant system really did work rather well. It has done a tremendous amount to enable people to climb the farming ladder. But today the landlord-tenant system cannot survive as we have known it because it is under severe pressure in a whole wealth of ways—mainly because of Government legislation which practically forces the landlord to farm his own land if he is considering the capital value, or indeed is realising the true value of his land. He does not always want to do it and does not always do it very well, but he does it because of pressures. This Government should be looking at the question of making it a very reasonable matter to let land. I will not go further into this because I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, will be doing so. I am certain that it is practically impossible to climb the farming ladder at the moment. This state of affairs cannot be good for the health of the farming industry.

We have a new landlord coming into the business; the pension funds and insurance companies are buying land. I do not know whether we should do away with the dukes and substitute pension funds. Certainly my party has never spoken well of dukes; David Lloyd-George once described dukes as being more expensive than a battleship and just as dangerous. I am sorry that the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, is not in his place because, as a Scot, there is no question but that the Buccleuch estates have been a model of what one should have in a landlord-tenant association. Long before any Government scheme, for example, they were operating a lime subsidy which, shared between the landlord and the tenant, was good for both. The Government would do well to look at that today. I noticed the other day that since the lime subsidy was abolished the optimum use of lime has fallen by about 1 million tonnes below the desired figure.

One could look at many figures. It is interesting to look at one in particular. Farming is said to be prosperous because this year its net income has risen to exactly half of what it was in 1975. This is taking real figures, and it is not a very happy state. When one looks at farm overdrafts, and this is money borrowed only from banks, they stand at just on £4,500 million. The total contribution made by agriculture to the GDP is only £4,500 million. The total gross output is in the region of only £7,000 million. When one is borrowing nearly the whole of one's gross output, that cannot be a healthy figure.

The banks, in looking at the so-called total value, including land, and saying that it was a small proportion, were not being realistic. Money is being borrowed on good security but with no prospect of its ever being paid back. Interest rates have done an enormous amount of harm to agriculture in general—certainly in the case of the farmers of Denmark, who are going broke in very large numbers. According to the Danish Commissioner to whom I spoke the other d;ay, nearly all these cases are due to high interest payments on improvements they have made.

In these cases we have to look at our structure and at how things are progressing. We have a saying in Scotland, If you have poor land, you should plant factors because they thrive anywhere. The factors of today are replaced by the big estate agents. Among them are very confident people who know their job, and they do their job well. But is the job they are doing good for agriculture? Their job is to get the big customers. The big customers are the pension funds and insurance companies who know little about agriculture. They are looking for a safe bet for their money, and for a reasonable return combined with capital appreciation. The job of the big estate agents is to find the farms and to put them together. They are thinking only in terms of money and are competing with each other to get the business. Therefore they are pushing up the rents to an extent that a prudent landlord letting his own land and looking to the future would never do. It is that factor which drives people into monoculture and into the continuous production of cereals, which is actually making the best and cheapest use of money and shows the highest return on capital.

I think that we should look at the size of the farms. The tendency today is bound to drive towards bigger and bigger units. I do not think that the bigger units show any advantage. Certainly the figures from the north of Scotland and the east of Scotland college show that there is no advantage over 1,000 acres. In fact, they show that the chap who gets on best is the fellow doing well on 100 acres and that he is the fellow who will survive.

When we see large amounts of land taken into hand—eight big tractors and eight tractormen on 4,000 acres of good, arable land, which is the sort of thing one can see—then we are on to my third point, which is the point about the countryside itself. The countryside itself is again of great interest. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is down to speak, and he will no doubt be pushing a conservation point, which is of immense interest to many people who have a right to be interested in the land. But I think that when we look at conservation we should be thinking of the countryside and perhaps of conserving the people there more than the wildlife—at least that is my point of view and I am a conservationist as regards wildlife. But all of us know glens, Glen Esk, the back of Bonar Bridge and so on, where the population has fallen to an extent where it is not a viable population any more. We have to look at this as a problem, and one that is entirely different from the problem the CAP set out to cure.

In the days of Commissioner Hallstein the objective was to get people off the land and into factories in order to raise the general wealth of the population—the classic approach. It is a curious thing that that has been enormously successful in Europe. The working population in the country has fallen by 11 million people. That is a lot of people and, funnily enough, it is the exact size of the unemployment problem in the EEC today. I do not suggest for a moment that we can move all 11 million people back into the countryside. That is obviously impossible, but I suggest that we ought to look at the problem in an entirely different way and look at the social side as well as the productive side.

I think that if we do that we shall begin to regenerate the countryside. The only way one can regenerate it is by getting people back there. We should look on small farms with favour. We should have legislation that makes it more profitable to let farms in reasonably sized units than in big units. We should be looking to encourage all sorts of industry, small industry, in the countryside. Even if it loses money and costs a big subsidy it will be worth it at the end of the day.

We ourselves have 3½ million unemployed and I see in the Government White Paper on expenditure that they expect it to cost us £4,910 million in support, simply in cash paid out. I think we should spend such sums of money on the countryside, on the promotion of jobs for people living in the countryside to keep the place viable. We have made tremendous achievements, but I think that great dangers face us. In fact, it might be said that we are riding on the back of a tiger; we are riding it with great skill but we have no idea where that tiger is taking us. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for initiating what is a very wide-ranging debate this afternoon. The terms of his Motion quite correctly highlight a number of points which are of concern to all who have an interest in British agriculture—and to many who do not. I thought that it might be helpful if I were to give the Government's view at the beginning of the debate and then reply at the end of the debate, should I have the leave of the House, to any questions which any noble Lord may see fit to put. I thought that it might also be helpful if I were to give some general information on the state of British agriculture, which could act as a background to the debate.

It may seem trite to say so, but it is a fact that British agriculture is a very important national industry. Its net product—that is, its total output less the inputs and depreciation—was worth about £3,300 million in 1981—which is 28 per cent. more, in real terms, not in money terms. than it was in 1975. The figures for 1982 will be published shortly, but it is already clear that there has been a further increase mainly as a result of a good cereals harvest, to which the noble Lord referred.

One consequence of these figures is that our self-sufficiency has been increasing steadily, and we now produce, as the noble Lord said, some 60 per cent. of all our food needs. Of the temperate foodstuffs—that is those which we can grow ourselves—between 1975 and 1977 we produced 65 per cent. of all our needs. We now, some four years later, produce about 75 per cent. of all our needs. That is not only a substantial figure, but a remarkable rate of increase.

These are impressive figures for our densely populated islands, and they help to ensure considerable security of supply for our consumers. In a hungry world—and the world is hungry—this is a real advantage. And one does not have to look very far afield to see the consequences when agriculture is less successful. One has to remember in times of surplus, when criticism becomes fashionable, what happens to prices and to supplies in times of shortage. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to Poland. I would refer your Lordships back to the 1976 potato shortage—that was a good example of what can happen at times of shortage. The sugar shortage of 1974–75 is another. In agriculture, supply and demand are never in equilibrium.

A strong agriculture benefits the balance of payments. For example, the increase in our self-sufficiency in food since 1979 alone is worth approximately £1,000 million a year to our balance of payments. That is just the increase since 1979. And our exports have increased. Between the early 1970s and last year, our exports of food increased from £300 million to some £2,500 million. In the 1960s, food was responsible for 30 per cent. of our nation's import bill. Now it is only 12 per cent. Ten years ago we were a net importer of some eight to 9 million tonnes of cereals. This year we have been a net exporter—of probably some 2 million tonnes. It is right—and good—that the products of British agriculture, like those of any other industry, should find their way into other countries against international competition.

British agriculture is, of course, an important employer. Approximately 630,000 people are directly engaged in farming, and let us never forget that a similar number of jobs are at stake in industries which depend on agriculture, either by supplying it with its requirements, such as fertiliser, machinery, buildings and so forth, or by processing and distributing its products.

The worries about the common agricultural policy, which everyone recognises, and its surpluses encourage some people towards the simple options of saying that we should curtail agricultural production in this country. To them I would say: is it right that, when we in this country still import food which we can grow ourselves, we should deliberately seek not to fill that gap, but let others do so? Is it right so to curtail ourselves, and yet to permit our competitors to expand? And at our expense? Is it right that, notwithstanding the problems of distribution, which must still be overcome, in a world where the population has increased by 50 per cent. since the end of the war and is anticipated to rise by another 50 per cent. in the next 20 years, we should say: "We have enough"? Is it right that at a time of fearful recession, we should deliberately seek to restrict a major industry, and so pull down with it all those upon whom the industry depends and who are dependant on it? And deliberately seek to curtail an industry which has built up a substantial export trade when the exports of other industries, because of international conditions, are suffering so severely?

My Lords, the agriculture industry is important to the economy as a whole. It is also highly efficient, one whose strategic value to the nation should never be underestimated, especially at a time when that particular advantage is not being required. In all circumstances, a thriving agriculture is in my judgment good for the nation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, has referred to increased yields and there have indeed been some impressive achievements. For example, between 1971 and 1981 wheat yields increased by some 33 per cent. and milk yields by some 20 per cent. Over the same period the output per person employed in agriculture has increased by some 33 per cent.—an achievement which, were it transposed throughout the whole economy, would have staunchly strengthened our industrial and competitive position. The industry is becoming more and more efficient, partly because of its record of technical innovation, which is based on substantial research and development, partly because of high levels of investment, partly because of unparalleled good industrial relations, and partly because of the enterprise and entrepreneurialism of our farmers. In other words, the industry is not only making a significant contribution to the national economy but is also setting a very considerable example to other industries.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, paid tribute to these achievements, but he qualified his praise a little by questioning some of the technical implications of modern farming methods. I do not blame him for that. We are all, in every industry, apprehensive of new techniques. It is natural to fear the unknown. In all industries many view with alarm the advance of the computer and the micro-chip. They do in agriculture too. But these techniques open up a whole new exciting future for us. They advance the capabilities of man—they do not replace them. They ought to be welcomed as an asset, and not feared for their potentialities.

One may regret the advent of these new methods and new practices, if one's idea of industry, or of agriculture, is a romantic one in which there is no change, where life goes on as it used to and demand remains as it always did. But we cannot put the technological clock back. We cannot seriously opt back for a pastoral agriculture and deny to ourselves and to mankind the benefits reaped from research and knowledge and innovation. Life does go on, and we must accept change. If we do not, others will, and we quietly and all too easily slip behind. But, for every technological advance forward there is a price to pay. And it is up to us—society, Government, call it what you will—to check and to watch these changes to make sure that the benefits of change outweigh the penalties of change.

The noble Lord referred to chemicals. Do we know, he said, what we are doing to our land? I would answer him by saying: look at medicine and at the wonders by which new chemicals have helped doctors and mankind. Do they know what they are doing? The answer to both questions is, "Usually; but not always". Anything new, anything human contains an element of the unknown. The fear of the unknown must not blind us to the advantages of the known. But the unknown must be checked, rigorously and constantly.

Farmers are now becoming more selective in their use of chemicals and are not just sousing their crops as a sort of corporate insurance policy. But the Ministry of Agriculture has instituted its own checking mechanism. It is a requirement of the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme that, when manufacturers submit data on their products, they must provide information on their residues and on their decay. There is a project at Boxworth Experimental Husbandry Farm where the long-term effects of pesticide use on both the soil and the environment under intensive cereal growing systems is being studied. The Weed Research Organisation has already done work on commonly used herbicides, which has shown that these chemicals have no long-term residual effects.

The noble Lord suggested that biological control might be an alternative to chemical control. Sophisticated biological control techniques have been used extensively on protected crops, but their application to field crops is more difficult.

Then there is the problem of straw. Five million tonnes are burnt annually, because there is at present no alternative use for it. Not only does this appear wasteful, but it is an environmental irritant. Straw ought to be not just a waste product, but a valuable resource in its own right. There are many possibilities and many people are trying to find uses for it. In trying to encourage this, I have recently convened the first of what I hope will be a series of meetings of those involved—farmers, manufacturers, the pulp industry, research people, representatives of the Departments of Industry, Energy and the Ministry of Agriculture—to see whether a better and more concerted approach can be made to the alternative uses of straw. There are a number of possibilities, but I am bound to tell the noble Lord that the effect on the humus of returning straw to the soil is very marginal.

In all this advance, everyone questions whether science is not in fact becoming the master of man as opposed to his servant. Research, technology, call it what you will, must be channelled for the benefit of man and must not be permitted to propel him, like a rocket, from the rear. And, as everyone, metaphorically speaking, grips the handrails as we go forward, they ask: what is happening to our landscape, to our wildlife? Conservation is important. But conservation is not preservation. We cannot preserve our history or our countryside like a fossil from the past. But we can, and we must, conserve that which is good and ensure that it has a place in the life of the country in the future.

This has become a matter of deep concern to a large proportion of the British public. The Government have recognised this and, for the first time, have introduced an Act to try and recognise the problem and to regularise the result. I have no doubt that history will show the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to have been a major step forward in protecting both the wildlife and the landscape of our unique countryside. The whole ethos of the 1981 Act was the "voluntary approach" to conservation. Farmers and landowners have been the guardians of our countryside for generations. The countryside is today what it is because of them, and their forefathers. The integration of agricultural development with conservation is not, and need not be, an insoluble problem. Profitable farming and the needs of conservation are not mutually exclusive goals. Land may be a personal possession but it is also a national asset and, because of that, and because of the conflicting demands which are made upon it, we have to understand the nature of the interests of others.

As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture, through the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, is now advising farmers and the conservation agencies on how best to help conservation. The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups have increased in number—and I may say stature—over the years. These are groups of farmers who are anxious to ensure conservation and who want to encourage others to do so too. Over the last seven years, there has been a sea-change in the attitude of farmers, as well as that of the public, over conservation.

Of course, the Wildlife and Countryside Act was a compromise. It was bound to be. Not all interests will have been fully satisfied. I dare say none were. By the nature of the game that was an impossibility. But the whole rationale behind that Act can be summed up in two words, compromise and understanding. And it is these two qualities which must seek to guide all of us who are involved in the countryside in the future. It is true, of course, that, if pursued to the bitter end, the interests of agriculture would be in conflict with the interests of conservation. But life is lived by human beings and, in most people in the countryside, there is an admixture of the interests both of agriculture and of conservation. But there are people with determined views at each end of what might badly be called the agriculture/conservation spectrum. I must say quite openly that they do not do their cause, nor that of their fellows, any good.

I deplore farmers who deliberately plough up an area which they know contains material—whether it is scientific or scenic material—which is of deep interest to others, especially when this is done quickly and deliberately before the conservation argument can be considered. They not only bring disrepute on to themselves but, worse, they tar with the same brush all the other members of the agricultural community, who are thereby assumed to think, and to wish to act, likewise if given the opportunity, but who in fact, on the whole, wish to see a harmony of effort between agriculture and conservation. It is the selfish who get the publicity and who shatter the entente cordiale for everyone.

In the same way, I deplore those who pursue the conservation argument with a dedication born of determination rather than of consideration. I deplore those who, before the ink on the Act was even dry, said, "It will not work", who have done their best to see that it will not work and who are already demanding more legislation because they think that their interests need to be more protected. To those I would say: "Let the wine in the bottle settle. Stop pulling the cork out once a month and having a lick to see what it tastes like. Give it time to mature and to condition—and so to condition others".

The countryside is made up of country folk, some in villages and some in remote areas. Some are owner-occupiers, some are tenants, some are landlords. Whatever they are, they all have a love and a knowledge of the land. There are those—and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, is one of them—who are concerned about the future of the landlord/tenant system. I share the widespread concern at the general decline in the system which has served British agriculture so well over the years.

There are, of course, many factors which have contributed to the decline of the tenanted sector, not all of which can be effectively influenced by Government policy. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I have been carefully considering possible ways of infusing new life into this area. But any changes which are made must be changes which will last and which will benefit the system as a whole. This is because agriculture is a long-term business which relies heavily on confidence in the future on the part of farmers. To be effective, therefore, any changes which are introduced must be seen by the farming industry not only to be sensible but also to be likely to be long-lasting.

Any changes must bring mobility into the market. More farms to let need to come on to the market. The present system, which is widely cherished for its security, is fine for those who are in, but not so fine for those who are not in and want to get in. There must be something wrong with a system, as well as being anachronistic, which encourages landlords to take their let land in hand when it becomes vacant, and so farm larger units at the expense of aspiring young men who do not want to own land but merely want to be permitted to till its surface. Landlords must be encouraged, and not discouraged, to let their farms when they become vacant. And this needs adjustment both to the fiscal system and to the tenure system which the agreement reached between the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association acknowledged.

Of course, the role of the pension funds and other financial institutions as owners of agricultural land periodically comes under fire, as it did today. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to it delightfully by asking whether it was good to see the advance of the pension funds and the demise of the Dukes. (I should remind the noble Lord, that Earls have long since had it!) Some preliminary results of research into this suggest that the financial institutions do buy agricultural land, but that their total holdings amount to only some 2½ per cent. of the area of crops and grass in Britain. And it is interesting that the majority of this land—more than 70 per cent. of it—is, in fact, let.

The country has always benefited from the diversity of people who are prepared to invest their time and money in land ownership, and I am sure that the financial institutions will continue to do so. I have a sympathy with the implications of concern which lay behind the noble Lord's observation that anonymity or impersonality of land ownership can be socially undesirable, and that the structure of village and country life can be seriously upheaved if farmers are to be replaced by managers. I merely say to the noble Lord that this has not happened in the past where churches and universities have often been substantial and successful landowners; and there is no reason why it should happen in the future, providing, of course, that landowners recognise the problem and take steps to ensure that it does not.

The decline of population in the rural areas as a whole is, though, a very real problem. It can certainly be argued that the very increases in productivity which have been made possible by larger units, and the acceptance of new techniques, have in themselves contributed to the depopulation of rural communities. On the other hand, it must be recognised that such improvements in productivity were essential if the livelihood of our farmers was to be preserved and our competitive position maintained, and that without a healthy agricultural industry there can be no basis for a healthy rural community. The decline, if not of the rural population certainly of the agricultural population, has been going on ever since the first whiff of mechanisation.

For many years, therefore, a major objective of farm support policy has been to secure the continuance of agriculture in the less favoured upland areas, which is where the greatest risk of depopulation and decline occurs. Special assistance to these areas of the United Kingdom has existed for many years, even before the Community's less favoured areas directive was introduced in 1975, with its declared objective of maintaining a minimum population level in these areas by ensuring that farming activities were economically able to continue. In addition to enhanced rates of capital grant, farmers of beef cattle and sheep in less favoured areas of the United Kingdom are entitled to substantial headage payments.

Together, these measures are estimated to provide over 50 per cent. of the average income of full-time farmers in the areas concerned. This is a powerful antidote to depopulation pressures. But many of these areas cannot exist by agriculture alone, and indeed it would be wrong to blame agricultural policy for the wider social and economic problems which face our rural communities. Other measures, which are aimed at giving new life to rural communities and at broadening the base of the rural economy, are now being promoted by the Government.

The socio-economic advisers of the agricultural development advisory service at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are giving considerable advice on the diversification of farm businesses. They also know of the help which is available from non-agricultural bodies. Tourism on farms, for example, is now worth around £100 million per year, and as many as 16 per cent. of farmers are involved in it in one way or another.

The Ministry of Agriculture also works closely with the Development Commission and the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, which has that curious name "COSIRA". This will increase and diversify farm income as well a create alternative employment in rural areas. The Development Commission has set up a pilot scheme for grant aiding the conversion of redundant farm buildings for craft or light industrial use. They are continuing to do a great deal to bring new life to the rural parts of England by various programmes, including the establishment of small advance factories and workshops. COSIRA's staff are giving considerable help to a large number of existing small firms in rural areas.

I do not think it can be fairly said that our technical progress has been achieved only at the expense of the long-term health of the land or of the countryside generally. But the fact is that unless we have a healthy countryside we will have a depopulated countryside. A healthy countryside can best be achieved by seeking to reconcile the various interests in a way which allows our agriculture to remain productive and efficient. The answer cannot be to impose restrictions on new technology or on the organisation of farming, because the inevitable effect would be artificially to engineer, and in the long-term probably wrongly, one of our largest and most efficient industries. This would be bad for the economy as a whole, just as it would be bad for British agriculture. The best way must be, within broad limits, so to set the scene as to encourage people to want to live in the countryside because of what it has to offer—because of the livelihood, because of the way of life, because of the privilege that man can work with nature. Fortunately, the countryside still has much to offer.

4 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, my noble kinsman has done a great service to this House in raising this subject on behalf of his party, and there could be no more complex a subject, no more complicated a subject and no more important a subject than the one that he has put before us today. I have only one quarrel with him—that he has said almost everything that I wanted to say, and, if I am to keep your Lordships' attention at all, then I must say it again in slightly different terms and perhaps in a slightly different order.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, gave us a masterly resumé of the situation. He went through so much information and gave us such a large picture that I do not know how much more can be said in the debate today. However, we look forward to hearing what eveyone has to say. One point upon which I agreed with him very much was the question of food and population. We all know that the population has gone up by 50 per cent. and looks like going up another 50 per cent. We also know from the figures that we have had from various bodies, such as the FAO, that anything up to 1,000 million people are on a diet below starvation level. As the noble Earl has said, to suggest a cutback in food production anywhere is not something to which we should be looking forward.

I should like to deal first with the second point made by my noble kinsman, the structure of the land. I should like to give your Lordships my own experience over the last 55 years, which paints a picture of just what is happening. I was born, as was my noble kinsman, in the centre of Aberdeenshire. My father farmed a 300 acre farm and it must have been quite a good one, because he brought up a family of six, educated them all and gave them all farms—the girls as well. That farm is now amalgamated with a neighbouring farm. The neighbouring farmhouse has been sold and two of the cottages that my father built have been sold. I should like to tell your Lordships the story of those cottages. They were built when the first housing subsidies were introduced in 1923–24. After they were built, my father met Lord Aberdeen—the present Lord Aberdeen's uncle—and he said, "We will need to decide who owns these cottages. I have paid a third, you have paid a third and His Majesty has paid a third". Lord Aberdeen was a very astute man, and he said, "Well, Mr. Mackie, we will cut out His Majesty first". That was the type of relationship that existed between the tenant and farmer in those days and, like my noble kinsman, I regret that it has passed. I do not know whether we will get it back again, but it was a system that worked well.

The farm that I started on—a 220 acre farm not far from where I was born—has been amalgamated with two small farms which were not really viable units. However, the point is that one was farmed by the joiner and the other by the blacksmith. Now they have both gone and left the area, and there is no joiner and no blacksmith in the area. That is a tragedy. I left there in 1930 and my father took a farm of 500 acres in Kincardineshire. A year later, we increased it to 700 acres. My son is now farming that 700 acres and he has taken the neighbouring farm of 300 acres as well, making it 1,000 acres. He is farming not quite the same system as my noble kinsman described, but he has a lot of houses to let, and naturally they are not let to farmworkers.

In 1947, along with two brothers-in-law, I took 1,000 acres in Lincolnshire which consisted of four farms of about 200 to 300 acres each. By the time we gave up that business 21 or 22 years later; we had increased it to 2,700 acres—amalgamating nine farms. Since then, I have given up a lot of my farming interests, and fortunately, when we sold Lincolnshire and our other units, we managed, though not from any moral point of view, to split them into five units. I now farm 500 acres in Essex—22 miles from here—and frankly I am a lot happier with one farm and looking after this with my younger son than I was when I had what is called "a farming empire". However, I must admit that I am casting an envious eye on a 250 acre common that may come up to let next year. As my noble friend Lord Woolley said, a leopard cannot change his spots.

I think I have given a fair picture of what has been happening over the last 50 years, and more so over the last 30 years since the end of the war, although of course, as my noble kinsman said, many of the units are much larger than those that I farmed; indeed there are some units of 20,000 acres in this country. I do not think that there is any real pattern as regards how it has happened, except that there has been a completely free market in land.

I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, has to say about a completely free market in land. If one looks in the farming papers one will see farms advertised in six lots, four lots, three lots, and so on. They are selling off houses, portions of land and everything else, and that is the more so around villages and near towns. In my own village there were two nice 150 acre farms. Since I went there 25 years ago they have been broken up and the houses and cottages have been sold, along with some of the land,—to commuters. Some of the land is just sitting doing nothing. I have great respect for estate agents and it is they who advise the sellers to take this action. Of course, there is a free market in land, but I do not think that this is good for farms around towns and villages.

As has been said. many people are worried about the situation and about the size of farms and the number of farms that have been amalgamated. John Cherrington wrote an article in the Farmer and Stock Breeder the other day, deploring the situation but not giving a solution, except to say that they could control it in Denmark and France. The French system is very complicated, but the Danish one seems to be fairly straightforward. Mr. Huw Watt, who gave an excellent paper at the Oxford Farm Conference, also deplored the situation and wondered what could be done. However, he was insistent that whatever was done must be done by fiscal and not by statutory methods. I do not think that we can get any real progress here without some statutory method.

My noble kinsman remarked that he was saying things that would make Dukes squirm. The only Duke who was here has left and I do not think that he was someone you could make squirm very easily, anyway. I am now going to mention land nationalisation, which will probably make a lot of people squirm. Way back in the Government before 1910, the then Minister of Agriculture, Lord Ernle, who I presume was a Liberal—was proposing some kind of land nationalisation. Last week we had a debate on marketing and I looked through the list of speakers and saw that there was to be a maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. That rang a bell. I went to the Library and looked at his father's book, which was written in 1939 and published in 1940. Observing how Lord Northbourne saw the situation then, in my view he saw what was coming. In a way, it is a rather longwinded book, but it is very interesting indeed, and it gives a picture of the situation. It is entitled, Look to the Land. But on the question of land nationalisation he says: For the same reasons the land must be the king's; that is to say, held by the king in trust for the people, and administered on his behalf by his Government. This is the right kind of 'nationalization'. The case for the nationalization of land is as strong as the case for the nationalization of anything and everything else … is weak". That is what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said 43 years ago, and to a certain extent I think that that stands today. But the only thing that would worry me is how we administer the management of the land, not the farming—that I would never suggest. But there is a case for some nationalisation of land. I am concerned about the enormous number of institutions which have bought land over the last few years, a trend which looks as though it is to continue, and I doubt whether it is a good thing. We might be better with some nationalisation of some description to maintain tenant farming.

The second point was the whole question of monoculture. I am afraid I have to admit to it because, as my noble kinsman said, the financial pressures force one into it, but I am not at all happy about it. We all know about the Norfolk four course rotation; many of you may also know of the seven course rotation in the east of Scotland. That has stood for many years.

Perhaps I could tell your Lordships a story about that. A friend of mine was giving his father and mother their golden wedding party. Like all Scots farming people at the end of the last century, they were married on Hogmanay, because the only holiday farm people in Scotland had was New Year's Day. At the party was the father's brother, the best man at his wedding 50 years before, who suddenly announced "George, you think you have been married 50 years. You are wrong. You have been married 51 years". George said, "Arthur's son has the marriage lines". Arthur pricked up his ears and said, "Yes, of course I have", and went to get them. But the brother said, "He can produce any marriage lines he likes. I was ploughing the lea at the back of the stable the night you were married. It is in turnips this year—seven sevens are 49 and two is 51". The marriage lines were produced. The couple had registered the marriage in the year after they were married in the New Year, and the careless registrar had given the same date to the marriage and the registration. So the old seven course rotation in Aberdeenshire was more accurate than the marriage lines. However, that illustrates what we should be trying to do today—to get back to something like that.

Today hundreds of thousands of acres are without stock at all, probably very much more. We come to the question of these acres and the burning of all the straw. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned a figure of 5 million tonnes. I think it is nearer 6 million tonnes and it adds up to a tremendous amount of oil converted into fuel. We push on nitrogen; I know any amount of farmers who push on up to 200 units an acre and spend £50 or £60 an acre on sprays, all of which, whether we like it or not, contain a lot of poison. Quite frankly, we do not know where this is leading us.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to Boxworth and ADAS, and said that a lot of research was being done to make this as safe as possible, but I still doubt whether we know. Many people have been at it for a long time and they see no reason why they cannot carry on, as long as the plant breeder is prepared to produce better varieties for this kind of farming, the chemist produces more and more sprays to combat the every increasing diseases, and the fertilizer manufacturer produces plenty of nitrogen at a reasonable price. I do not know, but my instinct suggests that we cannot go on. We have to get back to better balanced agriculture and better balanced farming, where we put back into the soil what we take out, in the shape of farmyard manure.

I was rather surprised at the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, using the phrase "putting back the straw". I do not think that my noble kinsman meant to put back the straw; he meant to put it back as farmyard manure or, to use the more common word, muck. I am perfectly certain that you will then get results which you would not get by just putting back straw alone.

Of course, I am not suggesting that we should not use some fertilisers. I think that a modicum of fertilisers should certainly be used and, of course, assisted by a rotation, with a cleaning crop and a build-up of humus by a pasture rotation, about which I have been speaking. This will not be easy to achieve without major emphasis being placed on the price factor of our produce, so that we have a shift from cereal production to stock. Quite frankly, I maintain that we ignore it at our peril.

This brings me to the changes in the countryside which have been mentioned by the two previous speakers. I think that the change has been quite radical in my lifetime. I have only to think of the village life in the small parishes in Aberdeenshire in the mid-1920s and the situation as it exists today. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, larger farms with no stock and mechanisation have reduced the population as well as the farming community. One can easily look for examples here. When I came to Essex in 1953 we had a very mixed farm with poultry, pigs and dairy cows and were employing about eight men; today we are employing only three. That gives a picture of the depopulation of the countryside. Of course, houses have been sold and let and there has been a distinct change in the rural population, especially where I live, where we have a tremendous number of commuters, retired people, and so on, and a few who work in what local industry there is.

As my noble kinsman and the noble Earl has said, it would be very difficult to go back. We shall not see the situation that I knew 50-odd years ago, but we must do something about it. Whether or not we can return to small farms I do not know. But if an Oxford University survey is correct, than a return to smaller farms would give a man/land ratio five times greater than that on larger ones. That is a very high figure. I have not seen the actual particulars of that, but if it is so there is a very strong case for getting back to smaller units, as my noble kinsman said. Of course, light industry in the countryside would help, as would the use of redundant farm buildings for new industry in the countryside, although I would rather see them filled with stock.

Much more could be said. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said quite a lot about the environment, which is very important indeed. I do not want to go into that; there are plenty of people here today who will open up that subject. I believe that this debate should do a lot of good and show what is happening in the countryside, and I hope that the powers-that-be will take note.

4.18 p.m.

Lord Middleton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, has been kind enough to refer to the Motion that I was intending to move next week, and it is clear that we shared the idea that an agriculture debate would be timely. Therefore, I welcome his Motion today because it gives me the opportunity to say some of the things that I would have said next week. I was heartened by the firm note struck by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, and I hope to follow him in the same key when I say that the salient point I wish to make is that, whatever the impact of modern farming methods and whatever the financial pressures, the future of the land and the rural communities of the United Kingdom depend upon the prosperity or otherwise of British agriculture.

Taking that as my standpoint, I believe that it is a simple truth that we should grow as much of our own food as we reasonably can. I am not suggesting that we should grow bananas on Ben Nevis, to quote Mr. Body's words, but I am suggesting that we should remain true to the vision of that great Labour Minister of Agriculture, Tom Williams, who was the architect of the Agriculture Act 1947, which had as its goal (and I quote from Section 1): a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing such part of the nation's food and other agricultural produce as in the national interest it is desirable to produce in the United Kingdom, and of producing it at minimum prices consistent with proper remuneration and living conditions for farmers and workers in agriculture and an adequate return on capital". I do not think we should be at the mercy of foreign suppliers, the vagaries of international politics and the accident of climate for basic supplies of food which we could grow ourselves; and I think it would be sheer folly to put ourselves at their mercy through a deliberate act of policy. In social terms, the well-being of rural areas revolves around agriculture. Though the numbers of those engaged in farming may have dwindled, as we have heard already, they are still the heart of a rural community. If agriculture decays, then rural communities deteriorate, population falls, services are withdrawn and neglect and hopelessness take over from care and pride. For jobs depend on an agriculture that is making money circulate.

It is not only those who are directly in farming whose livelihood is at stake with the changing fortunes of agriculture. There is a multitude of businesses and professions who know that the amount of business they transact goes up and down with farming. But, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers has reminded us, it is not only in the rural areas that employment is attached to agriculture. Each man in farming produces food for 50 of his fellow countrymen. But he does more than this: he produces the raw material for a much larger section of commerce and industry to work on. Food processing, distribution, retailing and everything that happens to food from the time it leaves the farm gate to the time the housewife takes it home from the shop provide an income for people in our towns and cities who may never have been on a farm in their lives; and now something like 10 per cent. of our total United Kingdom workforce rely for their jobs upon the productive capacity of our farms.

Then, if we look at conservation, there is no doubt that a thriving and efficient agriculture is an essential condition for the conservation of the countryside. Anyone who thinks otherwise equates conservation with dereliction. Conservation requires careful and positive management, painstaking maintenance and a good deal of money. Farmers who were not thriving would not be able to afford it, and farmers who were not efficient would make a hash of it.

May I now turn to some of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, has raised. He referred to the drive to produce high yields of grain, and he gave us what I thought was a timely warning about the possible consequences of high chemical inputs to achieve this. He also referred to the present grain surpluses. Critics of the CAP point out that the CAP has encouraged grain production at a level higher than that of consumption within the EEC, and that the surpluses then have to be disposed of on the world market at the taxpayers' expense. This is true, but at world level the margin of production over consumption of grain is slim. In 1960 it was 1.68 per cent., and it was still only 2.4 per cent. in 1981—just one week's world supply.

What these figures demonstrate is that though world production of grain has about doubled in the last 20 years, world consumption has kept pace. What is more, in six of the last 12 years world grain production fell short of consumption, the last occasions being as recent as 1979 and 1980—two consecutive years. This can happen again. The Australian wheat harvest this year was a mere 55 per cent. of what it was the year before, due to drought. In Britain we had a drought in 1976. Corn yields shot down and, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers reminded us, you could not buy potatoes that year if you wanted to.

The output of grain in the Soviet Union fluctuates wildly. During the last seven years production has swung from 140 million tonnes to 240 million tonnes, and back last year to 175 million tonnes. Over the last three years the Soviet Union has been importing each year nearly 40 million tonnes, which is about 20 per cent. of the total world trade in grain. Is it too fanciful to suggest that the peace of the world may lie within the silos which store the surpluses from the West's fat years?

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, raises questions relating to land tenure. He is right to do so in this kind of debate because the shape and structure of land tenure lie at the heart of any nation's agricultural performance. The noble Lord seems to criticise a lack of policy on land tenure in this country. So far as the ownership of land is concerned we seem to have been following a clear policy. From the early 1900s the noble Lord's party, under Lloyd George, initiated a system of taxation which was expressly designed to break up large holdings of land, and this policy has been adopted and adapted by subsequent Governments, all of whom have either pursued it actively or, at best, consented to it, so that now we have a totally different pattern of ownership—and the noble Lord has referred to this.

In 1900, 80 per cent. of our farmland was tenanted and 20 per cent. farmed by owner-occupiers. As the noble Lord told us, now only about 40 per cent. is in the hands of landlords and about 60 per cent. is owner-occupied. But who now are the landlords? The private landlords are getting fewer and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, pointed out, the institutions are gradually taking their place. The process was examined in great detail by Lord Northfield's committee, which, by and large, gave the institutional owners a good report. I do not think that this afternoon I can add anything to the findings of the noble Lord's committee except that the committee emphasised that the primary role of institutions in agriculture should be as long-term investors in let land, and not as farmers.

I was glad to hear what both the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. and my noble friend said about tenancies, because one of the consequences of the change in the pattern of ownership which I have just described has been many fewer farms to let. Like every industry, agriculture needs new blood. Now no young man can afford to buy a farm without incurring a debt that will shackle him for the rest of his farming career with such a load of debt that his business can never prosper. The traditional way in for the new entrant was by means of a tenancy. Now, thanks to an extremely inept piece of legislation in 1976, very few private landowners and by no means all institutions will let.

The industry awaits with impatience an amending Bill on the lines of the agreement between the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association which takes fully into account the criteria which my noble friend Lord Ferrers has laid down this afternoon. I will not disguise my disappointment that the Government have not so far been able to find parliamentary time for it, but the Minister's assurance that he will introduce it at the earliest opportunity has given confidence for the future.

Fiscal changes that remove the tax disincentives against letting will also be needed. This task has been tackled by the present Government, who have made a start in the right direction; but there is more to do. Those of us who were born in the country and who live there, know that the farming community is the most independent, most hard-working and thriftiest section of the population. They are indeed the salt of the earth, but they are becoming fewer and fewer; and the noble Lord is right in warning us of the consequences of this decline and of their effect upon the economy of the rural areas.

It is very tempting, therefore, for nations to look to the kind of farm policy that encourages people to stay on the land. But one of the main criticisms of the CAP is that the price-fixing system, which does just that, is leading to excessive production., It is also tempting to say—and our thoughts have been pointed in this direction already this afternoon—"If you want more people on the land, you must restrict the size of holdings". There are those who advocate such a policy for this country. The first stumblig block is when you talk in terms of acreage limitation. A farm business growing a high-value crop on 20 acres in the Fens can have an annual turnover that exceeds that of a hill farm of 2,000 acres. The second difficulty is that there is very little up-to-date research—and I mean up-to-date, because techniques have been moving so rapidly—upon which to base a policy geared to an optimum economic size of farm.

There are those who advocate control over farm size through the tax system. This has already been tried, and dropped. When capital transfer tax was introduced, it discriminated against farms over 1,000 acres, but the folly of doing that was quickly recognised, and in 1978 the 1,000-acre limit was abolished. I do not propose to be drawn into a debate on land nationalisation, other than to ask the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, to look at some fairly robust things that were said about that subject in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. However, in reply to another question posed by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, I would say that I believe firmly that attempts to control who may farm, and how much he may farm, do not serve the best interests of farming. The quite extraordinary complications of the efforts to control farm size in France and Denmark, and their crippling effects—in particular, at the moment, in Denmark, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie referred —do not set an example that anyone here would wish to follow.

I have emphasised that a healthy agriculture is essential to the well-being of the rural economy, but I echo my noble friend Lord Ferrers in saying that agriculture alone cannot solve the problem of the diminishing population in rural areas. Hope lies in bringing other jobs to the countryside, and local planning authorities must encourage, not prevent, the setting up of new businesses in rural communities. I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the work of the Development Commission and COSIRA to this end.

Finally, I should like to return to my main theme. The success of British agriculture is one of the bright spots in the gloom of the present depression. The facts and figures relating to this performance have been quoted fully by my noble friend, and I shall not repeat them. Suffice it to say that British agriculture is providing us with the very model of a successful home industry, and until recently no one would have doubted that producing more food was among the more praiseworthy human activities. After all, it is better to eat than to go hungry; better to be able to eat your own food than run the risk that other people will not let you have theirs; better to have the countryside looked after than abandoned. All those things are possible only if agriculture is thriving and efficient.

A few years ago that would have been looked on as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. However, in the 1980s it has become fashionable to argue that we should grow less food, not more; that the preservation of a particular landscape pattern should take precedence over efficient farming; and that whatever other countries may do to ensure that their agriculture is thriving and efficient, the United Kingdom should revert to a cheap food policy, dependent on imports. The phrase "bumper harvest" has been used in the press as a term of criticism, as though scarcity was somehow better than abundance.

The production of surpluses is a real and very complex problem to be faced. But let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. As I earlier tried to indicate, surpluses are not bad in principle; they are good. Joseph knew that in ancient Egypt. There is in the Old Testament a vast store of wisdom which we would do well to dip into from time to time. We may not have had many lean years in Europe in the last three decades, but surpluses are an insurance against their return. Moreover, the surpluses that we have amount to so little in terms of the number of days' supply that Joseph would probably have criticised them for being too small, not too big.

There is, too, the vexed question of what to do with surpluses in a world where hunger and famine and death from malnutrituion stalk over so much of the face of the earth. This baffling problem is probably the most crucial that faces the statesmen of the world, for unless it is solved catastrophe looms ahead. Only slightly less baffling are the problems of how the EEC's common agricultural policy now operates, leading to overproduction of some commodities, to distortion of trading patterns, and to an unevenly spread and excessive burden on some members of the EEC.

However, these problems are curable, and could be resolved by the creation of a more sophisticated system of financial support. Agreement among the 10 member countries will be extremely difficult to obtain. It would be a great pity if it took an out-and-out trade war with the United States, and its dire consequences, to give the impetus needed for CAP reform.

All these problems are daunting, and I offer no easy solution. What I can say, however, is that there is nothing about them that should divert us from our pursuit of a thriving and efficient agriculture. Rather do they reinforce our duty to keep our agriculture in good shape. We owe that duty to our land, and to our rural communities. I cannot believe that we would be serving them or, indeed, mankind in general if we made it our objective to grow only one ear of corn or one blade of grass where two grew before.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I have to start my speech with a potential apology. I have this evening at 6.30 a meeting, that has been long arranged, which I have to attend, and unless noble Lords who are to follow me speak for a long time, I might not be able to return in time for the end of the debate. I hope that the debate goes on long enough for me to return, but if it does not, I offer my apologies, in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I assure them that I shall read with interest what I say, if I am not here to listen to it—

Several noble Lords

What they say!

Lord Walston

What they say; I beg your Lordships' pardon. What one says oneself is always more interesting. Good sense, as well as courtesy, demands that I read what they say.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for enabling us to have this debate. It is a long time since we have had a debate on agriculture; if anything, it is overdue. Certainly those speeches to which we have already listened have shown that the debate is well worthwhile. I would make only one criticism at the moment of anything that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said: and it is in relation to what he said about monoculture. From my experience I do not believe that there is such a thing as monoculture in this country. Even in the heart of the grain belt in East Anglia, where I live and farm, I have never come across any example of it whatsoever. The most specialised cereal producers have quite a wide variety of crops which they fall into a rotation, and the risks of monoculture as it is known in other parts of the world, to my mind, is completely non-existent.

Although I am speaking from the Benches of the SDP, I am not in a position to enunciate the agricultual policy of my party because we still have not yet come to final conclusions about this. We are very close to it.

Several noble Lords


Lord Walston

Obviously, noble Lords are awaiting with anticipation what we have to say about it. They will not have to wait for very long; but I think that I may say without undue arrogance that I am hopeful that a large part of what I say today will be reflected in the policy of my party in the next few weeks.

My Lords, there is in north Norfolk, not very far from Norwich, a small village with a small and very old church which is dedicated to St. Walstan—in those parts the patron saint of farmers. I am afraid I can claim no descent from him. Apart from anything else, he spelt his name differently. But he is apparently an admirable patron saint and probably is responsible for the fact that (if not Norfolk alone) East Anglia as a whole is the leading area in the United Kingdom for agricultural advance. I say that without fear of contradiction even from the noble brothers, Lord Mackie of Benshie and Lord John-Mackie.

But I am afraid that there is a great danger that farmers today are looking for a new patron saint. Their new patron saint is "St. Scargill"—and there were indications that even the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, are looking on him as their patron saint. As I understand it, Mr. Scargill's philosophy is that if you are a coal miner you have a God-given right to produce as much coal as you feel inclined to produce, regardless of whether the consumer wants to buy it or would rather buy his fuel elsewhere, and regardless of the price of consumption. That is a policy to which none of us who is not a coal miner would subscribe, any more than we would subscribe to a policy which says that those who produce deep freezers have the right to produce as many deep freezers as they wish, regardless of their cost; regardless of the number imported from Italy or Japan and regardless of the price that you have to pay for them; and, if more deep freezers are produced than can be consumed in this country, it is the Government's duty to store them at considerable expense and possibly to give them away eventually to the third world.

My Lords, that is not a policy to which any of us would subscribe. We must be very careful that we do not put forward a policy of agriculture which is based on the same premises. I believe—and I have said this before to your Lordships—that the common agriculture policy is a perfectly sound basis on which to work but that it should become a "common food policy" under which the Community states how much food—and that is a matter for wide and severe argument—it wishes to be produced at home within the Community, and that for that quantity of food a remunerative price should be paid. If farmers wish to produce more, it is up to them to get whatever price they can for it on the open market, on the world market. That is the basis which we should follow, and I am very glad to say that it is now beginning to be adopted by the Community itself.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about standard quantities, about quotas, about quantums; but the in-word at the moment is "thresholds"; and now the Community has laid down thresholds on a rolling five-year average for the various main commodities. That is a very substantial advance and one for which we should be thankful. I hope that the noble Earl in his reply, whether I am here to listen to it or not, will tell us that it has the full support of Her Majesty's Government.

My Lords, I have two criticisms of the methods adopted by the Community. The first and the most serious is that, even for those commodities which are today in substantial surplus, instead of gradually reducing the quantity which is required from the Community producers in this rolling five-year programme, they are gradually increasing it. To my mind, it cannot make sense, when you have already more than you can economically make use of, to undertake to buy a still greater quantity in the future. My second criticism is this. For this policy to have the desired effect of putting farmers on notice that in the years ahead they will be getting lower prices on average for what they produce, that smaller quantities of the main crops will be needed from them, this must be widely promulgated and widely understood so that they can react.

So far as I have been able to find, from inquiries among many farmers, no farmers realise this at all. They cannot tell you, and, indeed, I cannot tell you, what the target threshold quantity is for the year 1986 or the year 1987. But, my Lords, that should be widely known. It is not surprising, even if those figures were widely known, that farmers do not realise the full implications of this because of the curious way in which this policy was expressed. I have here a Community document concerning this matter which is the beginning of the proposals for the price review of the current year, where it is written: The Commission proposed a series of measures for putting into practical application the principles outlined in the memorandum, Guidelines for European Agriculture, and in particular the modulation of the price guarantees through the introduction of guarantee thresholds in a multi-annual framework with measures for the participation of producers if these thresholds are exceeded". I am sure that your Lordships understand what is meant by that, but if you could put yourself in the position of the ordinary farmer in Aberdeenshire, Yorkshire, Norfolk and even in Cambridge, I do not believe that many farmers in those places would really understand what it is all about. So that the two things that are really necessary are to promulgate the thresholds on a five-year rolling average, to reduce those thresholds by a very small amount annually, until such time as world prices and Community prices come closer into balance and to make sure that farmers know what it is all about. The result of that, if it really is put into effect—and it can be, with determination and common sense—will be that eventually less food will be produced but there will be no surpluses to distort world trade.

While it would not be right at this stage to embark upon a discussion concerning world trade, it is something to which we have to give increasing attention. One asks first of all, what is going to happen to the marginal farmers? By "marginal", I do not necessarily mean the farmer on bad land, on marginal land; for it may be marginal because he is not awfully good at it himself, or because he was good or has grown too old, or because he is short of capital, or because his holding is too small. There are a lot of reasons for it. But what is going to happen to him? That is something which, with your Lordships' permission, I shall deal with a little later.

Now I should like to turn to the second point of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, concerning land ownership. I am a firm believer in the landlord and tenant system. I believe that it is the right one for agriculture. We have prospered under it in the past and the growth of the owner-occupier I believe is harmful to agriculture. Two entirely separate skills are needed: the skill of the farmer and the skill of the landowner. It is very rare that one finds those combined in one person. A great deal of capital is needed. If the farmer has that amount of capital, let him use it in other ways, extending his own operations, rather than becoming his own landlord. I should like to see a reversal of the present trend.

One suggestion which has already been made is that of the CLA and NFU which merits very serious consideration. I believe that—with certain modifications perhaps—it should be implemented. I was interested to hear from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that he felt exactly the same. One of the differences between the noble Earl and myself—and there are several differences between us but this concerns the present argument—is that for the past four years I have been in Opposition and he has been in Government. He has been a Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture. If he believes that this is a good suggestion, why has he not done anything about it? Why have his colleagues not done anything about it? I think that we are entitled to an answer to that question.

In anticipation of the answer, I would say that I would hope that it will be a favourable answer and that in addition to term tenancies there must also be considerable fiscal measures to benefit not all landowners but those who really make an occupation of it, who are themselves professional landowners, not simply those who have a 1,000 acres or 10,000 acres as part of their portfolio. I am not talking about those people.

Here I tread on more controversial ground: I believe also that a national land trust should be set up. That would be a body which would be empowered to buy from willing sellers—there would be no compulsion—their estates and their lands. The trust would administer them as landowners with full regard not only to the interests of agriculture but to the interests of the environment, the town dwellers and the country as a whole. That I believe eventually would find as much favour among the estate owners of the present day as the National Trust does for the owners of historic houses. It would be a means of preserving the estates which have been in families for generations in a manner which will ensure their continuation and will not simply pass into the maw of the institutions where it is part of the portfolio, and when there is an opportunity to cash in on a large and substantial capital gain it would then be sold. Such a trust will make a very big difference—it can make a very big difference if properly administered—to the care of the whole environment.

This leads me on to the third point of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and that is the general quality of rural life. In part this is aesthetic, and aesthetic matters are purely subjective. Whatever we may feel about the beauties of the countryside, none of us would dispute that there are certain buildings which have outlived their purpose but which are lovely and which should be preserved. There certainly are very few people who would dispute that the planting of trees, whether they be shelter belts, spinneys, copses or larger pieces of woodland, enhances the beauties of the countryside, even though they may not add to the immediate revenues of those who actually plant them. This is something which we would all like to see happen and which I believe under a national land trust one would see more frequently than under any other system.

Also there is this vexed question of access to the countryside. This is increasingly demanded by townspeople and by those who live in the villages but who are not themselves farmers or landowners. I have already referred to the marginal farmers who will be hit under the system that I have proposed to your Lordships by this squeeze in profits. Here they have a very significant part to play because they can become the guardians of the environment. They can look after and enhance the flora and the fauna and they can give access on their farms to picnickers, to hikers, to those who wish to ride and others who want to enjoy the amenities of the countryside. For that they should and they will be paid. Therefore, their diminished income from their farming activities will be enhanced by the payment they get for making available to the non-farming community—particularly the urban dwellers—some of the privileges that those of us who normally live and work in the countryside get without really thinking about it. Similar access should be allowed by those who are still profitable farmers and possibly larger farmers.

It is not simply the countryside itself, the appearance of the countryside or access to the countryside, that matters. It is the people who live in the countryside, who live in the villages and who determine the quality of life in rural areas. Too often we are seeing today young people leaving the villages because there is no work for them to do in those villages and within striking distance of them. Their places are taken by retired people and middle rank executives, who come for a short while because their firms have sent them to that area and then the executives move on. They are good and useful people but they are not the people who can be expected to have the long-term interests of the village community at heart.

Speakers have already mentioned the need for rural industries. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, who did so much work on this aspect, is with us today. I am sorry that he is not speaking. Some 15 years ago I became chairman of the East Anglian Economic Planning Council. The goal I set myself was that in every village in East Anglia there should be within a radius of half and hour's travelling time a variety of work for the young people and the older people of each village. Then they could still go on living in the village where they were born and of which they were part as members of the football team or cricket team, in the pub, whatever it may be, and yet be able to choose from a wide range of activities.

The noble Earl quite rightly—and I give him and the Government credit for it—encourages this: we need to have an increasing number of rural industries, light industries and service industries. I hope that the Government will give even more encouragement and a stronger lead than they have done hitherto in encouraging local authorities to grant planning permission for that type of activity. We cannot have a healthy and a vital countryside unless we replace the jobs which have over the past decades and generations been lost in agriculture by jobs in suitable industries.

In order to make this possible, we must have not only encouragement from central Government but actual financial encouragement for various other essential matters. Public transport is an essential part of rural life. The village post office is slowly disappearing but without it you cannot have a happy community; and, above all, rural schools are being closed every day throughout the country. Without them, people who have young children will move away from the villages because there are no schools for their children. They will move to those areas where schools are round the corner. Those are specific aspects where the Government can implement the wishes that the noble Earl has expressed. I believe that in this manner villages can take on a new life and they will be able in the 21st century to fulfil the role which they fulfilled so admirably in the 18th and 19th centuries.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, your Lordships ask whether modern farming methods have had an impact on rural areas. The answer, of course, is, yes; but farming methods throughout the ages have always had an impact both on the rural and indeed on the urban scene. Who could argue, for example, that the Black Death did not revolutionise agriculture? In the conservation field, also, who could argue that farmers found it necessary to exterminate the dinosaur? My case is that, although some changes have apparently undesirable facets—and certainly there are some in our modern farming techniques, including, perhaps, the worry of the surpluses mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walston—we should not oppose change, for I believe that our present farming pattern, which has been encouraged by governments of all parties, is one of the success stories of my generation.

I divide this success into two parts. First, let me look at some of the tangible benefits of modern farming methods. There has been a revolution, as has been said before, in plant and animal breeding which has helped not just the British farmer but also the third world farmer. Secondly, there has been a revolution in veterinary science, which has resulted in an improvement in animal health and care, and has led to the virtual extinction of human diseases such as TB and brucellosis. Thirdly, there has been a raising of educational standards among farmers, resulting in our ability to withstand the 1980 recession far better, I believe, than that of the 1920s.

These factors and others have resulted in increased prosperity, as was stated by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers, not just for farmers, but also for the ancillary industries, the chemical, manufacturing and service industries. Most importantly, there have been vastly increased prosperity and improved conditions of work for our labour force, which has been referred to, I think, by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, and which is outstanding.

It is ironical that those who criticise modern farming forget these tangible advances and stick to the intangible subjective cries of woe that our modern methods have ruined the happiness not only of the farmer but of the rural scene and of the rural environment. I do not agree at all. I see these modern methods as encouraging a desire for knowledge. Most of our young farmers now are educationally far better trained than we were—and do we not suffer from it! I know I do.

Secondly, modern farming has not destroyed the family: far from it. Farmers rank as having the lowest divorce rate—equal, I believe, with undertakers. Thirdly, farmers continue to take their social responsibilities very seriously. Even the Economist (not one of farming's great admirers) is always complaining that we are too well represented on local authorities—I wish that we were—and the same responsibility can be seen in other spheres.

Farmers continue to preserve and to keep tidy our most beautiful countryside and anyone who does the journey regularly, as I do, from here to Anglesey or from here to Scotland by train will see this. It is natural as we get older to look back and think that things were better in our youth. But is it really correct for us to say to the young farmer of today: "No more progress; get back to nature, to the pitchfork and the smock"? I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, was saying just a little bit of this. Surely, as I think my noble friend Lord Ferrers said, if he looked at a modern engineering or medical journal would he not see the same, or similar, advertisements as he saw in Arable Farming? I might accuse the noble Lord unfairly, but there is an element of that about today, and so I hope that your Lordships will not be persuaded to put artificial statutory controls on our industry, such as the size of a holding. That would only be a bonanza for the lawyers, and land nationalisaton, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, would not solve his problems or even take away his crocodile tears.

However, I should like to see some alteration, as my noble friend Lord Middleton mentioned, in the landlord and tenant legislation because—and it is "because"—both sides of the industry have agreed it, and that is how we should go on, by agreement. I hope, too, that there will be further relaxation, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said, in planning controls, so as to encourage industry and services to reinhabit our villages, if I may use that phrase. That movement, I believe, will be assisted by the modern computer and telecommunications technology. Lastly, I hope the Government will continue to support such schemes as the sheep regimé, which has done so much to help what are called our less favoured areas.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers spoke convincingly about progress, and I am sure that neither he nor my noble friend Lord Middleton really worship the particular saint which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, suggested they did. However, perhaps I could tell him of the case of Professor Gilbert Murray who, in order to get rid of his fellow dons, is reputed to have said to them: "Anyone not believing in progress should get out". My Lords, I hope and believe that your Lordships will remain seated.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Energlyn

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, for giving me this opportunity to speak as a geologist who has spent far more years dealing with the intricacies of mineralogy and microbiology of soils than I care to remember. I have, therefore, had a great deal to do with farmers, and it has always struck me that agriculture is really man bending nature to his will.

Basically, too, farmers and farm workers are men who till the soil, sow the seed and harvest the crops, and it is a chosen way of life. No two days are similar. So their lives are indelibly and inextricably associated with the love of animals, plants and the countryside, and no matter how vicious or strong these people are who wish to do this or that to the environment, I do not think that they stand much of a chance in making a dent in the integrity and the love of farmers for their land and their animals. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, pointed out, the farmer is also not only at the mercy of the elements but at the mercy of the capricious behaviour of the micro-organisms in the soils.

As industrialisation has developed, another element has entered into the farmer's way of life; namely, Government intervention and legislation. Since the war, each ministry has provided us with food supplies which have never been bedevilled by shortages and at prices which have been the envy of Europe. Now we are involved in European legislation which —I take encouragement from the noble Earl's speech—has temporarily involved us in all kinds of chaotic conditions. But from the noble Earl's speech I take great comfort that we are now back on our way home. Also, I take comfort from first-hand experience—sparing the noble Earl's blushes—that with imagination, and with the team he has around him, there is no doubt that the central part of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, about modern methods has been fully understood and pushed, if that is the right word, by the noble Earl and his colleagues.

I am sure that the noble Earl will forgive me if I quote an instance which is, perhaps, not very well-known to your Lordships; namely, the success story of biogas. The noble Earl set up a team of volunteers—and by that I mean real volunteers and not a quango—and we all had the most fascinating time assisting him in the creation of a system, and systems, of anaerobic digestion of animal and vegetable refuse. Within two years this has resulted in placing Britain in the forefront of the world in this new approach to the recycling and utilisation of farmyard materials, because when the organisms have created the biogas, which the farmer can use to run his machinery and to heat his house, the dairies and the barns, what remains is a unique type of fertiliser. The bacteria have created in this process of digestion the enzymes which are so absolutely vital for the roots of plants to assimilate the mineral matter out of the soil. So here we see the beginning of a new era of recycling materials from the farmyard into the fields and back again.

If I may continue in this vein—because I do not want to indulge in an academic lecture—we are witnessing some quite strident changes in the outlook of the farmer. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, pointed out that farmers today are far more conversant with technology than they ever were in the past. Also, the young people of today are more conversant with technology than we were in our youth. Here is a point that I should like to bring out. How can we attract young people into the technology of agriculture as easily as they are attracted into the technology of the silicon chip or the computer? If we could find a solution to that, it would answer many of the points that have been made as to how to recover the interest of youth in going back to the land.

Also, I feel quite sure that this ministry will be much more receptive to any ideas or suggestions regarding the reclamation of land which has for too long remained unproductive. I will restrict myself to the roughly 60,000 acres which are called maritime lands—and may I remind your Lordships of the history of Holland and the way in which the Dutch came to England and recovered for us land from the North Sea? Why is East Anglia so fertile, why is Holland so fertile and why is the Nile Delta so fertile? It is because they contain sediments which have most recently emerged from the sea. Once the level of salt has been reduced to potable levels, all the trace elements generated by the marine organisms are contained in the soils and these are available for plant growth.

We should, therefore, look to technology to accelerate the desalination of these lands. It took the Dutch roughly half a century to get them into the right condition, but we now have methods by which we can accelerate this process—not in the long term but in the short term. We can now do in one year what it took the Dutch 50 years to do, by using technologies like electro-endo-osmosis. That is a very nice piece of technological jargon. What it means is that by using electrolytic control of the soils we can make marsh water move in any way we like, particularly with salt water.

So if we take a case in point, the area between Newport and Cardiff, where there are several hundred acres of land which are exactly like the land that the Dutch rescued from the North Sea, all it needs is to remove the salt and drain it. With the use of these modern techniques, it will be possible to recover that land and the out-to-sea drainage could be made to pass through turbines, which would create the electricity which those agricultural areas would need to have greenhouses and so on. So here we have a technology which is ripe for application to lands like that.

I now turn to the example of a young man called Allan Cooke, who has developed and proved a substance which he calls Agrosoke, which would convert the sand dunes into fertile soils. All one has to do is to level the sand dune, sprinkle it with Agrosoke, cover it over with more sand, and some manure and water, and one has a fertile soil. He has proved this and has received a massive order from the Government of Abu Dhabi. This is a material which could be made to work for us. But, more particularly, it could be made to work in arid areas of the world.

However, it is the principle which I wish to establish; namely, that what Mr. Cooke has done is to follow in theme a long train of research which started some 40 years ago in Cardiff when Professor Quastel invented a compound called Krylium which imitated the fertility of volcanic soils. This was a remarkable compound because it would break clay down into the most beautiful tilth. But could Monsanto Chemicals who produced this compound persuade the farmers to use it? No. In those days they were far too conservative, but thanks—I say this unashamedly—to the present Ministry, farmers today are far more receptive of new ideas. So what we see is a whole train of substances. Agrosoke, for example, could be used