HL Deb 19 December 2002 vol 642 cc775-7

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the balance of trade in temperate food matters.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government's aim is to promote sustainable and competitive farming and food manufacturing industries which produce safe and attractive products that consumers both at home and abroad want to purchase, but we have to recognise that we live in an increasingly globalised world. The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food for England, published on 12th December, sets out how the Government will work with industry, rural and environmental organisations and consumers to help to achieve those objectives.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is she aware that over the past 10 years UK self-sufficiency in food that we can grow here has fallen by 14 per cent and that in the same period the deficit in trade on our temperate food has doubled from £2.6 billion to £5.3 billion? Are the Government satisfied with that situation?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, we believe that the food and farming industries need to improve their productivity and efficiency if they are to compete successfully in domestic and international markets. The Government cannot subsidise the industry in order to achieve particular levels of self-sufficiency or exports. In an increasingly globalised world the pursuit of self-sufficiency for its own end would be neither necessary nor appropriate.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, if food security matters in this modern world, is it not the home market and the home territory that matter and not Europe which, unlike this country, has a food surplus? If food security concerns are important, are not petroleum substitution crops—biofuels—likely to be more important in the future than food crops?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I accept the importance of the crops that the noble Lord mentioned. They offer farmers a new form of generating income. DEFRA is discussing with stakeholders the establishment of a new centre of excellence for non-food crops in the UK. A government/industry forum is addressing that matter. It is extremely important to recognise the contribution that energy crops can make.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's response in regard to subsidies, but is not the Government's attitude almost dangerously complacent in view of the fact that the deficit on temperate foods is part of a much wider and widening general trade deficit which is leading some people in some places to look with somewhat critical eyes at this country's credit rating?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the claim that the Government are complacent on this issue is insupportable. The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food sets out in detail the ways that we seek to tackle the sector we are discussing within the total economy. The strategy provides more money for marketing, processing and development and offers help as regards training and advice for farmers. It also rewards farmers for providing environmental goods. It is a new strategy. We work with all sectors of the industry. There is a general problem with regard to the import/export imbalance. DEFRA is working with the industry to try to overcome that deficit.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to congratulate the Government on producing a new strategy. However, we must ensure that farmers are aware of that. At the moment our farmers are saying that it is all very well for them to produce temperate food but they are not competing on a level playing field with other countries, even within Europe. For example, what subsidy do tomato growers in the Netherlands receive? What are the Government doing in Brussels about that matter to try to ensure that there is fairness, at least within the European market?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government and DEFRA are committed to ensuring that our farming industry competes with others on a totally level playing field. I am not able to comment in detail on whether there is a subsidy to tomato growers in a particular country. However, I shall write to the noble Baroness on that matter. We believe that the work we are doing is contributing to making our produce extremely competitive. We are permanently on our guard to protect the interests of our industry both within the European Union and in the wider context.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that productivity is not the problem— the productivity of UK agriculture is excellent—the problem is that our agriculture is not profitable? The single most important factor in this regard—I hope that it can be implemented in 2003—is successfully to negotiate entry into the euro. That would result in far higher profitability for UK farming and would ensure a radical improvement in the present deficit on trade.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, during the course of the coming 12 months the Government will seek to establish whether entry to the euro would be appropriate for the UK. Many in the food production and farming industries, particularly those involved in agriculture, share the noble Lord's view.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that perhaps the best way of getting a level playing field on which we can compete is to put much greater political effort into a root and branch change in the structure of the common agricultural policy? That is fundamentally necessary if we are to meet the obligations that we all so readily applauded after the Doha conference.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Tomlinson is absolutely right. We are committed to reform of the common agricultural policy, and have argued that within Europe and with our partners in Europe. Commissioner Fischler presented a new draft EU modalities paper that considered all the areas, including a commitment to zero duty for 50 per cent total imports from developing countries. The work that we do to change all that is wrong with the common agricultural policy has to be seen in the context of our commitment to developing countries, and our policy of seeking not to do anything to damage the interests of developing countries, as my noble friend recognised.

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