HL Deb 30 January 2002 vol 631 cc217-65

3.8 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones rose to call attention to the case for a proactive and sustainable government policy on food production, food standards and nutrition; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the timing of this debate is extremely opportune, in light of the publication yesterday of the report by Sir Don Curry, Farming & Food. At a recent presentation, Professor Tim Lang of Thames Valley University gave an interesting perspective on the politics of food. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he pointed out, the British rioted about the quality of food, food availability and the market system; but not in the 20th or 21st centuries. Nowadays, we obviously have to content ourselves with the lesser excitement of debates in this House.

That is not to say that there have not been some very significant issues and problems that have made us think about food safety and supply in recent years: E. coli outbreaks, salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth disease. It is those crises that have jolted us all into greater consciousness of the importance of the need for healthy food and the need to look at the food chain as a whole when discussing any one part of food policy.

In all surveys, the public have demonstrated that they place a high value on food health—in particular, in the FSA survey in September—even when that is set against the fundamentals of price and convenience.

As regards safety, in the survey published by the National Consumer Council this January as many as 77 per cent of consumers expressed concerns about the effects of pesticide use on their children. That health and safety of food must be the principal objective of food policy was emphasised only last week in a very important report, Why Health is the Key to the Future of Farming and Food, edited by Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner. The conclusion that we can draw is that, if we aim for health objectives, environmental benefits will also be achieved.

In the massive subject area of health and food, what are the key issues? First, and above all, is that of nutrition. In this age, and in Britain in particular, we are characterised by the twin problems of obesity and food poverty. One in two people in the UK is overweight and one in five is obese. In this country, 8 million people are obese. That is a trebling since 1980. If current trends continue, more than a quarter of all UK adults will be obese by 2010. The National Audit Office estimated that obesity is responsible for 30,000 premature deaths in this country. One in 10 six year-olds may now be obese—a doubling over the past 10 years. Estimates of costs in terms of cardiovascular disease, cancer and strokes, which need to be treated by the NHS, dental disease and knock-on effects to the wider economy in terms of community care, illness and absence from work vary from £2.5 billion to £10 billion.

As regards food poverty, in 1999 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that some 4 million people in the United Kingdom do not have access to a healthy diet. The Child Poverty Action Group report, Poverty Bites, of December 2001 claimed that about 2 million children are living in families which cannot afford to eat healthily. Others put that figure higher. Many families spend only £25 or £30 per week on their food. Healthy food does cost more. There is a lack of shops selling healthy food in poor areas. But it is not all about affordability. There has been a loss of cooking skills, and convenience can take the place of health. Such issues all contribute to the problem.

What steps can we take to counter those twin problems? First, we need proper food education in schools. A survey by the Doctor Patient Partnership found that one-quarter of children eat sweets and crisps for breakfast. We need to encourage children to take more exercise. The National Audit Office report last year and the subsequent Public Accounts Committee report made some useful suggestions on that score, saying that at least two hours' exercise a week should be the entitlement of every child.

The NHS Plan announced a series of proposals to improve diet and nutrition by 2004. Well, we are halfway to 2004. What has been the effect of those government measures? Government certainly need to do more in this area, with schools in particular, to promote a balanced diet and healthy eating and to counteract the weight of advertising by food manufacturers of what are often sugary and fatty foods.

The National School Fruit Scheme, which has been piloted in 500 schools and is aimed at giving a piece of fruit a day to young children in schools and kindergartens but which will not be fully operational until 2004. has the right idea. But why should that scheme be funded by the New Opportunities Fund? Why is it not contained within mainstream funding?

The Department of Health National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed that children's consumption of fruit and vegetables is particularly low, with one in five four to six year-olds eating no fruit at all in a typical week. Surveys of older children—in particular, the one carried out by MORI last September—showed what a mountain we have to climb. The average 11 to 16 year-old is eating fewer than 13 portions of fruit and vegetables a week. Some children do not even recognise common vegetables. We are storing up trouble for the future if we do not tackle this issue even more energetically.

As regards access to healthy food, the problem of food poverty and food deserts was described in the Acheson report in 1998. A working group was set up by Tessa Jowell, MP, when she was Minister with responsibility for public health and it reported two years later. The problem was recognised by the Social Exclusion Unit in I999. The Food Poverty (Eradication) Bill—a Private Member's Bill—has taken up the cause of food poverty. The key problem is the decline in the small shop with all the underlying reasons for its inability to compete with the major supermarkets.

But what is being done to counteract that problem? Who is mapping access to food retailers in these areas and charting the decline of the neighbourhood shop? We need a proactive national policy designed to improve access to fresh food in such areas. We cannot simply rely on market solutions.

Of course, the solution will differ in each area. The work done by the East London Health Action Zone to help to set up food co-operatives and breakfast clubs for children and to teach cooking skills is a particularly good example. Central government need to set a central strategy, and local authorities should take the lead in assessing the problem in their area. They need to implement solutions tailored to the needs of the locality in order to encourage appropriate retailers back into an area or farmers' markets or food co-operatives, whatever the appropriate solution may be.

In order to improve diet and nutrition, we also need to improve labelling systems. The Food Advisory Committee recently described the situation well. Much labelling seems to be deliberately designed to confuse, with words such as "farmhouse", "pure", "fresh" and "country style" being applied to food which is far from it. The Food Standards Agency's action on that aspect of labelling is very welcome.

We live in a world where Sunny Delight, promoted as healthy, contains only 5 per cent orange juice. In addition, we have ham which can be largely water and soya, chickens which are 40 per cent water. chicken liver pate which contains pork, farmed trout and salmon which are died pink, and fish fingers which may be only half fish, and so on. We need to go furt her, and so does the European Union. Consumers need information in order to make real choices. They need to know where their food comes from, whether it contains major allergens, what production methods are being used, whether it has GM ingredients, and what its nutritional value is, in particular in respect of children's food.

There is also a great need for major retailers, food producers and farmers to agree on industry-wide food assurance schemes, such as the "red tractor" scheme and the new British standards of traceability. All that is part of,

"building the bridge of trust between producer and consumer",

as Sir Donald Curry put it in his report.

The second major issue, which although it is of great public concern has less impact in health terms, is the question of pesticides, antibiotics, hormone disrupters in food and food packaging. There has been insufficient action to follow up the findings that the use of antibiotics in animals can lead to resistant bacteria in humans. The House of Lords report in 1998 pointed to the dangers and, last year, research front St Bartholomew's Hospital, published in the New. Scientist, gave further cause for concern when it showed that children already had resistance to antibiotics which they had not even taken.

There is also cause for concern in the light of findings as yet unpublished by Liverpool University researchers, which the Food Standards Agency clearly takes seriously, of a cocktail effect which makes food containing residues of more than one pesticide many times more toxic than individual chemicals. We need to look at pesticide reduction policies rather than simply ban them only when they are proven to be harmful.

In addition, for some years there has been an intense debate on the question of food additives, with manufacturers strenuously denying that their additives cause harm. Clearly we need to put the precautionary principle into practice here as elsewhere in our food standards policy; it should not simply be left to progressive retailers to enforce. There is a strong case, as there always has been, for putting the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and the Pesticides Safety Directorate under the Food Standards Agency.

As to food production, our current system, with producer subsidies from the EU under the CAP and the sourcing methods of our major retailers, has had a knock-on effect—a decline in UK fruit and vegetable production and a vast increase in imports. From the evidence, it now seems very likely that the form of food production in this country which will achieve both health and environmental objectives is not intensive, large-scale farming and long-distance transport of food but smaller-scale, more local food production with full traceability. That would of course also improve our trade gap in fresh produce.

Although intensive farming is lauded by some as leading to cheap food, its proponents ignore the externalities in terms of its real costs with regard to its effect on the environment and, in some cases, health. Those externalities may consist of the effect of the use of nitrates. Our estuaries are badly polluted with fertilisers and that has a major impact on fish stocks. The effect on the environment of the pollution caused by fish farming is also a matter of growing concern, in particular, in relation to wild salmon.

The recent report from Sustain entitled, Eating Oil, demonstrates the extraordinary economics of our food imports, where food is imported from thousands of miles away. Memorably, it cites how the ingredients for a Christmas dinner can have travelled over 24,000 miles before reaching the shop. Airfreight of food has doubled in extent between 1989 and 1999. By contrast, what may appear to be more expensive food now might be cheaper in the long run for society and will certainly benefit rural communities and the environment more.

There have already been knock-on effects to the developing world of our intensive agriculture with the growing of inappropriate cash crops, leading to fewer food crops produced for local needs, worsening nutrition and, in some cases, major damage to the environment. As Sir Don Curry concludes, we need to make much better use of modulation of EU production subsidies to encourage a more sustainable approach to food production. That is clearly central to any change in food policy.

The mid-term review of the common agricultural policy in 2002–03 must take the opportunity of moving the CAP towards a more sustainable food policy through transferring resources to the so-called second pillar of the CAP. Reform of the CAP would certainly be the logical outcome if the EU took note of its own White Paper on food safety, published in 2000, which advocated an integrated approach to food from farm to table. Integrated crop management clearly offers benefits. Many of us also believe that there is a case for a more positive move to organic production, not only on environmental grounds but also, particularly, in light of the fact that 75 per cent of our organic food is currently imported.

In conclusion, we clearly need a comprehensive food plan tackling the key problems, looking at the food chain as a whole, from the point of view of health, environment, society and the economy. Above all, as Sir Don urges, there is a need to re-connect the farmer to the consumer and the countryside.

What I have described is not some kind of bucolic idyll, a romantic vision of past rural England; it is a hard-headed approach based on the appreciation that if we do not grasp this opportunity to reappraise our food policy, whether that relates to production, safety or nutrition, we are guaranteeing ourselves a future of ill health and environmental degradation. On these Benches, our vision is clear. I urge the Government to act now. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. Perhaps I may say what an important subject this is and how pleased I am that the Government have taken it so seriously since they were elected in 1997. I start by declaring an interest because of my long-standing association as a member of the British Co-operative Movement and as a parent trying to persuade two young teenagers to eat their greens and fruit.

This is, indeed, an appropriate time for this debate. We are a year or so into the work of the Food Standards Agency. Yesterday's announcement of the report of the farming and food commission also lends an urgency to this discussion. Two or three years ago the European Union sub-committee, of which I was a member, looked at this issue, we looked at the work of the European Food Safety Authority and how it would relate to the proposed British Food Standards Agency. In those deliberations we were concerned about how to enforce food standards throughout Europe, particularly when food scares happening in one country needed to be dealt with across Europe. I believe that the report, which raised potent and important issues, has not yet received the attention it deserves.

The Government in their manifesto of 1997 committed themselves to the establishment of a food standards agency. Indeed, the agency came into being in April 2000. As your Lordships will know, the agency is charged with protecting the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food. Last year, the agency produced a five-year plan entitled, Putting Consumers First. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Food Standards Agency for the professional and accessible way in which it has established itself so far. I have accessed its website on several occasions since it has been up and running to ask questions about food safety and food standards. I have found it a good website to use and recommend it to your Lordships. It is also extremely accessible because it contains information about the agency's deliberations. It is an example of how such a body should run.

It is worth noting that the key priorities which the Food Standards Agency have set itself have been driven by the concerns and anxieties of ordinary people. As a result. it is possible that it may succeed in its overriding objective to become the UK's most reliable source of advice and information about food. The five-year plan it set itself aims to reduce food-borne illness by 20 per cent by improving food safety right through the food chain; to help people to improve their dietary health, which echoes, quite rightly, the advocation of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones; to promote honest and informative labelling to help consumers; to promote best practice within the food industry; and to improve the enforcement of food law.

I am impressed because the success of the FSA is an important contribution to the objective of a sustainable government policy on food production, food standards and nutrition. It is not possible to divide those issues between a department which deals with farming and one which deals with health. I am pleased and welcome the fact that the Government have seen this as an issue which has to be addressed across all government departments.

The Co-operative Group as a farmer, through its farming operations on over 90,000 acres; as a food processor holding substantial dairy interests, and as a food retailer with over 1,000 stores—believes that it is only through co-operation across the food chain that a sustainable food and farming sector will be created. For example, the Co-operative Group is on record as welcoming the establishment of an English food collaborative panel, which will draw together people to encourage co-operative activity across the sector. For example, farmers should co-operate for mutual benefit in the areas of knowledge transfer, benchmarking, shared kit and developing new added-value markets.

I also welcome the recommendation in the farming and food commission report that a food chain forum should be established, part of whose work will be to look at how the demand for fresh foods can be increased. Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, rightly pointed out, processed foods are a huge problem in people's diets. On a personal note I have been trying to banish processed foods from my family's diet. Indeed, it is not only slightly more expensive but involves more time. For families who are working and very busy, that is not something to be under-estirna ted.

Since the early 1990s, the Co-operative Movement has been pioneering in its work on food, and taking seriously its responsibilities to provide wholesome food, which is one of its founding principles. For example, in 1998 the Co-op led the way in telling customers exactly how much salt was contained in a product. It remains the only retailer to state that information clearly on the front of packs. In 1995 it became the first retailer to label calories and fat content per serving on the front of packs. In 1996 it advised parents about the sugar contained in drinks and fruit juice which could lead to tooth decay and poor nutrition. In 2000 it launched the first of its food crimes reports, which committed all of us in the Cooperative Movement during the hours of children's TV to a voluntary ban on advertising of all food and drink products high in fat, sugar or salt. I am proud as a cooperator of that record.

In conclusion, the question we need to ask citizens, consumers and taxpayers is, "What should we expect from the countryside, farming and food sector?" There is a highly complex interrelationship between citizens, consumers and taxpayers and their expectations of the countryside, farming and food sectors, with different dynamics—and not always congruous dynamics coming into play at different times. The consumer wants convenient access to a range of different types of outlets—retail and catering which provide a wide range of safe quality food at affordable prices with year-round availability.

They also want food produced to high animal welfare standards, with minimum artificial inputs. But different consumers have different demands at different times, and sometimes those demands are incompatible. Under those circumstances, the job of government is to push forward for greater information, greater education, for appropriate powers and for the joined-up government that they have shown so far.

3.30 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, I shank very much the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for introducing this debate. I wish also to say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. I shall confine my remarks to some of the problems of food poisoning and how best to promote a healthy diet. In fairness to the Government, however much the authorities try to ensure that food is wholesome there will always be some people who upset the system and create small-scale, or even large-scale, havoc; such is human nature.

Some time ago a dinner of over 100 people took place in London. Half of them developed hepatitis as a result. Investigations revealed that the hepatitis virus was present in the raspberries which were served. That confused the investigators until they visited those up north who were picking the raspberries. They found that the workers were putting the raspberries into waterproof polythene bags. They were then weighed and the workers were paid according to the weight. They found that some of the workers were artificially increasing the weight of those polythene bags by attending to the usual necessities of nature. Although most people passed sterile urine, one of the raspberry pickers unfortunately was secreting the hepatitis virus in his urine. Human nature can be extraordinarily perverse.

Other problems arise through pure ignorance. Some patients were found to have a particularly nasty type of food poisoning known as Canipylobacter, which is Greek for a curved bacterium. At first it seemed that the infection was coming through chickens. I suppose that in one sense that was correct. An investigation into the way the chickens were prepared found that they were electrocuted upside down on a conveyor belt. Electrocution inevitably caused contraction of all the chicken's muscles. That encouraged the gut to disgorge its contents which then ran down to cover the chicken from head to toe—or perhaps we should say from toe to head. The chickens were then put in a giant vat which produced a kind of bacterial soup. After that the chickens were cut up and packaged.

When the packages were opened the chickens were chopped up on a wooden board, either in a restaurant or at home. The pieces of chicken were then sterilised by cooking. That is fine; the organism was killed. Unfortunately, the same board was often used to chop up salad and so contamination spread through the salad to the patient who became quite ill. When these unfortunate practices come to light, publicity goes some way to eliminating them. But so long as human beings are involved, such is human nature that new hazards will constantly arise. No amount of legislation will prevent that.

As to promoting a healthy diet, one of the most extraordinary and effective experiments ever carried out was in 1939 at the beginning of the war. At that time, one-third of British and one-third of American people were either underfed or ill fed. The introduction of food rationing changed that situation overnight. The ration book contained the coupons which provided people with exactly the right amount and the right kind of food every week—not too little, not too much. It was impossible to become fat unless one was on the black market. As children in those days, we used to point the finger at fat people because they were on the black market. The rationed food contained all the right vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and fat and, better still, provided a high roughage diet in the form of the national loaf.

Although this ideal diet produced a population which was much healthier than it had been in the past, there were certain problems. There were huge rows in another place with objections being raised to the 100 per cent wholemeal national loaf. I should explain that in wholemeal flour the bran contains phytic acid which binds on to calcium and prevents its absorption. Calcium absorption at the best of times is not very good—only one-third of it is actually absorbed. If one's nutrition is fairly critical, as in times of warfare, there is a real danger that people might become deficient in calcium. So the Government legislated to have calcium put in the flour. Unfortunately, many MPs objected. They thought that it was an infringement of liberty. Fortunately for the people, their objections were not listened to.

Of course, one cannot act in that way in peacetime. However, in the United States it is a different matter. There they simply override objections to altering the food. It was discovered, for instance, that spina bifida could be prevented if a pregnant lady has enough of the vitamin folic acid in her body at the time of conception. But it is rather difficult to arrange that. So the American Government simply said that all flour must contain folic acid.

Why is a high roughage diet so desirable? It has been known to be desirable for thousands of years. As the Bishops' Bench will well know, the first mention of it is in the Book of Daniel. The young teenager and his companions refused to eat the food in the royal palace. When it was pointed out to them that they might be put to death for refusing the food, Daniel requested a 10-day trial of a high roughage diet. It was compared with the rich diet from the king's table. We could say that this was the first clinical trial of its kind. Noble Lords will remember that those on the high roughage diet did better.

It was Denis Birkett who, in the 1960s and 1970s, drew attention to the problem of a low roughage diet. In Nigeria, for instance, those on a sensible diet out in the country do not have all the problems that civilisation does. But the moment people start moving into Lagos they develop appendicitis, haemorrhoids, diverticular disease and so on. The other advantage of a high roughage diet is that it prevents people becoming too obese.

During recent years it has become clear that antioxidants, vitamin E, and so on, are important constituents of diet in preventing disease. The good news is that anti-oxidants are prevalent in good wine both red and white.

I have tried to draw attention to the fact that however hard governments try to minimise food poisoning, so long as there are human beings around one will have trouble. As to the promotion of healthy eating, perhaps one of the greatest needs is to concentrate, as already mentioned, on trying to reduce obesity. Perhaps the best advice of all was given in this House some years ago—moderation in all things and not too much of that either.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, that is the best speech that I have heard from the Conservative Front Bench for a long time. I much look forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. My noble friend deserves a good deal of credit for introducing the debate. I agree with nearly all he said, and particularly with the need to improve people's diet. It is obvious to all that we are in grave trouble with the kind and amount of food that people eat.

However, I want to concentrate on the future of farming. There is a tendency just now to look on farming as one of the great nuisances that we have to bear and that the farmers are squealing somewhat so we have to put them right and force them to be better.

I am one of the few people who farmed pre-war in a purely organic way, because that was how we farmed in Aberdeenshire. We had three years of growing grass, then a year of oats, then a year of turnips, then we sowed the crop back to grass. On a 400-acre farm, that was how system worked. It was very expensive in labour, but the labour was not expensive—people were not paid enough. We had 10 men on that farm. One could not consider operating in that way today.

We should consider the problems with herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. All sorts of organisations have expressed extraordinary fear of those three things. Herbicides have improved the yields of a large number of crops without spoiling the ultimate result. Pesticides are extremely important. Of course they must be regulated, but they have done a great deal of good for farmers, with the result that they have been able to produce crops at a reasonable price not an expensive one. Fertiliser merely adds some extra food for the plant and, again, raises yield.

We cannot dismiss those as being a great danger to the whole community. The number of complaints about being affected by pesticides on produce sold is riot large. It is difficult to prove any really bad results from it. We must consider the matter in a practical way. The biggest danger from pesticides and herbicides is of course to the operator. I need say no more about that because the noble Countess, Lady Mar, is present, and she has done more than any other Member of the House to draw attention to those real dangers. Obviously, we must take care in that regard.

I turn to the business of sustainable farming. It is very important. To me, it means maintaining the bacteria and humus content of the soil. The Macaulay Institute and others are researching that. Modern combine farming, with a proper mixture and rotation, can produce an improving humus content in the soil. We cannot throw away those advantages. If we in this country are to farm in competition, we need modern practices to compete with farmers from all over the world. At the same time, we must ensure that everything is properly regulated. The new Food Standards Agency has started in the right way, and should be a most useful body to reassure the population about their fears.

I fear the term "modulation". I understand that what the Government want to do—I should be glad if the Minister would tell us exactly how they are to do it—is to remove up to 10 per cent of the subsidy available for crop production paid to farmers by the acre and apply it to the environment. If that means planting and maintaining more hedges, or building more dykes or more stone walls, I do not see how that will ultimately benefit the environment. If we are to use that money for that, farmers will have to do the work. For goodness' sake, let us have a decent programme of planting, instead of concentrating on the hedge, which is no longer a practical proposition for fencing.

The biggest thing for which the Government must prepare in agriculture is the expansion of the EU. There are enormous areas of Poland, Hungary and other countries that are seeking entry where people can farm and make money at present prices without any trouble. I know people who are doing that, simply because labour there is so cheap. Do we say, "Right, you miserable farmers, you must compete with that"? We must have a European policy. If we have a decent policy and take care of all the dangers, the farmers of this country will live up to expectations and produce sustainable agriculture.

3.46 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

My Lords, I first take this opportunity to express my warm thanks to the officers and staff of your Lordships' House for their kindness and care in my introduction, and in particular their patience with my chronic sense of direction. That is much appreciated. I am glad to be able to take part in this debate about a policy for sustainable food production, not least because of its loots in the Book of Daniel.

Often, when there is a crisis, people think again about some things that they previously took for granted. Early in the Curry report on the future of farming and food is the comment: The trauma of Foot and Mouth Disease caused many people in the farming and food industry to think about what they do from first principles". That has certainly been reflected in Suffolk. During the past two or three years, Suffolk suffered first from swine fever and then from the effects of foot and mouth disease. But during the same period—a devastating period for those involved in farming and other businesses in rural areas—the number of farmers' markets rose by a factor of about 10 and new businesses came into being through the farming industry. The result has been a shortening of the food chain—especially between consumer and producer—and a whole series of jobs have been retained within the rural community.

I am not for one moment suggesting that a sustainable food production policy can be put in place simply by returning to a local economy of supply and demand. I want to draw attention to the important relationship between farming and i he rural community and the fact that it involves much more than food production. My concern is underlined in another report, published at the end of last year, this time by the Sustainable Development Commission, which provided some of the analysis on sustainability for the Curry commission. The report analysed evidence from 16 organisations—not only farming and retailing, but ecological and community interests.

A section of the report has, for an official report, a rather whimsical title. Suddenly, one comes across the heading, "Issues given surprisingly little attention". That seemed to me a gentle euphemism for gaping holes or serious omissions; but it has a nice feel to it. At least, it encourages one to read on.

Under that heading, the commission identified four or five important issues which, it felt, had not been sufficiently addressed in the evidence it had received. One of those was the failure of any of the submissions to make real connections between farming and the vitality of rural economies and communities. 'The report says that no submission gave detailed recommendations as to how farming could contribute to rural culture. The report also suggests that further research is needed in that area. It is interesting that that is reflected in the Curry report itself and its recommendation that there should be a re-connection of agriculture with its own context.

The relationship between farming and rural communities needs careful attention in any consideration of a sustainable food production policy. Farming is far more than just the production of food. If that is not understood, some serious long-term mistakes will be made. It would be bizarre to produce a sustainable food production policy if it undermined the sustainability of producer communities, here or overseas—perhaps particularly overseas. I hope very much that, in any future consideration of the subject, that subtle but vital component—the relationship between farming and rural culture and community—will be kept firmly in mind.

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for the opportunity to speak about a subject that is close to my heart—food. In particular, I want to speak about food in relation to children's health and well-being. First, I pay tribute to the excellent and thoughtful maiden speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Before Bishop Richard came to the East of England, he ministered to flocks in the North East and the South West. So, he has had a good view of agriculture nay, shepherding—throughout the country. He has had a deep interest in rural affairs for a number of years. Between 1982 and 1987, he was chaplain for agriculture in Hereford diocese, before moving to Ludlow and, then, to Taunton, as suffragan bishop. Since he became Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, he has had to help the rural community through a series of major problems, including an outbreak of classical swine fever and the ravages of foot and mouth disease. The people have found him a great support in troubled times.

On a lighter note, I see that one of the right reverend Prelate's leisure activities is bumble-bees. I suppose that I should say that I look forward to hearing him buzzing around the Chamber for many years to come. Your Lordships would have been disappointed if I had not said that.

It is a simple truth that we are what we eat. Food not only gives us the building blocks for every cell of our body, it also gives us opportunities for relaxation, social interaction, expressing our cultural heritage, and artistic expression. However, there are enormous dangers inherent in getting the quality and balance of the food that we eat wrong, so important is it to our health and longevity.

Sadly, in this prosperous country, there are still around 4 million people suffering from food poverty, 2 million of whom are children. Food poverty is the inability to afford or have regular access to a range of foods from which to select a healthy and varied diet. Sadly, it is widespread. Food Justice, the campaign to eradicate food poverty, claims that an average of 5,000 people in every parliamentary constituency may be malnourished. The consequences in ill health are massive. An estimated four out of every 10 people admitted to hospital are malnourished in some way.

The effect on children, in particular, is serious. Babies whose mothers do not eat a healthy balanced diet as they grow in the womb are underweight at birth and are susceptible to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Young babies whose mothers do not breast-feed and cannot afford good quality formula milk may be fed cows' milk and become anaemic. Children who are malnourished are susceptible to all sorts of infections. They lack energy and find it difficult to concentrate at school. Victorian diseases such as rickets and tuberculosis are again being reported.

The annual financial cost of poor diet in the United Kingdom—around £10 billion, as my noble friend said—puts the costs of BSE and foot and mouth disease in the shade, enormous though they are. The cost in human life is also great. Dr Mike Rayner of the University of Oxford has shown that there is a large correlation between the incidence of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular problems and poor eating. About 250,000 premature deaths result from such diseases, and the quality of life of such patients is much reduced. The number of early deaths from malnutrition has been estimated as the equivalent of a serious air crash every day.

In order to consider solutions to food poverty, we must study the causes. Money certainly comes into it. The poor face malnourishment, but the rich do not. Income is clearly a factor. The cash available to a family on benefit to spend on food is only 63p per day for a primary schoolchild, 93p for older children and £2.37 for adults. Researchers have estimated that an adequate diet for a family of two adults with children aged 16 and 10 costs £69.20 per week; yet the food allowance in such a family's benefit payments was estimated at just £41.10, a shortfall of nearly £30 per week.

Working families have similar problems. Dr Mike Nelson of the University of London has calculated that the minimum wage needs to be £7 per hour to allow working families enough money for a proper diet. How do families on benefit or the minimum wage manage to feed their children adequately? The answer, of course, is that they do so with extreme difficulty.

Someone with an inadequate budget must be very clever at shopping and cooking. I shall return to the matter of shopping later, but, first, I should like to say something about cooking. Many people in poor families are extremely creative about how they make the cheapest ingredients appetising and balance their family's nutrition. However, that requires them to know how to do it. Recent changes in the national curriculum mean that many children go through school having studied little or no home economics and with little idea about nutrition. Part of the reason for that is that there are no special training courses for home economics teachers, so there is a shortage of people to teach it. Our children can get through life without knowing the chemical formula for ammonia or the capital of Brazil, but they cannot get through life in good health without knowing how to feed themselves.

There are many wonderful pre-prepared foods in the shops. Rich people can get away with not knowing how to cook; poor people cannot. We cannot rely on the TV cooks to do the job for us. It may be true that food has become the new sex, attracting millions of viewers to the cookery programmes of Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson, but we cannot rely on such kitchen gods and goddesses to educate the population about nutrition, even though the dishes that they prepare are very wholesome. We must do it in schools. I call on the Government to do something about it. Children are not learning to cook at their mother's knee, as I did and as my children did.

Poor families may also not have access to good cheap food. Although it is true that the cost of food has not risen as much as the price of housing, transport and clothes in recent years, the cost of healthy food has risen more than the average. For example, the average increase in food prices between 1982 and 1995 was 62 per cent, but the price of oranges rose by 80 per cent, fresh fish by 110 per cent and potatoes by 250 per cent. At the same time, chocolate biscuits rose in price by only 54 per cent, sausages by 37 per cent and cream by only 12 per cent.

Access to a wide variety of cheap food also depends on where people live and whether they have transport. Thirty per cent of villages have no shops. Out-of-town supermarkets are no use to someone without a car. Smaller shops, in competition with the buying power of the supermarkets, must charge more for food in order to make a profit. The savings that can be made by buying supermarket economy lines, multipacks or large sizes are not available to those who must carry heavy bags home on the bus or on foot.

Therefore, I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and call on the Government to address the problem of food poverty by implementing policies that only governments can, and to have a clear strategy to eradicate it. Only governments can change the planning laws, benefit levels, transport policy, the national curriculum and tax incentives. I beg the Minister to take hold of the issue. Millions of families will thank him. The country will benefit. The environment and the future of our children will be protected if he does so.

4 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for introducing the debate. I should declare an interest in that all my life I have been involved in British agriculture. I am worried about the present state of British agriculture and its ability to participate in the issues to which the report refers. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was understandably worried about matters such as the fact that one out of two people is overweight, while one in five is obese. He suggested that the Government should try to tell people to stop eating sweets. All that is perfectly correct, but I wonder whether that is the job of government. It is part of educating children, undertaken by schools and parents. I do not think that that is part of a government's job. Indeed, I fear that many of the recommendations will encourage even more bureaucracy, with yet more committees and organisations set up to run and curtail.

What will happen is what happens in every area of life. More and more bureaucracy will mean that schoolteachers will not have time to teach because they have to fill out forms; farmers will not have time to farm because they have to fill out forms and doctors will not have time to doctor because of all the forms. Governments should try to halt that process. Every government try to stop it; we tried when we were in government. A Bill to cut out bureaucracy was introduced. I have temporarily forgotten its name. It was a colossal great thing with heaven knows how many schedules attached to it in the attempt to get rid of all the bureaucracy. One tends to feed on the other. Nevertheless, I beg the Government to try to cut down on all bureaucracy.

The labelling of food is confusing. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to "farmhouse" bread. A further example can be found in restaurants with regard to peas. One establishment will serve "fresh" peas, another will serve "green" peas, while yet another will offer "garden" peas. What do those terms mean? It is a complicated matter and it is right that labelling should be made clear. At the moment, something can be labelled "British" if it is imported but then carved in a British factory. The fact is that when you think you are eating British pork, in reality it is Polish pork, although nothing on the label would tell you that that is the case.

I see the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in his place. On previous occasions he will have heard what I am about to say. The Government are presiding over the biggest slump in British agriculture for a century and nothing is being done about it. I should emphasise that point: nothing at all is being done about it. The only desire appears to be to acquire cheap food. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, remarked that a Christmas dinner can travel 24,000 miles before it lands on your plate. No doubt that is perfectly true; I saw the report. It is no surprise when you get pork from Poland, bacon from Denmark and chicken from Thailand. All that is being done for cheapness.

However, nothing is being done to support British agriculture. This morning the Daily Telegraph commented in relation to the report that farmers must either "Adapt or Die". I thought that that was a staggering headline. Some 6,000 farmers have gone out of business over the past three years, while 60,000 jobs have been lost. I know of someone locally who farms, I believe, 1,500 acres. He has left farming. He told me that every single enterprise on his farm was losing money. Something has to be done about that. There is no point in telling farmers that they have to co-operate with processors, supermarkets and so forth when they cannot make any money whether or not they cooperate.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, in a moving and thought-provoking speech, made one particularly telling comment. He pointed out that the importance of agriculture and the rural environment is about much more than just food production. So it is and the right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to point that out. Agriculture involves, and is involved in, the whole of the rural economy. Agriculture both benefits from it and contributes to it.

Last night the Evening Standard, commenting on the report on food and farming, stated that poor UK farming means that shoppers "pay too much". That is simply untrue. Potatoes may cost £150 per tonne, but potato crisps cost £8,500 per tonne. How can it be said that bad farming is making food expensive for consumers? A loaf of bread may cost 50p, but the wheat content of that loaf will have cost 3p. Again, how can it be said that British agriculture is ripping off the consumer? It simply is not so.

I wish to touch on the current "in" word, organic farming. Everyone says that everything must be grown organically. I do not think that that is true. Ordinary farming has a great deal to be said for it. After all, the human body is nothing if not a great chemical factory. It ingests chemicals; it breaks down chemicals; it creates chemicals and it excretes chemicals. Thus it is perfectly reasonable to take chemicals into the body, provided of course that they are properly controlled. When you are ill and visit the doctor, he gives you a pill. That pill is nothing but a concoction of chemicals. We are grateful to doctors for providing us with chemicals. However, those chemicals are very carefully scrutinised—and quite rightly so. The chemicals used in agriculture should also be carefully scrutinised. Periodically a mistake will be made. That is inevitable. But to say that organic farming is the be all and the end all is, I believe, mistaken. Apart from anything else, if all the output of British agriculture were done on an organic basis, land the size of the whole of Europe would be required to sustain it.

I am greatly worried by the fact that the Government say that they want to cut down on subsidies. I can understand why governments should want to get rid of subsidies—I should like us to be in that position—but if we do so, we must do it as part of Europe, and Europe must do it also. We in the United Kingdom cannot do it alone because if the others do not act as well, there will not be a level playing field. However, what worries me about the proposal is the modulation—transferring the subsidy from the food to the environment. The Government have suggested that that should rise to 10 per cent by 2004. That is only two years hence and means that the money that farmers will receive for their produce will fall in comparison with that given to our European competitors. I do not think that that is right. It will make it even more difficult for farmers to carry on. Putting subsidies into the environment will not mean that the person looking after that environment will be any better able to look after it and to carry on farming.

I have a horrible feeling that the Government consider that the birds, the bugs and the beetles are more important than agriculture, producing food for human consumption. The two are complementary. They should not be adversaries. I hope that something will be done to help British agriculture out of its present parlous state.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I shall confine my remarks to the production side as I know more about it. I am a farmer and I have been involved in marketing, exporting and importing meat for decades.

I honestly believe that consumers will have to pay a great deal more for British-produced lamb, beef and other commodities over the coming 10 years. That is because young farmers are leaving the industry in their thousands, while those remaining on the land have had enough of the supermarkets controlling their lives and their destinies. Low incomes and the lack of any financial security are the main reasons given by youngsters for not wanting to follow in their parents footsteps. The latest survey carried out by the Farmers' Union of Wales shows that in Wales nearly 50 per cent of farmers' sons will not follow in their parents' footsteps to keep the traditional family farm going. Cheap food policy is taking its toll.

Is the Minister in a position to inform the House when livestock markets will be allowed to operate freely without any restrictions and whether the Government have any plans to compensate auctioneers and farmers who operate livestock markets? John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said yesterday: It is vitally important that people should understand that the entire sustainability of the hill and upland farming systems, which dominate livestock production throughout the UK, is based on variable production whose sustainability is directly linked to an auction system as the most effective means of creating the link between seller and buyer". Many producers are concerned about import controls. Can the Minister say what are the latest developments regarding importation of beef and lamb from foreign countries? In the year 2000 we imported 211,000 tons of beef and 118,000 tons of sheep meat. What are the current amounts of meat imported?

Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway, Asda and Somerfield account for 80 per cent of all grocery and meat sales. Tesco is the first supermarket to make a yearly profit of more than £1 billion. Supermarkets have more power over their suppliers and farmers than the Prime Minister has over his Cabinet. With supermarkets making billions of pounds profit every year and average farm incomes at such a low level—last year the figure was just over £4,000, which is lower than the minimum wage—who can blame farmers?

Now that the supermarkets are in charge and control agricultural policies, what are the Government going to do to curb their powers? Some 94 per cent of farmers demand laws to regulate the activities of the retail giants. We need legislation to ensure fair play for all. Yesterday we debated the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food—a rehash of what has been said so many times before over the past 10 years. We need action, not words. Are the Government aware that more than half the farmers in Wales are part-timers?

The Farmers' Union of Wales. NFU Scotland, Ulster Farmers Union and NFU Cymru Wales have reacted angrily to the policy commission straying into devolved agricultural policy. By recommending that the Government—together with their partner administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—increase the modulation rate to 10 per cent, farmers' unions believe that the commission is undermining the strategies that have already been drawn up in the devolved regions.

As a young farmer more than 50 years ago, I was proud of the Labour Government's achievements in placing farming on a sound financial footing under the Agricultural Act 1947, but 50 years later, we see the present Government undoing all the good work of their forefathers. The Government are playing into the hands of big businesses, which have no respect for the small family farm. My advice to the Government is that they should pull themselves together to save our fanning industry. Time is not on their side. The Government should introduce short-term policies now to stop young farmers leaving the land. Thousands have already left since the Government took office in 1997.

Is there any scientific evidence to prove that an organic lamb is different from any other hill-bred lamb? I am sure that the public would be pleased to know.

I welcome the European Parliament's plan to hold a committee of inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic in 13ritain. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has ruled out a full public inquiry, against the wishes of the majority of producers and consumers. Considering the damage and financial losses the epidemic caused. there is an overwhelming case for a full public inquiry. The public, producers and the country are entitled to the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffbam Prior

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for initiating this debate. It is a massive subject and, although three hours have been allocated, to my mind that is insufficient.

Various phrases have been applied to the food chain. They include from farm to fork, from stable to table and—one I particularly like—from conception to consumption, which takes in animals and plants. All demand rigorous attention to each link of the food chain but not a rigid approach. The approach that I want to address is healthy and, in particular, animal-derived food.

Animal-derived foods start at the farm, with healthy animals under good veterinary care and in good welfare conditions. Danger spots have been identified by other speakers. One area of particular interest to me is the undue use of antibiotics and the potential for antibiotic resistance to be transferred to patients through meat and meat products. Fortunately, use of antibiotics for animals is decreasing satisfactorily through the efforts of the British Veterinary Association and RUMA—Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture.

Other hazards must include the food miles that have been mentioned in relation to Christmas turkeys. Produce may travel hundreds of miles before being offered for sale. That is of particular concern in livestock, where disease may spread. In the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the massive movement of sheep contributed enormously to the spread of the disease. Another aspect of excessive transport is the stress placed on animals before they go to slaughter. One cause is the paucity of abattoirs throughout the country, necessitating the major movement of animals for slaughter.

The food chain extends to the kitchen, where much needs to be done on educating the housewife on general hygiene in cooking. My noble friend Lord McColl said how amply that task might have to be attacked. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, adequately identified the problems that occur.

The global market brings food items into the United Kingdom in large amounts, from all over the world. It is said that up to 80 per cent of organic produce is imported. In many cases, the provenance of such food is unclear. One wonders whether the same production standards apply in the countries of origin as apply in this country. It is all very well seeing an attractively packaged item on the supermarket shelf presented in a polythene cover but one wonders whether the food under the cover was cleaned up with contaminated water—as indicated by my noble friend Lord McColl—or whether antibiotic sprays were used to prevent fungal or bacterial blemishes on soft fruit?

In particular, our biosecurity at all levels with respect to food and food products is not strong. In fact, it is positively, alarmingly weak. It is still possible. for example, for potentially dangerous food and foodstuffs to be imported into this country without any checks whatever on passengers coming by air or sea. There are no warning signs for travellers coming into this country about the importation of meat and meat products as there are, for example, in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In New Zealand, sniffer dogs are employed to sniff out passengers who are carrying meat or meat products because of its great concern about the importation of meat, both for the control of aniirrial disease and human disease. We could well emulate what the New Zealanders do in this respect because there are people who are training dogs to sniff out meat and meat products.

It may well he that the recent outbreaks of classical swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease were due to imported meat and meat products getting into the food chain and eventually being disposed of by being fed to pigs.

However, an even greater concern arises from the illegal importation of what is known as "bush meat". This is a very serious concern which must be addressed without delay. Bush meat is derived from gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates. It is imported into Europe and this country as meat used for celebration purposes. Not only is it against CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—but it is at times contaminated by important and highly infectious agents, in particular with the Ebola virus, which is one of the most virulent viral diseases of man. Its introduction into a susceptible population in this country would be devastating.

A recent article in a newspaper in Cairo carried the headline, Monkey brains off the menu in Central Africa", because the Ebola virus had killed about 30 people after they had feasted on monkeys.

Other potential pathogens include HIV—which it is thought originated in monkeys—and monkeypox. Although monkeypox in humans can be prevented by smallpox vaccination, we have not vaccinated humans for more than a generation. Were monkeypox to be imported in a food product, it would lead to major problems for people in this country.

A recent survey at Heathrow indicated that 5.5 tonnes of imported bush meat came into this country over a period of several months, and it is sold in shops in western Europe. This is one area which, despite what I have said previously, needs a rigorous application of controls. Rigid attention should be paid to the safety of the food coming into this nation.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Chan

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for introducing the debate and some very important issues that influence health. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on his thoughtful maiden speech.

Good health is a priority concern for most people. Good health is based on eating a balanced diet of wholesome food available close to home. My concern is for children and their opportunities to eat wholesome food in order to avoid diet-related illness as adults. I declare an interest as a retired paediatrician.

Wholesome food is very unlikely to be the product of processing, and processed food is seldom wholesome. We are told that organically grown and organically produced food is preferable to food grown with chemical fertilisers.

Diet-related disease, defined as health problems due to the composition of the diet, is a major contributor to premature death and disability. It includes coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis or thin and brittle bones associated with old age, dental caries, which in this country is common among Chinese and Vietnamese pre-school children, and iron deficiency anaemia, which is becoming more common in pre-school children from poor families.

The United Kingdom has a poor record among affluent countries for diet-related deaths. For example, our women have five times the death rate from coronary heart disease compared with women in France. Our men have three times more deaths from coronary heart disease than men in France, and five times that of Japanese men.

Our dismal record of diet-related disease could be significantly improved if we encouraged all Britons to eat more fruit and vegetables. Strong evidence exists for the protective effect of fruit and vegetables against coronary heart disease and cancer. The World Health Organisation in 1990 recommended that people eat at least 400 grams, or approximately five portions, of fruit and vegetables a day. This advice, if implemented, could reduce overall deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer by up to 20 per cent.

The deficit of fruit and vegetable consumption in the United Kingdom is considerable. According to the target set for the consumption of fruit and vegetables by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy—surprisingly called COMA—now replaced by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, on current trends it will take another 45 years before our overall population target is met. This target is for each adult to consume 3,500 grams of fruit and vegetables per week.

Clearly the implementation of policies for good health into practice in families and individuals is neither simple nor easy. The Department of Health first recommended five portions of fruit to be eaten by everyone in 1997.1 praised this recommendation in my plenary paper on good food policy during a United Kingdom/United States of America conference in 1997 on cardio-vascular health for black and ethnic minority people. The NHS Plan 2000 also recommended five portions of fruit each day, starting with children.

The following steps would help promote good health through healthy eating. First, fresh fruit and vegetables need to be locally available at affordable prices. Therefore, more people should be encouraged to grow fruit and vegetables for sale locally. Allotments and gardens would be ideal places for this enterprise.

Secondly, in order to encourage young children to eat vegetables, a greater variety should be grown. Examples of vegetables that can be grown here successfully in spring and summer are spinach, water cress, Chinese leaves, pak choi and bean sprouts. Bean sprouts grow in the dark.

Thirdly, healthy cooking methods need to be taught in schools. One example is stir-fried vegetables. Cooked in two or three minutes, they are green, crisp and tasty. This method is the opposite of deep frying in fat.

Fourthly, steps must be taken to reverse the increasing trend of eating unhealthy convenience foods such as potato crisps with large amounts of added salt, which raises blood pressure, and meat burgers and fried chicken with a high animal fat content. In the past decade, spending on convenience foods in the United Kingdom has increased by 66 per cent, to £9 billion. A significant step towards reducing this unhealthy trend would be to stop schools allowing convenience food manufacturers to promote their products among schoolchildren. I look forward to the Minister's reply on how the Government will implement food policies which promote good nutrition and health.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, I join other speakers in congratulating the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech. He made an important contribution to the debate.

My primary interest is in science and the need for policy to be based on evidence. There is a fashionable tendency in many quarters to turn against science and back to nature in a mushy, mystical sort of way. This movement is particularly evidenced in relation to food.

First, perhaps I may offer some facts about food to put matters into perspective. Several speakers have referred to the importance of diet. As Sir John Krebs, the excellent and admirable chairman of the Food Standards Agency pointed out recently in Nature, not eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables probably causes about 100,000 deaths a year in Britain from cancer and heart disease. Food poisoning—which is what the press is most worked up about and which, therefore, the public are most scared of—accounts for perhaps 50 to 300 deaths. Growth hormones, which are banned in Europe, pesticides—about which there is a lot of fuiss—and GM food, to all of which quite a lot of space is devoted in the commission's report, Farming & Food, are not responsible for any deaths. Again, I am citing Sir John Krebs.

The report on farming and food, much of which is admirable, is somewhat prone to follow fashion. For example it calls for extra rigorous peer review of GM research. Of course, all research should be subject to peer review. But why, significantly, single out GM and treat it so suspiciously? Is it by any chance because the commission included the chair of the Soil Association and the chair of the National Consumer Council? They are dedicated opponents of GM. Their opposition is based on ideology, and they will not allow evidence to disturb their preconceived opinions.

GM food is safer than conventional food because it has been far more rigorously tested. If subjected to the same tests, potatoes, grilled food and peanuts would be banned for a start. The scares about GM food were rejected by the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and by a committee of this House. Hundreds of millions of Americans have been eating GM products for five to 10 years without any deaths and even without a single law case. If no one in America finds grounds to sue, there must be something right.

Again, let us look at pesticides. A Guardian article recently did its best to scare people about synthetic pesticides by claiming that one in every three mouthfuls we eat contains poison. It was written by a prominent member of the Soil Association. Actually, just about every mouthful contains some poison. The water we drink contains poison. It all depends on the dose. Too much of almost anything will kill you. In fact, the amount of pesticide residue in the food we buy in the shops is very effectively controlled and is a minute proportion of the level which might be considered dangerous.

If we are really worried about ingesting poison, no one should ever drink coffee. If I may quote Sir John Krebs again, a single cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to a year's worth of synthetic carcinogens in the diet.

I turn to organic farming, about which I have spoken previously. The commission recommends that we should spend more money on organic farming. To support organic farming is the apogee of political correctness and current fashion.

The commission states that there is evidence that organic farming is good for biodiversity. I should like to see what this evidence is. No such evidence was produced before the Select Committee of this House. Of course, many people take up organic farming because, admirably, they want to farm in an environmentally friendly way. If that is what people set out to do, it is not surprising that they succeed. But they do not have to go organic.

The Agricultural Research Institute testified to this House that integrated farming using conventional methods can have equally good environmental effects. The Game Conservancy Trust testified that the ecological case for organic farming had not been made out. It favours mixed farming systems, which are just as good for the environment, but at less cost and inconvenience.

The only thorough comparative study, carried out in Essex, shows that integrated crop management has better results for biodiversity, at much lower cost and using less energy. That is what the Government should support. The claims for organic farming have not been accepted by the Food Standards Agency, claims by the Soil Association have been rejected by the Advertising Standards Authority—which made it withdraw its recruiting leaflets—and its most recent claims were taken comprehensively apart in the January edition of Prospect by an eminent Fellow of the Royal Society.

Organic farming is based on the proposition that natural pesticides are good and synthetic ones are bad. It is "back to nature". In the days when our food was as natural as any organic farmer could possibly wish, people died like flies. It is voodoo science. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was quite right about the false distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals.

But what is perverse about giving public money to support organic farming is that its relative inefficiency means that organic produce costs more. Well, says the commission, it is worth paying more for quality. Leaving aside the fact that claims for better quality have not been substantiated, if the middle classes want to pay more for food, that is their concern. Incidentally, there is some evidence that demand for organic produce may have peaked. If so, the new organic farmers may find, as has happened with milk, that the price goes down and they produce at a loss. But what really matters is that those who are less well off—about whom my noble friend Lady Walmsley spoke—and who are, incidentally, less vocal and less influential, will suffer. They will buy fewer vegetables and less fruit.

There is a fundamental contradiction in part of the commission's report. It says that we must pay more for food. Yet it stresses how important it is to change the eating habits of those on lower incomes. Far the most important factor for them is price. Then, following fashion and political correctness, the commission proposes to support the wrong kind of so-called green farming, which will put prices up. That means that more people will die. It is a triumph of unreason.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, reminds me of the motto of the Royal Agricultural Society of England: "Practice with Science". We have just heard a formidable statement on the science relating to food. I shall attempt to add a little practice—which I do with my farming interests.

First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for providing this opportunity. It is appropriate that we debate food, particularly production and standards, and nutrition on the day after the publication of the Curry report and that the debate should concentrate on aspects of it.

The policy commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Don Curry, is to be congratulated on its work; and the scribes of the report should be congratulated on producing such a well-written document. The right reverend Prelate rightly said—in a maiden speech that we all enjoyed—that such a report makes us think again. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on some of the remarks that are made.

In today's world one has to be an optimist to be a farmer and a food producer. That is true whether one farms in the traditional sense, as we have been hearing about, whether one farms in a less intensive way, or whether one believes that there is a better future in a niche market by growing food organically or taking advantage of farmers' markets, as many are already doing.

One has to be a super-optimist to believe that the vision that is clearly set out in the report will turn into reality. The report states that good land management is now the core business. Is that new? Five generations of the Plumb family have operated on that basis; good husbandry is the basis of farming. Vision suggests that the industry is a good place to work for existing participants, a place where new entrants can build a career and that farming, which is valued by the wider public, has a real sense of purpose again.

That is a starry-eyed vision, but it is not in sight of reality. Nor is it reality to deliver in entirety the proposals for change, which are not new. Many of them, as Ministers know, have been on the books for the past two years and more, such as the proposals to reduce subsidies and replace them with a form of income-type support.

The report states that consumers have confidence in English food, that the market is diverse and that consumers in all income groups have access to a healthy and nutritious diet. It says that consumers can exercise choice through better labelling on all products and that they are health conscious and take a keen interest in what they eat. They know where their food comes from and how it was produced. Well, I wonder. If we were to ask the consumers walking around outside the House where their breakfast, lunch or the food that they eat regularly comes from, I wonder how many would know.

I shall relate a story that happened only a short while ago. There was a lady in my dentist's waiting room when I arrived at 8.30 one morning. She was reading her morning newspaper, the front page of which said that genetically modified food could cause meningitis and it referred to Frankenstein food. She turned to me and asked, "What do you think of all this". Being the politician that I am, I said, "More importantly, Madam, what do you think". She immediately said, "None of us in our home would touch it". When I asked what her family ate, she said, "We only eat organic food. It is safe. I know who you are, and now I shall probably offend you because we do not have cows' milk in our home. We only have organically-produced soya milk". I said, "That's very interesting, Madam. Where does it come from?" "It's British", she said. I said, "You say that you know who I am, so please accept that we do not grow soya in Britain. It has to be imported. May I remind you that 112 million acres of land are currently planted with genetically modified seed, which is three times larger than the total area from which we produce food in the United Kingdom? Therefore, your soya milk must come from America, and if I may say so, you look jolly well on it". When I eventually sat on the dentist's chair, he was critical of the fact that the lady had upset him by criticising me throughout the operation.

I occasionally enjoy going to supermarkets to watch consumers' interests. My conclusion, like that of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is that price is a major consideration. At the Meat and Livestock Commission conference yesterday, we were told by the chairman of Safeway's that 35 per cent of people buy food for pleasure; 12 per cent for health; and 32 per cent for convenience. Convenience will emerge as the growth sector. Food has to be ready-prepared; ready to heat; and ready to eat. He referred to the growing importance of and concern about imports, which is a major subject on its own. The Minister sent me a letter in answer to a question that I asked during our debate on the Animal Health Bill about the import of products from countries where foot and mouth disease exists or is endemic. Those countries include Botswana, Brazil, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. During the period from October 2000 to September 2001, 108,339 tonnes of meat were imported from those countries where the disease exists.

The vision could fade into oblivion if we continue to risk importing suspect products. I am by no means anti-import; naturally, I am very pro-export if we could have parity between the pound sterling and the euro. I hope that the Minister will press for fair play on the methods of production, especially from those importing countries and on quality assurance. Recent figures suggest that we are consuming £2.4 billion-worth of junk food in this country, which is 50 sizzlers a second, if we put it in those terms. That is more than France, Italy and Denmark put together.

We must develop a positive strategy for food and farming based on high standards. We need an integrated and transparent food chain, with farmers collaborating more to improve their position in the marketplace. New crop products must be developed in both the food and the non-food sectors.

The disappointment of yesterday's report is that through the modulation proposals, together with problems such as the nitrate Bill and other unnecessary measures, we shall be robbing Peter to pay Paul when the key objective should be to return British agriculture and rural businesses to profitability.

4.47 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, first, like many of your Lordships, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on his excellent maiden speech. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, told us something about his life and ministry, but I assure your Lordships that he comes of pedigree stock. His father was archdeacon in the diocese of Hereford and he himself was successively agricultural chaplain and archdeacon in the diocese of Hereford, Like any winner, I am sure that he will not mind my saying that he has been well bred and well trained. We look forward to his further speeches on rural affairs, and I very much welcome his companionship on these Benches.

The debate has led to a remarkable variety of speeches—on farming, nutrition, food science, food poverty, and, indeed, on the peril of eating anything at all. I am immensely relieved that this lunchtime I chose apple pie instead of the attractive-looking fruit salad, which included a surprisingly large proportion of raspberries. I am glad to say that monkey brain was not on the menu. I cannot help wondering how the friend of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was able to speak while the dentist was operating on her.

I want to speak briefly on food production. Once upon a time there was a rural White Paper which said, among other things if one persevered to chapter 8, that farming was important, it supplied most of our food and that it would continue to be the bedrock of the UK food chain. Once upon a time seems the right way to put it, as that is the language of fairy tales and make-believe. For a long time that is what it seemed to be. We looked in vain for signs of real hope that flesh would be put on the skeletal bones of that praiseworthy principle that farming would continue to be the bedrock of the UK food chain.

Farming was already in crisis—deep crisis—when the rural White Paper appeared. Although some small crumbs of comfort were tossed to the farming community from time to time, the decline continued, sharply accentuated by classical swine fever and by foot and mouth. We desperately needed the fairy story to become reality. Like other noble Lords, I warmly welcome this debate, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for introducing it—especially for the inclusion of the words, "proactive" and "sustainable", in a debate about food production policy.

There is a wonderful opportunity now for such a policy to be articulated and implemented. I strongly agree with the thrust of the recommendations of the excellent Curry report, especially its emphasis on re-connecting farming with the economy, the environment, and the market. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give indications that the Government do indeed intend to embrace the commission's recipe for proactive and sustainable food production.

Recent signs have been very uncertain, with distinctly mixed messages coming from DEFRA and from Ministers. An encouraging sign has been the new responsiveness to anxieties over GM crops, and the possible contamination of organic produce. It is good to hear of further analysis of test results, and more open public debate. GM crops could play a significant part in a UK food production programme and even be nutritionally beneficial. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in that respect. However, there are many questions that remain to be answered, and many critics whose anxieties need to be addressed. It is also good to know that the noble Lord, Lord Whiny, recently indicated the likelihood of government support for a forum, or institute, to foster much bet ter co-operation in the food chain—to shorten it, and to bring farmers much closer, as they need to be, to their markets.

But there have also been many disappointments: the refusal of the Government even to attempt an aspirational target for the percentage of food that should be produced in the UK—the enormous proportion of food imported has already been mentioned in the debate—despite an obsessive concern with targets for schools and for NHS waiting-lists. Since llth September, I believe that food security has, once again, become a real issue in a way that it has not been for a long time. Yet, we have had no recognition of that fact. There is no government commitment to UK agriculture, or any indication of the proportion of food that the Government would like to see produced in this country. Nor have we, until now, had any sign of targeted support for organic farming; indeed, not for the dairy industry, even though organic dairy produce is already meeting market demands.

The Prince of Wales said to me this morning, "I can't get organic meat. [just can't get enough of it". There is still scope for more organic beef production and, above all, for much more organic fruit and vegetable production. Far too much food is still imported. I do not support organic food because it is nutritionally or environmentally better; I support it because of the available market that is not being met. Intelligent farmers ought to be meeting the market, and making some money out of it. I regret the recent decision on dubious financial grounds not to continue support for the UK-wide protected zone status for rhizomania, which puts at risk profitable sugar beet production—one of our few profitable crops. Although it has already been mentioned, perhaps I shall dare to mention again the hideous, ludicrously inadequate policy of placing a few notices at airports as if they will deter the people who bring in potentially dangerous, diseased meat. We must have more safeguards.

There is real encouragement in the Curry report for the greening of farming. I warmly support increased modulation—I bow to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, because I know that he does not like it; but I think that it is right—provided that the money stays on the farm. I also support paying the farmer to deliver biodiversity and landscape benefits, which are urgently needed after 30 years of intensive farming, instead of having food surpluses that depress prices. So I wish to give a resounding yes to the Curry proposals for increasing environmental sustainability. But economic sustainability is far from being achieved. It must remain doubtful whether Curry can actually deliver.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is right: matters are still desperate. The environmental benefits can be achieved only if farmers can actually survive economically. The recent signs are not good: pig prices are down by another 2 pence a kilo, and milk prices are decreasing by nearly 2 pence a litre. Many producers are still abandoning the struggle. Indeed, more than 9,000 people left farming in the 12 months up to June of last year. The exodus continues. What about economic stability? That is not yet in sight.

A major conference is due to take place in Cambridge next month, entitled, "Does Britain actually have a food production policy?" Environmental policies, yes; countryside policies, yes; and food importing policies, yes. But a food producing policy? The jury is still out on that question.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, as chairman of the All Party Food and Health Forum, I am more qualified to talk about the plate, or the consumption that takes place in the end, rather than about the plough, or conception, that takes place at the beginning of the food chain.

Chapter 5 of the very comprehensive Curry report mentions most of the important issues in the food and health debate (nearly all of which, incidentally, we have visited in the periodic meetings of the food and health forum). However, although the problems are mentioned, the means of solving them are only hinted at. I suggest that too much responsibility is given to the farming and food industries to achieve the suggested goals, and that too little help is suggested on the part of the Government. For instance, there are the excellent sounding suggestions in the report that, industry should establish a group to look at how it can play its part in encouraging good nutrition", and that this group, must examine food advertising and how to encourage responsible advertising … working closely with the British Nutrition Foundation", which, of course, is also funded by the food industry.

Although industry must eventually be the means of delivering the goods that we, the public, need and, one hopes, demand—which is rather different—the track record of industry in initiating the changes that are required is, with a few notable exceptions, not very good. There is a need for both sticks and carrots from the Government side. An example of a carrot would be to help sway public demand, and hence the market, in the right direction, which industry would then surely follow. A further carrot might be to offer a small grant for planting fruit trees. After all, as I understand it, there used to be a grant for grubbing them out when the desirability of fruit for health was not so fully understood.

However, a stick might be to introduce regulations on the advertising of certain products on television—yes, I am sorry, regulations are sometimes necessary. Voluntary agreements on advertising, if we take the example of the tobacco industry, are not very effective. An example might be to stop the advertising of delectable products rich in sugar and fat, or salt and fat, on television at the times when children are most likely to be watching. The problem is that that period often extends to midnight, which suggests that advertising of some products might have to be banned altogether. I am sure that many parents would welcome this, but perhaps a step-by-step policy would be more acceptable.

At the risk of again trotting out a hobby-horse, I consider that although the report mentions the importance of good nutrition for health, the extent to which faulty nutrition contributes to our most prevalent chronic diseases is insufficiently emphasised. A parallel recent report, entitled, Why Health is the Key to the Future of Food and Farming, edited by Tim Lang and Geof Rayner, and supported by the Health Development Agency, gives some interesting statistics. It shows that the World Health Organisation, for example, has established that in developed market economies diet-related diseases—as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Chan, in much greater detail than my list—are responsible for 35 per cent of disability adjusted life years. That is quite a difficult concept; they are called DALY's, and they represent the sum of years of life lost in early death, together with years of life lost through disability. However, diarrhoeal diseases, including Salmonella, campylobacter, E. coil, and so on, are responsible for 0.2 per cent only of the DALY's lost, which reflects the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne.

About one third of deaths and disabilities due to cardiovascular disease and cancer are attributable to poor diet. As those are two of the commonest causes of premature death and disability, it is possible to calculate that about 10 per cent of all death and disability is due to poor diet. That is 50 times the number of DALYs due to microbiological or chemical contamination of food, which tends to lead to brief disability, and only very rarely to death.

At present, political and media interest is much more likely to be focused on food safety, especially if it is presented in wonderfully dramatic terms, as it was by the noble Lord, Lord McColl. Avoiding the contamination of food arouses much more interest than the less dramatic but far greater problem of reducing our burden of chronic serious disease due to faulty nutrition. It is interesting that during the passage of the legislation creating the Food Standards Agency, the Government declined to include "nutrition" in the statement of objectives of the FSA, despite strenuous efforts in both Houses. It is to the credit of Sir John Krebs and the board of the FSA that research into and the promotion of good nutrition nevertheless forms part of its activities. However, I was surprised to learn that nutrition accounts for only 5 per cent of its budget. The Department of Health also has a budget for the promotion of good nutrition, but, combined with local authorities' budgets, the total official expenditure on nutrition is a diminutive David compared with the Goliath of the food industry, whose budget for food advertising is almost £600 million.

In a speech of this length, I can only chip at the edges of this complex issue, in which at least four departments of state are directly involved, with many others less directly. I should like the policy commission that produced the wide-ranging Curry report to be made permanent, or replaced by a more permanent commission that does not necessarily have the same personnel. Its proposals could then be fleshed out in more detail, with its co-ordinating role retained. A government policy could be developed from that. I am sure that the word "health" should be firmly incorporated in the title of any future policy on farming and food. For why do we grow, produce, buy, cook and eat food other than to enjoy and sustain our life and good health?

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, referred to the supplementation of bread with folic acid in the United States. I know that the Government have been considering that for some time to help prevent neural tube defects (spina bifida). It has recently been shown that folic acid is one of the most important ingredients of good food—fruit and vegetables and nuts in particular—needed to prevent cardiovascular disease. It has been estimated that approximately 8 per cent of deaths from cardiovascular disease could be prevented by the supplementation of all flour with folic acid.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, while preparing for the debate I mentioned to one of my noble friends—who is not here tonight—the high propensity of shoppers to buy uniform, ready-prepared products, particularly out-of-season foods. I instanced the humble swede, which is in season now, but which I would not eat in the summer. Initially I was shocked by her reply that most people do not know whether swedes, parsnips or strawberries have a season—they cost more at particular times of the year, but otherwise they are available all year round. As a gardener, I was considerably shocked by that, but it made me think that many changes are necessary if we are to interest people in buying and eating locally produced food.

First, I agree with my noble friend Lady Walmsley that we have to start with education on what is available. what is in season and the relative economics of the food chain. That includes information on how much the producer receives, how to prepare food and how to buy food so that wholesome feeding becomes the norm and we move away from the high-salt, high-cholesterol, high-fat diet to which we have become accustomed. What place does that have in our national curriculum? I want to be assured that political correctness—ideas that boys must not learn about cooking or girls should do physics—has not played a part in moving the agenda away from the home economics to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred.

We want to know a lot more about products so that we can be much more knowledgeable purchasers. Creating a knowledgeable, educated market demands attention from our schools, our newspapers and the television and demands a budget to explain the good case, as opposed to the large amount of money that is spent on promoting the less good case. I recently went to a school in Oxford that had sent the children out to buy sandwiches from various outlets. In a laboratory, they took the sandwiches apart and revealed to the children how much money they were laying out for what was essentially a convenience food and how they could get much more nourishment fora lot less money.

We have to help the consumer gain access to the right food. Most food comes from supermarkets. We are right to promote alternatives such as farmers' markets, but first each supermarket should stock: and display at least some healthy, and hopefully locally sourced, food, which must be honestly marketed. We have to arrive at a system under which food produced in Britain—not just packaged here—is marked clearly. The Government need to do something about that.

I went into my local supermarket on Saturday and was given a choice of leeks. There were good English leeks in one corner, covered in mud, and there were Turkish leeks, which were neatly packaged and beautifully white. I do not know what: process they had been through. I imagine that most people bought the Turkish leeks, not the English ones. because the English ones were not properly marketed by either the supermarket or whoever had produced them in the first place.

We should help to increase the number of farmers' markets and small shops through better organisation. Reference has been made to the increase in the number of farmers' markets, but in most places they occur only once a month. Any producer has to know that a regular, substantial market is available for his produce. If it is not there all the time, he will not produce for it. We should also remember the advantage that accrues to other shops from having a good healthy market in a town. Winchester has 30 per cent more business in its other shops on days when it has a farmers' market. If such markets are well organised, they bring people into the town, but they are a minority occupation and do not happen very often.

I am asking for real education in schools, on television and in newspapers and I am asking for pressure to be put on supermarkets to display their products and market them honestly.

Finally, I should like more effort to go into farmers' markets and small shops and into proper co-operatives such as exist in France, where people band together to market their produce. The Government move in a curious way to bring about such developments. We have allowed larger lorries on our roads, mostly at the behest of people who move food such as grain or potatoes in large quantities. Depots are then closed, because the bigger lorries go further and the food travels further with them. We do not take any account of the cost, and nor do we factor in the fact that the lorries do not pay their proper costs in the first place.

We are being called on now to allow much greater airport access. The call is made in the guise of defeating foreign competition, but in fact greater access would mean that more food from further afield will be brought in. It will continue to feed our whole objectionable chain.

5.10 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on achieving this debate. I am not sure whether he regards it as his good fortune or bad fortune that it has fallen on the day after Sir Don Curry's report on the future of food and farming. I am afraid that, inevitably, some of us find that focus slightly hard to avoid.

To answer satisfactorily the theme that the noble Lord has given us is bound to be a major challenge. We live in an age of incredible change from the century that went before. The nature of production has changed, the nature of communication has changed, the nature of science and medicine has changed, and even the nature of war has changed, as we were reminded not so very long ago. But it is still the prime responsibility of government to provide for the food, health and security of their population. Today, we are being asked to identify the criteria that should be used to achieve that responsibility in the future. We all know when it is not being achieved in the present.

As I have said before, I have been immersed in the farming industry for most of my life, and I still am. Sir Don Curry's report talks about farming becoming connected to the market and also about the removal of all production subsidies. In his recent study, A policy for agriculture, Sir Richard Packer has as his guiding principle, prices should be allowed to find their own level according to supply and demand". Such a proposition, of course, is built on the premise that, with the world's modern communications, we will know when there is a drought in the United States, a surplus in South America or a flood in India. We also expect to be able to ship boatloads of the requisite commodity freely across the oceans to wherever it is needed and we can find someone to pay for it. However, rather as the Government need to decide the correct strength for our Armed Forces, in view of our current alliances and joint commitments, and rather like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was saying, I believe that the Government should have a similar approach to food. The Government need to know the minimum level of home-based food production that should be maintained to ensure security in the event that there is a problem attaining it or, in a case of severe shortage, paying for it.

One aspect of that issue is the question of whether we regard the European Union as our base unit simply because it is the level at which major policy decisions are taken, or whether we would be prepared to examine our national production levels in terms of self-sufficiency. Yesterday, we heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, say that he was worried that he might have to introduce a Stalinist plan specifying that 79.3 per cent of our production should be for home consumption. I merely contend that the Government should have some idea of how far they are prepared to go with a structure that encourages cheap imports against home production.

Office for National Statistics figures for 2000 show that the total value of UK agricultural production is £15,000 million. However, to satisfy our market, we currently require imports of additional food to the value of £17,000 million. As my noble friend Lord Plumb was hinting, there is some compensation in that we export in turn more than £8,000 million of our best quality product. Considering the strength of the pound against the euro, I wonder whether there is a lesson there for us. People in those markets are prepared to pay more than we do for food, and they are not embarrassed about it. Those exports are the price leader for our home market.

Most of Europe is having to cope with an entirely new currency. We in this country have had recently to accept only one innovation—the £2 coin. Your Lordships are undoubtedly aware that some thoughtful person has inscribed around the edge of that coin the sobering quotation from Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants". Anyone involved in farming and food production with the least sense of history realises that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. The countryside has been nurtured and shaped to facilitate food production and what we know as rural life. The Curry report is asking us to adopt an entirely new emphasis. In much of the country, one is conscious of the gigantic infrastructure that has been built up: men with horses have cleared boulders, piled stones and built walls; men with picks and shovels have built ditches to bring water to the land; and men have dug great trenches over the whole landscape for drainage to take the water away. Any policy that is based on providing environmental benefits such as has been suggested in the report will have to be robust enough to ensure that much of that infrastructure is retained, especially if a policy of environmentally friendly or organic production is to be adopted. Much of that work is a capital asset that does not appear on any balance sheet, and recently the Government have put a great deal of money into it. It would be foolish to let it go to waste without heed.

The Curry report is definitely blue-skies thinking. It is full of some new schemes, some old schemes, and numerous new quangos. Press reports seem to suggest that implementing the report would cost £500 million over three years. I noticed that Ben Gill of the National Farmers Union says that it will cost farmers £138 million. Perhaps he is simply quantifying the increase in modulation from 4.5 per cent to 10 per cent, as suggested in the report, although I do not have the facts to back that up. However, as most of that presumably will come under the second pillar of EU support, and if the Government can persuade Brussels to increase our allocation sufficiently, will the direct cost to the UK Government be only £250 million?

Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, I should also like to ask the Minister whether the Government are prepared to undertake a scheme of that nature, if that is the type of financial commitment that is required. As those involved in agriculture and food production seem on the face of it to be threatened with that type of penalty, they would clearly like to know a great deal more about how the payments for environmental benefit might be structured. Their experience with the current, competitive system has not been a happy one. I also noticed that the Government would like to obtain greater flexibility in how modulated funds are used. That gives rise to the question of how much of the money would be soaked up by consultative and advisory bodies and so on.

Until we know the answers to those questions, the Curry report will be just another government publication that is likely to gather dust, along with the rural White Paper and others. If we are given some assurances today, the suggestions can be given serious consideration.

5.17 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, what an interesting debate this is proving to be. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who—in the wake of the report of Sir Don Curry on food and farming—has selected a very appropriate day to introduce it.

I declare several interests. I am the wife of a farmer and take an active part in caring for our livestock. I am a specialist cheese maker and chairman of Honest Food. Above all, I am interested in growing, preparing and eating food. I am also a regular partaker of the "healthy option" in the Bishops Bar in the House of Lords. All the produce from our farm is sold either from our small shop or at farmers' markets.

I must make the point that it is not government policy that produces food; it is by the individual and corporate efforts of people that we are fed. I have looked for a definition of "sustainable government policy" on various department websites. None is available. I suspect that that may be because there is no such thing. Governments change, Ministers change, and their policies seem to change with them. There is not much sustainable about that. I did find an old MAFF definition for "sustainable agriculture". The definition was written in February 2000. Only part of it applies to this debate, and I shall not quote it here.

We need a diversity of food production for our countryside if our countryside is to flourish and the now accepted consumer demand for wide choice is to be satisfied. We have the capability of producing the very best meat and dairy products in the world. Our land and climate are ideally suited for this type of production. Consumers, when asked, say they prefer to buy British produce in order to support British farmers. They rightly ask that the food be produced to the highest quality and welfare standards. Our farmers play their part. What happens? When it comes to the crunch, the vast majority of consumers buy on price.

To most of the British eating is merely a means of refuelling. Unlike our continental cousins who treat a meal as a pleasurable social occasion, we tend to shovel down the most convenient foods available, more frequently on the hoof than round the family dining table, and with little regard for their gourmet qualities and less for their nutritional content.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is so right about education. I was brought up knowing the mineral and vitamin contents of most foods and I was taught how to cook them, and much do I appreciate that later in my life.

The supermarket buyers have squeezed our producers on price until they squeak. Last week I talked to a group of dairy farmers. Not one of their sons wants to follow them into farming and, with the latest cuts in their milk cheques, they will all give up dairy farming this summer. Do I really need to ask where our milk will eventually come from if we go on like this? The climate is the same in all livestock and horticultural businesses. Farmers and growers have struggled for years to make a living. They love the land and they love the life. Many have now thrown in the towel and I fear that many more will do so in the very near future. They, too, are consumers and they, too, have to eat.

In order to preserve a variety of food production and to maintain rural livelihoods, food production in some form must be at the heart of the countryside. As well as large businesses, small arid medium-sized farming and associated enterprises must be encouraged to remain. They do not need special deals from the Government. There is a market for their produce, and survive they would if the Government and consumer organisations did not regard them as people who have to be regulated within an inch of t heir existence. It is important that Ministers and enforcement officers recognise that regulation should be there to help producers, not make their lives difficult. Regulators, producers and consumers all have the same objective: a varied, safe and high quality food production emanating from a clean, safe and attractive environment. Producers and consumers agree on this. I sometimes wonder about the regulators who, after all, carry all the power.

We are asked to call attention to food standards. Farmers and producers have been conned into joining the "little red tractor" scheme on the understanding that produce bearing the logo will be British. Di.d no one tell Sir Don Curry and his colleagues, who have given such a strong plug to this vehicle in yesterday's report, that the little tractor does nothing of the sort? It can denote only that the goods have been produced to British farm standards. It could be French cheese, Argentinian beef or New Zealand lamb. I agree with Sir Don that there should be some way of demonstrating to the consumer who buys from a supermarket that the produce is British. However, he and we somehow have to overcome the strictures imposed upon us by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. We are not allowed to trade unfairly, and to state that a product is produced to British standards is said to be unfair.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, also wishes us to draw attention to nutrition. We are discussing the food chain. The nutritional quality of our food depends upon the quality of the soil upon which crops are grown. These are the crops on which we and our meat animals feed. It has always puzzled me that farmers and vets fairly quickly recognise deficiencies in copper, selenium, magnesium, boron and other trace elements in crops and animals. If the animals suffer deficiencies, surely we must too. The Finns have placed selenium compulsorily in their fertilisers for many years. If the soil is right, we shall be right. Will the Minister arrange for some research to be conducted into the whole of the food chain from the nutrition in the soil right the way through to the vitamins and minerals in which adult humans are deficient?

We are also getting mixed messages about food. I have just heard the noble Lord, Lord Chan, talk about dreadful animal fats and how they must be reduced. Yet on the radio—I believe that it was last Sunday—I heard how good animal fats are and how bad for us are all these polyunsaturates and God knows what. So please can we have some straightforward messages?

Of course, we must recognise that food policy, food production. food standards and health and safety are all now governed by EU legislation. This will be a strange message coming from me. We may complain about this but, as has been observed on many occasions, our Government apply this legislation most stringently. What is true is that the UK Government policy can operate only within the strictures ordained by Brussels. All our discussions of what is and is not government policy must take into account political reality. I should, therefore, like to ask the Minister to tell us how the Government see EU policy developing and how the Government interpret that policy. Do we have any leeway? Do they fight the British corner as strongly as we hear that our partners fight for their countries?

5.25 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is becoming increasingly fashionable, sadly, to "knock" farming. We have a government who do not understand the countryside. Indeed, yesterday, the Prime Minister in welcoming the Curry report said with regard to agriculture that the present situation benefits no one. That is a sad reflection on many good farmers who farm in a sustainable way and have moved a long way from the condemned position in which they have been put.

People are apologising for farmers now. I am reminded of the words of that great poet, Robert Burns. It is appropriate to quote him today as we are only about three or four days past his anniversary. I hope that the Minister celebrated that anniversary in true style on Friday night. Burns wrote: I'm truly sorry Man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union". That phrase seems to be incorporated in part in the Curry report. I do not apologise for farmers in any way at all. It is also stated in the Curry report that farming ought to reflect what the public want. That is exactly what farming has been doing for the past 50 years. Sadly, farmers are now in the position of being condemned for that.

There are other things wrong with the Curry report. Sadly, one of the effects of devolution is that the report refers only to England. Surely in this small country of ours we cannot just have a little regional report. If we are to have little regional reports on matters as important as health, farming and hygiene, I hope to goodness that the Government are talking about them to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.

However, the matter is more important than that. I pick up the theme mentioned by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. England is a bit player—in itself the UK is a bit player—within the European Union. All the grandiose ideas as regards where farming in this country can go are absolutely irrelevant if we do not change the CAP. Nothing in the Curry report gives any indication of what we should do if his ideals are not realised and if we do not get what we want in Europe. That conundrum has faced governments for many years. The Curry report is one of those well intentioned reports that governments bring out from time to time—indeed, I was a member of a government who brought out a number of reports on agriculture—which gather dust. Some lie in deeper layers of dust than others. We really cannot move until Europe, and in particular the US, change their farming practices. We are a pawn on the board that gets moved around very much at their will.

I also fear that the Curry report will perpetuate an increasing trend of raising standards to incredibly high and, perhaps it might be argued, good levels in this country while not in other countries. That will continue to put our farmers at a disadvantage. Here I pick up a theme mentioned by my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior on the question of imports. It is hopeless to try to raise standards in this country, to set ourselves targets that other countries do not meet but nevertheless to import their food—and not just their food, but their polluted food. My noble friend Lord Plumb referred to meat coming in from countries where there is foot and mouth disease. When will the Government get to grips with that particular item? I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is present. He will remember the debate we had the other day when many of us mentioned that point.

There is a good proactive recommendation in the Curry report about establishing a permanent food chain centre. That is good, provided that one gets rid of all the other little quangos that are trying to do much the same job. We should not simply put another quango and more bureaucracy into the system. If one is going to follow that recommendation—it is a good idea, which many of us would support—we should get rid of all the other garbage that is currently around.

I turn briefly to a subject that has not yet been mentioned; that is, fish farming. The demand for fish has increased enormously throughout the world and fish farming is the fastest-growing sector in the food production chain. What are the Government's thoughts on that? Are they concerned about the stocking densities of fish farms in Scotland in particular and of trout farms in England and Norway? Are they concerned about the level of disease and about escaped fish, which are affecting our wild stocks?

We have been encouraged to buy and consume more fish but we do not really know where the fish comes from, what it has been raised on or what it is. I gather that due to fish farming, the level of fat in fish has increased enormously. We may think that we are buying something good but we might be buying something had. I support what my noble friend Lord Plumb said: we do not know what we are eating. I also support many of the comments made about labelling and education with regard to food.

We are well over our allotted budgeted time, so I shall not make the other points that I had prepared. I hope that the Government will not rush ahead too quickly with the Curry report.

5.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, our debate this afternoon has lived up to everything that we on these Benches had hoped for in terms of its extent and the subjects raised. We have often debated food production and farming in your Lordships' House but always from the plough end—at least, that is true since I came to this House. This is the first debate for many years that encompasses the matter from the plate, as it were.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked whether it was good or bad fortune to have this debate the day after the publication of the Curry report. We knew that that report would appear at the end of January, and the timing of this debate involved planned good fortune; we did not know that we would have this debate the day after the report's publication.

I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on his wonderful maiden speech. We are aware of the crises that agriculture has been through and, as he said, of the fact that crises cause us to think again. It was for that reason that we were anxious to have this debate.

We appreciate the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, at this debate. We feel that too often health and food production have been disconnected. The theme of the Curry report was reconnection. We are glad that both Ministers are in their place.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, whom I congratulate warmly on introducing this debate, referred to the place of food in history. First, there was too little food, then there was too little of the right food. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Chan, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley, referred to diseases that are now re-appearing. They are re-appearing because we have too much of the wrong food. The effect of that is very similar to the effect of having too little of the right food.

The UK National Diet and Nutritional Survey bears out many of the points that were made this afternoon, particularly those about children. Nearly all children-92 per cent of them—are eating far too much saturated fat, and 83 per cent eat far too much sugar.

We have discussed cheap food and what "cheap" means. Per household, we spend less on food as a proportion of income. In 1963, we spent nearly 20 per cent of our income on food but today the figure is 9.7 per cent. We should compare that with the situation in other countries. Noble Lords mentioned France and the attitude to food there. We may have to be prepared to spend a higher proportion of our income on food and less on those items that supermarkets wish us to buy in addition to food. Some of the savings that we make in our spending on rood are spent on items that we may regard as being less essential, such as flowers, for example, which are prominently displayed in supermarkets but which do not contribute much to our actual health—although they may contribute to our spiritual health.

My noble friend Lady Walmsley said that our view of food was an attitude of mind—a cultural attitude. The French and Italians have managed to retain that to a much greater degree than we have. Food is central to their cultures. One can see the benefits of that in terms of tourism, for example. When we discuss tourism and the countryside—we have often clone so—we return to the fact that food is a central issue in that regard. On the other hand, we have discussed the need for food to be cheap and for processed food to have its rightful place. We have not entirely resolved that debate this afternoon but we have had a good crack at some of the surrounding issues.

I turn to the reconnection of food and schools, which many noble Lords have discussed. The food that is served in schools should be good and decent. The Government have taken some steps along those lines. As has been said, they introduced free fruit for four to six year-olds, which is a start. They have also introduced a "five-a-day" scheme for everyone, although it is being promoted in schools in particular; that, too, is a good thing.

We have not addressed the fact that schools, particularly those in the secondary sector, have vending machines or the fact that increasing parts of the curriculum are sponsored by groups that are trying to promote foods that we should certainly not consider healthy. I refer to the usual examples: McDonald's, Walkers Crisps and Coca-Cola. If we accept t hat we do not want children to eat more of those foods, why do the names of those producers appear constantly in front of schoolchildren on teaching materials?

On school meals, the Government brought in new nutritional guidelines in June 2000. They said at that time that when the new standards had settled down, they would undertake an evaluation of school meals using sample school surveys. I ask the Minister in particular whether there has been any monitoring since the new regulations came into force and, if so, when are the Government going to conduct their promised survey?

As my noble friend Lord Bradshaw pointed out, schools can play a valuable part in enabling children to understand where food comes from and recognise the important issue of seasonality. Children need to appreciate where their food comes from in order to understand basic facts about it.

Young adults are equally badly served at the moment. They do not have much money, they do not know how to cook and they often suffer difficult living conditions when they first move out of the home. They therefore resort to fast food and processed food for entirely understandable reasons. I tabled a Written Question, HL 1758, asking the Government whether they were, content with the level of knowledge about food and nutrition gained at school by children up to the age of 16". The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, replied: Twenty-six per cent of pupils were entered for … (food) GCSEs". [Official Report, 11/12/01; col. WA 190] However, that is not the same thing because GCSEs cover very few practical aspects. Moreover, the figure means that 75 per cent of children still have no knowledge of that area.

However, the answer given by the noble Lord. Lord Hunt, was a little more encouraging. When I asked him a similar question, he said that the Government were considering launching a campaign to promote healthy eating among young adults. Perhaps I may strongly encourage him to do so and to pursue the matter with all vigour.

I now turn to the issues raised by noble Lords in relation to food deserts, where there is a lack of local shops selling any type of food. In such areas, people have to travel much further to their local superstores. The distance travelled rose from 14 kilometres in 1986 to 22 kilometres in 1996. That is the last date for which I have a figure, but I suspect that since that date the distance has again increased greatly. That information relates to the distance travelled by humans simply in order to obtain food. It does not take account of "food miles"—a subject which I shall not go into but which has been referred to already.

The issue of the number of "human miles" travelled to obtain food is serious. The people who already suffer from an unhealthy diet are those who also suffer from having to take a bus to obtain the food or are perhaps those who buy food which is much less fresh. It is certainly an important matter.

At this point, I declare an interest as chairman of Somerset Food Link. I believe that the food link organisations throughout Britain do a very good job in highlighting such points. They map food deserts, encourage farmers' markets and produce lists of the places where people can buy good, wholesome food directly and, therefore, more cheaply. Those should all be encouraged. Perhaps the noble Lord will find out how many health authorities are joining in with that initiative. I am pleased to say that our health authority in Somerset has been most proactive. I hope that the primary care trusts will take a similar interest.

Finally, I turn to the issue of the precautionary principle. Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Unilever, in a speech sponsored by Sainsbury's at the City Food Lecture, asked whether we would prefer the precautionary principle or a plate of fish and chips. Unilever, and I believe Sainsbury's, prefer the plate of fish and chips. It is the Government's job to prefer the precautionary principle. They must do so and they must enable others who are interested in it to do so, too.

5.42 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, nothing that I have heard today has given me cause to question the depths of my concern on this issue. In the 10 minutes available to me, I want to share some thoughts with the House. As other noble Lords have said, we have heard wide-ranging contributions on subjects that include eating habits, especially the issues that influence the eating habits of children, and the eating habits that affect us in later life. We have heard about farmers' markets, diversity, conventional, organic and integrated farming, farming links within the community, the price which determines purchasing, bureaucracy at all levels, and labelling. Those are some of the issues to which I shall add.

A matter that has not been touched on is food and tourism. Tourism plays an important part in our daily lives. I believe that there is great scope to link the food framework with the tourism sector in a manner that would benefit both.

We all know, and have known ever since farming incomes went into free-fall, that the CAP must be refashioned, if not scrapped completely. We all know that bringing about a major change in the European institutions requires a lot of time and concerted action by all major players. We all know that reform of the CAP has not attracted uniform support from our European allies. We need a food policy that is workable within the CAP as it is and adaptable to the CAP as we should like it to be.

For the past three years it has been obvious that the decline in agricultural incomes is more or less permanent. The decreasing share of the gross domestic product taken by agriculture is, in part, due to the fall in farm-gate prices. Before we can have a proactive and sustainable policy on food production, food standards and nutrition, I believe that a number of basic factors must be put right.

As other noble Lords have said, food is an essential part of life. We must continue to produce it. Our farmers must receive a fair reward for their work. Milk prices at less than the minimum cost of production are not a fair reward. Process and welfare improvements further down the food chain costed back to the farmer are not a fair reward. Unfettered imports of goods produced in welfare and environmental circumstances forbidden here are not a fair reward.

Having produced the food, we must ensure that the farmer has access to a market with which he is in touch. As things stand, food is transported, with very few rules, throughout the country to abattoirs and packers, to canning factories, freezer plants and distribution centres, and to ports, catering establishments and shops. The chain is long. Fruit and vegetables are produced to ripen early and are often sprayed in order to be kept green. They are sold in and out of season. In many cases, the link with the primary producer is non-existent.

The distances travelled by livestock, meat and meat products, dairy products, beer, bread and vegetables must be shortened. The only way to achieve that is by requiring all food outlets above a certain size to provide a minimum space for locally produced foods. I am confident that if outlets were to take on that challenge, farmers would be able to supply them. I am aware that some of the more recent changes—for example, the closure of abattoirs—will have to be reversed. But I am sure that, if the market is assured, private funding will be available.

Many noble Lords have spoken about the additional labelling rules which will be necessary. Indeed, it is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is responding to the debate. He will well remember that when the Food Standards Bill passed through this House, the one issue that I and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, kept to the fore was the need for food labelling to be put on to the face of the Bill. We are truly thankful that the Government eventually gave way. When consumers buy food, they must have correct guidance.

It is possible that supermarkets and catering establishments will have to borrow for their food shelves and menus the system which is used, for example, in selling drinks, particularly wine. Why cannot we have in shops chill cabinets containing meat, eggs, bacon and sausages, for example, with a sign stating "English", "Welsh", "French", "South African", "South American"—

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, "Scottish"—

Baroness Byford

And "Scottish", my Lords, not forgetting, indeed, the many regions.

A fourth basic element which I believe we need to examine is research into standards, nutritional values, pesticides and antibiotics. I warmly endorse the recommendations of the Curry report concerning the need to co-ordinate, focus and prioritise research within government and among the various industry bodies. Research affects every aspect of food production.

At this point, let us remember our fishing industry, which my noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned. It is, indeed, an important aspect of food production and it is a growing sector. The fishing industry has a great responsibility both at sea and in relation to fish farming. However, it seems that there is a great deal of conflict between what happens in the depths and what happens to the fish that we stock and upon which we rely.

The four basic elements to which I have referred are those without which no policy will work: fair rewards; access to local markets; full and unambiguous labelling; and focused research. I hope that noble Lords will agree that none of those needs to be hampered by the CAP as it stands at present, nor should they obstruct future reforms.

I hope that the Minister agrees that the Government should accept responsibility for the implementation of their own policies. The farmer's job is to produce food; it is the Government's job to ensure that that food is up to standard, in constant and adequate supply, and available without unfair competition from other quarters.

Today's debate has been interesting and informative. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for giving us a subject so fundamental to the well-being of the country. I particularly congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich—if I say to him that I was at Southwold this weekend, he will know that I was not far away—on an excellent maiden speech in which he twinned the importance of farming and the local community.

I stress to the Minister and the Government the serious content of today's debate. As my noble friend, Lord Plumb, said, we need to make a vision —I believe that some of the recommendations of Sir Don Curry are a vision—into reality. The only way that that can happen is by the Government taking action. It is time to move forward and not to keep consulting. If we do not move forward, producers, and indeed consumers, will suffer in consequence. 1 end by quoting the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who we are pleased to see in support of the debate today. I was delighted when he said, in response to the Statement yesterday: We shall not succeed as a food and farming industry unless profits can be made in the industry and unless the industry has a prosperous future".—[Official Report, 29/01/02; col. 121.] I totally agree.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, 16 minutes are left to me in this time-limited debate. I shall try to cover as many as possible of the points raised. If I do not cover some points, I shall follow them up and write to noble Lords.

Like other noble Lords, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in instituting what has been, on any count, an excellent debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, stated, it seems inevitable in your Lordships' House that debates about food have almost always focused attention on food production, land use issues and the undoubted pressures which farmers are under at present. It is useful to have had a much wider debate which takes into account the responsibilities of my department in relation to the Food Standards Agency and food and health policies more generally.

We have also had drawn to our attention the impact of the difficulties of the farming industry on rural areas in general. I particularly commend the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on an excellent and insightful maiden speech. We certainly look forward to his contributions in future.

The Curry report, the commission's thinking about farming and the relationship of food to the consumer, goes very much to the heart of our debate. The commission speaks of a disconnection between supplier, processor and retailer, and in many cases of confrontational relationships and poor communications. Curry says that food is plentiful and sold at prices that are historically low. However, despite that, consumers are uneasy and are concerned about the wholesomeness and safety of the food they eat, and feel disconnected from what they eat and how it is produced.

In addition to consumers' fears about food safety, Curry points to poor nutritional standards and says that we are storing up health problems, with people eating too much of the wrong food and not enough of the right food. That suggests to me the pressing need to ensure that an holistic approach is taken to food production, food standards and nutrition, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out. We need an approach that undoubtedly puts the consumer first; that ensures that food is safe to eat; that there is a choice of foods to allow an enjoyable and healthy diet; that food is of good quality; and, last but not least, that it is reasonably priced.

I believe that the future of the food and farming industry must lie in ensuring that those expectations are met. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, that responsibility rests with industry, but government, too, have a major role to play in ensuring that the conditions are right for industry to play its part, just as government have a role to play in relation to food safety and nutrition.

I believe that we have the right infrastructure in place. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said, we took action when we came into government to establish the Food Standards Agency to be an independent voice within government, able to give advice and publish it without first asking politicians. I believe that the agency has started its work well. Curry says some complimentary things about its performance. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said, it is setting new benchmarks for standards of openness and transparency in carrying out its role. In so doing, that will lead to greater confidence among consumers about food in this country. That confidence is one of the planks which will lead to better conditions for our farming industry generally.

In terms of enforcement, the agency has developed a new framework agreement with local authorities to promote high and consistent standards of enforcement throughout the UK. That was one of the issues we debated when we established the Food Standards Agency. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, in a graphic speech, drew our attention to the dangers of fruit picking and urine coming together. He made some serious points about food-borne disease in this country. Certainly, the agency and the Government are exercised about the need to tackle that. The agency has a strategy which I believe has been well trailed. It is designed around promoting best practice, enforcement of legislation, publicity, training and education. But clearly, from what has been said in this debate, it is important that the agency gives all due attention to ensuring that that strategy is, indeed, implemented.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, the noble Lord. Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, all raised issues in relation to labelling. I certainly agree with the thrust of the points they made. We are a committed supporter of informed consumer choice. Because of that, we are pressing for amendments to EU labelling rules to require origin labelling on a wider range of foods, particularly meat and meat products; to require origin labelling for certain ingredients of food, particularly meat and dairy products, and to define and control the use of words such as "produce of". The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made a telling point about her concern that at times consumers are unaware of where a product comes from.

The issue of labelling also extends to nutrition labelling. My noble friend Lady Thornton quoted the experience of the Co-operative Retail Society, which is a good example. The Food Standards Agency is pressing for EU rules requiring compulsory nutrition labelling on all foods to help those who want to follow healthy eating advice.

The issue of animal welfare is also important. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, speaks with great authority on those matters. I and the Government agree with the points he makes about reducing the distance travelled by animals to centralised slaughter plants. We believe that there is a serious animal welfare issue here and we very much support the thrust of what he said. He then raised the issue of the illegal importation of "bush meat", a subject which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford also discussed. We are actively taking forward a range of initiatives aimed at improving our ability to prevent and detect illegal imports of animal products. We are stepping up those checks. We are ensuring greater publicity at ports and airports, and information for travellers into the UK. Intelligence gathering has also been improved, together with ensuring better awareness of the problem on the part of Customs and local authority officers at ports and airports.

The noble Lords, Lord Mackie and Lord Clement-Jones, raised the issue of pesticides. The Food Standards Agency believes that consumers should be able to purchase and consume with confidence foods produced with the use of pesticides. We do not object to the use of pesticides, as long as any residues are kept as low as practically possible, consistent with good practice, and do not pose a threat to health.

I turn to nutrition. The link between nutrition and health is important. We have heard from a number of noble Lords about the connection between poor food habits and public health issues.

We know that a person's diet is one of the greatest influences on their risk of developing cancer or heart disease. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, referred to that. The NHS Plan sets out the Department of Health's commitment for improving diet with action by 2004.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, had some very interesting suggestions to make in relation to encouraging people to make choices about what to eat. We cannot go back to the rationing which the noble Lord, Lord McColl, described so aptly. It must be done from a basis of ensuring that information is available and that, wherever people live, there is proper access to healthy food. I can point to many examples where initiatives are being taken to enable that to happen. For example, many of our health action zones have projects dedicated to improving access to healthier diets. These range from creating food delivery services in neighbourhoods where healthy food was not available to teaching cooking skills to young mothers.

I have listened carefully to the points made about schools. It is significant that 25 per cent of pupils taking or studying the food technology GCSE are boys. It is not the only issue of course. But I know that my 13 year-old son was taught cooking last year at school and 11 have certainly enjoyed the benefits of that.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned the efforts to encourage the "five-a-day" programme to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables, and the National School Fruit Scheme. Recently, I announced the launching of that scheme in the West Midlands. The New Opportunities Fund has made £42 million available to support further phases of the pilot scheme from now until 2004. I am very keen on those schemes because they have the potential to increase demand for fruit and vegetables. I hope that the farming community in this country will be able to take on that challenge and increase the production of fruit in England to meet demand and that it will stem the current decline in vegetable production.

So far as concerns obesity, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, is absolutely right to point to the National Audit Office report. Healthy diets are clearly an important step in tackling obesity, although I would also argue that exercise, and particularly encouraging young people in schools to do sports, is equally important. Noble Lords may well know of the PE in School sports initiative, which again is using NOF money—£580 million over a series of years—to encourage that to happen.

My noble friend Lord Rea asked how far we have got with folic acid fortification of flour. I can tell him that COMA recommended universal fortification of flour hut did not go further to say that this should be on a mandatory basis. The Department of Health and the Foods Standards Agency have conducted public consultation which has confirmed differences of opinion among the public about the matter. The next stage is for the FSA board to consider those issues in the light of the consultation programme.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to food poverty. I am very much aware of that, as is the Food Standards Agency. It is funding research, looking at the characteristics of so-called food deserts and assessing the local impact on dietary habits, which I hope will inform the development of policy. I visited the Sheffield health action zone which is already taking action in that area.

In the first few minutes of my remarks I have focused rightly on the consumer. But of course the farming community faces many challenges and uncertainties. They have been very well described by a number of noble Lords today. That brings me to the farming production issues which were raised in the Curry report. It has been a substantial report with many specific and detailed recommendations, both for the Government and for industry. Those recommendations demand careful consideration and reflection. Clearly I am not in a position, nor are: the Government, to give a comprehensive view on each and every one of them. It would be premature to produce any kind of detailed response to the commission's report.

What I can say—in a sense I repeat a little of what was said in the Statement that we debated yesterday—is that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has welcomed the report on behalf of the Government and the valuable ideas that it contains. Obviously the report will give us new impetus and new ideas to drive forward the process of change and to respond to some of the challenges which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and other noble Lords have posed for the Government tonight in our efforts to ensure that there is a sustainable and healthy farming industry in this country.

In relation to food production, a number of very important issues have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, raised the issue of prices paid by supermarkets to farmers. He will not need me to rehearse the commission's report and the code of practice which we certainly encourage and which the Curry commission suggests should be reviewed after two years.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about encouraging supermarkets to promote British-produced food and ensure that it is given every advantage and is accessible.

Of course securing reform of the CAP, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has suggested, will not be easy, but we are determined to do as much as we can, informed by what the Curry report suggests. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford have raised a number of questions about modulation. We want to explore the use of modulation. We certainly endorse the need to consider such shifts very carefully. There are limitations at present to what modulated money could be spent. There would have to be agreement in the CAP midterm review to broaden the scope if we are to make use of modulation that the report proposes. But, subject to discussions with the devolved administrations and with the EU, increased flexibility on modulation will be the Government's objective.

I have only one minute left if I am to allow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to respond to the debate. Clearly I have not been able to cover all the points that have been raised. However, I want to come back to the substantive point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. The Government recognise the competitive pressures on the farming industry and the need for a level playing field in Europe. I would also say to the noble Earl that the opportunities that the Curry report lays out are opportunities. There is reference to new markets; to consumers wanting more authentic food; to ways of reconnecting with the farming industry; and to ways of ensuring that there is much greater cooperation between farmers in order to assert their own position in the market.

While the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, described this as a "starry-eyed vision" and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, described it as a "blue-sky vision", none the less vision is what we need. The commission's work will make a substantial contribution towards a new strategy for modern and adaptable farming in this country. I can assure noble Lords that the Government will do everything they can to make sure that that happens.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, we have had—the FSA would not object to my describing it thus—a "free-ranging" debate today, with a very balanced diet of speeches. The debate was tough on the one hand—I entirely agree with my noble friend that we should have an evidence-based policy—but it was tender on the other hand. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich on his speech which reminded us how important it is that we understand that there are people and communities involved in food policy.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.