Neil Parish calls for CAP reform to focus on food production

Neil Parish backs the greening of the common agricultural policy but highlights the importance of focusing on food production and calls on the Government to ensure that we have food production on the best land and increase it sustainably, but have conservation on our more marginal land.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Select Committee, for securing the debate.First, I want to say that I am probably a very sad case, because I spent 10 years in the European Parliament, and all of that time was spent on the agriculture committee, which I chaired from January 2007 to June 2009. I am actually waiting for the men in white coats to come and get me; I am sure they will, before too long. The only thing that gives me some recompense is the knowledge that I will probably not be the only one who is taken away. It is a good idea to debate greening the common agricultural policy. Like the Chair of the Committee, I want to start with some history—how we have come to the place we are in—and the issue of the mythical level playing field that farmers always seek but that often seems further and further away.We not only do not have a level playing field across the 27 member states of the European Union, but do not have a level playing field in the United Kingdom, because we have three different agricultural policies. The policy in England is to spread payments across the land and is not so historically based on the number of cattle and sheep kept, whereas in Wales and Scotland payments are made entirely on the basis of historical payments made to farmers between 2000 and 2001-02. There is no doubt but that we must look again at some of the systems of payment, because it is ridiculous to base an agricultural policy from 2014-15 to 2020 on payments made to farmers in 2001-02.Another issue, which is probably more European, is that Estonia receives €70 per hectare and Greece €500 per hectare, so there will have to be a little bit of levelling of those payments. When in the European Parliament, I was not always admired by the French and Germans when I said, “In 2004, when the new member states came in, they were not equal, but by the time we get to 2014-15 and later, they ought to be much more equal.” Those payments will have to be levelled, like it or not, across the EU. The one good thing for British farmers is that we are somewhere in the middle of the payment table, between Estonia and Greece, so should not be affected too badly by some sort of levelling. If there is to be any form of common policy, the level of payment across Europe needs to be considered.The CAP was started in 1962 by five member states to produce food after the war, and it was successful in producing food until the 1980s, when there was a lot of food in the world and Europe was subsidising it. When there was too much food in Europe, we put it on the developing world’s markets, destroying their markets. Something had to be done about that. We were subsiding Greek tobacco, for instance. One can argue about whether it is right or wrong to subsidise food and food production, but to use good taxpayers’ money to subsidise tobacco takes a little bit of working out, especially when one third of the tobacco grown in Greece was burnt in heaps on the ground, one third was reasonable quality and the other third was dumped on to developing world markets, leading to Zimbabwe and other countries having trouble with this dodgy tobacco.We have to face up to the fact that it is no good producing food for the sake of it. The idea of CAP reforms was to move towards an environmental, land-based payment. That is being done to some degree. It is also useful from a world trade point of view, because payments are put into the so-called green box and are not directly linked to production, and so can technically be made to farmers without distorting the international market for food. That also means that we are not directly subsidising the number of cattle or the number of hectares—in real money, acres—of corn, and so on, to produce more food.We have rightly moved in that direction, but as we move into 2012-13 and onwards, we should recognise that we are now living in a different world. The Labour Government, slightly belatedly, worked out that there was a need for food and food production. I attended a Morrisons breakfast the other morning. We were talking about the affordability of food. There is no doubt—I do not level the charge at Morrisons in particular—that certain big buyers over the years have looked around the world to buy reasonably cheap food. However, now there are not vast amounts of cheap food to be had out in the world. China was eating 500,000 tonnes of beef 40 years ago, but is now eating 5 million tonnes of beef. The whole of the United Kingdom produced 1 million tonnes, but China is now eating five times the amount of beef that we produce. The beef produced in Brazil, Argentina and other countries that produce lots of beef is not necessarily finding its way on to our markets; it is finding its way into China. Therefore food and raw material prices are higher.Although the CAP must be greened, it also has to reflect the fact that we need food that is produced at an economic price that our consumers can afford. I am a farmer—I declare an interest—and farmers would like the prices that they are paid for food to be higher. Of course, consumers are having to pay more. We should ensure that enough of the money that the consumer pays the retailer for his or her food gets back into the producer’s—the farmer’s—pocket. Although that is not necessarily part of CAP greening, it is relevant to agriculture and farmers’ incomes.Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about food prices. Does he agree that, although people always say that farmers receive subsidies, as if those are going straight into their back pocket, the truth is that in a lot of cases farm subsidies in recent decades have actually subsidised a cheap food policy? Household expenditure on food has been falling for many decades, and that has reversed only recently.Neil Parish: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The payments coming to farmers have encouraged them to produce food—in many ways quite rightly—and helped to keep the price of food down for the consumer. It is only now, in recent times, with 7 billion people and rising in the world, that more food has been needed, and its price is going up.In recent times, the prices of fertiliser, fuel and all those inputs that are needed to produce food have doubled. Therefore the key is to consider an agricultural policy that is not only green, but looks to ensure that food that can be produced sustainably is supported. This point has been made many times before, but if we look at our upland and hill farming, why are our hills so green and pleasant? Because they are farmed, and because there is stock on those hills. We need to consider that in respect of the CAP, because again—I am probably a little bit more controversial than some in this regard—it is no good just making a general payment across all farmers in future; we must look at the way that those payments are made.Does the East Anglian farmer on the fens, who can produce 4 or 5 tonnes of wheat per hectare, necessarily need the same payment as the farmer struggling on the hills? Is it not time that we found a way for the farmer in East Anglia, who could carry on producing good wheat, to trade his environmental payments with somebody farming on the hills? In Britain there is not a shortage of land used for conservation and agri-environment schemes; nearly two thirds of the land is in one scheme or another.Huw Irranca-Davies: I attended the same breakfast as the hon. Gentleman; it was a good discussion. On the important point that he is making, is there a case for the Minister engaging in that? In respect of high levels of CAP payment, particularly to the large agri-industrialist arable farmers towards the top end, there may be a case to be made for ensuring that the additional money from taxpayers is used for increased innovation, research and development and more targeted and accurate farming, so that the productivity, not just production levels, on such farms is massively increased as a result of using taxpayers’ money.Neil Parish: The shadow Minister is exactly right, and he leads me down a path towards making a point on which not all will agree with me, which is that the one thing that is being denied to European and British farmers is biotechnology and science. No other industry in this country is hampered by not being able to use the best science. A blight-resistant potato used for starch production is in existence. Eventually, we will have a blight-resistant potato fit for human consumption; will we then deny ourselves the use of it? Many in the House are better historians than I am, but was it not potato blight that caused the potato famine in Ireland? Solving the problem of having to spray potatoes 20 times a year—probably more this year, because of the terrible weather conditions—would be a great bonus. Similarly, as always promised, we might soon have nitrogen-enhancing wheats and oilseed rapes. Will Europe deny itself those, too?As a Government, we need to be a little more proactive in discussing biotechnology. It is not for the Monsantos and Syngentas to promote it, but perhaps for our universities and others, so that we can tell people about the possible green bonus from crops that need to be sprayed less and that use less artificial fertiliser—all part of science and technology.George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): On science, technology and innovation, as my hon. Friend knows, because he has attended meetings of the all-party group on science and technology in agriculture, of which I am chair, the Government have just launched a call for evidence on precisely that—a strategy for agricultural science and research, as part of a comprehensive life sciences strategy. Does he agree that, as we think about greening the CAP, we should consider how Europe’s farming and its agriculture, science and research base, often led by this country, can play a part globally in tackling the challenge of sustainable intensification, as laid out in the foresight report?Neil Parish: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I congratulate him on chairing the all-party group. We need to bring to the attention of the world what is needed, with biotechnology. We have a moral duty not only to look after the environment but to feed people. As there is more and more global warming, northern Europe, and we in particular, will need to produce more and more food, and using biotechnology is the way forward. Europe, however, has dragged its feet, as has this country. The debate would be worth having if the potential for environmental and productive gains and slightly cheaper food could be presented to the British public, and if they could see some financial benefits—people’s hearts are on the left and their pockets are on the right.If we look at the protein that we feed our chickens, our pigs in particular, and our dairy cows, most comes from South America and America, and most is genetically modified soya, so the idea that we are living in a world free from GM is absolutely wrong. The Americans, dare I say it—I never was politically correct—may in part be slightly overweight, but they have not actually died from eating GM products, which have been used to good effect in America. If we want a more competitive agriculture in Europe and Britain, denying ourselves GM in the future would be wrong. A Government who brought up that subject for debate would be brave, although I think that the public might just about be ready for it. I am interested in what our new Agriculture Minister will say. I am tempting him, ever so slightly, to comment on the subject.We have some good stewardship schemes in this country, probably among the best in Europe. The trouble is that the Ciolos reform is trying to go down to the lowest common denominator. Of the 27 countries, some have monocultures of maize, maize and more maize, so Ciolos is trying to bring in such things as a four-crop rotation, but if we have land in stewardship schemes or permanent pasture, or hill land that is extremely valuable for its landscape, the last thing we want to do is to encourage farmers to plough up part of it. Some of what is coming through from Ciolos, therefore, is complete madness. One idea is that every farm has to have 7% set aside, but some farms have anywhere between 20% and 40% of their land in a stewardship scheme—some more—while other, highly productive farms are much better off producing food and getting on with it, as I said before. That is why “one size fits all” is not the way forward, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said.We will have to fight hard in Europe—I look forward to the Minister fighting his corner—because in this country we run very productive farms. We actually farm pretty competitively. When some of my farmers in the west country get excited if the Commission talks about small farmers, I warn them, “Don’t get too excited”, because the Commission means farmers of about 5 acres, or 2 hectares, not farmers of 50, 100 or 150 acres. Poland has more farmers than the whole of the rest of the European Union, or certainly did when it entered, because it has so many small farms. Be careful when the Commission offers handouts to small farmers, because it does not mean ours.That brings me to a key point. As we green the CAP, what is needed is agricultural environmental policy, and at the moment too much social policy is involved. Many member states will talk about labour requirements that very much favour the huge amount of labour on the very small farms in some countries, which will put British farming at a disadvantage. That will also take the CAP from where we want it to go, because the whole idea—probably with cross-party support—is to see farmers not only farming in a green way but producing food competitively, and we also want them to get more money out of the marketplace. That is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who spoke before me. It is not a matter of finding more money from the CAP to support farming; it is about enabling farmers to be competitive and produce food well. I do, however, agree with the need to look much more at what land is given the CAP payments; that is where Scotland may well benefit.Dr Whiteford: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his latter point, because in Scotland we have some serious disadvantages, in terms of the kind of land that we have, its quality and its location. My key point was that the proportion we get of the overall CAP budget, whatever its size, needs to be more equitable.Neil Parish: I understand exactly where the hon. Lady is coming from, but looking at Scotland, dare I question whether the highlands and the bare rocks actually need the same payment as some land that can be farmed, such as grasslands? Averages of payment throughout Scotland are interesting. How dare I even suggest such things, I do not know—I do not want to get in a war with Scotland—but there are statistics and statistics.We are at a crossroads, and at a place where Britain is well in advance of others, with regard to environment payments. We need to ensure that we can pay for those payments. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton that modulation is unfair to British farmers. However, I also know that the Treasury is not noted for its generosity, and if we do not modulate, we will not have enough money to pay for our stewardship schemes. If the Minister and the Secretary of State with responsibility for agriculture went cap in hand to the Treasury, saying, “We already receive £2 billion or £3 billion from the CAP, but we need more money from the Treasury to prop up stewardship schemes,” I suspect that they would be told in good Anglo-Saxon terms to go on their way. As we negotiate the new agricultural policy, we must ensure that those stewardship schemes are funded through it in some shape or form. We must be careful when we say that we will throw the modulation out with the bathwater, because that may not be the right way forward.This debate is a great opportunity, and I wish Ministers well in their negotiations. The argument in Europe is always that we should have an agricultural policy for the whole of Europe and a budget to fit that policy, but in the real politics of the European Union, there is a budget for agriculture, and agricultural policy is then fitted to that budget. That is exactly what will happen this time.We must get the best deal for our farmers and the environment. I wish our new Minister and the Secretary of State well in their negotiations with our European partners. We must be tough to ensure that we move our agriculture forward to competitive food production and a green agriculture policy, but we must not lose sight of the fact that in the end, much of the food that our farmers produce is also part of the green environment.George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that a problem with a one-size-fits-all policy such as the CAP is that it is difficult to have policy innovation, because any such innovation is stifled by the need for negotiations between 27 member states? Does he think it might be better gradually to move to a system with a common agricultural policy with common objectives—safeguarding the environment, improving animal welfare, and food security—so that those policies are increasingly delivered on the ground by national Governments from their own budgets, and we do not recycle funds through the EU in the first place?Neil Parish: Yes. My hon. Friend raises a good point. What needs to be brought in is not only a policy, but co-financing, because each member state would then pay for its own agricultural policy, and might not be quite so keen on throwing money away on strange projects, as some countries do. Olive oil is produced in Greece, and reindeer are supported in north Finland and Sweden. Wheat and barley is grown across much of Europe, and rice is grown in parts of Italy and Greece. It is difficult to support a policy and have one aim. It would be much better to ensure that member states had their own money. The downside of that is that we do not want the French throwing all its money into supporting suckler cows and beef production, and that highly subsidised beef then coming across the channel to compete with our beef, which may not be subsidised in the same way.George Eustice: I completely accept that point, but does my hon. Friend agree that for any other goods, and in any other part of the single market, state aid rules, which the European Court of Justice enforces, prevent that from happening? It would be possible to have an agricultural policy with common objectives, but delivered nationally, with those state aid rules to prevent the sort of behaviour he mentioned.Neil Parish: My hon. Friend has heard the phrase, “The law works for the law-abiding,” and we can be certain that the French would find every reason to distort the market in their favour, wait until that is challenged by the European Commission, and drag it through the European courts for years, so I am not as sure as he is that state aid rules will stop the French or anyone else distorting the market. We must be careful if we go down that route. State aid rules are a blunt weapon, and I believe the Anglo-Saxons in Europe conform to them more closely than those in other parts of the European Union. State aid rules alone will not be enough.We must ensure that CAP reform is done in a way that does not distort the market further. We should green it, but have food production, and ensure that as we deal with farmers in this country, we have food production on the best land and increase it sustainably, but have conservation on our more marginal land. That is the way forward, and that is where we must be careful in our negotiations on the greening of the CAP. I look forward to Ministers doing a good job.2.25 pm| Hansard...Later interventions in the same debateNeil Parish: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the set-aside argument. Do we actually get value for money in greening with set-aside, counterbalancing the fact that we are taking out a lot of land that could be used for food production? There is a moral duty to produce food as well as taking land out for so-called environmental set-aside.George Eustice: That is right. The environmental stewardship schemes in pillar two are much more proactive about encouraging wildlife and improving biodiversity, whereas the problem with set-aside is that it becomes something that has to be done and everyone finds all sorts of ways around the rules so that, for instance, they can graze a particular type of goat on the land and get away with it. There is an issue with the bureaucratic system of set-aside.| Hansard Neil Parish: This will tempt my hon. Friend further from the topic of debate, but would a looser common agricultural policy, or an agriculture policy, be part of a new relationship that we might negotiate with Europe?Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): Do not be tempted too far, Mr Eustice.George Eustice: It might be, if we get to that point, but I do not want to be distracted by that now.| HansardNeil Parish: The Minister makes an interesting point. There are cases in Europe of people wanting to exempt small farmers from a lot of the conditions. In countries where the majority of the land is made up of very small farms, all the greening aspects get taken out because the farmers are ruled out of them.Mr Heath: Precisely so. Time and again people pay lip service to a “very good idea” but somehow it then does not apply to their own circumstances. We have to be wary of that and not fall into the same trap.| Hansard