Agriculture Bill (Fourth sitting) DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Ruth JonesMain Page: Ruth Jones (Labour) - Newport West)
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(6 months ago)Public Bill Committees
Q You spoke about the physical method for dealing with listeria and salmonella and some of these new pathogens that are emerging. Can you give us your sense of the global architecture for managing this, and what prospects you see for new global agreements on how to deliver high-quality food hygiene? Does the opportunity we now have to be part of the global trade conversation give us the opportunity to improve global standards? What are the architecture and institutions, and what is your sense of where the leadership on this is coming from globally?
Professor Keevil: A lot of it is price driven, not surprisingly. Certain countries say, “We are in a competitive economy, and we believe we can supply food safely for a lower cost.” That is what our research and that of others is starting to challenge.
In terms of global supply, we talk a lot now about international jet travel. For example, we can travel around the world in 12 hours or what have you, hence the current problems with coronavirus, but many people forget about migratory birds. We know that some birds fly thousands of miles north and south, east and west. They can bring disease with them. That is partly why we have the problem of emerging diseases that we must be conscious of for the future. We have had concerns, for example, with avian flu and DEFRA maintained high surveillance of the farms where avian flu had an impact, to ensure that it did not decimate the poultry industry in the UK.
Those are all issues that we will have to face. We do not live in a sterile world. We have mass migration of people and particularly of wild birds. We must allow for that in all our farming practices and ecosystems services. I maintain that good husbandry practice is the way forward. The previous speaker mentioned factory production, and I agree with him in that very good supply chains are now being established for vegan burgers, much of which is produced from bacteria and fungi. That is a good thing.
Vertical farming is starting to become more prevalent. That is the horticulture where crops such as salads are grown in an aquaculture-based system, and everything is stacked up. We are now seeing very large factories where they control the quality of the water, the lighting regime and so on. That seems to be a very safe, nutritious way to produce salads. In the winter the UK imports a lot of salads from the Mediterranean countries—we used to import a lot from Kenya, but I think that is reduced now. We used to import a lot from Florida and California, and that is a carbon footprint, but if we can do more vertical farming ourselves, particularly in the winter, that is a substitute. We can get this mix of what we might call modern biotechnology with more traditional farming.
Q Professor Keevil, you make quite a bold statement in your briefing note about the 14.7% of the USA population getting food-borne illnesses every year, compared with only 1.5% in the UK. I want to ask you about your reference for that, because there is not a reference for the source of that information. That brings me on to a general question. It is quite clear that there could be a variety of other reasons for that: it could be bad storage, bad travel or bad food preparation or cooking. How reliable is this sort of statistic in a climate where we are facing going into new agreements with other countries? How reliable is that sort of information?
Professor Keevil: That is a good question, because you will get different metrics if you go to different sources. What we tried to do with those numbers was look at the annual reporting by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. You will find the information on their website. A lot of the agencies say, “Well, these are the numbers of actual reports that we have received,” for example, through people going to hospital, to their GP and so forth, and then they apply a multiplication factor for the numbers who could have been affected but for whom the signs of disease are much less—people who do not report that they have had any disease. A lot of the information is based on those types of numbers—for example, 14% of Americans do not report to a doctor to say they have had food poisoning—but they are extrapolated. As I say, you will get different metrics depending on your source. It could be that the figure in the UK is more than 1.5%, but I do not think it is anywhere near what the Americans have extrapolated.
Break in Debate
Q It saves piglets’ lives, though, does it not?
Dr Palmer: There are very well-established alternative methods. At the moment, British farming is 50:50—roughly 50% have moved away from farrowing crates and the other half have not. That is a record that is less good than some countries’, and really we should strive to be the best.
One can always argue about the exact wording, but I think that anyone familiar with the range of systems in British farming would agree that it ranges from the very good—where we can really be proud and tell the world that we are the world leader—to areas where the farmers themselves would say that they would like to do better but cannot afford the conversion costs. This is a classic example of a public good. I think the overwhelming majority of British consumers would be pleased to know that farmers were moving up the scale. Farmers themselves would like to, but they need assistance for the one-off transition costs.
This is not an area of huge controversy between us and the National Farmers Union and others. We are all pulling in the same direction, and we should use the opportunity of Brexit to try to make sure that we actually get to that point.
Q I am pleased that the Secretary of State now has direct responsibility for the nation’s food security, but I wonder whether it should be a national priority to support domestic agriculture. What is your view on the frequency of reporting? I know at the moment it is being suggested it should be every five years, but we have heard differing views today. What do the panel think about that?
Vicki Hird: I think it is welcome to have that in there. There is a case for making it more frequent, given that we are facing a climate and nature emergency that will threaten our supplies and production here and overseas. We should be building that into the review, in terms of anticipating how that will affect land use both here and overseas. That is currently not in the Bill, and it would be a welcome addition to recognise the sustainability factors that will increasingly come into play before the next five years are up. We already know that flooding is more frequent, and drought is affecting many parts of Africa, which supplies us with a lot of fruit and veg.
There is a case for more frequent reporting; it is a welcome element in the Bill, but as the previous speaker mentioned, we already do much of this food security assessment already, so it is a question of building on that and making it an integral part of the sustainability of our food system. [Applause.] May I congratulate George Eustice, our new Secretary of State? I will end there, on food security.
Break in Debate
Q Ms Davies, your organisation, Which?, has historically been a champion for consumer choice. I want to ask you what your position is. From your written statement, it seems like you are proposing a form of protectionism against certain imports based on standards, but with a lack of clarity, I would suggest. Does that not deny the consumer a choice and potentially make food a lot more expensive for the consumer?
Sue Davies: We are certainly not protectionist and we are certainly in favour of consumer choice. However, it is about enabling people to make meaningful choices and the types of choices that we want. We also base what we say and what we call for on consumer research—talking to people and understanding their perspectives. Over the last couple of decades, we have been talking to people about food a lot, but in the last three years we have had a regular tracker and have been asking a lot about food standards.
We are just in the process of doing some more research, for which we are going to do a series of public dialogues around the country, particularly focused on trade deals and what some of the opportunities of those could be, as well as some of the issues over which people might have concerns. It will look at food standards, but also at things like digital services and opportunities for a wide range of cheaper products. We know from the research we have done to date that people feel very strongly about food production methods and would have concerns if food was allowed to come in with reduced, cheaper standards that undermined the standards and choices we have at the moment.
I do not think it is about reducing people’s choice. It is about enabling people to have an informed choice, and about enabling everybody to have a choice. At the moment, we have regulation and standards that underpin everything that everybody buys, whatever their income level. If it suddenly becomes the case that only those who can afford it can have the type of standards we have at the moment, and other people have to have lower standards, that would certainly be a completely retrograde step.
We are starting from a point where we have good standards, and we are about to start negotiating trade deals, so we need to be really clear in those objectives about where food fits. We need to look at the opportunities for food and other things that we might gain in those trade deals, but also to be really clear about where we will not compromise. Things such as food safety and quality and animal welfare come out from our research as things that people do not think we should compromise on.
Q Two of the objectives of the Bill are improving plant health and reducing or protecting from environmental hazards. Groundbreaking work is obviously being done on plant breeding. For example, potatoes may not need to be sprayed every 10 days for potato blight, and there are potatoes that are potato cyst nematode resistant. Some of that may use gene editing. Do you think consumers know enough about these issues to have a view, or do you think that if it is presented in the right way, they may see that the upsides cancel out the downsides and their prejudices?
Sue Davies: We have done a lot of consumer research over the years and have talked to people about their attitudes to different food technologies. About three or four years ago, we did quite a big project with Sir Mark Walport and the Government Office for Science looking at food system challenges and carrying out public dialogues in different parts of the country. What comes out from those dialogues and our wider research is that people really want to have a more open discussion about what the risks and benefits are. It seems that people do not really know enough about it. They want to be convinced that, if technologies are being used, they are being looked at in the full range of possibilities and alternatives. People are more nervous about technologies like gene editing than, say, the use of precision agriculture. Often in these debates, we start from the technology and look at how it can be used, rather than looking at what the problem is, what the range of options is, and why we are deciding that that is the right approach.
The other thing that comes across really clearly is that people expect there to be strong, independent oversight. It is concerning that when we talk about the use of technologies, you often hear some people call for deregulation and less oversight, when all our experience is to the contrary: you do not want to over-regulate and have an overly burdensome system, but people want to know that things are being done in the public interest, and that there is a clear understanding of any safety issues or wider environmental risks before we go down the route of using some of these technologies.
People are open to technology, but they want to know exactly why it is being used and whether it is the best approach. The only way to do that is that to make sure that, if we are looking at using these technologies, there is proper public engagement and understanding of them. The retailers and others in the food industry are obviously key, in terms of their understanding of whether people would want to buy products produced using these methods.