Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Harvest for the world

Spent quite an interesting two-and-a-half hours in the Chamber yesterday for the Food Security debate. Made a couple of interventions: the first I don't think I put very well, but at least the pont was made; that why, when we can grow apples in this country, do we import them from New Zealand, with all the environmental costs that incurs (not to mention the financial costs - which I didn't). I was roundly rebuked for this later by the Tory MP, David Curry, who said that we'd built this country on trade and if we didn't buy their apples, they wouldn't buy our whiskey. But where does it stop? Do we just carry on with an endless cycle of goods being unnecessarily transported halfway round the world? The Secretary of State's response was along the lines of people being able to exercise free choice. In other words, don't buy New Zealand apples if you're bothered about food miles.

My second intervention - on the Lib Dem frontbencher who is, I gather, a hill farmer in Wales - was to reiterate the 7kg of grain = 1 kg of beef point, as no-one else seemed willing to mention increased meat and dairy consumption as a factor affecting food security. I was somewhat chilled by his response. To quote: "The ruminants do not have a good conversion factor in converting corn and soya into meat, but species such as pigs and chickens are relatively efficient." This reminds me of the recent article in the Observer, which said that chickens are referred to as 'units' on intensive farms. They make it sound as if animals are machines, where you input feed at one end and meat is produced at the other.

For those who say that there's little difference between political parties these days, it's worth reading the debate. Although the Tories had called for a debate on food security, it should really have been entitled "Protecting the livelihood of British farmers". (Which included most of them, it seemed). Hilary Benn's response, by way of contrast, scanned the global horizon, talked about developing countries, and put things into their rightful international context.

Of the Tories, Michael Jack, chair of the DEFRA select committee, actually made quite a thoughtful and well-argued contribution, which he only slightly spoilt by admitting that he talks to slugs and snails in his garden. (He tells them to go away, and they ignore him). He also talked about a field of leeks that had "effectively melted" after being hit by a severe cold spell. I'm no horticulturalist, but even I know that leeks don't melt. Not even if you put them in a wok.

Disappointingly the Lib Dem chair of the APPG for Cheese made no mention of cheese in his intervention. The chair of the APPG for Dairy Farmers (aka that really, really tall bloke with the Polish name) blamed global insecurity of food supplies on badgers spreading bovine TB; the sooner we cull them the better. One farmer in his constituency is particularly suffering. (See earlier point re the importance of having an international perspective on this issue).

The Labour MP Ian Gibson spoke about "the Haber-Bosch process of making ammonia from gaseous nitrogen and hydrogen". He also told us that "In Norwich, we have groups working on the prospect of transferring to other crop plants, such as wheat, the genetic capacity of legumes, which fix their own nitrogen through associated bacteria" and that "radiant energy for photosynthesis is all about latitude. We cannot do too much about that, but through molecular genetics it is possible to make photosynthesis more efficient and therefore fix more carbon for growth". Couldn't have put it better myself. As the Tory frontbencher quipped at the end, he should probably do a Powerpoint presentation next time.

Parliament's only UKIP MP made us laugh by inadvertently referring to CAP as the 'Common Agricultural Problem', and a Tory got very indignant about the fact that smoked bacon doesn't even have to be smoked anymore; it's all chemicals these days! And another Tory complained that only 13% of the lamb fed to our very own armed forces was British. (So presumably he doesn't buy into his colleague's argument about having to buy lamb from NZ so they buy our whiskey?)

All in all, quite a fun way to spend a few hours.

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