I declare an interest as the former MP for Harpenden, where the Rothamsted Research Institute is.
When your Lordships’ House discusses agriculture, it is converted into a TARDIS, transporting us back in time to the Corn Law debates of the 19th century—debates then, as now, dominated by landowners advocating for protection and high food prices and supported by bourgeois romantics who oppose industrialisation and progress; their modern counterparts are the Greens. Both are indifferent to the impact of higher food prices on those poorer than themselves. I hope that I will not be the only one to speak up for consumers today.
The only way to combine prosperous agriculture with abundant, low-cost food is for farming to be competitive. Nothing promotes competitiveness like competition, which means phasing out protections and subsidies. Can UK farming become competitive without protection? Much of it already is. The world record yield for wheat changes hands between farms in Northumberland—the county of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale—and New Zealand, both far higher than the best producers in Canada, the US or Russia.
New Zealand agriculture, which this Motion sees as a threat, was losing competitiveness until it abolished all protective tariffs and subsidies. The NFU brief for this debate claims that New Zealand’s costs are between one-quarter and two-thirds lower than the UK’s but it ignores the subsidies that UK farmers receive, which are equal to 40% of their costs. It also ignores the cost of transporting New Zealand products half way round the globe.
Improved UK competitiveness will come not just from the long tail of less efficient farmers adopting the efficient methods of the best. As well as reducing time-consuming EU regulations, Brexit should mean that British farmers can apply modern scientific methods banned by the EU—often developed at Rothamsted— such as CRISPR and GM, which will boost yields and reduce the use of costly and environmentally unfriendly pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. The main losers from opening up our market to our Antipodean friends will be not UK farmers but inefficient European farmers, who currently supply nearly half our food. The winners will be more efficient British farmers and hard-pressed British consumers.