In Parliament

Members of the Lords, including former NFU president Henry Plumb, debated the role of agriculture and the food industry in the UK economy for two and a half hours on 24th July. The Hansard transcript fills 48 pages of A4, Catherine Paice reports.

The debate (that ‘this House takes note of the role of agriculture and the food industry in the economy of the United Kingdom’) was requested by Lord Plumb (Con), supported by dairy farmer Lord Grantchester (Lab), Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Lib Dem), and vet Lord Trees (Crossbench), a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Another 11 peers also got a chance to voice their thoughts. Baroness Northover (Lib Dem) represented the Government as there was no minister in attendance – apparently due to the rival attraction of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Now in his 90th year, and one of the most widely respected farming politicians ever, Lord Plumb was not joking when he said he had lived through some testing and challenging times. His energy and enthusiasm seem undiminished, as anyone involved with the food industry and marketing of British food will testify, and he still despairs when any talk of the growth of the economy excludes agriculture.

This column lacks the space to track the debate in detail but it is well worth following in Hansard. For those who lack the time, I have read every word on your behalf – and if anyone needs to give a talk in the coming months I recommend it as a source for inspiration.

Here are a few Plumb facts: agriculture and food production, processing and retailing employ well over 3.5 million people. Farming’s contribution to the economy increased by a staggering 67% between 2007 and 2013 in gross value added terms, contributing an extra £10.4 billion to the UK economy than it did in the five years between 2004 and 2008.

This is in stark contrast to the wider economy, even accounting for recent improvements in economic performance in the UK, which is 0.6% smaller in 2014 than its peak in 2008, mainly of course due to the banking crisis.

Agricultural output from the UK has increased by 59% in the past decade. Its importance to the UK economy is emphasised by the fact that the UK has 142,000 businesses registered as farm businesses, which is more than the number involved in the motor trade, education or finance and insurance, and equates to 5.5% of the overall total. In more rural areas agriculture is obviously much more important to the local economy.

The self-sufficiency ratio is estimated to be 60% for all food produced in 2013 and 73% for indigenous-type foods. In the money terms of 2013, the deficit in 1990 was £10bn. In 2013 it was £20bn. “Self-sufficiency at 60% must therefore be improved considerably to play an even greater part in the economy,” says Lord Plumb.

So, what next? Will Lord Plumb get the response he seeks? With this introduction, I have already come to the end of this column. I will return to the remaining 27 pages in the next issue…

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