English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:06 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Carter of Coles Lord Carter of Coles Llafur 12:06, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his dedicated—the size of the report indicates that—and skilled chairing of the committee. It was a pleasure to work on this, not least because it brought to fruition the lifetime’s work of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who has been a fundamental driver of change in the sector, which, as I hope we demonstrate, is of great significance.

What was interesting about the committee was that it took us into a wide range of issues and showed how difficult it is for modern government to touch every base. The first thing we hit was the elusive reality of joined-up government. It is practically impossible. If I had a pound for every committee meeting I have been to where people banged on about how one department does not talk to another, I would have a bit more money.

There were a large range of issues, some of which have been touched on—innovation, investment, cheap food versus food security, the environment and all those things. But with the time limit today, I will focus on a very narrow range of things.

The first thing that struck me is that this industry can grow substantially, and this country needs growth industries. One need only look 40 or 50 miles across the sea to the Netherlands to see a country about 17% of the size of the UK that has a horticultural sector that is five times greater. It can be done. The challenge we face is how to do it.

That leads me to the question of government. The Government’s strategy is non-existent. How can they not be enthusiastic about something that has such potential to grow? To add to that disappointment, I would be complimenting the Government if I said that their response to our report was anything other than totally anaemic. It does not help with anything that we want to achieve.

Why should we be doing this? What is the opportunity? It is best if I quote Sir James Dyson. His credentials enabling him to speak on this are that he has a large greenhouse, 760 metres long, in Lincolnshire, in which he has 1.25 million strawberry plants. He does all of that with heating from solar panels and anaerobic digestion. What he says is this:

“Sustainable food production and food security are vital to the nation’s health and the nation’s economy, whilst there is also a real opportunity for agriculture— he says agriculture but I say horticulture—

“to drive a revolution in technology and vice versa… efficient, high-technology agriculture holds many of the keys to our future”.

That is what it is. We have the opportunity, so we need to look at technology. We cannot forever be competing with warm countries with long hours of sunshine and low labour costs. We need to get the technology right if we are to compete and deal with these key issues.

The committee was lucky enough to spend a day in Kent, on the Isle of Thanet, said to be the sunniest part of England. We saw two great exemplars. The first was an Anglo-Dutch joint venture growing tomatoes. It was brilliantly organised. It is, I think, the leading supplier of tomatoes to the UK and is world-class and competitive. Equally entrancing was a visit to a site a few miles away where a vertical farm had been built. It focused on producing leaves—that is, lettuces and things for supermarkets—in a really controlled environment which was pesticide-free, with minimal water and labour. It was absolutely fantastic. It did it on an amount of land which, to get the same output with conventional methods, would have to be 20 times greater. What is there not to like? Why are we not pushing and investing, and getting the Government to help in taking this forward?

So we know what to do and we have seen others do it. This sector has great innovative ability. People such as Sir James Dyson and the people on the Isle of Thanet are not in this because they want to be charities. We know how to do it. In response to the supermarkets’ continued pressure on margin, it will be only technology and innovation that get the right margin to supply the job.

We do need better training—the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, touched on this—and the Government should be in that place. Frankly, I have never believed in the Government picking winners, but in this case I make an exception. The Government need to get behind this, but with a light touch: we do not want another bureaucracy, and we do not want another load of civil servants writing endless reasons why not. We just need to get on with it. So perhaps in conclusion the Minister might tell us whether he believes that some small part of the Defra underspend will be directed to this, as the Government have committed to the total amount of money going in during the lifetime of this Parliament.