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James Paice: What has happened to the countryside for the last 10 years

Speaking at Party Conference 2007 James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, said:

"The report concentrates on long term strategy rather than today's difficulties although heaven knows there are enough of them. Its' central core is the importance of our domestic food production. I call it food security or the capacity to produce the majority of our needs.

The proportion of our indigenous food which is British has fallen from 81% to 71% in 10 years. Two years ago the Government said that food security was not a policy objective, only this summer ministers said our security was achieved by importing from several countries. That is an abdication of responsibility and incredibly short sighted and that is the big divide between us.

Firstly: because of climate change. 30% of the world's crop land is less than 1 metre above sea level so hugely at risk from rising sea levels.

Secondly: because that same change will cause water shortages in many farming areas.

Thirdly we are quite rightly concerned about farming's effect on the environment so there will be husbandry constraints.

Finally and perhaps most importantly the world is getting short of food. Global stocks of grain are at an all time low, we have just 15 days supply, whilst demand is increasing because of growing prosperity in China and India and because of the demand for grain to convert into ethanol as a petrol replacement.

The Government's view is that having abolished production subsidies then the industry is on its own and it doesn't matter whether it survives or not. But if we are to have food security the government must create the opportunity for our industry to compete.

So we will set farmers free to farm by reducing the burden of regulation, easier said than done but we will do it by trusting farmers to achieve the desired outcome rather than dictating exactly how everything should be done. Instead of assuming all farmers are intent on breaking the rules we will concentrate on the few that do.

Secondly we will help farmers reconnect with their customers by ensuring that food is honestly labelled. With the increasing demand for local food no consumer should be deceived into believing a product is British if it isn't.

Linked to this is how we spend 2 billion of taxpayer's money on food and drink. The quality of life group give numerous examples of how buying local food can be cheaper and of better quality.

In St Mary's school Ely the head cook has her own budget, shops locally and produces better and more popular meals at no more cost.

So we will ensure that British taxpayer's money is spent on British food wherever possible.

Thirdly we need to make sure that we protect human and animal health from imported disease.

Very topical with the disaster of foot and mouth and blue tongue but there is always a risk of disease coming in through our air and sea ports.

So instead of just increasing the number of sniffer dogs from 6 to 10 as Labour has done we will ensure that food imports are properly inspected and I don't just mean the paperwork. And we will commence trials of equipment to x-ray the baggage of passengers coming to Britain before they take off so that our border police can catch them when they collect it.

But you know farming is about more than food.

The landscape of this country was created by farmers for farming needs. The dry stone walls in the peak district weren't put there with an arts council grant; they were put there to keep sheep in.

Of course by today's values not all changes were good for the landscape but if we want to maintain and enhance it we must work with farmers not against them. Rural tourism is worth £14 billion yet as someone has said "No cows - no countryside"

Our land can also help against climate change by growing crops to turn into fuel or gas or energy and by reducing environmentally damaging imports.

Finally in the more remote parts of the country farming has a huge social significance as the backbone of villages where there is little other employment. That is why the reports of the Commission for Rural communities make desperate reading.

20% of rural people live in poverty

The number of young people has fallen from 21% to 15%

Crime is rising across the board

Housing is proportionately much more expensive.

It costs more to provide public services but the government gives our local authorities less.

The quality of life group's answer is truly conservative: stop running things from the centre

We will give real local power; whether it is buying food for schools or hospitals, deciding where to allow local housing and who takes it or what policing priorities should be.

These of course apply everywhere but are even more important for rural areas when the man in Westminster or Whitehall or even Regional Development Agencies hasn't a clue about what life is truly like in rural areas and if he or she is part of a Labour Government they care even less.

So those are our priorities:

Putting food production first,

Recognizing farming's wider role by getting off their backs;

Trusting people to abide by regulations and to make decisions about local issues using local knowledge.

And let me say this about driving power down: Labours view is that: "they may cock it up".

To which I say "isn't it better that they cock it up for a few rather than Whitehall cocking it up for everyone" because that is what has happened to the countryside for the last 10 years."

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