HL Deb 21 July 1943 vol 128 cc719-24

LORD BARNBY asked His Majesty's Government what is their present policy with regard to dehydration of fresh vegetables, particularly in regard to the location of new plant and the production of additional supplies of dried vegetables in vegetable growing localities. The noble Lord said: My Lords, some eight months ago, I think it was, the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, held the intrigued interest of the House when he gave an indication of what was being done with regard to the dehydration of fresh vegetables. He at that time added to the interest of what he said by producing something which indicated how concentrated this dehydration process can be. He then suggested an addition to the long list of brilliant improvisations which his Ministry has achieved in helping to meet the present emergency—namely, affording facilities for the dehydration of fresh vegetables. Naturally that was followed by a lively interest being aroused in agricultural districts as to what contributions they were to make to this new process. In one district in particular, Lincolnshire, with which I happen to be closely associated, there was an available capacity which, it was thought, had not been used to the extent that it might be. In some other areas it was believed there was not the same capacity.

Since that time, there have been suggestions that additional facilities should be provided for dehydration and interest has been further aroused as to how the necessary supplies of fresh vegetables would be arranged and under what management that might be done. This is an aspect of what may be called the closer merging of agriculture and industry, and recalls what was done in the matter of sugar beet. Sugar beet manufacture involved both the improvement of husbandry and the efficiency of the treatment of the product. There is some anxiety lest action should not be taken now. May I give one illustration? The consumption of potatoes in this country on a very large scale involves the creation of what might be called a floating reserve, amounting, I understand, to some 300,000 tons. If you take an ordinary price of £10 per ton that amounts to a very large sum which might easily be lost in the absence of available machinery to conserve the surplus. With £1,000,000 there could be erected an appreciable amount of machinery. In this matter approaches have been made to Lord Woolton. I would like to pay tribute to the noble Lord's readiness to receive representations on the subject, and to his determination to insist upon investigations in regard to it. The matter is at the present moment one of such great interest that a further statement would be both very timely and welcome to the agricultural community. I beg to ask my question.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity of making the statement which I am afraid will be rather full, but it is of some importance that I should make it. My Ministry is at present undertaking or encouraging the dehydration of vegetables in this country in three forms. First, the production of dehydrated cabbage, carrot and potato strips; secondly, the production of potato mash powder; and thirdly, the drying of potatoes to produce potato flour (for human consumption) or potato slices (chiefly for animal feed). After considerable research carried out in collaboration with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and commercial interests, a standard plant which will deal with either cabbage, carrot or potato has been evolved. These plants—which remain Government property—are being installed in various factories and will be operated under the supervision of my Department and solely on its account. The firm operating the plant on behalf of ray Department will have an opportunity of acquiring the plant, should it desire to do so, when the present emergency is over.

So far as possible, these plants are being and will be installed in the vegetable growing areas or as adjacent thereto as possible. There are, however, a number of other factors that must determine their location and which have frequently made it necessary for my Department to site the plants elsewhere than in the immediate producing districts. First, with regard to the suitability of the factory, the following specifications are essential: About 13,000 square feet of floor space; 10,000 gallons of water per hour; 12,000 lbs. of steam per hour; if required adequate electric power; and facilities for disposal of the effluent, which is of an obnoxious nature, particularly when the plant is working on cabbage. These essential requirements necessarily limit the choice of premises, but there is a further complication in that this additional manufacturing capacity can only be located at present in areas where my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour can guarantee to provide the necessary labour force of about 250 men and women. Finally, in order to ensure a high quality for the product, only reputable firms equipped with the necessary scientific experience are being entrusted with dehydration. Members of your Lordships' House will bear in mind that there is nothing new in the drying of vegetables, but the poor quality previously attainable severely restricted their use and their utility. The demand for the present product for the Fighting Forces arises because of its high quality and it is essential, in my opinion, to see that that high quality is maintained.

I have described in some detail the restrictions—the necessary restrictions I submit—which exist in the selection of places at which this new process is to be operated on behalf of the Ministry of Food. My present objective is to erect thirty plants; twenty-two have already been ordered, three are in operation, another eleven are under construction, and sites have been selected for at least a further eight units. For the reasons already given, only about five of these are actually in vegetable-growing areas although in all cases the transport of vegetables can conveniently be arranged. It is not, of course, easy at this juncture of the war to build and instal a number of new plants in premises which have to be adapted for the purpose. When the programme was adopted, I asked my noble friend Lord McGowan whether the Imperial Chemical Industries would undertake the erection of the plants on our behalf, and I am grateful to him for having agreed to do this and for the assistance which that vast organization has given my Department. The plants in course of erection will be brought into operation over the next few months. There is, however, little prospect of the output from these plants being available to the general public during the war. The whole of it will be required for meeting the demands of the Armed Forces.

All the vegetables produced on the standard vegetable plant to which I have referred still require to be cooked, but there has been developed by a prominent firm in this country a product which I think of exceptional interest. It is a potato powder which, by the simple addition of hot water, is converted into mashed potato. I have myself tested this product and can testify both to the simplicity with which it can be reconstituted and the excellence of its quality. The existing plant required for this product is being extended and a further plant is in course of erection. The whole output from these plants during the war will be acquired by the Ministry of Food, but here again there is little prospect of any of the output being available for civilian consumption during the war, because the whole of it will go to the Forces.

During the war period, the area planted with potatoes has been enormously increased. Even if we had a bad yield one year, we still might be able to provide unrestricted supplies of potatoes for human consumption. When the yield per acre is good, as it has been during the last three or four years, there is inevitably, and I think fortunately, a surplus of potatoes over and above the quantity required to meet the demands for consumption in their natural form. There are fifteen drying factories situated in potato-growing districts continuously available to handle these surplus potatoes and four others are under construction. In addition to this, use has been made of twelve sugar beet factories from March to June inclusive each year. Some of the factories are producing continuously for animal food and others are producing potato flour. Some sugar beet factories are equipped for either purpose and the decision as to which product shall be made is governed not only by the quality of the potatoes, but also by the rate at which they have to be dealt with. It takes about twice as long to produce a potato flour of reasonable quality as it does to produce potato slices.

I have given the House, in response to my noble friend's question, a brief sum- mary of the present position of vegetable dehydration in this country. To complete my statement I must say that my Department is maintaining the closest possible liaison with the United States in regard to the development of dehydration generally. As evidence of the importance which the Government attach to this subject, I may mention that Dr. C. S. Hanes, the Director of Food Investigation in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, has been seconded to my Department and has, for a considerable time, been a member of the British Food Mission in Washington, charged specially with the duty of maintaining contact with the U.S. Administration on this subject and with manufacturers engaged in that country on dehydration. My Department is also endeavouring to stimulate production throughout the British Empire. A Dehydration Mission, which is now making a survey throughout Africa, is being received there with much interest and appreciation, and I was very grateful to General Smuts for the courtesy he showed them in personally receiving them before they left the Union.


My Lords, may I ask when we shall be allowed to know where these factories are to be sited?


There is no reason why you should not be told.


I do not want a list now.