Pierse Loftus – 1943 Speech on Grass at Aerodromes

Below is the text of the speech made by Pierse Loftus, the then Conservative for Lowestoft, in the House of Commons on 24 February 1943.

In the short time available to me I propose raising a matter which I believe is of greater national importance than is generally ​ realised, namely, the failure to use for feeding purposes for stock a vast amount of grass available on aerodromes. We are all begged to-day, each one of us, to economise to the utmost in the consumption and use of all feeding material, and those who can produce food, whether farmers or market gardeners, are urged to do their utmost to increase the food supply of the country. I believe myself that owing to the failure to use this vast amount of grass on our aerodromes we are wasting an enormous quantity of the most valuable animal food in the world. I believe that the loss may well run into over 100,000 tons a year, perhaps considerably more. The drying of grass is probably the most progressive, beneficent step achieved in agriculture in the last 50 years. Dried grass contains in itself a perfect animal food. It has an enormous quantity of vitamins, proteins, and so on; and such a food in these times should not be wasted. I recognise that in putting my case I must be brief, and that I must not use any figures as to the numbers of aerodromes and so on; I must deal with the matter in general terms.

The first thing to note is that every aerodrome could utilise two drying plants. Between 1st May and 1st October each plant would produce 250 tons; that is to say, each aerodrome with two plants would produce 500 tons a year of this valuable food. A hundred aerodromes would produce 50,000 tons a year of this food for our stock. It is possible that some aerodromes could utilise three drying plants, but I take the figure two. Nearly all the surface of an aerodrome—quite 90 per cent.—is grass. On how many aerodromes are we utilising grass for drying? I have asked the Minister on what percentage of aerodromes it has been utilised, or on what number of aerodromes. He gave an answer in one word—”Ten.” Whether he meant 10 per cent. or 10 aerodromes I do not know—I presume he meant 10 aerodromes. In any case it is obvious that there is a great waste in not utilising the enormous majority of aerodromes for this purpose. What happens to the grass on these aerodromes? It has to be cut. I believe that in some instances, possibly in many, it is cut and then left to rot. The only way of utilising this grass is to dry it. You cannot utilise it as hay; it would not keep in such quantities, especially the very short grass.

What is the answer that the various Government Departments have given on this matter? The first answer probably is that the disposal of the grass is left to the county war agricultural committees. I believe that these committees have the power to deal only with areas outside the aerodrome, small areas containing probably inferior, rough grass. I do not believe they have power to deal with the aerodromes themselves. I have a friend—and I will give particulars to the right hon. Gentleman later—who for 18 months has been trying to get the grass of five or six aerodromes in one county, and has offered £2 an acre, but cannot get an answer. He has been referred from one Department to another, chivvied from pillar to post, and he can find nobody in any Department who will take the responsibility of accepting his offer and adding to the food supplies of the country. The second answer is, that it may be said that camouflaging grass on aerodromes prevents the utilisation of the grass. I suggest that only a small proportion of the grass of an aerodrome is so affected. It should be known that camouflage has taken place for years on aerodromes where the grass has been dried, and further that the grass driers themselves used to apply the camouflage in certain aerodromes. I admit frankly that years ago there was a lot of camouflaging in aerodromes which did prevent the grass being used. I will not go into the details of the methods, naturally, but I know that that method has been abolished and is no longer used.

The third answer may be given as follows; Aerodromes are sown with a special type of grass which is not suitable for grass drying. I reply to that that the majority of aerodromes laid before the war were seeded with first-class grass admirably adapted for grass drying. I have here the analyses of that grass from three aerodromes, and they are as follow: first, carotene, which forms 450 millograms per kilo; the second, 400 millograms per kilo; and the third, 330 millograms per kilo. First quality dried grass is anything above 250 millograms per kilo.

Therefore it is first-quality dry grass. But I am also told by experts that even these special grasses which are used on the minority of aerodromes only can be utilised for grass drying. Surely, if there ​ is any question about it, it can be solved very easily. Let the Minister obtain samples and have them analysed by experts and discover whether the types of grass used on this minority of aerodromes are suitable or not.

A possible answer is that drying plants are not available. I admit that they are not available to-day, but they can be made available quite easily. Grass drying plant can be easily and quickly made. It consists of an oven of sheet metal and a furnace, and I believe that we could get 500 of these plants made by one or two firms within three months, once the order was given and the material provided. I would point out to the Minister that these plants could be used for other purposes, such as drying corn during a wet harvest, and after the war they would be an invaluable national asset in providing food for stock.

I feel that the only explanation is that the Air Ministry is the obstacle. I realise it is the obstacle. The Air Ministry is concentrating on its own magnificent job, which it is carrying out so splendidly, and the Minister and the Ministry personnel say, “We want to get on with our job and with the war, and we cannot deal with these agricultural troubles.” It is, I think, because they do not realise the immense importance of the subject. It is important for these and many other reasons. We want more milk, and the ideal food for the purpose is dried grass. We want more meat, we want to import less food for our stock. Dried grass is the perfect food. We have killed off our pig and poultry populations to a large extent, yet here we have the perfect food, not being used. If we had even half this available food, we could enormously increase our stock of pigs and poultry, to the general benefit of the country.

My final consideration is this: Lord Woolton, in a passage which appealed to our people, said the other day, when begging us to economise on bread, that when you fiddle with a piece of bread by the side of your plate you are fiddling with the lives of our seamen. That went home to the British people. Here, I suggest, is a vast store of magnificent animal food which is being wasted. If we used it, it would save great quantities of food which might have to be brought in, indeed, will have to be brought in, in ships at great cost of loss of ships and men I would beg the Parliamentary Secretary​ to consider this matter seriously. I ask him to take at least this step, to insist on a joint investigation by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Air Ministry. Let there be a joint Departmental Committee to sift the facts and hear the evidence of experts, so that the obstacles are removed. That is a small request to make. I would like to quote the eloquent words used by the Parliamentary Secretary at Cardiff the other day. He is reported to have said:

“More food is still the rallying cry in the battle of the fields. Every ton of food produced here helps in the battle against the U-boats. Each ship used to import food is one less to carry the war to the enemy.”

Let the Parliamentary Secretary now break down this inertia, this lack of realisation of what is happening, and force a thorough investigation into the great possibilities of this food.