Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 4:33 pm, 10th October 2018

Over the past 50 years, through the intensification of agriculture, we have lost much of our nature and wildlife. I pay real tribute to Chris Packham and the wonderful march for nature that he organised a few weeks ago in London, where thousands of people marched through the city to demand that we change how we manage the land to protect the species with which we are fortunate enough to share the planet.

Let us take as one example the amazing bird that is the swift. One bird can fly a million miles, yet we have lost 50% of our swift population over the past 20 years alone, as a direct result of the way in which we manage the land. Our wild spaces, flowers and animals that give our landscape such magic and beauty have been devastated by the impact of our farming and land management, and it is now acknowledged that that must change.

That understanding needs to be at the heart of the Bill. We must use it as an opportunity to transform how we live with and in our countryside and rebalance our relationship not only with nature, but with how we produce and consume food. Sadly, despite some positive steps, the Bill fails to engage meaningfully with the endeavour to restore and protect the natural world. I want to talk about a few of the areas in which it does so.

The first failure, about which others have spoken, is that while the Bill provides powers for the Secretary of State, it does not place duties on the Government to act. That must change if it is to have a real impact. There needs to be a clear framework for the establishment of environmental land management schemes and the date by which they must be up and running. Given that more than 70% of UK land is used for agricultural purposes, now is the time to place a legally binding responsibility on Ministers to ensure that it is managed and farmed in a way that restores the natural world. Without such a guarantee, this—like so much of the Government’s green agenda—will remain a Bill with too many words and not enough substance.

Secondly—others have raised this issue as well—we need to have guarantees of longer-term funding, rather than leaving the Bill vulnerable to wavering political priorities. We need a clearer indication that long-term funding will continue well beyond 2022.

Thirdly, it is important to adopt a new definition of agricultural productivity. I fear that unless that happens, there will be a real risk that the Bill could undermine the policies that flow from other parts of clause 1, on assistance for the restoration and protection of the natural environment and animal welfare. DEFRA’s guidance on food chain productivity clearly states that the measure of productivity that is currently being used

“does not incorporate external effects on society and the environment.”

We must have a definition of productivity that captures those wider external effects if we are to be sure that the Bill will be successful.

In my first intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned public health. It should be at the front and centre of the Bill, and this should have been an opportunity to ensure that it is at the heart of our farming system. The Secretary of State has said:

“Food production is ultimately about health.”

If it is—and I agree that it is—why is health not firmly included in clause 1 as a clearly stated outcome of the Bill?

The Bill needs to do an awful lot more on climate change. In 2016, agricultural emissions accounted for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and according to the Committee on Climate Change, there has been virtually no progress at all in reducing them since 2008. The Bill should therefore contain a clear commitment to reaching net zero emissions in the agricultural sector by 2050. Ministers must, as a matter of urgency, get serious about what climate change means for farming and land use, get serious about helping farmers to harness the potential of land to capture carbon through trees and soil, and embrace ecologically sensitive farming techniques.

There is also the issue of biodiversity. The Bill should be more explicit in its ambition to protect and restore the natural world. In the UK, almost 60% of species are in long-term decline, and one in five mammals are at risk of extinction. The ambitions in clause 1 should be much higher. There should be a clear provision for reversing biodiversity decline, which should be linked to the 25-year environment plan, should be based on the latest science and should connect with the UK’s obligations under the convention on biological diversity. We need to channel a significant proportion of the finance provided in clauses 1 and 2 towards farmers who adopt agro-ecological and organic farming methods. We know that organic farms use far fewer antibiotics. They also have, on average, 50% more wildlife than conventional farms and deliver healthier soils, with nearly 50% more humic acid, the component of the soil that stores carbon over the long term.

Finally, let me say something about trade. We absolutely must have a provision that says, loudly and clearly, that we will not reduce our standards: we will not allow food of a lower standard to enter the country and threaten our food, our farming and our animal welfare standards.