Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Part of Integrated Care Regulations – in the House of Commons at 10:44 pm on 18th March 2019.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane 10:44 pm, 18th March 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I thoroughly agree. I know that his own beef animals are pasture-fed—an excellent system in its own right that is really good for sequestering carbon in the grass. He is so right about the labelling. The consumer needs to know what they are buying. That is why these regulations are really important. If people are buying organic, they need to know that it is organic and up to our high standards, not some watered-down standards from somewhere else.

We have quite a large number of organic milk farms, as my hon. Friend Neil Parish mentioned. In Somerset, we have Coombe Farm Organic—milk producers who have three main farms and 1,000 cows. It is imperative for companies such as that that we know that their produce is organic, why it has been classed as organic and that it has been checked. Often, it has been checked by the Soil Association, which is the main organisation in this country that certifies organic produce. It has 27,000 members and is very much valued. It developed the world’s first organic certification system, way back in 1967. The standards have been widened since that time, so they encompass agriculture, aquaculture, ethical trade—I have a company in my constituency, Hambleden Herbs, that imports lots of spices and herbs, all organic—food processing, forestry and horticulture. It is really important that we maintain this system of standards so that these businesses can carry on operating from day one on leaving the EU and we can know that they are doing the right thing. It is important that we keep our high standards.

The organic sector is valuable, as we have heard—it brings £2.2 billion per annum to the UK economy, and our exports are worth £200 million, so that is also significant. The sector is growing because there is now a lot more emphasis on what we might call environmental farming or eco-farming. That is all referenced in the Agriculture Bill, the new environmental land management schemes, the 25-year environment plan and the forthcoming environment Bill. I believe that the organic system will grow, which is why it is even more important that we maintain our standards.

Just today, as luck would have it, I hosted an event on soil in Westminster, which was attended by more than 200 people. We talked about the degradation of our soils and the cost to the economy, which is a staggering £1.2 billion a year. I am pleased to say that there is a great deal of talk about soil going on through the Bills that are being introduced. The way to prevent soil degradation is to introduce policies that ensure healthy soils and biodiversity, with all the things that soil brings to us, including carbon capture, which will help with our climate change targets and mitigation—I see the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth sitting on the Front Bench—as well as flood resilience and providing healthy food.

Inevitably this soil health agenda will drive us towards management systems that are along more environmentally friendly farming lines and, for purists, along more organic lines. The standards will remain very necessary, as they will if we work towards improving biodiversity in this country, which is equally important. For example, there has been a desperate crash in insect numbers here and globally, with flying insect populations globally down by two thirds. Insects are the workforces of agriculture—they pollinate our crops, and we rely on them. The sustainability of the planet depends on redressing these crashes in biodiversity across the board for all sorts of species. That inevitably means that we will use less pesticides and adopt more environmentally-friendly methods of farming through land management systems, and if we head towards organic, the standards that we will maintain through the regulations will be more important than ever. The regulations apply to imports and exports; that is very important. We must ensure that they cover vegetative material for propagation in the horticultural industry and others and seeds for cultivation.

One of the most exciting and interesting television series I ever presented back in the day was called “Loads More Muck and Magic”. It was an organic gardening series—I think it was the only one ever on television—on Channel 4. It was filmed in conjunction with the Henry Doubleday Research Association, which was the expert in organic growing at the time and is now called Garden Organic. That series instilled in me a great knowledge; I learned a great deal. I will never profess to be an expert, but I realised what purists organic farmers are and how valuable they are to the environment. They remain so, and I believe they will have more influence. The regulations will ensure that those standards are maintained, and I fully support them.