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It is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Anthony Browne. One thing on which we can certainly agree is the wisdom of George Monbiot. I hope we will have many other opportunities to quote from his copious writings and agree with one another in the forthcoming months and years.
I welcome some improvements made in this Bill compared with the earlier version, but I want to set out where it still is not going far enough if the Government are serious about climate and nature. First, it is good to see stronger protections for farmers from unfair trading practices. Having previously tabled an amendment to bring the whole of the supply chain within the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and, indeed, any new regulator, I can say that is a step in the right direction. It would be better still if the Bill placed a proper duty on the Secretary of State to act rather than simply conferring powers to do so, and I personally cannot see the case against turning many “mays” into “musts” throughout this clause and indeed throughout this Bill. I am sure that others will applaud the excellent work of the Sustain alliance, but all eyes will be on the detail, delivery and, crucially, enforcement.
Secondly, the inclusion of soil in the public goods in part 1 is another welcome move. However, as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee that conducted a whole inquiry into soil health, it is disappointing to see so many of these recommendations still not acted on given the overwhelming importance of soil carbon storage. For example, the Committee called for rules with greater scope, force and ambition to deliver restoration and improvement of soil, so why have the Government still not banned practices that do unforgivable harm to soils, such as burning on blanket bogs or the use of peat in compost. With organic farms supporting healthier soils with 44% higher capacity to store long-term soil carbon and 50% more wildlife, why does this Bill not seek a major expansion of organic farming? Furthermore, if the objective is to have healthy living soils for carbon storage, biodiversity and fertility then surely we prioritise policies that minimise inputs that exterminate that precious biological life, yet there is nothing in this Bill to phase out pesticides either.
That illustrates a wider point—the gaping hole in the Bill is on the crucial role of regulation, not just on pesticides but to drive innovation and to deliver environmental, public health and animal welfare goals.
The third positive is the new mention of agroecology in the Bill. Kerry McCarthy has championed that as chair of the all-party group on agroecology, but I suspect that she would share my mixed feelings. Although agroecology is recognised in the Bill, it is in a bizarrely minor way. In clause 1(5), the Bill states that
“‘better understanding of the environment’”— one of the purposes for which the Secretary of State may give assistance—
“includes better understanding of agroecology”.
That seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what agroecology is and what a wholesale shift to agroecological farming should deliver for nature, climate, public health and farmers. It should not be consigned to a legislative footnote—it should be at the very heart of the Bill and the Government’s wider farming policy.