Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 3rd February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 8:07 pm, 3rd February 2020

I support the better eating campaign that suggests that overall in this country we should seek to reduce meat eating by about 50%, but in that shift to plant-based diets we want to eat less but better meat. In other words, we still want to support our farmers. Crucially, they need to be supported during that transition. It is no good simply setting up new goalposts and not supporting farmers with finance, help and advice to enable them to make that transition.

Over the past 18 months, an incredibly strong case has been made for a 10-year transition to agroecology. I would like that vision to take shape as a green new deal for the food and farming sector. One example of the growing mountain of evidence that makes that case is the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, a major, two-year, independent inquiry that includes leading experts from industry and civil society, as well as inputs from farmers and growers across the UK. It includes abundant detail on how to make that transition, including a proposal that every farmer should have access to trusted, independent advice, including through farmer support networks and establishing a national agroecology development bank to accelerate a fair and sustainable transition. Crucially, the inquiry found that

“most farmers agreed that they could make big changes to the way that they farm in five to ten years—with the right backing.”

It is that right backing that we have to make sure that the Bill provides.

Time is of the essence if we are to reverse the loss of biodiversity and meet climate goals. A goal of net zero by 2050 is in line with neither science nor equity, and climate delay is almost as bad as climate denial. The Bill needs more than one line on that topic, especially as that one line simply says that the Secretary of State “may”—not even must—give financial assistance for climate mitigation or adaptation.

The Bill desperately needs a link to carbon budgets, unambiguous duties to deliver, and the incorporation of Committee on Climate Change advice, in particular, strengthening the regulatory baseline. I hope that the Minister will explain precisely how the Government will deliver major emissions cuts during the seven-year transition period, not just afterwards.

On biodiversity, it is truly shocking that the Bill contains nothing really on pesticides. As a minimum, it should set bold, national targets to cut pesticide use and introduce regulations to protect the public from the hazardous health impacts of pesticide use near buildings and in public spaces. There was broad, cross-party support for my amendment on pesticides last time round, yet it is rumoured that DEFRA’s inadequate pesticide plans are being diluted even more as the Department caves in to agrochemical industry lobbying. Why do Ministers not listen instead to the 70 scientists who recently called for the phasing out of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers as an urgent, no-regrets action as part of a road map to insect recovery, designed to reverse the insect apocalypse?

What is DEFRA’s response to the letter from over 2,500 scientists across the EU that warns of the unequivocal scientific consensus on the intensification of agriculture and the ever-increasing loss of biodiversity that could soon become irreversible?

Another glaring omission is on trade. Many of us have raised it tonight, but the Bill needs a watertight requirement for all food imported into the UK to be produced to at least equivalent standards on animal welfare, pesticides, environmental protection and public health. It is simply unacceptable to ask our farmers to meet higher standards, then allow them to be undermined by cheap competition from countries that do not meet those standards. I refer the Minister to the amendment to the Trade Bill in the other place that sets out that argument clearly.

Finally, the Bill should be used to introduce new measures of success for our agriculture sector so that the payments for productivity in clause 2 do not undermine progress on biodiversity, climate and animal welfare. Just as there is growing consensus on the need to measure economic progress with indicators that incorporate ecological health and human wellbeing, which GDP fails to do spectacularly, so we must adopt new indicators for agriculture. The Bill should require the Secretary of State to begin that work to develop those new metrics, to steer us towards a truly sustainable future for food and farming, and they must include overseas as well as local impacts. Greenpeace research shows that UK chicken, for example, is contributing to deforestation due to the imported soya in its animal feed. We need to design new farm policy to deliver value, not volume; diversity, not monocultures; and people nourished per hectare, not tonnes of yield.