I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to my amendments this afternoon, and to support several others.
My new clause 5 would help to rectify the absence of anything in the Bill to cut pesticide use. This is a really serious omission, given the harm that pesticides cause to insect life, including bees and pollinators, and to other wildlife, as well as the risks to human health. New clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to take steps to protect members of the public from the hazardous health impacts of pesticide use—for example, by specifying a minimum distance between where a pesticide is being applied and public or residential buildings. We do not need to look hard to find evidence of the so-called insect apocalypse, and the serious risks of pesticides to humans and nature. Recently, a call from more than 70 scientists urged the phase-out of pesticides as a “no regrets” immediate step, stating:
“There is now a strong scientific consensus that the decline of insects, other arthropods and biodiversity as a whole, is a very real and serious threat that society must urgently address.”
On human health, pesticide cocktails are of particular concern, as they can be far more harmful than individual pesticides, yet our own regulatory system only assesses the safety of one chemical at a time. There is also the exposure of rural residents to pesticides applied to nearby farmland. The lack of anything on pesticides in the Bill is even more disturbing given the Government’s dubious stance on the precautionary principle: refusing to transfer it fully into UK law and refusing to legislate against the risks of a US trade deal undermining it.
My amendment 42 is on the sustainability and resilience of agriculture more widely. It complements amendments 18 and 19 on agroecology tabled by Kerry McCarthy, which I strongly support. Amendment 42 would enable the Secretary of State to set and monitor progress towards targets for the uptake of integrated pest management based on agroecological practices, including organic farming. This would help to ensure that the catch-all clause on productivity payments does not undermine environmental objectives.
This week, a leaked copy of the EU 2030 biodiversity strategy revealed proposals for at least 25% of farmland to be organic, alongside a wider uptake of agroecological practices, a 50% reduction in pesticide use and cuts to mineral fertiliser use. On Second Reading, the then Secretary of State claimed that leaving the EU meant a greener future for British farming, where the UK would apparently do so much better for wildlife and the landscape. If that is to be reality and not just rhetoric, we need an Agriculture Bill that matches or goes further than the EU proposals on pesticides, agroecology and organic farming.
In response to covid-19, some argue that we should downplay nature and sustainability, and dial up food production. But that would risk doubling down on a food system that is contributing to what scientists last month called a
“perfect storm for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people”.
One example is forest loss driven by rocketing demand for vast quantities of soya that is then fed to pigs and chickens, including in the UK. Agroecology is our route out of a dangerous dead-end debate that pitches food security, environmental protection and public health against each other. We can and must do much better than that.
Finally, my new clause 14 would go some way to fixing the Bill’s worrying lack of attention to the climate emergency. Having highlighted regulation as a gaping hole in the Bill on Second Reading, I strongly support new clause 8 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and am pleased that it includes specific provisions on climate. New clause 14 would complement that by setting a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions for agriculture and land use in the UK by 2050 at the latest. That is much too late in my view, but I hope that the Government will pick this up. It would also place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish interim emission-reduction targets, as well as policies to ensure that those targets are met.
The Committee on Climate Change has said that “strengthening the regulatory baseline” is an essential step that the Government must urgently deploy to meet climate goals, so I hope the Government will support not just specific climate targets for agriculture, as new clause 14 proposes, but rigorous policies to meet them that place equal emphasis on biodiversity and public health. The climate emergency is just one reason why Ministers must say no to business as usual and yes to a resilient, re-localised and regenerative food and farming system. My amendments would go some way towards putting those things at the heart of the Bill.