Green Agenda — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 3:20 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on securing this debate, but I note that her Motion talks just about the Government's green agenda. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, on one point: it would be regrettable if we interpreted the green agenda as meaning just carbon reduction or even climate change; it goes much wider than that. As for his other remarks, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, that what we should be talking about is our use of resources and the need to drive down our use of non-renewable resources, even if the science of climate change is wrong and the survival of the planet is not under threat. Trying to preserve as many resources as we can for future generations is our absolute responsibility.

I shall confine my remarks today to a completely different issue on the green agenda, and that is food. Of course, food encompasses energy use, land use and water use, while the food we waste has big implications even in terms of climate change when we consider methane escaping from landfill sites. That leads to my first question for the Minister. Other countries in the EU have now set a final date in many cases of 2015 for ending the dumping of biodegradable waste in landfill sites. Is the UK going to reconsider this? There are so many useful ways to utilise waste food. Separation technologies have progressed a long way, so it is no longer only a question of anaerobic digestion processes. However, anaerobic digestion allows the heat generated to be used and the resultant fertiliser to be used on farmland. There are a lot of interesting things to think about in this area. One of the most useful things that has happened recently is the quality marking given by the Environment Agency and WRAP to the fertiliser produced by this process. Farmers can now be sure that they are using a quality product and do not have to worry about it.

I also want to share with the House today a couple of particularly inspiring matters that Members of the House may have heard about on the BBC Radio 4 "Food Programme", which itself deserves an award. The first is the Derek Cooper Award, which recognises long-term work. In this case, it went to a partnership between the Health Education Trust, Garden Organic, Focus on Food and the Soil Association for all their work with schools on improving school food and children's understanding of where food comes from, as well as every aspect of how children are impacted by the food they eat. I cannot think of anything more important. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, referred to the effect that children can have in their homes by influencing their parents, so this is not just about the children.

In schools where the Food for Life Partnership has worked, there have been tangible benefits. For example, twice as many primary schools received an "outstanding" Ofsted rating after working with the Food for Life Partnership. Nothing could be more tangible than that. I am very pleased that this Government have been encouraging that sort of very practical and important work on food in schools. Sarah Teather, the Minister with responsibility for schools, has brought in new powers so that schools will, for example, be able to offer price promotions on meals to particular pupils, encouraging more children to try a healthy school lunch. There has always been a bit of tension between local takeaways encouraging children to go in and buy a portion of chips and school canteens selling a healthy school lunch. Freeing up schools to be able to offer healthy food cheaply sometimes, as a special promotion, is really important.

The other award went to Jeanette Orrey, who has probably done more for school food than almost anybody else. She was a dinner lady but I guess she does not have much time to be a dinner lady now. She got an MBE in the New Year Honours List for services to food in schools. Those people have influenced the up-and-coming generations tremendously.

Two other examples of communities-one very big and one very small-greening themselves were outlined recently in your Lordships' House on 6 December 2011 to the All-Party Group on Agroecology. The group heard first from Rosie Boycott, who is chair of the London Food Board and its subset Capital Growth. She told us of Capital Growth's ambition to create 2,012 new growing spaces for people to grow their own food in London. This is incredibly important when you consider how few allotments there are and how long the waiting lists are-you can be on the waiting list for just about your entire adult life. This organisation has set about creating new growing spaces in, for example, skips behind Kings Cross, which is being developed. When the development moves to its next stage, the skips can be moved. Some have been created on unused land that is earmarked for development. So far, Capital Growth has 1,460 vegetable growing spaces in the capital, 50,000 volunteers, which is a phenomenal number, and 50 hectares of land. The project involves 21 London boroughs, 10 housing associations and 10,000 schoolchildren.

One of the very interesting things that Rosie Boycott told us as she showed us some fantastic illustrations of beans growing up the sides of buildings and beehives on the tops of buildings was that the spaces are never vandalised. The tangible, measurable benefits include better health, literacy rates going up, obesity rates dropping, an increase in science uptake in schools where there is vegetable-growing, lower crime rates-the police said that a community vegetable space means that fewer bobbies on the beat are needed-attractive routes to work and an entrepreneurial impact. Therefore, some of the work that the London Food Board has been doing reaches out far beyond food.

At the other end of the scale in terms of size but certainly not in terms of impact, the all-party group heard from Mary Clear, who has led a project in the small town of Todmorden, which has renamed itself "Incredible Edible Todmorden". She was probably the most inspiring person I heard speak last year. She told us why food is an agent for change and why growing food builds communities. She described how they had even persuaded the police to allow a vegetable garden to be built outside the police station. When the PCT was going to be rebuilt and had £20,000 for landscaping, they hijacked all the money in order to plant orchards and an apothecary garden. They also have pick-your-own herbs at the station. The fire station joined in, as did six primary schools and a secondary school. It is hard to put over the enthusiasm and energy that this town has brought to this project, but it has clearly brought the whole town together and the streets are lined with vegetables and fruit trees. It is quite incredible. If that can happen in the sort of climate that you find in the north of England, it could happen anywhere in the UK.

We should think of food as an agent for change and for reminding people why "green issues" means something much wider than just carbon reduction. We need to see it from an entrepreneurial perspective as helping economic growth as well. We must return to thinking of the green agenda as being wide, and a very good place to begin is with food. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for giving us the chance to debate these issues today.