– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 2nd April 2019.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage the use of precision agriculture techniques in order to reduce carbon emissions.
My Lords, I declare my farming interest as set out in the register. The advantages of precision farming and technological innovation go beyond reducing carbon emissions. They also provide a range of improvements to the environment and farm productivity. The Government committed £160 million to the five-year agritech strategy in 2013. We continue to support British food and agricultural innovation through the £90 million “Transforming food production” initiative to make food production more efficient while lightening our environmental footprint.
I thank the Minister for his reply. With agricultural management using those technologies in practice while increasing agricultural productivity and income, can the Minister confirm that, with the five-year agritech strategy in its final year, the data and results will feed into the 25-year environmental plan?
My Lords, I should say that precision farming is widely used and has been very successful in raising productivity and reducing the amount of input, but certainly on the results of the five-year plan there are some very interesting schemes that are clearly going to take some time to move from laboratory to farm. As far as I can see, all of them confirm that precision farming is going to be of enormous benefit, and those results will come out into the farmland situation as soon as possible.
My Lords, is it not clear on the evidence available that Britain has a relatively poor record on the introduction of precision farming? I say that as a former Agriculture Minister, so I am not blameless myself in that regard. But has the Minister considered not only the benefits of precision farming—which are well understood to be increased crop yields and the reduction of weeds—but also its impact on wildlife in agriculture? Precision farming has very serious implications for flowers, insects and birds.
My Lords, that is precisely why I think that precision farming—which, as I have said, is being used much more widely in both the arable and livestock sectors because it directs the product on to what is required—is going to be of enormous environmental benefit in terms of the fine tuning of the use of those products. It also enhances productivity, and both enhancing the environment and increasing food production is a good thing.
My Lords, it is estimated by Natural England that some 600 million tonnes of carbon are sunk in English peatlands, yet they are degrading. Will the Minister tell us what urgent action the Government are taking to restore our peatlands? Should not the commercial exploitation and sale of peat stop now?
The noble Lord is absolutely right. Peatland offers the best carbon storage—double that of woodland. It is immensely important, and that is why we are implementing four projects to restore more than 148,000 acres of peatland over the next three years. Clearly, as we have seen in horticulture, the important thing is that—quite rightly—there is not quite the use of peat that there used to be, as it is such an important part of our ecosystem.
My Lords, no doubt the Minister will be aware that the Climate Change Committee, in its 2018 annual report to Parliament, noted that there had been no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture between 2012 and 2017. Does he agree with the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that the Government should “replace” the,
“voluntary industry-led framework, which has so far failed to meet emissions targets … with a stronger framework”?
My Lords, clearly we endorse the greenhouse gas plan by industry, but we are looking at further ways in which we can improve it. In fact, we have commissioned research from Scotland’s Rural College into greenhouse gas mitigation options to address what we think are existing knowledge gaps. Certainly we are working and commissioning on how best we can reduce emissions from agriculture, which produces about 10% of our emissions.
My Lords, if and when we sign a trade agreement with the United States, is it not likely that food prices will fall and environmental concerns relating to standards will rise?
My Lords, the basis of precision farming in this country is that we think we produce excellent food—the best in the world—both for home consumption and for export. Whatever trade agreements we have with any countries, clearly we have our own standards, which will remain. I think that people should buy British products because they are the best.
My Lords, can I ask the Minister to return to the question of peat? If what he says is true—I am sure it is—that peat is the best capturer of carbon, can he tell us why peat-enhanced compost is still available for sale, even though common or garden gardeners such as myself try not to use it and there are alternatives available that are just as effective?
I shall look precisely at where the supplies are coming from, but I can say now that we as gardeners and horticulturalists should be using alternatives. As I have said, peatland is one of the most important parts of our ecosystem, and that is why we are seeking to restore 148,000 acres of it.