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International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:25 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:25 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I join many others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for arranging this crucial debate. Noble Lords may not be surprised that, as a member of the Green Party, I am standing up to talk about natural resources and biodiversity, but it might be useful for them to know that I also have a background in the international development side of this debate. I spent more than four years in Thailand working on a number of UN reports, including on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and, in the late 1990s, on women’s health and child labour.

I shall begin by perhaps surprising the House by saying that I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, when he expressed concern that the amount of government aid going to pro-poor funding has gone down. However, where I disagree with him is that there is any conflict at all between action on the climate emergency and action on helping the poor. What we need is, in the jargon, a just transition that caters to the poor while also looking after the planet.

At the weekend I was speaking at a debate with a young campaigner from the 10:10 organisation and she used a very memorable phrase: “You don’t fix the problems that we have now with the system that created them”. The fact is that fossil-fuel societies have created a deeply unequal world in which many are suffering from the poverty and hunger that many noble Lords have referred to. Many will be familiar with the term “the resource curse”. Even in countries that have lots of resources—fossil fuels and other minerals—the poor have suffered and have not benefited from them. Therefore, the fact that we can now do without fossil fuels is, I believe, something to celebrate for the poor of the world. However, that is not the direction being taken by Britain’s international aid effort. The Environmental Audit Committee has focused on the fact that in the last five years UK Export Finance has put £2.5 billion into fossil fuel finance.

There is a term that is really important in this context—lock-in. By building the infrastructure, you lock in potential emissions for many years to come and, if you stop those emissions, you waste huge amounts of money and leave people trapped. I refer the Minister to a report in Nature Communications in January 2018 by Dr Chris Smith of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds—I would be happy to provide her with a reference. It is a very important and, I believe, hopeful report because it stresses that if at the end of 2018 we had stopped investing in fossil fuel infrastructure all around the world, we could, using existing infrastructure, have just come in under 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming. Ending new fossil fuel infrastructure is crucial, so the UK should not be funding this.

I turn to my particular passion: food and agriculture. The UK’s efforts in this area include a programme called Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters, which says that it plans to use the techniques of climate-smart agriculture. I ask the Minister to reconsider and think very hard about this. The term “climate-smart agriculture” has no definitional meaning; there is no classification system for it as there is, for example, for the organic agriculture that I spoke about earlier. But most people who propound climate-smart agriculture would agree that, essentially, it means doing the kind of farming that we do now but much more efficiently. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who referred to the importance of “no till” and “minimum till”. As the right reverend Prelate said earlier, we have trashed our own soils; our farming methods have done great damage. We have to make sure that we are not exporting these methods with our aid efforts.

Another programme supported by the UK aid effort with funding is an organisation called AgDevCo. I looked up the kind of projects that it supports. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred to palm oil plantations and the damage that they are doing. This organisation supports palm oil plantations and cashew nuts; it supports macadamia exports and avocado growers in Kenya; and it supports the Ugandan coffee sector. These are traditional export-oriented, high-input, deeply damaging forms of agriculture. I applaud the keyhole gardens referred to by the noble Lord, Lord German. These are the kinds of permaculture- based, agro-ecological approaches that must be the future, providing food security for the poor, and for us all, on a stable planet.

We have been talking in the debate about biodiversity. Most speakers have referred to the idea of natural, wild biodiversity. I want briefly to mention the importance of crop biodiversity, because 20% of human calories come from one crop: wheat. In food security terms, that is incredibly dangerous. One noble Lord referred to giant, industrial-scale monoculture—huge fields of identical crops, which cannot be the biological future for this planet. Crop biodiversity is also about human health. I refer to another study, from Tanzania, in Ecological Economics, which looked at how crop biodiversity fed into the health of children. The study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that children who had a more diverse diet were healthier. This effect was most evident in subsistence-farming households and for children in households with limited market access. This is the kind of agriculture that we need to support.

I will briefly address—