Agriculture Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 9th July 2020.
Moved by Lord Lucas
29: Clause 1, page 2, line 25, at end insert “and of the organisms that live within it.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment clarifies what ‘soil’ includes.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 29, I shall also speak to Amendment 217. Amendment 29 is relatively simple; I am looking for reassurance from the Minister that when we are setting out to enable ourselves to protect and improve the quality of the soil, we are including the animals, plants and fungi that live within it and, together, make it useful as a substrate for growing plants and as a foundation for the ecology of the land.
Soil is often considered to be just a collection of minerals. In school, you look at how much sand and mud there is in a sample. The things that live in it are generally too small to notice, except for the odd worm. I want to be clear that we are talking here about the health of the soil as an organism—a living thing, not just a collection of bits of rock.
Amendment 217 follows on from that in a much more substantial way and asks that we set up a national soil monitoring programme. It is agreed that our soil is not in as good health as we would like. Over recent decades, it has probably been deteriorating. If we are to change that, and look after it, and get ourselves back into the sort of situation we would like to be in, we need data and information. We need to know where we are now and watch, as the decades roll by, what progress we are making towards where we ought to be. To do that, you need a soil survey. It is not vastly difficult or expensive. You just lay out a grid of locations across the UK and take soil samples, measure them, preserve them and go back again a few years later. It is something that most developed countries do automatically; it is something that we used to do but gave up doing. But with all the ambitions in this Bill, and the fundamental importance of soil to most of those ambitions, it is something that we should do again. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. I will speak to Amendments 40, 42, 84 and 97. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for their support for all or some of these amendments.
The amendments are about agroecology and agroforestry, two areas of agriculture that have become more and more prominent in understanding and importance, and that in many ways reflect some of the best agricultural practices over many years. I welcome the Government mentioning agroecology in the Bill, at the top of page three, but recognise that it is done in a way that defines “understanding the environment” and is in the Bill in relation to access to and enjoyment of the countryside, rather than necessarily as a technique for farm management. However, it is becoming more and more mainstream, and it would be very useful if the Bill were to recognise it specifically as an area of support under the financial regime we are talking about here.
Agroecology is primarily about whole-farm management in an environmental sense, particularly the conserving of natural resources, and not least soil fertility, which is much more prominent in our discussions these days. I welcomed Michael Gove, when he was Secretary of State at Defra, ensuring that this was prominent in the 25-year environmental plan, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about the importance of tracking the health of our soil. Agroecology is also about biodiversity. We have all sorts of challenges in biodiversity, not only worldwide but equally in this country, where it is very depleted. Crop diversity within agroecology is one way that we can boost biodiversity, particularly at a farm level.
Agroecology is also about balancing inputs and having lower inputs than we need at the moment. A low carbon footprint provides low pollution, thereby, we hope, helping human health. Low input does not necessarily mean low output; it means that we work in a much more intelligent way. I was very interested in the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about how we could improve our output without increasing input.
Agroforestry is equally important. It is about not only forestry but combining agriculture and trees. Obviously, agroforestry has big pluses in terms of climate change, providing shade for livestock and some other crops. We sometimes forget that trees provide crops—not only the apple orchards that I have here in Cornwall, but also other fruits and nuts. It is also about soil improvement and, not least, natural water management, which is a key part of our adaptation plan in the climate change actions that we hope to undertake as a country as we move towards net zero in 2050.
Agroecology and agroforestry resonate very strongly with the nature recovery networks that we will consider when the Environment Bill finally comes to this House. Agroecology and agroforestry are not about replacing every other system in terms of these amendments and this Bill. We are looking for recognition that this is an important part of improving the environment and our countryside’s biodiversity, while having a type of farming that remains commercial. The financial changes would be a very important way of farmers moving from one form of agriculture to a better and less input-led form. The ELMS and financial changes taking place as a result of this Bill can really help the countryside, help farming and help biodiversity.
My Lords, this group of amendments deals specifically with the management and custodianship of the environment. I have added my name to some of them.
I believe in the principle of public money for public goods to achieve good soil health and biodiversity. To get to that stage we need to employ nature-friendly farming methods, agroecology and agroforestry. In that respect, I support Amendments 39 and 96 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, which clearly seek to put nature-friendly farming in the Bill and ensure that financial assistance is targeted at and supports nature-friendly farmers and land users who carry out nature-friendly farming practices on their land.
A considerable number of farmers throughout the UK now employ nature-friendly farming; there are many of that type in Northern Ireland. They have restored biodiversity and some of them use organic methods, but above all they have produced good, healthy food that contributes to our health and well-being. That is something we should support.
I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has just said, because there should be direct references in the Bill to “whole farm agroecological systems”. That is in Amendments 42 and 97. Amendments 40 and 84, also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and Amendment 41 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, seek to add agroforestry to the Bill. This is an important practice for the diversification of farming, meeting our national tree-planting targets and bringing overall benefit to our natural environment.
These methods help address climate change and produce food, so I think we need to move to this type of farming, which complements livestock and other types of farming. The most important thing about nature-friendly farming, agroecology and agroforestry is that they are good not only for land and biodiversity but for landscape development and renewal of our soil. I was very much taken by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that there is probably a need to regenerate the soil because it has been leeched of various nutrients over many years due to intensive agricultural production methods.
I support Amendment 120, which
“allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to develop a target for the uptake of integrated pest management and to monitor progress towards this target.”
Those are the amendments I support. It is all about producing better environmental standards for our landscape and the local environment and thereby producing food that will lead to better food security, health and well-being for our nation.
My Lords, I do not think I signed any amendments in this group, so I will say simply that I support all my noble friend’s amendments, which are obviously superb.
My Lords, I declare my agricultural interests as detailed in the register. Many amendments have been tabled to Clause 1 about the activities to which the Secretary of State can give financial assistance. I will speak to my Amendment 48, which seeks to increase certain payments that the Secretary of State is already, or will be, empowered to make. Farmers are currently paid for converting from traditional agriculture to an organic system. This is to compensate for the loss of production during the conversion period, which takes about three years. At the end of the conversion period, the farmer will then be certified and able to receive the premium price for the organic product.
However, the current level of conversion payments is clearly insufficient. According to the Government’s own figures, published on
In this country, only 27% of land is farmed organically. This is in marked contrast to the average in the member states of the European Union of about 7%, and in Germany and Spain of over 9%. If one believes, as I do, that it is in the public interest for farmers to use fewer pesticides, fewer herbicides and fewer agrochemicals, it must surely be a public good to increase the area of land farmed organically.
The Minister may say that increased payments may be part of the new environmental land management schemes, but these do not begin until 2024. While the basic payments to farmers are being progressively reduced over the next few years, would it not be a public good to pay public money to farmers to convert to organic farming? Sales of organic food in the United Kingdom now represent only about 1.5% of all food sales. This compares with about 5% in France and Germany and just under 10% in Switzerland, so it may also be a public good to pay public money to encourage the increase of sales of organic food for the general health of the nation.
I therefore ask the Minister if he will accept this amendment to increase in the Bill from 2021 the conversion payments for organic farming, as I believe he already has the power to do. I wish the Government would commit themselves, among their other greening objectives, to vastly increasing the percentage of land farmed organically.
My Lords, it is my great pleasure to follow the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and to endorse entirely everything that he has just said. I was very pleased to sign his amendment. It very much complements one of the amendments in this group that I will come to later.
Across this group we have references to soil, agroecology and reductions in the use of pesticides and herbicides. We are talking about farming systems that work with nature— systems that do not use metaphorical coshes but instead see how we can use the existing systems, cultivate them and restore them. Of course, the foundation of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, outlined in his introductory remarks, is very much the soil. I guess I have to focus on this as the Member of your Lordships’ House who first used the term “tardigrades” in Hansard.
In the soil we have a range of animals—mites, springtails, nematodes and, of course, the earthworms that Charles Darwin was aware were so important. It is crucial that the Bill explicitly recognises the need to focus on the organisms in the soil, as well as the billion bacteria that you find in every teaspoon of healthy soil, and the fungi, which I will talk about in discussing another group. I therefore commend Amendment 29 from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
I have put my name to Amendment 224 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about publishing a soil health index report within 12 months. It is really important that we have timetables built into the Bill, and into all the Bills that come before your Lordships’ House. We are very aware of many delays, whether it is the food strategy or the peatland strategy. The state of our soils and the state of nature cannot wait. We need to ensure that there are timetables for the Government to act upon and meet.
I also commend Amendment 217, about the long-term monitoring of soil, which fits into that same kind of approach. Furthermore, in this agroecological, joined-up approach, I commend Amendment 38 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and Amendment 39 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on nature-friendly farming.
I was very pleased to put my name to Amendments 40 and 97 from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. As the noble Lord said, we have heard many words on agroecology; I recall Michael Gove, I think three Oxford Real Farming Conferences ago, saying that the Government were absolutely committed to agroecology. However, we do not really see this in the Bill in a coherent, central manner. Words and statements of intention from Ministers are fine, but we really want to see agroecology front and centre of the Bill.
I was also pleased to put my name to Amendment 42 from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on whole-farm agroecological systems, because this gets at the idea that we are not talking about a field or a single area and that we need to think about whole-farm systems. I think the Minister addressed this earlier: when he talked about education, he spoke about how woodland might well be part of a whole-farm approach or system. But this needs to be built into the actual farming elements of the Bill, to acknowledge that we need to see this agroecological approach taking in soil, water and all sorts of different plants, and to see arable, pasture and woodland as a complete system—what you might call an approach involving systems thinking or permaculture.
I turn now to a couple of amendments that appear in my own name, starting with Amendment 49, which very much builds on the earlier comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. This would put explicit aims in the Bill: reducing herbicide and pesticide use; ending the use of chemical fertilisers; and—moving to a concept that may not yet be familiar to many of your Lordships, but I am sure it soon will be—using the idea of nutrition per acre as a measure of the kind of farming that we want, and need, to see. We have seen already in the Bill an evolution towards an acknowledgement that farming is about food, which is a pretty obvious statement, but we need to produce good, healthy food as a public good and to contribute to public health. That is what this amendment addresses.
As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, said, the EU has set figures and aims for the improvement of organic farming. Our record is, sadly, a very slow one, and indeed a story of going backwards. The EU has said that it wants to see 25% of its farmland become organic by 2030. We often hear from the Government in many contexts that they want to be world-leading. If they want the Agriculture Bill to be world-leading, they need to set a target for organics on the face of the Bill higher than that which the EU has set.
That is also the case in terms of fertiliser use: the EU has set a target of at least a 20% reduction in artificial fertiliser use by 2030. World-leading has to be better than that. That, of course, is an issue that feeds into so many other aspects we have been discussing in the Bill. My noble friend has sought to introduce references to air pollution; we are also concerned about water pollution from the use of nitrogen fertilisers, in particular. On pesticides, the EU has set a target of a 50% reduction by 2030. I refer the Government again to the issue of being world-leading.
We are often told that this is a framework Bill and all the detail is going to come later in regulations, but if we look at the Climate Change Act, that set out a very clear direction of travel that has since been enhanced. Anyone who read the Bill knew what the Government were trying to achieve. Sadly, a framework Act that has powers but not duties fails in that fundamental principle.
Finally on this amendment, I want to particularly mention nutrition per acre. A lot of this work comes from the Sustainable Food Trust, which is involved in one of Defra’s ELM trials, and is also based on the work of the Indian campaigner and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who points out that biodiverse agroecological systems have much better outputs of micronutrients and phytonutrients. If we come at this from the other side, the British Nutrition Foundation had a very interesting round table in May 2019, which particularly focused on the fact that, of course, we know that we have a problem with obesity, with an excessive intake of calories, yet, like most of the global north, about three-quarters of people in Britain do not actually get sufficient nutrition in terms of vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and fatty acids. If we are going to see a reduction in calorie consumption, we really have to be boosting the level of nutrition—the health of food. This is a relatively new area, but we are seeing and understanding that a carrot is not just a carrot—there can be massive difference between the nutritional content of a carrot grown under an agroecological system and a carrot grown in a heavily chemically fertilised, very worn-out soil.
I am aware that I have been speaking for some time, but I will refer briefly to Amendment 84 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on agroforestry. As he was saying, this has to be central to models of the future. If noble Lords have not been to the wonderful Wakelyns, the organic agroforestry research and development site in Suffolk, I urge them to visit and see what can be achieved. It is an inspiring case study and helps demonstrate the principle that agroforestry, broadly speaking, is one-third more productive than simple arable production.
Finally, I come to the amendment in this group that appears in my name. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Randall of Uxbridge and Lord Greaves, for signing it. Amendment 117 refers to meadows and semi-natural grasslands. I pay tribute to the campaigning group Plantlife, which did most of the work on this amendment. Noble Lords might recollect that last Saturday was National Meadows Day, which gave us a chance to reflect on the fact that we have lost 97% of our meadows since the 1930s. These beautiful, hugely valuable, biodiverse environments actually produce very healthy food for animals. We have been talking about the value of diversity in human diets; the same applies to animals. They are also crucial, of course, to our pollinators, which are central to so much of our food production. Having lost 97% of them, this amendment puts into the Bill the principle that we simply cannot afford to lose any more. This, as with many of our upland landscapes, is a hugely valuable, internationally precious resource that we have to protect. I ask noble Lords to consider ensuring that we include it in the Bill.
My Lords, I support Amendment 40, to which I have put my name. It talks about financial assistance for establishing and maintaining agroforestry systems. I also support Amendment 84, which lays out what agroforestry actually means. I feel slightly guilty about this, because having pointed out on our first day in Committee the problems of this being a Christmas tree Bill that everybody wanted to hang a bauble on, here I am with a cherished bauble, because agroforestry systems have major benefits.
I should declare an interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust. Combining trees and farming is a very long-established system. Trees are a crop in themselves, but in combination with agriculture they also help nature, combat climate change and protect water, as well as being good for soil protection and animal welfare. For example, sheep with access to shelter belts of trees produce bigger lambs and suffer less ewe and lamb mortality. I offer my support to this amendment to probe and explore with the Minister how the Government will ensure that agroforestry might receive public funds under the terms of the Bill, since it undoubtedly delivers public goods.
Amendments 42 and 97, to which I have also put my name, seek support for agroecological practices. The case for that has been laid out admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, so I shall not go on at length at this stage in the evening. Agroecology uses ecological principles to ensure farm productively while conserving natural resources, and takes into account the wider social and environmental context as it affects farmers and rural communities. Farms are seen as ecosystems and integrate the whole range of public goods that the Bill pursues to help join-up the various purposes in a much more systematic way.
I believe that nature-friendly farming is central to farming’s long-term survival. To give just one example, we know that, in many places in the UK, soils have been impoverished to the extent that they will support only a limited number of future harvests. Agroecological farming protects the future sustainability of soils, including their biodiversity, while delivering food. It was heartbreaking to hear the figures for the reduction in organic farming and food that the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, laid out so vividly. Can the Minister tell us how farms and land managers who want to implement agroecological principles will be supported from the funding schemes under the Bill and how more farmers and land managers can be encouraged to do so?
My Lords, I will speak very briefly in support of Amendment 40, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and Amendment 41, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, to which I added my name—it is unfortunate that he is speaking after me. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has already said that trees offer a safe, nature-friendly and relatively cheap way to soak up the carbon that we urgently need to sequester if we are to meet our legal climate obligations. Trees have an extraordinary range of other benefits that he also set out. I certainly do not want to repeat what he had to say and what the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, might also say. In view of the extraordinary qualities of trees and the range of their benefits, I hope Ministers will take this very seriously and accept the principle of what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and, somewhat differently, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, are putting forward.
My Lords, I support and will first comment on Amendment 97, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and others. The new and welcome direction pointed by the Bill is furthering the joint aims of healthy food production and good environmental land management. Whole-farm agroecological systems are central to this. They should therefore be clearly described. That is what Amendment 97 would do.
Following this, and for the same reason of its central consistency with the Bill, I am in favour of Amendment 42, which would ensure that financial assistance is given for whole-farm agroecological systems. I also support Amendment 48, which would properly recompense farmers more than the Bill currently does for converting to organic and ecologically sustainable systems. I am in favour of Amendment 84, on encouraging agroforestry, and Amendment 96, which seeks better to reward nature-friendly farms. I agree with Amendment 120 about monitored targets for integrated pest management, and equally with Amendment 217, which advocates improved productivity programmes related to soil analysis.
Amendment 41 in my name relates directly to Amendment 40 on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. It encourages a connection between afforestation and agroforestry. Its purpose is for agroforestry development to contribute towards afforestation targets. Although most of the target of 30 million trees which the Government have committed to plant will apply to upland areas, through agroforestry an increasing proportion could be planted on lower ground, which is otherwise, and for good reason, often the sole preserve of agricultural production. Conversely, agroforestry itself, where deployed on low ground, can assist afforestation targets, since it maintains fields of agricultural crops, with trees planted at certain wide intervals between them.
Through agroforestry, as carried out on United Kingdom farmland, it is estimated that 920 million trees could be planted in fields, yet this would cause agricultural output to reduce by only 7%.
My Lords, I shall not detain the Committee long. I have added my name to several of these amendments. I want to underline the importance of getting some of these things right—whether it is nature-friendly farming, the reduction of pesticides, the increase in organic or the agrochemicals reduction. I support particularly Amendment 117 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on meadows and grasslands. I am a member of Plantlife, as I am of Buglife.
These amendments are crucial. But the time is late. Very eloquent people are making their points and I think it is time for me to be quiet.
My Lords, today’s important debates have been greatly enhanced by the pleasure of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
My Amendment 259 is in this important group. I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Patel and Lord Wigley for their support. Chemical weapons were developed in the Second World War and then remanufactured as pesticides, now used in agriculture for around 75 years. In 2013 the Government accepted all recommendations from two important reports. The first was the Bystanders Risk Assessment Working Group of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. The second report was from the sub-group of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides: the Pesticides Adverse Health Effects Surveillance working group. Both were scathing about the use of pesticides and laid out the dangers. Yet, although accepted, their recommendations remain largely unimplemented.
It is a worrying indictment that 70% of our land is used for farming and almost all of it, except for the 3% for organic farming, is subjected to spraying that is not dose-controlled in any way. In 2014, 17.75 million kilograms of pesticide were sprayed on the land. Carried in the wind, harmful residues have been found several miles downwind. The dangers to health are now recognised. A 2017 report by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food found that chronic exposure to agricultural pesticides was associated with several diseases and conditions, including cancers, and that those living near crop fields were particularly vulnerable to exposure.
The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems report describes the unacceptable harm caused by the current chemical farming systems and the energy consumption in the manufacture of these chemicals. It exposes just some of the astronomical health costs externalised by the current system, and states an urgent and overwhelming case for action.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report on global deaths and chronic diseases from outdoor air pollution, including from the use of pesticides, has the lead author saying that his biggest concern is the impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world.
I remind all involved in this Bill that the effects are cumulative, because these chemicals often sit in fat stores and are not cleared. The chemicals disrupt the internal hormonal environment; they are endocrine disruptors and make cells more susceptible to mutations, abnormalities and malignancy.
I turn briefly to one of these, glyphosate, used in the weed killer Roundup, which has a large number of tumour-promoting effects on biological systems, including direct damage to DNA in sensitive cells, disruption of metabolic processes and modification to more toxic molecules. Epidemiological evidence suggests correlations between glyphosate usage on crops and a multitude of cancers that are reaching epidemic proportions, including common cancers and lymphoma. In the US, many lawsuits have been brought against the producer Monsanto, which is now part of Bayer.
The effect on the developing nervous system and on the adult neurones is not clearly known, but we must take the precautionary principle. Rats exposed to high levels of glyphosate, their offspring and the offspring’s offspring—two generations on—developed malignancy, obesity and birth abnormalities. Neurotransmitter changes occur in rats and mice exposed to glyphosate, and mice display mood and movement changes. Increased understanding of epigenetics suggests that harm experienced by the adult may be handed on by epigenetic factors to offspring not even yet conceived.
I spoke in the previous debate on the theme of future generations and I return to that now. We cannot ignore the cumulative evidence. In my amendment, I suggest an annual report to Parliament on the safety of herbicides and pesticides, taking into account evidence from the analysis of foods that should be glyphosate-free but appear to be contaminated by windborne spray. Neurotoxic effects on pollinators and the damaging effects on human health of these chemicals cannot be ignored.
As we leave Europe, we are free to produce more of our own food for our own market and ensure that our food is safe and of high nutritional quality. We must make also sure that imported food meets our new high standards. Going forward, pesticides need to be designed out of farming systems, for the environment, for health and for the market-ready production of excellent food; hence my amendment.
My Lords, I want to support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Much of what I was going to cover she has covered in great detail, so I will try not to repeat too much.
Pesticides may be metabolised, excreted, stored or bioaccumulated in body fat. The numerous negative health effects that have been associated with chemical pesticides have been mentioned in great detail by the noble Baroness. In the majority of cases, the concentrations do not exceed legislatively determined safe levels. However, these safe limits may underestimate the real health risks, as in the case of simultaneous exposure with two or more chemical substances, which occurs in real-life conditions and may have synergistic effects. Pesticide residues have also been detected in human breast milk samples, and there are concerns about prenatal exposure and health effects in children.
The noble Baroness mentioned glyphosate-based herbicides and the DNA damage that it is known to cause, which may lead to cell deaths and other conditions in cellular metabolism causing disease. Furthermore, the real-life chronic exposure in mixtures of pesticides with possible additive or synergistic effects requires in-depth research. The underlying scientific uncertainty, exposure of vulnerable groups and the fact that there are numerous possible mixtures reveal the real, complex character of the problem. The combination of substances with probably carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting effects may produce unknown adverse health effects. Therefore, the determination of safe levels of exposure to single pesticides may underestimate the real health effects, ignoring also the chronic exposure to multiple chemical substances.
Taking into consideration the health and environmental effects of chemical pesticides, it is clear that there is an urgent need for a new concept in agriculture. This new concept must be based on a drastic reduction in the application of chemical pesticides. I feel that some of the new science that is being developed and investigated at centres such as the John Innes Centre, the Sainsbury centre and the James Hutton centre may well produce some of the answers whereby we could eliminate the use of chemical pesticides that may be damaging to health. No doubt in later amendments we will be able to explore some of these scientific developments. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.
My Lords, during the last two, three or four months, like everyone else I have had quite a lot of spare time on my hands and have been able to get out into the countryside around where I live, which is on the edge of an urban area where you can walk straight into Pennine pastures, fields with gritstone walls and, beyond there, rising up to the moorland massif of Boulsworth Hill. Two valleys run down from the hills to where we live; they are really contrasted at the moment, as I will briefly explain.
Before I do so, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is not in his place. He talked about going out of Sheffield on to the Peak District hills and delighting in what I think he called the song of the curlews, which are one of the evocative birds of the Pennine moorlands. The others are the skylarks and the lapwings, which locally are traditionally known as “tewits” after the sound they make.
During the past three or four months, I have been woken up every morning by the sound of curlews, which is wonderful, but when we first lived there 40 or 50 years ago, we were woken up by flocks of lapwings. I have not heard a lapwing from our house for a long time. Lapwings have declined most in that kind of area up on the moors, particularly in what the amendment refers to as “semi-natural grasslands”.
For us, the grasslands are pastures and fields; they have got tall, quite coarse, natural native grasses, and some better ones. We have some of what the amendment calls “dicotyledonous herbs”, although that really refers to lowland meadows rather than the sort of meadows we have, and lots of clumps of rushes, which are important for giving cover, along with the tall grasses, to ground-nesting birds such as curlews and lapwings—the tewits.
Over the years, the fields have been improved. Those nearest to us used to be buttercup meadows. They have long gone, and now a lot of the coarser semi-natural meadows have gone as well. The farmers scrape off all the vegetation which has been growing there and seed it with one or two species of much richer and, from their point of view, more productive grass, mainly for the sheep but also for mowing, haylage and so on.
The landscape has been transformed. The fields in spring, instead of being a greyish green—natural, as they were, or semi-natural—are now sparkling bright green, and no doubt some people find them attractive. The two valleys, however, are contrasted. One is the Wycoller valley, which largely belongs to Lancashire County Council—Wycoller Hall is thought to be Ferndean Manor from Jane Eyre—and the other is the Trawden valley, which has the old mill village of Trawden it and lots of farms around. The Trawden valley is bright green and the Wycoller valley is still very much as it was. How do you know where you are? If you close your eyes, in the Wycoller valley you can hear the tewits and in the Trawden valley there are none. It is as simple as that.
So it is not just lowland meadows that the amendment is talking about. I hope the new regime will stop farmers turning even more of the pastures into modern bright green pastures and driving away the tewits, which is still taking place at the margins and the moorland margins. The tier 1 or tier 2 deals that come about, whichever they are, encourage a reversion of at least some of the fields to what they used to be. If you have a farm of six or 10 fields, you do not need a lot of it to revert to the traditional pasture that it used to be to provide a flock of lapwings with a habitat; you might need one or two, and that is all. As you walk through that area, you can plot the flock of lapwings to the fields that are still traditional.
I hope that kind of thing will be part and parcel of the new regime, not to destroy farmers’ livelihoods in any way but to provide them with some finance to provide a natural, or semi-natural, environment that superb birds such as lapwings and tewits require.
My Lords, before I go on to talk to the amendments, I want to reiterate the point that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made earlier today and make a plea to the Minister and the Whip to talk to the Chief Whip about the groupings. Can we please go back to the old way that used to happen in Committee, whereby the movers of amendments spoke first and then the other signatories spoke afterwards? All the signatories to my amendments have spoken before me, and on the next group of amendments I am a signatory to an amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, but she, as the mover, is speaking after me. It really does not help proceedings unless we get back some sort of structure like we had in the old days.
I turn to the amendments. This is a hugely important group because I believe that the only way that farming will survive in this country is if we work with nature. All these amendments are designed to help farming to do just that. There is considerable overlap between them. I shall speak to Amendments 39 and 96 in my name, which relate to nature-friendly farming. Not everything that nature-friendly farmers do is covered in the Bill. For instance, what about the creation of new habitats, ponds and wetlands? That leads to another problem, because the creation of some ponds will require planning permission. Therefore, as I said, you need dedicated farmers who are very keen to help nature to carry out such work. A farmer taking these schemes solely to get money from the taxpayer is not someone who is going to apply for planning permission for a new pond. There is no mention in the Bill of field margins and hedgerows. These are hugely important as wildlife corridors, and nature-friendly farming is a great help in that respect.
It is tragic that we have seen the decline in 600 farmland species over the last 50 year. Of course, none of us now has the problem of having to wash our windscreens having driven through the countryside, particularly at night. That is long gone. When I first started driving, one had to wash one’s windscreen after every drive because of the number of insects that got stuck on it and impeded the view. It would be nice if we could go at least half way back to the situation that we were in.
I will just make a point on what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about lapwings. I know a farm in Caithness where the farmer has farmed organically since he took over the farm—gosh—it must be 30 years ago now. He has farmed in a nature-friendly way, but the number of lapwings has decreased hugely. There used to be lovely big flocks, but now there are very few. The problem is, it is not the farming system—that is not totally responsible—but the fact that we do not control the predators of lapwings and lapwing eggs and nests, such as the hooded crow. When I was a boy, the hooded crow was a very scarce bird; it is now very common. When I last lived in Caithness, about four years ago, I remember seeing five hooded crows on the lawn outside my little cottage. They just would not have been there when I was a boy. Unless we get to a stage where we can control the number of corvids and the abuse by corvids of ground-nesting birds, there will be a continual decline, whatever system of farming one operates.
I have also put my name to the agroecology and agroforestry amendments, because these are hugely important too. They are slightly different ways of farming from nature-friendly farming, but they of course work on exactly the same principle of working with nature.
I pay tribute to the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Nature Friendly Farming and Agricology, which have been working together for five years. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Organic Research Centre and the Daylesford Foundation have together done a tremendous amount of work in this area and I can tell the Minister how grateful they are for the financial support that Defra has given them. It is exactly from institutions such as this and the demonstration farm at Allerton that other farmers can learn how to carry out these works and the benefit that they can contribute to their own farms. I hope that, when responding, my noble friend will say that this funding will continue.
I turn to Amendment 224, which is on soil. It requests that the soil metric index is instituted. This was of course in the 25-year environment plan, from which it is worth quoting:
“Farmers and land managers can struggle to monitor the quality of their soil, which in turn makes it difficult to improve. We will develop a soil health index (including indicators such as the level of humus and biological activity in the soil) that can be used on farms to check whether their actions are having the desired effect. At the moment, data on soil health is held piecemeal by different institutions and businesses. It is not easy to access or use. Defra will invest at least £200,000 to help create meaningful metrics that will allow us to assess soil improvements, and to develop cost-effective and innovative ways to monitor soil at farm and national level.”
Can the Minister say what is the result of that work? Is there any progress? What is the progress? Can she please update us on it?
It was encouraging to hear the Secretary of State respond to the Environmental Audit Committee in the other place recently, saying he was considering a combination of approaches to address soil problems, and a more sustainable approach to grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land, focusing on soil health and crop rotations. What is this going to involve? Can the Minister shed some light on these very encouraging statements?
What is particularly encouraging is that the Secretary of State mentioned rotations, because I am a great believer in rotations being the key to soil health. The old Norfolk four-course rotation was very beneficial to farming, as it balanced the restorative phases with the exploitative ones. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give me a lot more information.
I like what my noble friend Lord Lucas said when he introduced the first amendment, but there is a problem with what he proposes. We can go on monitoring soil levels for ever; we have been monitoring the decline of birds for the last 50 years, and we will go on monitoring the decline of songbirds. We need to do something about it. That is what I hope the Minister will say the Government propose to do: correct the present downward trend in soil structure and conditions, and support the work of agriculture-friendly and nature-friendly famers who are seeking to turn this around.
My Lords, I particularly enjoyed the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who I have known for over 50 years, when he talked about his local bird life and the implications it has in this debate.
I support Amendment 42 to Clause 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and others, which relates to whole-farm agroecological systems and organic farming. The pandemic has been a tragic lesson in how broken our connection to our life support systems, by permission of nature, has become. In March, the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, told us that
“Nature is sending us a message” with the coronavirus and ongoing climate crisis.
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published the most comprehensive study into the health of the planet ever undertaken. It concluded that human society was in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of nature, on which the survival of the human race depends. This ongoing work is telling us that
“Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming … as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a perfect storm for the spillover of diseases.”
The scientists leading this work have warned that
“The health of people is intimately connected to the health of wildlife, the health of livestock and the health of the environment. It’s actually one health.”
Agroecological agriculture—of which organic is one system—supports small farms that are diverse, integrated and use low levels of chemical input to ensure the long-term balance between food production and the sustainability of natural resources. Although agroecology is recognised in the Bill, it is in a very minor way. In Clause 1(5), the Bill states that
“better understanding of the environment”
—one of the purposes for which the Secretary of State may give assistance—
“includes better understanding of agroecology”.
This appears to signify a basic misconception of what agroecology is and what a large-scale transformation to agroecological farming could deliver for farmers, wildlife, climate and public health. It should not be relegated to a legislative footnote; it should be a key part of this Bill and the Government’s broader agricultural policy, as others have said.
While I welcome this reference in the Bill, a more substantive reference, such as that proposed in Amendment 42, is also needed to create a specific commitment under Clause 1(1) for financial and wider support for existing agroecological farms—such as organic—and to ensure that all farmers can promote agroecological practices on the whole farm. This would then allow for support and incentives for farmers to facilitate the integration of food production with the delivery of environmental and social public purposes, in line with the avowed objectives of the Bill. It would ensure that farmers could transition to ecological farming models, producing food while restoring environments and nature.
These benefits are enhanced when they are part of the whole-farm system, rather than in reserved areas or only on the margins. Organic farms have been shown to support 50% more wildlife than is found on conventionally farmed land and healthier soils, with 44% higher capacity to store long-term soil carbon. Agroecological farms can also improve public access to nutritious, affordable fruit and vegetables, and to community projects, supporting improved public health outcomes for us all, as well as enterprise. I therefore hope that the Minister will indicate his acceptance of Amendment 42 in particular.
My Lords, I sympathise with Amendment 29 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas, although I wonder whether it is necessary. Is it not covered effectively by Clause 1(1)(j)?
On Amendment 38, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, I observe that the best and by far the cheapest way to implement integrated pest and weed management measures will follow from our freedom from EU regulation, which has unnecessarily banned some pesticides and fungicides which could be used to reduce pest and weed problems without any negative environmental consequences. Of course, many chemicals have rightly been banned, but some have been banned without definitive scientific evidence.
I am sure that all noble Lords would support nature-friendly farming, as advocated by my noble friend Lord Caithness in Amendments 39 and 96. However, I believe it is already clear that nature-friendly practices are wholly consistent with the purposes listed in Clause 1.
Amendments 40 and 84, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, seek to add agroforestry schemes to the list of approved purposes. I agree with the noble Lord but believe that they are unnecessary, because agroforestry is surely included within the scope of Clause 1(1)(I). Similarly, my noble friend Lord Dundee reminds us that the Government have committed to plant 30 million trees without taking any agricultural land out of production. Will the planting of these trees lose us 7% of agricultural land, as I thought he also said, and how many of these trees will be planted on brownfield sites? Was this policy adopted before or after it was recognised that ash dieback might decimate the country’s population of ash trees?
The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in his Amendment 48 seeks to widen the purposes for which financial assistance may be paid to include conversion to organic and ecologically sustainable farming. I believe that the noble Duke is right: farmers who follow ecologically sustainable practices should be rewarded. I had believed that consumer demand meant that farmers were replacing less ecologically sound practices with organic practices and was surprised to hear how small the organic acreage is. Ultimately, organic produce should command significantly higher prices, which will increase the profitability of farmers who produce it. I support the noble Duke’s amendment.
We have already noted the introduction of a new concept: agroecology. Through Amendment 97, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, wishes to include whole-farm ecological systems as an additional and distinct model. I think that what it represents is already included in the Bill, and it would be better not to complicate the Bill unnecessarily.
I am not at all opposed to—indeed, I would support—increased monitoring of soil health, as proposed in Amendments 217 and 224, but I would not be able to support Amendment 259 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. Growing crops such as oilseed rape in this country has become unsustainable because EU regulations, which rely too much on the precautionary principle, have placed unnecessary and costly burdens on farmers and unnecessarily exposed their crops to various diseases. One of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that we will be free to develop our own food standards. These must of course maintain the highest standards, but should no longer unnecessarily apply rules which are unsupported by scientific evidence and which artificially raise the prices of food, especially at a time when many consumers are badly affected by the serious economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
House adjourned at 8.55 pm.