Amendment 29

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 9 July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 8:00, 9 July 2020

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.