Agriculture Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

– in the House of Lords at 4:44 pm on 14th July 2020.

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Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, a limited number of Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Other Members will participate remotely, but all Members will be treated equally wherever they are. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak; please accept any on-screen prompt to unmute. Microphones will be muted after each speech. I ask noble Lords to be patient if there are any short delays as we switch between physical and remote participants. I remind the House that our normal courtesies in debate still very much apply in this new hybrid way of working.

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Clause 1: Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Debate on Amendment 29 resumed.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

My Lords, for all amendments on which I may speak today, I declare my interest as on the register.

When we concluded last Thursday, we had heard some excellent speeches on nature-friendly farming and agroecology, and I will comment on the amendments in this group that speak about those subjects. They are not the same thing, as I recall my noble friend Lord Caithness saying in his speech. As an aside, he also mentioned an anecdotal indicator that highlights the severe decline in our biodiversity. Like him, I cannot recall when I last saw bugs or moths squashed on my car windscreen—at least 20 years ago. Where there are no bugs and beasties, birds will be in decline also.

I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, kept referring to “nature-friendly farming” in her excellent speech. I have had the benefit of looking at examples of farms in the agroecology network and the Nature Friendly Farming Network and, while both do excellent work, it is important that we get it right if we build either of these terms into legislation.

I am grateful to my friend Professor Michael Winter of Exeter University, the UK-renowned expert on this subject, who is also on the board of Natural England. He has briefed me as follows: “There is a significant difference between the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Agro-Ecology. The Nature Friendly Farming Network is a broad grouping that includes organic and the Linking the Environment And Farming the LEAF/integrated approaches. Agro-ecology dates back to the 1980s and the term was coined by a Chilean scientist (now a professor at Berkeley) called Miguel A. Altieri. It is resolutely organic and anti-GM, and closely linked to the food sovereignty movement. In the UK, agroecology has been adopted by the Landworkers’ Alliance. There are many things to commend agro-ecology but it is not easily compatible with mainstream broadacre UK agriculture, and I am sceptical about the hegemony of organics and the wholesale opposition to mainstream food retailers.”

Professor Winter goes on to say: “I advocate three things in this space: 1) more policy attention and encouragement to agro-ecology as just one part of the tapestry of ensuring faming becomes more nature-friendly; 2) a pragmatic acceptance that most UK agriculture for the foreseeable future is not likely to radically divorce itself from the conventional food chain (as advocated by the Landworkers’ Alliance), and therefore that LEAF/integrated and nature-friendly approaches are needed within the mainstream food system; and 3) the need to encourage research that bridges the gap between the agro-ecology-based approach and the conventional Research Council/Sustainable Intensification approach.” In light of that, I am content that any amendments that mention nature-friendly farming are opposed to those that advocate agroecology, unless they are part of a nature-friendly farming system, which I passionately support.

Finally, I will comment on the speech on pesticides from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, which has tempted me to say something. On Thursday, we heard the excellent speech from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. He described how new robotic technology now makes it possible for machines to travel down a field and place a tiny drop of pesticide on a single weed leaf and kill it. No pesticide touches the food crop or soil. I do not want Roundup sprayed by aerosol over everything—weeds, food, trees, humans and animals—but we must look again at some of these banned pesticides, if they can be applied in the future in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. We must not demonise all pesticides and herbicides. If someone invented a herbicide that killed Japanese knotweed or the fungus that destroys ash trees, would we not grab it with open arms, provided it did not harm humans or wildlife? So let us keep an open mind on pesticides and be prepared to change our mind if the technology changes.

Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I shall speak to Amendment 38, in the names of my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall. This amendment adds implementation of comprehensive integrated pest and weed management measures, based on an agroecological approach, as an additional criterion for financial assistance.

Before I speak to Amendment 38, I shall say how grateful I am to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, to whom the previous speaker referred. She made a compelling and valuable contribution last Thursday evening in support of her Amendment 259. She was powerfully supported by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, a co-signatory to the amendment. I have considerable sympathy for the principle of a periodic review of the safety of herbicides and pesticides.

Reverting to Amendment 38, I start by declaring that of course I understand that competition is valuable when it is fair and based on common rules and standards. I think that all noble Lords will agree that British agriculture has high standards of animal welfare, and that farmers and growers strive to protect the environment and our landscape. They rightly strive to produce healthy and safe food, not only for human consumption but also for animal consumption. I remind noble Lords that much of the grain produced in the UK goes toward animal feed, and that some of those animals are slaughtered for human consumption.

The experiences of foot and mouth and, prior to that, BSE vividly illustrate the consequences for individuals and this country when standards are allowed to slip. Our growers produce much-needed high-quality vegetables and fruit for human consumption and, to grow the crops, there has to be a system of pest, weed and disease control. This process should be

“based on an agroecological approach”, in the words of Amendment 38. Unfortunately, when the transition period ends on 31 December this year, many of our likely new trading partners will not be inhibited from using methods and chemicals that are toxic and potentially damaging to human physical and mental health. These products are also potentially damaging to animal health. Some of them have carcinogenic side-effects. Even exercising rights of way by walking or running near crops sprayed with toxic sprays would be a danger to health from inhalation.

There are reports that British consumers face being exposed to toxic chemicals linked to serious health problems if they buy food imported from, for example, America, under the terms of a new trade agreement being negotiated with the USA. Experts say that supermarkets and restaurants will be flooded with cheap produce that has been sprayed with toxic pesticides which are currently banned in Britain and the European Union. I have seen a list published in a respected national newspaper of 70 pesticides that are widely used in the USA but banned in Britain and the EU.

A Toxic Trade study also shows how US farmers use vast quantities of pesticides compared to producers in Britain. If we allow these products to be imported into this country, the price will include a significantly increased risk to human health, which will be borne by the British consumer. It is my hope that Members from all parts of your Lordships’ House will come together to enact legislation in the Bill to ensure that the British consumer is protected from this threat. With the financial assistance provided for in this amendment and with other statutory provisions, we should go some way to keep our standards high and our food safe.

Finally, the Government have manoeuvred us out of the European Union on terms yet to be agreed. This leaves all businesses scandalously and perilously short of time to plan and prepare. The Government themselves have rightly been manoeuvred away from a reliance on the People’s Republic of China. We are not in a strong bargaining position. It is up to Parliament to ensure that the Government comply with the commitments they have repeatedly made to farmers, growers and the public to keep our food safe.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, I am so pleased that the question of good soils found its way into this edition of the Bill. We have Rebecca Pow MP to thank for that improvement to the earlier editions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said last Thursday, in a mere teaspoonful of good soil there should be over 1 billion bacteria and probably, among those, over 1 million different species of bacteria, of which we can identify clearly only about 10%. Nevertheless, it is the bacteria that, with the help of water and sunshine, produce our crops and food. We ignore their health at our peril, so I support all the amendments on maintaining healthy soils and the continuous monitoring of the soils of our nation.

I support the principle of Amendment 117, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and others, on the protection of meadows and other semi-natural grasslands. Meadows and semi-natural grasslands are very important habitats, first because of the amazing variety of flowers that exist there, especially rare orchids and other wildflowers, some of which have wonderful names—such as chalk milkwort, lady’s bedstraw, cuckoo flower, common toadflax, et cetera. These meadows and ancient grasslands also hold a wide diversity of fauna—rare moths, butterflies, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers—which in turn attract a large variety of birds trying to eat them. All this biodiversity specialness is not to underplay the important historical significance of these meadows and semi-natural grasslands.

I have already declared my interest as chair of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Some noble Lords may have noticed, last week, that our satellite survey indicated that 8,000 square kilometres of meadows and other grasslands have been lost from Britain’s farms and public land over the last 25 years. That is about the size of Cornwall. When you consider that the previous statistic available was that we had lost over 90% of our ancient meadows and grasslands since World War II, it is really important to keep the ones we still have.

My only comment on the amendment is that, while I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, knows a semi-natural grassland when she sees one, I am not sure that all farmers and landowners necessarily do, particularly if they have just bought the land in question and it is midwinter, when it might not be so obvious what a jewel they have. It would be best if local councils and/or Natural England designated all such meadows and semi-natural grasslands where they have not already done so—a lot of them are, of course, already registered—to make it clear to all and sundry what incredibly valuable heirlooms these places really are.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 5:00 pm, 14th July 2020

My Lords, having had the opportunity to read last Thursday’s part debate, I cast my short remarks in general terms. When I read what was said on that occasion, I was reminded of what my father said to me many years ago: real farming—that is, responsible farming—is farming with the grain of nature, because farming, agriculture and forestry are about cropping, not quarrying. This is why soil fertility matters, whether impoverishing the soil or treating it in such a hard way that the topsoil might blow away, as I understand has happened in parts of the Fens.

It is not as though some help, of an appropriate sort, cannot be applied. After all, there is a difference between a sensible and responsible application of fertilisers and certain pesticides to unlock the soil’s potential and simply using the earth as a kind of binding agent—a chemical mixture from which crops are derived. The same general approach applies to animals. I have considerable sympathy with proponents of organic farming, but if you have animals there are occasions when you simply have to use antibiotics, as we do on my farm.

All this shows that there is an interconnectedness in good farming practice, which brings us to questions of agroecology and agroforestry. Again, it is all a matter of integrating land uses and techniques, which is why agroecology is so important. Different uses on the farm need to complement each other in an ecologically and economically sustainable balance. I cannot see that there is any alternative but to have a degree of bureaucracy, because every farm is different.

In particular, I will touch on the espousal of agroforestry by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. It is important that we are clear, in this wider context, about the difference between trees, woods and forests. In particular, trees, copses and belts are important parts of farms, while forestry and large woods are something slightly different. Of course, the noble Baroness is an enthusiast for wood pasture. That is a very tricky one, because once you introduce stock, unless it is at a very low density, the trees get destroyed. In the north of England, where I come from, wood pasture has been very badly damaged by the introduction of livestock. It will cost a considerable amount of money to reinstate it, which is not to say that that is not the right thing to do.

All this is about human intervention in the workings of nature. If we do not run with nature’s grain, we shall destroy our countryside and degrade its products, which, as a number of noble Lords have said, are what we eat. That is why we must treat these things with such care. I suspect that the golden rule is that we must not be greedy. Of course, that includes the state, which must recognise that all of a farm’s outputs, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, commented last week, are important in whatever form they come.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests in agricultural matters and my membership of the Farmers’ Union of Wales. I give enthusiastic support to Amendment 259 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, to which I have added my name. I pay tribute to the excellent work that she has undertaken on these matters, as indeed has the noble Lord, Lord Patel, who spoke with similar professional authority earlier in this debate last week.

My support for the amendment arises for three reasons. The first relates to the very real dangers of disabilities being triggered by exposure to chemicals among children, including babies in the womb. As an MP, I served for 11 years as vice-chair of the All-Party Group for Disability, working closely with the redoubtable Jack Ashley on these issues, not least regarding thalidomide. That experience taught me that we must always be guided by the precautionary principle. If there is any doubt whatever about possible ill effects of herbicides and pesticides, they should be banned unless and until it is proven beyond doubt that they are safe, not only for human beings, but for animals.

In this context, I respectfully disagree fundamentally with the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, the last speaker in this debate on Thursday evening. The break has allowed me to study his precise words. He said that leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to develop our own food standards, avoiding the

“unnecessary and costly burdens on farmers” because of EU regulations,

“which rely too much on the precautionary principle”.—[Official Report, 9/7/20; cols. 1324.]

I fundamentally disagree with this approach and invite the Minister to indicate whether the Government will distance themselves from the noble Viscount’s remarks.

My views are coloured not just by my involvement with disabled children. I have previously referred in the House to my late cousin, Owen Wigley, a Minnesota farmer who died from a condition that his family are convinced was triggered by exposure to the weedkiller Roundup, which is the subject of a raft of court cases in the United States. I have seen the devastating impact on the natural environment in my home area, where use of such chemicals in too strong a mix, which had not been adequately dose controlled, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned, had the effect of wiping out all plant life in a field for a whole season, leaving it unusable for agricultural purposes. My wife also had a relative, a farmer in Wales, whose close family was convinced that his health suffered enormously from the effect of such chemicals in sheep dips. When I was an MP, I had a constituent whose family were convinced was severely disabled from exposure to such sheep-dipping chemicals.

Thirdly, I add my voice in support of the need to safeguard the process of pollination. The vital contribution of bees and other pollinators to our wildlife is fundamental to the survival of our natural environment and, in turn, humanity itself. This amendment provides an opportunity to place a responsibility on all engaged in the production of food to have a proactive awareness of these dangers at the forefront of their minds, and for the living world to be protected from such dire consequences.

If we are, rightly, to place such responsibilities on our food producers in these islands, they must also, most assuredly, be criteria against which the standards of all imported food should be measured. Products that fail to meet the required standard should be denied access to UK markets. I was so glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, highlight this. I urge the Government to accept Amendment 259.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour

My Lords, a number of amendments before the Committee refer to nature-friendly farming in general. Others refer to specific activities within nature-friendly farming. While each of us may know what we mean by that, and the kind of schemes that we would favour, a comprehensive definition of what it means is more challenging. Amendment 96 certainly makes a good attempt to define “nature-friendly”; I support it, and the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. However, there are clearly different views, with some favouring low-input farming, some talking about agroecology and some about organic farming. Others favour conventional, or intensive, farming, sometimes combined with a precision approach and with generous field margins and set-aside schemes. These would create habitats for particular animal, bird or plant species and could, therefore, also qualify as nature friendly.

Like other noble Lords, I was struck by the figures quoted by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, showing that the UK seems to be moving away from organic farming, in the opposite direction to many of our European neighbours. What is the Government’s view of this trend? Do they want our organic sector to expand and, if so, by how much? Perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out, soil quality is one of the key aspects to take into account in deciding what nature-friendly farming is. Do the Government agree that monitoring soil quality, then acting on those findings, needs to be done? Do the Government have their own definition of nature-friendly farming, or will they limit themselves to funding schemes judged to be nature friendly or, as has just been said, working with the grain of nature.

I turn, finally, to the main point on which I would like assurance. Will the Government commit to taking a regionally sensitive approach in England to supporting eligible projects and schemes under the Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about the distinctiveness of the natural environment in his part of the north of England. He mentioned the curlew, a bird which is the symbol of Northumberland National Park. I declare a non-financial interest as president of the Northumberland National Park Foundation. I am glad to tell the noble Lord that, during lockdown, I have seen many curlews in the river estuary in my locality. I hope that the Government will agree that working with regional and local wildlife trusts and other environmental organisations, as well as with farmers in the different regions and localities, will be important in evaluating schemes and identifying which species of animal, bird and plant life are under threat in particular areas.

To conclude, I ask the Government to ensure that regional diversity is built in to their overall policy of ensuring that agricultural and environmental policies work hand in hand.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendment 29 and the other pro-nature, pro-ecology amendments in this group, in support of diversity and of some of our lost agricultural traditions. I will illustrate this with a story about cheese. On the Welbeck estate in north Nottinghamshire, Stilton is being made in the traditional way, with unpasteurised milk. It is a marvellous product and that is the only place in the country that does it. Yet Defra’s rules do not allow the traditional, real Stilton to be called “Stilton”. It has to be marketed under the name Stichelton. It is a wonderful cheese, and a high-quality product made using the traditional way of doing things, but it is not able to use a name because of our own rules. I hope that this example is not an illustration of where things might go, having left the European Union. The freedom to some of the pro-ecology, pro-nature traditions is one way we can have a diverse agriculture.

One of the great weaknesses of the common agricultural policy was the way it pressured for every tomato to look like every other one; for every carrot to be perfectly shaped; for every strawberry to be the same size and taste, rather than a diversity and variety of products. That is the opportunity in front of us, and that is why these amendments, and the spirit behind them, are so important. We should be using the new technologies of robotics and artificial intelligence in our agriculture, but we should be doing so in a way that cultivates that nature and ecology, not the way that China is going, with GM foods and everything looking and tasting the same. It is a big choice that faces us over the next five years. These amendments would assist in pushing the Government towards making our country’s agriculture properly self-reliant for food.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, the Committee is resuming last Thursday’s debate after a lapse of four days, so it is difficult to remember exactly what noble Lords said without referring to Hansard. We are still on Clause 1 of the Bill, but are debating the main and important theme of environmental sustainability. If we do not get this right, the country will be paying the price, in a variety of ways, for decades to come. There are amendments about agroecology, agroforestry systems, organic and ecologically sustainable systems, pesticides, fertilisers and nature-friendly farming. This is a wide range of topics, but they are ones which Peers in this virtual and physical Chamber quite rightly feel strongly about.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for adding their names to my Amendments 38 and 120. The noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, have also put down amendments about pest control. The new approach of public money for public goods is a huge opportunity to support farmers who adopt and maintain non-chemical alternatives to pesticides. It is crucial that this approach is not undermined by a catch-all clause providing payments for productivity. Defra’s Secretary of State believes that the development and uptake of integrated pest management—IPM—is a crucial mechanism for ensuring that the objectives outlined in the Agriculture Bill and the 25-year environment plan are delivered.

Amendments 38, 120 and 259 ensure that farmers are rewarded for adopting proper IPM techniques, based on the agroecology approach to farming, coupled with a review of the national food strategy.

At Second Reading, I referred to the importance of properly regulated pesticides. Over the years, we have seen the removal from the market of various herbicides and pesticides because of their side-effects on humans. However, it often takes a very long campaign before action is taken. The banning of organophosphate sheep dips springs to mind. Many years ago, a colleague said to me that we should pay more attention to the effects of pesticides on humans than herbicides, as human physiology is much closer to that of insects than of plants. My noble friend Lord Burnett has spoken of the dangers of pesticides, and of using common rules and standards. Agroecology must be the standard. He also warned about the import from America of foods sprayed with pesticides.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, listed an enormous number of side-effects that exposure to pesticides can cause. It is safer for all if we approach pesticides with caution, rather than rushing headlong into their use in order to increase the productivity of a crop. I am grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I support the precautionary principle and acknowledge the impact of pesticides on disabilities.

Productivity is, of course, important. Farmers need to make a decent living from the land, but not at the expense of those who suffer health problems as a result of pesticide spraying. However, the might of the chemical producers often overrides the concerns of the ordinary man and woman displaying health problems. When will the Government produce a target for the uptake of the IPM, which is supported by the Secretary of State?

I fully support all the amendments in this group. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, have stressed the importance of agroecology. So often, the way the land is farmed leads to degeneration of the quality of the soil, and thus the quality of the crops grown. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, spoke knowledgeably of the importance of the upkeep of grassland and the species that inhabit it, and the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, also supported agroecology and running with nature’s grain. The noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Dundee, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and others have pressed the case for the inclusion of afforestation and organic farming. The noble Duke gave stark statistics on how far behind the UK is lagging on its organic farming programme. I know the Minister, as a farmer, has a close interest in these matters and I look forward to hearing a positive response.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I declare an interest through my involvement with the Rothamsted agricultural research institute. We have covered a wide range of issues in this group and I thank all noble Lords who contributed to the debate last week and again today. The amendments explore in more detail what we will need to deliver environmentally sustainable agriculture. We have had reference to nature-friendly farming, to agroecological systems, to agroforestry, to organically and ecologically sustainable systems, to the improved nutrient content of crops, to integrated pest management and to the importance of soil health. I agree with all those concepts, but also with my noble friend Lady Quin that we need to be clear about the definitions of these phrases when we use them.

All these systems have detailed research behind them, which reinforces the evidence that harnessing nature can improve farm outcomes, as well as enhancing the environment. Many noble Lords will have seen at first hand the positive impact on farmland productivity that can occur when these techniques are embraced. At the same time, we know that nature-based measures to reduce emissions can make a substantial contribution to tackling climate change while preserving or restoring habitats. We agree that natural ecological processes and agroforestry techniques should lie at the heart of the Bill. When adopted on a whole-farm approach, they will reduce the use of agrochemicals, encourage biodiversity, improve soil health, recycle nutrients, energy and waste and generally create more diverse, resilient and productive agroecosystems.

Last year, the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission report set out the case for bringing agroecology systems out of the shadows and into the mainstream of farming practice. It argued that farmers need to be helped to make that transition and recommended a 10-year programme to provide more research, training and capital grants to make this a reality. This would be an excellent use of the financial assistance in the Bill.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who talked about the need for a long-term programme of soil monitoring. We face a fundamental eradication of soil fertility that will be difficult to reverse. Our APPG on science in agriculture had an excellent evidence session last year on the numerous research projects taking place on this issue, but what we really need is to bring the evidence together in one place. While I am on the subject, will the Minister update us on the work of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, launched by Michael Gove, that was meant to do just that?

The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, specifically mentioned the transition to organic farming. I agree that this also has an important role to play. Organic farms have 50% more wildlife than conventionally farmed land and healthier soils, with a 44% higher capacity to store long-term soil carbon. Clearly, if the soil is more fertile, it increases productivity, so organic farming can make a real difference to biodiversity while sustaining food production.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and others talked about agroforestry. We agree that this system of planting has huge benefits over traditional forestry techniques. We know that the pressure is on to plant more trees. The Committee on Climate Change has set a target of between 30,000 and 50,000 hectares of new planting a year, but so far the Government have fallen well short of that target. It is important that trees are planted in a way that is sympathetic to the countryside and to the environment, rather than the monoculture plantations we have seen in the past. Agroforestry supplies the answer to this. Mixed plantings of trees and shrubs grown around crops can reduce erosion, increase biodiversity and create complex habitats, so we very much hope that financial assistance will be available to help farmers to create this mixed planting economy.

Finally, the amendments in the name of noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Finlay, highlight the need to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in particular, highlighted the potentially damaging impacts of pesticides on health, and recommended looking at the evidence and producing an annual report. These views were echoed powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the very moving examples he gave. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also rightly raised the need to avoid contaminated products being imported into this country. We agree with these objectives and have our own amendments, Amendment 226 on pesticides and Amendment 173 calling for a national food plan that addresses the problem of pesticide residues. I hope that the debates on these amendments will enable us to set out our position in more detail.

This has been a good discussion and I hope the Minister has heard the collective call for a funding priority for nature-based ecological farming. I am sure we will start to narrow down our priorities in this regard as we continue to consider the Bill, but in the meantime I look forward to her response.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for his Amendments 29 and 217, with which I will also discuss Amendment 224 in the name of my noble friend Lord Caithness. Soil is indeed one of our greatest natural assets and the Government are committed to having sustainably managed soils by 2030, as set out in the 25-year environment plan. Providing financial incentives for protecting and improving the quality of soil will help to protect and improve all the properties that contribute to healthy soil. The 25-year environment plan sets out the Government’s ambition to have sustainably managed soils by 2030. A healthy soils indicator is being developed as part of a framework of indicators under the plan.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked about spending commitments in the plan. This spend has been allocated to developing a robust and informative soil health indicator and monitoring scheme, and the Government are currently in the process of confirming actions for their work programme to protect and improve soil quality. The Government will develop a definition of soil health with stakeholders. To ensure that it captures the complete picture of soil health, this definition will be a balance of biological, chemical and physical characteristics, and could therefore include characteristics that help define the biodiverse nature of the soil, such as earthworms and fungi, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lucas.

To help achieve this target, the Government are considering the development of a soil monitoring scheme informed by natural capital approaches. As such, this scheme will recognise the relationships between soil properties and the ecosystem services that soil provides, such as clean water and carbon storage. A new soil monitoring scheme would provide a baseline national-scale picture of the state of our soils. This will enable the Government to quantify targets for improvements and then monitor progress towards these targets. These metrics could directly feed into ELM to incentivise better management approaches. Maintaining the metrics of measure across national and localised schemes will enable shared data collection, storage and analysis to further inform impacts of management actions.

There are a number of key vehicles through which the Government are working to address soil quality. These include: this Bill, which will provide financial assistance for the protection and improvement of soils; the Environment Bill, which will allow a future soils target to be set; the 25-year environment plan, through which a soil indicator is being developed; and the new ELM scheme, which could act as a lever for incentivising sustainable soil practices. Protecting and improving our soils will involve a wide variety of actions, reflecting the wide diversity in soil quality, soil types and land uses in England. This would include actions to protect our best grade 1 and 2 lands as well as actions to improve the poorer-quality grade land—in the words of the father of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, farming within the grain of nature, cropping not quarrying.

I turn to Amendments 39 and 96 from my noble friend Lord Caithness, Amendments 40, 42, 84 and 97 from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, Amendment 41 from my noble friend Lord Dundee and Amendment 48 from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington.

My noble friend Lord Caithness asked about ponds. Farmers have a range of long-standing permitted development rights for agricultural purposes. Where works are not for agricultural purposes, an application for planning permission may be required and applicants may wish to speak to their local planning authority.

The Government are proud of their intention to support sustainable farming as part of their new agricultural policy. Tier 1 of ELM in particular will focus on encouraging sustainable farming, as set out in the ELM discussion document published in February. Actions under this tier could include actions around: nutrient, pest, soil, or livestock management; field margins or cover; and water storage and/or use. Clause 1(1) has been drafted in such a way that it already allows the Government to support “nature-friendly farming” and farming in a way that will protect and benefit the environment. Under it, the Government can support afforestation, agroforestry and other agroecological farming methods.

A number of noble Lords mentioned definitions, including the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I have these definitions somewhere in my notes; I will come back to that point in a moment.

Land managers who afforest parts of their land or adopt environmentally sustainable farming techniques such as agroforestry and agroecology, will be in a good position to benefit from ELM. The Government recognise that meeting their commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 requires a step change in woodland creation. That is why they have committed to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, in line with the annual rate recommended by the Committee on Climate Change in 2019 to help meet the net-zero target.

I turn now to Amendments 38 and 120 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. Applying agroecological approaches to farming, including integrated pest and weed management measures, can help to deliver important environmental benefits. This is recognised in the Government’s National Action Plan for the Sustainable use of Pesticides, which is currently being reviewed. In answer to the question from the noble Baroness, this is the next step in the integrated pest management plan. We will consult on the draft plan later this year. I hope that this may also allay some of the fears and concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett.

As part of this, the Government are considering the extent to which targets may have a role to play in supporting the delivery of integrated pest management. Clause 1(1)(a) could include support for integrated pest and weed management. Given its environmental credentials, those who apply integrated pest and weed management and other agroecological farming techniques will be very well placed to benefit from ELM.

Turning to Amendment 259, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that the assessment and monitoring of pesticides proposed by the amendment are already carried out and the results are published. A number of other noble Lords spoke powerfully on this subject, including the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Burnett, my noble friend Lord Blencathra, and none more powerfully and with greater authority than the noble Lord, Lord Wigley.

The Government’s 25-year environment plan emphasises integrated pest management. This means that sustainable biological, physical and other non-chemical methods are preferred to pesticides. Any pesticides applied should have the least effects on human health and the environment. This will help to protect people and reduce the impacts of pesticides. It will also help farmers combat pest resistance and support agricultural productivity.

Pesticides are already strictly regulated on the basis of their effects on human health and the environment. Advice on significant scientific issues is sought from the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. A programme to monitor pesticide residues in food is overseen by the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food. Both expert committees already publish an annual report and other information.

Turning to Amendment 49 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, Clause 31 will enable the Government to regulate a wider range of materials as fertilisers, particularly new and innovative types of material such as soil conditioners, bio-stimulants and organic fertilisers. This will enable the marketing of a range of alternatives to traditional mineral-based fertilisers. Defra continues to work with the industry to ensure that nutrient management recommendations do not result in losses to the environment, while providing balanced nutrition for plants.

Defra provides incentives to farmers through the Countryside Stewardship scheme to reduce nutrient inputs in specific cases. Where IPM or reduced-nutrient inputs can deliver public goods, farmers may be eligible for financial assistance through the environmental land management scheme. The agricultural research and development innovation scheme, to be introduced from 2022, will enable research into areas such as improving the nutritional output of crops and reducing pesticide use. The Government can already fund agricultural research through existing powers such as those in the Science and Technology Act 1965.

Amendment 117 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raises similar issues in relation to meadows and was spoken to most powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. In addition to the points I have already covered, I note that there is already in place a regulatory protection regime for areas of land that are two hectares or over through the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2006, the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (England) (No. 2) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 and the Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999. These provide protection for unimproved and semi-natural grassland and other wildlife-rich habitats. Semi-natural land includes priority habitats, heritage or archaeological features, or protected landscapes. It is usually land that has not been intensively farmed, such as unimproved grassland or lowland heath.

The Government’s intentions are very much in accordance with those of my noble friend Lord Lucas. I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

I thank the Minister very much for her positive reaction to agroecology and agroforestry. However, one of the main themes of both those practices is whole-farm management. I am concerned that, under tier 1 of ELMS, there is the possibility of a number of environmentally friendly actions taking place but that this not being reflected in a whole-farm environment. Will Defra and the Government, particularly when they award tier 1 ELM schemes, look for a whole-farm approach rather than a bits-and-pieces application of environmentally friendly measures? That is my key concern. Whole-farm management has been a major theme all around the House. Would the ELM scheme mean that it would be applied across all the measures taken?

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord for his question about whole-farm management. The ELM schemes are very much in trial stage; nothing has been ruled out or in. That will become clearer over the coming months.

I shall also take this opportunity to give the definition of agroecology that I was looking for earlier and floundering. Agroecology means different things to different people, but in this Bill it is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment, while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I now call the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who I understand also has a question.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for her answer, which was very encouraging. However, on my specific amendments, will she confirm so that it is clearly on the record that the Government consider soil, for the purposes of this Bill, to include all that lives within it? If not now, can my noble friend write to me to say how the soil survey is intended to be set up and funded?

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I would be delighted to write to the noble Lord on the latter matter. On his former point, I believe that my speech actually gave the reassurance that it includes all matters within the soil.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I am immensely grateful for the response given by my noble friends and I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 29 withdrawn.

Amendments 30 to 34 not moved.