Agriculture Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 14th July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 5:00 pm, 14th July 2020

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.