Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:30 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I rise to offer the Green group’s support for all the amendments in this group, which have given us the opportunity of an important debate about what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve.

Amendment 110, in the names of the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Shrewsbury, and my noble friend Lady Jones and myself, proposes that soil be regarded as a habitat. I will address it with Amendment 112 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, that it perhaps does not matter so much where “soil” appears; it needs to appear somewhere. I would suggest that a very simple solution which the department could implement easily would be to go through the Bill and look everywhere where “water” and “air” appear and add “soil”. I doubt that there would be many problems when one looked at the result. We are of course revisiting our debate on day 1 of this Committee—which now feels like quite a long time ago—about Clause 1 and an amendment in my name which would have added soil as an important target. It needs to be in all these places.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, will forgive me if I pre-empt a little what she is perhaps going to say, but it is so important that it needs to be highlighted. I saw that she was speaking to the Secretary of State at Groundswell. During that discussion, it was said that soil health was perhaps the most important thing and would be the focus of the sustainable farming initiative. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us more about that; it would be very interesting. The Government themselves identify soil as a huge priority. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and many others have said, we are talking about how the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill fit together. The Agriculture Act provides directions on the methods of action; this Bill judges how successful it has been.

I have circulated to a number of noble Lords—I realise that I neglected to circulate it to the Minister, for which I apologise and I will fix it shortly—a briefing paper that I received from a number of farmers, academics and farm advisers on the difficulty of being paid for results in managing soil health. It makes an argument for payment for practice instead, with the three key things identified as minimising soil disturbance, maximising soil cover and maximising diversity of cover. All are clearly good things to work towards, but we need to measure how the results come out, and that has to be in the Bill.

Following the coverage from Groundswell, there was a lot of discussion and excitement about work done on worms. There is perhaps an argument for the number of worms per square metre being a very good measure. I am not putting that forward entirely as a serious proposal although it is certainly something to look at, but I would point the Minister to the publication last week of a volume entitled Advances in Measuring Soil Health, edited by Professor Wilfred Otten from Cranfield University. It is a real sign of how much this field is moving forward. That brings me back to our discussion on Clause 1, when the Minister, in arguing why soil should not be included in the clause, said that

“the Government are working collaboratively with technical experts to identify appropriate soil health metrics … it is a complicated business”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 94-95.] and that they were looking to develop a healthy soils indicator as part of the 25-year environment plan. This is a matter of extreme urgency and focus, as identified by the Secretary of State; it cannot wait for something off into the far distance. A great deal of new work is available now; a great deal of ideas are available now. The first metric that we end up with may not be perfect, but we need a metric, and if that needs to be improved in future, so be it. It could be dealt with by regulation, as the Government so like to tell us.

Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and signed by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, my noble friend and me, again takes us back to some of our debates on Clause 1. We are talking about including the marine environment. I want to cite just one, apparently small but very illustrative case study. I thank Dr Alexander Lees at Manchester Metropolitan University for drawing it to my attention. It is simply a photo—a very sad photo of a bundle of sodden feathers. This was a black-browed albatross. We can see coming from its mouth a ribbon that indicates that it almost certainly died from ingesting a balloon. It is a magnificent creature that could have lived for seven decades—seven decades of a life of freedom—and it was cut short for a balloon. The noble Lord and I have engaged in debate, and I am sure we will do so in the coming groups, about extended producer responsibility and plastics. I would question how any form of extended producer responsibility would cover the cost of that albatross and its loss of life.

It is important to include marine because we need to stress that there is no such thing as “away”—we cannot throw things away. Very often, we have regarded the marine environment as the space where we throw away. If we do not include that, we shall not be taking proper account of the impacts of our actions.

I commend the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on some very nimble drafting for Amendment 113B—this, again, goes back to our debates on Clause 1 and an amendment I put down then about the state of nature. I made a rough first attempt at defining biodiversity. The noble Earl has struck on something by working on the Minister’s response and coming up with this amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to his own words.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would add “ecosystems” in a number of places. Again, we come back to the definition of biodiversity. We can protect plants, animals and fungi—the three kingdoms—and look at them in isolation, but it is the relationship between them that makes up the natural world and the natural environment. It is terribly important that the Bill recognises that. The noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, talked about how rare the wonderful, irreplaceable soils underneath ancient forests are, and how little of that we have left. Adding “ecosystems” would help draw attention to the utter fallacy of biodiversity offsetting and the idea of something that I have seen first-hand: that we can just transplant the bits of an ancient forest, shove them into an arable field and assume that they are going to get back together somehow or other. Adding “ecosystems” here would be very useful.