Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 4:45 pm, 30th June 2021

I support the amendments in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, as well as that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, about soil, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about ecosystems, and that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, about the oceans.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is absolutely right: I did interview the Secretary of State last week, who talked extensively about how the Government saw soil as a key part of future strategy and as being at the heart of both the Agriculture Act and the Environment Bill.

The thing about soil is that it is very small in our eyes, but in the soil’s eyes it is of course a factory and it has been described as a factory. In a tea-spoon of soil, you will probably get some thousands of species, some millions of individuals and about 100 metres of fungal thread. This is a world of major complexity and, every second that we are alive, this factory is performing a function that none of us could do. No scientist could take sunlight, air and all the nutrients in the soil and produce leaves, which produce trees. Look around this Chamber: everything in here, apart from the quarried stone, has come from a plant, has come from the soil. This leather has come from an animal that has fed on a plant; the carpet, probably from Axminster, and some sheep; my clothes; everything. Yet we call it “the dirt beneath our feet” and we stomp on it.

Once I got the image of a factory into my head, and the notion that there are all these people pulling levers and rushing up and down hills, it struck me that it was like being in a city, but a city on a completely different scale to how we live, so of course we ignore it. What has gone so tragically wrong with the soil in recent years is not so much the tinkering around but the deep ploughing and then the addition of heavy chemicals. It strikes me that you could think about it as like living in Homs or somewhere like that. Your buildings get bombed every other day or, in the case of the soil, two or three times a year. We have decided, since the green revolution of the 1950s, that deep ploughing was a really good idea because it let in the air. It was extremely fallacious science that is now completely accepted not to be right.

Look at agroecology. Where I was with the Secretary of State last week, we saw new devices that slice through the soil like pizza cutters, dropping in individual seeds, making minimal disruption and, as a consequence, needing minimal fertilisers and producing strong, healthy plants that also support biodiversity. We have done so many things wrong it is quite impossible to start to count them: the monocrops that kill the culture; the deep ploughing; the addition of chemicals—it is really astonishing—but the soil is truly phenomenal. It is the most amazing stuff. Give it a break, and it will come charging back with great health. I have to say to whichever noble Lord it was who said how long it takes to regrow, it really does not; it is really amazing. It will knit itself together, start co-operating and start not only giving us back the goods and services we want, but at the same time taking down the carbon.

As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said, it seems quite astonishing that soil is not in the Bill, along with air and water; it should be. History is littered with examples. I do not know whether any noble Lord has been to Leptis Magna. It is a desert, but it is not that long ago, in the big history of things, that the Romans used to get three harvests a year from Leptis Magna. That is why they wanted north Africa. They had the most sophisticated systems for bringing water from the mountains; they had an amazing market with marble and they kept the water in tanks underneath to keep the vegetables cool and then they overfarmed it. But it was fine then, because they just packed their trunks—I do not know whether they had trunks then—and got on their oxen and went somewhere else, because there was always somewhere else. There is not anywhere else now. It is the same as when the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “There is no such place as away.” You throw it away: where is that away? As Greenpeace says, we throw away our plastic and it ends up in Turkey. We throw away something and it ends up in that awful albatross. That makes my heart break too. We have to respect and adore these particular things.

The thing about the soil is that there are a lot of “don’ts”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, “Don’t deep plough”, “Don’t put fertiliser on it”, “Keep cover crops on it.” Soil wants that; soil wants to work. We have to find intelligent ways to pay for this; we cannot just expect people to do it and not get anything back. They will get it back in advanced crops without having to pay for chemicals, but that will take a bit of time. Yes, indeed, people are using earthworms as a measure, but it is still a bit clumsy and a bit inexact. It is kind of fun, but there are some more sophisticated things that we can do.

I want to quickly address the necessity of understanding things as ecosystems. I do not know how many noble Lords know of Dr Suzanne Simard, but she is a Canadian forestry professor at British Columbia University. She grew up in the forest, became a logger and a forestry expert and at the age of 20 she was put to work by a forestry company in the north-west and her job was to clear-fell and then plant pine. After a bit, she looked at it and thought, “Why are these things dying over huge acres?” That was when we thought, “Survival of the fittest: get rid of everything else and everything will grow”, but in fact they died. They did not do well, they sort of struggled and some of them just fell apart. What she realised, and what she has now written about and become the world expert on, is that there is an extraordinary interconnection that goes on underground. We are only just beginning to learn about it. A tree will help out another tree if it is in trouble. It will send extra nutrients. It is quite magical. In the same way that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was moved about the albatross, I am extremely moved about the power of the soil. I feel very strongly that it has to be at the heart of the Bill.

Finally, on the question of the oceans, not only did I see the Secretary of State last week, but the week before I saw the Minister for Food and Farming. We were in the West Country at an event and she was on her way to Brixham. She said to me, “This is going to be tricky, but 80% of the fish that comes in comes from bottom trawling.” Bottom trawling is just like ploughing: it is smashing through someone else’s home with absolutely no regard for those who live there. We would not smash through a field of cattle, just wipe them out and throw them all over the place; that is what we do every day. Some in this Chamber will have seen “Seaspiracy”. It is not a pleasant watch. You get the sense of how many fish get sacrificed in the by-catch. Please, Minister, find a way to put the sense of ecosystems and soil absolutely at the heart of how we assess our environment and take care of it, because we will fail otherwise.