Amendment 110

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:15 pm, 30th June 2021

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It has clearly demonstrated the strength of feeling about the need to improve Clause 43 to resolve the omissions in the definition of the natural environment, which we have all been looking at. In many ways, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, summed it up when she said that we need to decide what we are trying to save, what we are trying to protect and what we are trying to improve. She gave a very moving example of why this really matters.

When the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, introduced his amendment he talked about the glaring hole in the Bill. I think everyone would agree with him, and with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Both amendments talk about the need to include soil in the definition of “natural environment”. Headlines have warned us that the state of our soil is now a serious threat to the environment and to our ability to grow crops, but we also know that good-quality soil can help to save the planet. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, just mentioned Michael Gove, who, when he was Defra Secretary of State back in 2017, said that

“no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

He was correct.

The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, talked about the huge importance of the health of our soil, and how it is critical for our biodiversity and the future of our agriculture, because we fundamentally rely on it. Soil produces 95% of our food, be it the crops we eat or the grasses and other plants that feed our animals. It also stores an extraordinary amount of carbon —three times the amount in the atmosphere and twice the amount in trees and forests. Although soil can store—or sequester—carbon, we also know that it can lose it when it is degraded. The loss of carbon in poor soils contributes to the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which we know is one of the main causes of climate change.

It has been estimated that there could be 50,000 species of microorganism in just 1 gram of soil. Crucially, this rich “soil web” of underground life creates an open structure. It allows rainwater to seep into the ground, storing moisture for plants and crops to grow well, even in times of drought. It also prevents flooding, which is an important function of global warming. Further extreme and uncertain rainfall is becoming more prevalent in the UK. As someone who lives in Cumbria, I am all too well aware of this.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talked about the amount of topsoil we lose every year—3 million tonnes. He rightly said that we simply cannot afford to continue in the way we are. He also made the important point, as did other noble Lords, that the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act need to work together to get the outcomes we need.

As we have heard, the Environment Bill currently lists land, air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact, but there is no specific mention of soil. We on this side of the Committee believe that this is an important omission, so we support the amendments in the names of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, to specifically include soil in the Bill.

We have also been debating the extent to which the marine environment is provided for in the Bill and how it is not clear enough. The marine environment must be seen as an integral part of the process of environmental conservation. Our legislation includes substantial activity to enable environmental protection and conservation to take place in these zones, but, as other noble Lords have said, this is not always effective enough. So, in addition to the need for the marine environment to be included in the Bill’s scope, Clause 43 needs to be amended to make it explicit that the “natural environment” includes the marine environment.

Amendment 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, would expand this definition. I thank the noble Baroness for her clear explanation of why the amendment is needed. The contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was also very powerful as to why we need to look after our marine environment. The Explanatory Notes indicate that the definition extends to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial and water environments, but although Explanatory Notes are often helpful for providing information as to intention, they add nothing whatever to, or take nothing away from, the actual legislation in front of us. For legal clarity, we believe that this should be stated in the Bill. For this reason, we support Amendment 113.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley talked about why biodiversity gains should also include water. The links between the water sector and biodiversity involve the impacts of the sector on biodiversity and the benefits the sector can receive from the ecosystem services—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that I have now said “ecosystem services”—provided by biodiversity. The water sector really should have a direct interest in safeguarding biodiversity both for its own use and for that of others. Well-functioning ecosystems—forests, grasslands, soils, rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, aquifers; I could go on—all influence the availability of water and its quality. They are also vital to meet water management goals such as water storage and flow regulation, filtering, and flood and drought protection, among others.

I am sure that the Minister has heard the strong support for the amendments, particularly for the inclusion of soil, although the marine environment is just as important. I look forward to hearing from him.