Moved by Lord Whitty
152: After Clause 72, insert the following new Clause—“Air quality and human health in rural areas: application of pesticides(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations make provision prohibiting the application of pesticides for the purposes of agriculture or horticulture near—(a) buildings used for human habitation, and(b) public or private buildings and associated open spaces where members of the public may be present, including but not limited to—(i) schools and childcare nurseries, and(ii) hospitals and health care facilities.(2) Regulations under subsection (1) must specify a minimum distance from any of the locations listed under subsection (1) to be maintained during the application of any pesticide.(3) In determining the distance in subsection (2) the Secretary of State must be guided by the optimum distance that would make a significant difference in air quality for people using the locations listed in subsection (1).(4) In this section “public building” includes any building used for the purpose of education.(5) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”Member’s explanatory statementIn order to improve air quality and thereby protect human health and the environment in rural areas, this new Clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations to prohibit the application of chemical pesticides near buildings and open spaces used by residents and members of the public.
My Lords, we now come to another aspect of air quality. I move Amendment 152 with a strong feeling of déjà vu. I and my cosignatories, whose support I very much appreciate, argued for a similar amendment to the Agriculture Bill a few months ago. The Committee will recall that the House agreed that amendment. Regrettably, the House of Commons, advised by the Government, did not and rejected it. Ministers’ reasons for rejecting it were partly on the grounds that it would be better considered in an Environment Bill. So, here we are.
I never quite understood the Ministers’ argument since the application of pesticides is surely a matter of agricultural practice, and the amendment was and is about the impact of that practice on human health and well-being. It obviously also has implications for the environment and for biodiversity. I certainly argue the case on both those grounds, but centrally this is about for human health: the health of residents and others in danger of ingesting or touching pesticides because they are close to where crops are being sprayed. Those who are frequently close to, and often subject to repeated exposure from, multiple sprayings—in some cases over years, often of cocktails of pesticides—can develop severe illnesses. Anyhow, we now do have an Environment Bill, so I hope for a more positive line from Defra Ministers. I am encouraged by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, is responding to this amendment.
The health impacts of chemical pesticide ingestion and skin contact are well documented, here and around the world. We have medical records of exposure through contact with airborne pesticides causing chronic conditions, including in the respiratory, nervous and immune systems, and including cancers, reproductive problems and a range of other serious problems, as well as serious acute problems including damaged throats and vocal chords, chemical burns and rashes, asthma attacks, vomiting, violent headaches and nausea. In the past, these effects were recorded in the Government’s monitoring system, although the previous form of that system has apparently been dropped, for no obvious reason. The same symptoms are constantly brought to the attention of campaigners and local medical services. Indeed, the former chief scientist to Defra, Ian Boyd, spelled this out clearly in his approach to the use of pesticides worldwide.
In response to the amendment on the Agriculture Bill, the Government said two things. First, they said that the EU regulation of pesticide—now transposed into UK law—is the most stringent it the world. I am not sure on what criteria that is based; more than 2,000 pesticides are authorised in this country, and they are often in cocktails of pesticides whose net effect is not very clear and has not gone through that authorisation process. Secondly, they argue that the government-backed pest management approach is developing and becoming more effective, and will solve any remaining problems.
We have had a consultation on the action plan on pesticides, and I regret to say that I do not think it goes far enough. As I have expressed before, I have had misgivings about the nature of our pesticide regulation at both EU and UK level since I was a Minister. I fear that government departments and the industry are far too close on this issue. There is a major gap in all authorisations when they relate to tests on single chemicals and their effects, when pesticides are, by and large, applied to crops and orchards in combination. That has not properly been assessed. It may well be that our system is better than in many other parts of the world—in Brazil, China, or even in the USA or Australia, whose products we are now on the verge of accepting—but it does not do enough to protect the interests and the health of rural residents.
Integrated pest management includes some important guidance for growers and farmers to improve efficiency and targeting, and hence reduce the total volume of inorganic chemical pesticides and exposure. But there is no focus in that on vulnerable populations in our rural communities. Although there are references in codes of practice to notification of residents and occupiers of adjacent premises, those neither have the backing of law nor require full disclosure of the type of pesticide being sprayed. In practice, that notification often does not occur, and when it does the recipients of that notification do not have the details of what kind of pesticide or combination of pesticides is being sprayed near their premises.
The Government’s references to consultation and their current consultative document on the action plan do not really help. The paper, which went out for consultation, did not really mention rural residents, let alone propose any action except tightening up the code of practice, which, as I say, is not directly enforceable and is in general protective—rightly so—of farmers and farm workers who operate the pesticides, but not of residents and their families. Progress towards reducing drastically the use of chemical pesticides remains painfully slow. I therefore have some fundamental doubts about the totality of the strategy towards pesticides that the Government have adopted.
However, Amendment 152 itself is much more modest. It does not deal with the need to develop alternative methods in the longer term. It deals simply with the issue of reducing the exposure of rural residents, workers and citizens, meaning that it is key to the health of thousands of rural citizens and their children. It simply and straightforwardly calls for limited protection for rural residents in their homes and gardens and for others using schools and public spaces near to crop spraying, so that the incidence of crop spraying is moved well away from those places. It aims to get the Government to regulate a safe—or at least safer—distance between crop spraying and residences, public buildings and public spaces. The amendment only calls on the House to accept that principle, and leaves it to the Government to come forward with regulation. The principle is that there should be a distance between rural dwellings and institutions and the spraying of crops and orchards. It leaves much to the Government. The regulations are not prescribed in any detail in the amendment; neither is the distance required. That will be a matter for consultation with all parties and for taking note of the science. The drafting of the regulations is, therefore, in the hands of the Government, subject to that consultation in which all parties, the agricultural interests in particular, will have their say—as will, crucially, the residents themselves.
During the passage of the Agriculture Act, I quoted a range of residents and others who have suffered or whose families have suffered from exposure to pesticides. They were pretty intense quotes, revealing real distress and illness. I could read them all out again today—I have them here—but I think the point has been made. This Bill needs to have room for this amendment. It is a massive Bill. It is about the environment, so let us remember that the excessive use of chemical pesticides is damaging also to vital pollinators—as Amendment 254 seeks to address—to biodiversity generally and to the soil, water quality and the air.
The Bill is also about people and the dangers to those who live and work in our countryside. I fear that government departments—such as the European Food Safety Authority beforehand—claim that there is a low incidence of serious disease from pesticides because they rely on occupational health standards. However, farmers, farm workers and park staff are required under health and safety regulations to wear protective clothing, masks and gloves. It is true that they did not always observe those rules historically, but they generally do today. Of course, there are warnings on virtually all pesticide products about their toxicity and the danger of touching or exposure, so the users are well aware that they have to wear protective clothing and be very careful when spraying.
This is a key issue of air quality in our countryside. We have just debated a whole group on air quality; I strongly support the direction in which we are going on that. We are rightly proposing legally binding targets; monitoring and limits for exposure to particulates from vehicles and elsewhere; a whole new regime for air quality emissions from vehicles; manufacturing standards; traffic management approaches; and many controls on other sources of pollution. Poor air quality is a real threat to the health of residents and pedestrians, but those residents and pedestrians at risk are mainly in our urban and suburban areas.
We also rightly have detailed regulations on pesticide and fungicide residue on the fruits and vegetables that reach our shops and markets. So, under this Bill and other measures, the urban population is to be more protected; farm workers are largely protected by the H&S requirements; and consumers of the products are protected. However, those who live and work closest to the growing of crops, and are therefore exposed most frequently and on a more long-term basis, are hardly protected at all. Pesticide exposure causes similar diseases and afflictions to those caused by vehicular and other emissions. It is wrong that our rural population should not be equally protected. The simplest and most effective improvement in protection in the immediate term is to prohibit spraying near their homes, schools, gardens and open places. I beg to move.
I understand that there has been a slight change in the order of speakers. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff.
My Lords, I am most grateful for this slight change being allowed for the convenience of the House.
I am glad to be able to speak in support of these very important amendments. I added my name to Amendment 152 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. As he said, we are doing exactly what we were advised to: we are bringing this issue back in the passage of the Environment Bill.
I will not repeat what I said on the Agriculture Act—it is all there on the record already—but I did point out in Committee of the then Agriculture Bill last year that synthetic chemical pesticides were originally developed as chemical warfare in the 1930s and 1940s. These highly toxic substances have now been used in farming for more than 75 years. They carry warnings on them, such as “risk of serious damage to eyes”, “possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation” and even “may be fatal if inhaled or ingested”. In 1975, the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated:
“The repeated use of pesticides, even in small quantities, can have cumulative effects which may not be noticed until a dangerous amount has been absorbed.”
Here we are, 46 years later, and I am not sure that we have heeded that warning.
Although spraying equipment and the protection of employees doing the spraying is regulated, residents in an area downwind from any spraying have no protection in law at all. These pesticides are known to cause different cancers and have been thought to be associated with birth defects and a wide range of diseases, particularly neuroendocrine and autoimmune conditions. All this is a mounting cost to the NHS but, more importantly, it destroys people’s lives and the quality of their lives.
Amendment 152 aims to provide protection to residents. These airborne droplets in pesticide vapour can settle on the ground and be revaporised in subsequent high heat or windy weather conditions. Several studies have shown pesticides being transported in the air for many miles from where they were originally applied, which then exposes babies, children and pregnant women to these chemicals. We cannot carry on allowing the next generation—whether in utero or after they have been born—to be poisoned by chemicals that are often used as a convenience in farming rather than being absolutely essential.
I also strongly support Amendment 254. Without our pollinators, we will have no food. This Bill is the place to protect this essential part of our food chain.
My Lords, I am speaking to Amendment 254 in my name and fully support Amendment 152 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I am grateful for the information I have received from the Crop Protection Association, Buglife, Friends of the Earth, the UK Pesticides Campaign and others.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, have long campaigned for tighter control of pesticides in order to protect human health and the environment. As the noble Lord has already said, these are issues which we explored in depth during the passage of the Agriculture Bill. Undeterred, we are back again to explore the dangers of pesticides to both humans and pollinating insects.
Pollinators are essential to a healthy countryside and to agricultural production, but in recent years pesticide use has caused a decline in key populations of wild pollinators, resulting in many species disappearing from large areas of the countryside. Amendment 254 sets out in detail the measures necessary to protect our pollinating insects from the harm which pesticides do to them. The widespread use of neonicotinoids resulted in a reduction in the overwintering success of honeybee hives and a decline of 40% in wild bee species. Despite a ban on the use of Thiamethoxam, its use on sugar beet was authorised by the Minister earlier this year, despite advice from his own advisers not to do so. This is a very harmful substance to bees.
Currently, the reapproval tests that pesticides have to pass look at data only on short-term effects on honeybees. No account is taken of the long-term effect on honeybees and other pollinators. Different groups of pollinators are affected by pesticides in different ways, so it is important that a range of pollinators is included in the pre-approval testing process. This should include acute and chronic effects on honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies, and hoverflies. Independent scientific advice should be considered when reaching decision on whether to proliferate their use.
Glyphosate-based herbicides can cause high levels of mortality in bumblebees. It is not the active ingredient that is harmful, but the other ingredients included in the pesticide product. Great care is needed in the testing regime to ensure that all the ingredients are not likely to have a harmful effect on pollinators. Research undertaken by the UK Pesticides Campaign has highlighted that it is the mixture and cocktail of pesticides sprayed on crops that is so damaging to humans, and to bees and other pollinators. Bees and other pollinators that come into direct contact with the mixture of different pesticides are particularly at risk. Often, any one pesticide application will consist of four or five different products mixed together.
Amendment 152 seeks to protect human health from agricultural pesticides when sprayed in certain areas. If this amendment is accepted, it would prohibit the use of pesticides in these areas and could help other species there, such as bees, other pollinators, and birds. Proposed new subsections (2) and (3) would ensure that scientific advice is independent and free from political and vested-interest influence. I fear this was not the case when the Government relaxed the ban for the sugar beet growers. I understand that the Government come under pressure from producers and business interests to relax rules and regulations in order to allow for greater productivity and profit, but this should not be at the expense of our pollinators. If we have a declining population of pollinators, other producers and crop growers will suffer, as they rely on those very pollinators in order for their crops to prosper. I look forward to the Minister’s favourable response on this vital group for our countryside.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and also to follow the very expert testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I am speaking to Amendment 152 and 254 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, respectively. Noble Lords will have noted that both have cross-party, and indeed non-party, backing. It is worth repeating, again, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, that the House has already agreed something very similar to Amendment 152 in the Agriculture Bill.
These are apparently two separate amendments about pesticides: one focused on public health, the other more on nature—but of course those two things are not distinct but very much interrelated. They reflect the countryside that is increasingly soaked in poison. That is what pesticides are, by definition. We have been applying stronger poisons, and more of them, more often. In the first half of the last decade, three metrics—the area treated, often measured as spray hectares, the frequency of applications and the number of active ingredients used—all leapt significantly. So, while UK cropland covers about 4.6 million hectares, the area treated is many times larger. Defra figures show that that increased from 59 million spray hectares in 2000 to 73 million spray hectares in 2016: a rise of 24%. The average number of active ingredients per field has risen from 12.8 per hectare to 15.9 per hectare.
Let us imagine actually living next to that field. I am sure everyone has seen the videos: spray nozzles practically brushing people’s windows, other nozzles right up against garden hedges. Imagine being a pollinator—a moth or a solitary bee—going about your business. Your body is gradually being degraded, and your behaviour modified disastrously: all the impacts that we have just started to understand, with 16 active ingredients—poisons—introduced right into the depths of your world and your home.
The person applying the pesticide, quite likely from an air-conditioned tractor cab with protective equipment, has protection—still not enough, but protection. You, the local resident or pollinator, have none. You have no idea what it is in that spray, and even the experts really have no idea what impact that cocktail of chemicals will have. I refer to Defra’s own former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Ian Boyd, who, in an article in Science in 2016 said the impact of “dosing whole landscapes” is being ignored, and the assumption that it is safe to so behave is simply false. Even the person applying the pesticides will suffer ill-effects, as a recent Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine journal entitled Influence of Pesticides on Respiratory Pathology set out. It notes that there is a
“significant increase in respiratory problems within the population” of people working in agriculture because of this.
Turning to look particularly at the pollinators, many of the UK’s most valuable crop, including apples, strawberries and runner beans, are pollinated by insects. The monetary value of that—if you can put a monetary value on it—is put at £430 million a year. Honeybees are important, and there is often a lot of focus on them, but they probably do only 10% or 15% of the work. These wild creatures are crucial, and they are perhaps the ones that are suffering the most.
We are talking about food security being at risk, and in particular the supply of healthy food: fruit and vegetables. The chemical industry will say, “We need these chemicals to grow food”. I would very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and others that the closeness between the Government and the industry is a grave concern. There is something of an infamous paper from 2011 titled Without Pesticides, Apple Production in the United Kingdom Would Not Be Viable. Well, I ask noble Lords to look back and think about before we had pesticides: we actually had apples, a lot of apples.
This is where I would, perhaps, slightly disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who talked about convenience. I think what we have is a broken system. Farmers are being forced to use these chemicals, and forced to use production methods to suit the supermarkets and multinational food production. We can produce the food in different ways, and it may be sold in different ways. Potato blight has caused much use of chemicals. There are varieties that can do very well with little or no application of chemicals, that are blight resistant, but they are not necessarily to the exact specification of the international fast food giants, who want their chips all around the world to look and taste exactly the same. But each field is not a global field; it is a local field, and we need to be growing the right crops in that field for the right conditions. This is something noble Lords may already be aware that I am quite passionate about, but I am going to restrain myself here and just make one final point.
In Defra’s 2019 report on pesticide usage on food crops, there is a graph entitled “Area treated with the major pesticide groups”. In that graph, fungicides tower above the rest. The weight of fungicides increased by 5% from 2017 to 2019. Yet, increasingly, as we were discussing a few weeks back in the soil amendments, we understand that fungi are a crucial part of healthy soils. We are heaping a specific targeted poison on our environment to kill the essential life in our soils. This is also, of course, damaging the pollinators that this amendment refers to, and is having impacts on our health.
There is also the issue of antimicrobial resistance. Here we come back, as so many debates do, to Covid. There is something called “black fungus”, which is a problem particularly in India. Its technical name is mucormycosis. It is infecting—utterly horribly—patients already very ill from Covid. Treatment is prolonged and difficult. We have a huge problem with resistance to anti-fungicide drugs. We have also seen, in the US and the UK, increasing levels of infection from Aspergillus and from Candida auris. All these fungi that we target out in our natural environment are a threat to our health. We are using the same kinds of drugs in the environment that we are then using to treat the diseases in our bodies.
In summary, we have a natural world—a world of air and ground in which we live—that is out of balance: a poisoned world. These amendments are very modest. They are small steps towards turning that around. When we were talking about the state of nature and about a species target, the Minister said, “Well, things are going to have to get worse before they get better”. He said we need time to turn the curve around. Well, I would say that in this area there is no time. We absolutely have to act on pesticides now.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and indeed the other speakers to this amendment. I have added my name to both of these amendments. There is really very little to add to what has been said. I found that my main theme was slightly taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I was going to emphasise that, when we talk about pesticides, we are talking about poisons. If you refer to them as “poisons”, perhaps that has a little bit more significance for people.
As has been said, one amendment is about human health—very important—and the other one is about the natural world and pollinators. Although I put my name to it, I could have added some other pollinators that have been left off. I have a feeling that moths and bats were not there. Moths are very important. However, I am not going to quibble about this.
The real point is that we are doing as the Government wanted because, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, the Government said during the passage of the Agriculture Bill that the place for it was not there but in the Environment Bill. So I am delighted that we are doing the Government’s work in bringing this back. I am sure it will have the same reaction in your Lordships’ Chamber and that we will be passing it back to the Commons, so I would have thought it would be wise for the Government to accept these amendments when they can.
Because I am in a particularly generous mood today, I am not going to refer to an earlier life of the Minister, who did sterling work in this area before he had to accept responsibility for government positions. I understand his position admirably and I think that he is doing a fantastic job. I know he has got extremely good history on this and I hope he can prevail with the powers that be.
I look forward to hearing his response—and, indeed, the Government’s response when this comes back on Report, if it is not accepted.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I also declare my interest as someone who is involved in a major beekeeping operation.
As has been pointed out, this is not the first time that noble Lords have discussed this issue, and no doubt nor will it be the last. I would like to speak against Amendments 152 and 254 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other noble Lords.
Neither of these amendments achieves anything that is not already covered by existing regulations and practice, but both might be not only counterproductive but harmful to food production in this country. Farmers need to grow healthy, affordable, sustainable food, at the same time as addressing environmental and climate-change issues. It does not make sense to push farmers out of food production, with the consequence of increasing imports from countries with lower standards. We need to accept that the UK has one of the most stringent regulatory systems in the world for the use of plant protection products.
With regard to Amendment 152, the existing PPP regulations cover the impact on bystanders and residents living or working near the area of treatment. There is already a strict code of practice, and incidents of harm and noncompliance are investigated. Operators must have appropriate qualifications and equipment is regularly tested under various protocols and insurance schemes. Please remember that farmers spray only when it is strictly necessary as part of integrated pest-management approaches. PPPs are targeted and not used in isolation. However, failure to use PPPs for weeds, pests and diseases can result in significant crop losses, which have been estimated by some at around 30% to 40% of our food.
Turning to Amendment 252, appropriate and robust risk assessments on all active substances are already performed. With the current pressure on farming to improve sustainable practices, as it moves from the blunt instrument of the basic payment to that linked to public good, there is considerable likelihood that the amount of land under food production will decrease. This will be compounded by pressures for land from forestry and housing. Therefore, improvements in productivity are essential. This will be brought about largely by technology, and agritech in particular. Plant breeding, precision farming and pest control, together with gene editing, are all part of the armoury to make sure that we can feed people in a sustainable and affordable way. Investments in these areas need to be encouraged, not discouraged by introducing more regulation regarding areas that are already sufficiently regulated, with the regulations recognised as being among the most stringent.
Humankind faces many challenges and I applaud this Bill for addressing many of them. But we need to bear in mind proportionality. Let us not, albeit guided by the best of intentions, limit our capacity to feed the population of this country in an affordable way. Just look at the number of food banks in the country today. Empty stomachs have caused many a revolution and riots.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 152 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and colleagues, and Amendment 254 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, regarding the use of pesticides and their impact on the environment. I vividly recall similar debates last year in Committee and on Report during the passage of the Agriculture Act.
I believe, like the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that there has to be a level of proportionality and balance, but I live in a rural area and I know what it is like to be impacted by the use of pesticides. There is a clear need for a pesticide management plan, because there has been an excessive use of pesticides, which have been damaging not only to the pollinators, as expressed through Amendment 254, but to human health and the environment, as conveyed by Amendment 152.
Amendment 152 is a cross-party piece of proposed legislation and is crucial in that its focus is the protection of human health and the environment in rural areas by prohibiting the use of agricultural pesticides near specified areas and the vulnerable groups within them, such as rural residents’ homes, schools, childcare nurseries and other healthcare facilities. As detailed in the UK Pesticides Campaign’s submission to the Public Bill Committee, it is highly noticeable that, although human health and the environment are inextricably linked—particularly when it comes to the use of agricultural pesticides—and the Environment Bill includes priority areas for regulations to be set, including in relation to air quality and the listed air polluting impacts, there appears to be a total omission of any requirements for the protection of human health and the environment from agricultural pesticides. Quite clearly, a level of balance and proportionality is required in the use and the location of pesticides.
As it stands, the Environment Bill does not appear to recognise in any capacity or even have any specific reference to pesticides, when in actual fact they are the biggest contributor of damage, pollution and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in rural areas. The UK Pesticides Campaign asserts that the existing pesticides standards here in the UK fail to protect human health and the environment in rural areas.
Because improving air quality is a major public health issue, long-overdue regulations for the protection of human health and the environment from agricultural pesticides now need to be set in the Environment Bill, most importantly for the protection of the health of rural residents and communities—hence the need for Amendment 152 to be put on the face of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, outlined.
Furthermore, on Amendment 254, the reality of crop spraying in the countryside is that it involves the dispersal of innumerable mixtures and cocktails of pesticides sprayed on crops, so the critical point about the exposure of any species—whether it be humans or bees and other pollinators—is that it will be to mixtures of different pesticides.
There is also the risk of adverse impacts on bee health from the cumulative effects of multiple exposures to mixtures of different pesticides. The only way to properly protect bees and other pollinators is to prohibit the use of such harmful pesticides in rural areas. Maybe another way to address this issue would be if farmers were allowed to set aside greater areas that were fully covered by all the subsidy schemes.
The Soil Association wants to see a different approach to farming and the use of pesticides. It believes that the Government and society should support UK farmers to transition to whole-farm agroecological systems, ensuring that there is no lowering of environmental or health standards as a result of any new trade deals, and that they should introduce a clear quantitative target for significantly reducing the overall use of pesticides in agriculture.
Therefore, pollinators must be protected from pesticides as Amendment 254 requires. I look forward to the response from the Minister and I hope that he will see fit to accept both amendments to ensure that our environment, our natural life and biodiversity and the human health of individuals in rural areas can be protected from the harmful impacts of pesticides.
My Lords, it is very good to have the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in the Chamber. He has been very active on the screen but there is no substitute for being here in the flesh. I very much hope that it will not be too long before we see the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, here too. She also has been very assiduous in taking part in debates and making her contributions, but I ask her to come here if she possibly can, please, because that is what proper debating is about.
My heart is entirely with those who have moved these amendments, but we owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for making this a proper debate. I was a Member of Parliament for a rural constituency for 40 years. I got to know many farmers and many of them became close friends. A person I would like to quote is perhaps the greatest countryman I have ever known. Some of your Lordships may remember Phil Drabble and his programme “One Man and His Dog”—he was its originator—but he was far more than an accomplished shepherd. He had his wilderness, about which he wrote books, which was a wonderful corner of Staffordshire with the second largest heronry in the country. I often used to talk to him about these things. He used to say to me, with his inimitable burr, which I will certainly not try to imitate, that it is a question of getting the balance right.
Nobody could dispute that pesticides are indeed poisonous, as my noble friend Lord Randall said, or that their indiscriminate or careless use causes enormous damage. It is right that colleagues in this debate should point out some of the dangers—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, was particularly forceful on this. It is also very important indeed that the dangers to pollinators should be properly recognised. Without pollinators there is only one end, which is extinction, and we have to be conscious of that. But the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was right when he asked us to consider whether the current regulations are adequate. He came down on the side of saying that they were. I am not absolutely convinced, but we have stringent regulations and, although one case of poisoning through pesticides is one too many, there have not been enormous numbers and we have to bear that in mind.
The Minister, who will reply in a few moments, is, as someone said a little while ago, someone with a good track record in this field. I hope that he will bear in mind that your Lordships’ House—as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and several others reminded us—voted for a similar amendment during the passage of the Agriculture Act. I well remember the debate and the graphic and gruesome examples that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, drew to our attention. But, at the end of the day, farming is there for one overriding purpose: to produce the food to feed the nation.
It is terribly important that we are as self-dependent as possible on quality food and crops grown and animals reared to the highest possible standard. It is very important that we recognise that overriding role for agriculture and the importance that this Bill should help and encourage responsible farming and certainly not do the opposite. I think that the regulations—and here I slightly part company with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—need to be put under a microscope, and this Bill gives us the opportunity to do precisely that. Committee is the stage when we probe to see what needs to be done on Report before the Bill finally becomes an Act of Parliament and goes on the statute book.
I think it would be very good if there were fairly intensive discussions between the Minister and people such as my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and others—including, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—to make sure that, when this Bill emerges, we are better protected than we are at the moment and that farming is not inhibited to the point where farmers give up and become custodians of prettiness and not producers of food. However, there is nothing incompatible between beauty and the production of food because that way lies a balanced and proper environment, with a countryside we can all enjoy and the benefits of the food that we need to sustain us.
I very much look forward to what my noble friend the Minister will say when he comes to wind up this interesting debate. I hope there will be an opportunity to strengthen regulations—if that is needed, and I believe it is—when we come to Report.
My Lords, I declare an interest through my involve at Rothamsted, which carries out research on pesticides and pollinators.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Whitty—and welcome him back—for introducing his amendment on the impact of pesticides on human health with such knowledge and such detail. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for championing the very important case of pollinators, to which I have added my name.
As my noble friend Lord Whitty reminded us, these issues were debated in some detail during the consideration of the Agriculture Bill, and it is right that we return to them today. I very much commend his Amendment 152 because I think that it is a common-sense and reasonable proposal that we have before us today.
During this debate, noble Lords have shown considerable concern, passion and determination about these issues. As noble Lords have said, we are talking about the application of poisons here, so we cannot take these issues lightly. My noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, have given powerful examples of the public health concerns which can arise from close contact with pesticides. As they said, asthma, respiratory problems, skin disorders and even cancers are destroying people’s lives. Sadly, all too often, our experience has been that the health problems come to light when the damage has already been done. We discover in retrospect that what was promised to be safe turned out not to be. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out, we are still learning and we are also storing up problems for the future, for example, given our understanding of the impact that antimicrobial resistance can have on public health.
The point at issue here is the particular concern about the impact on those living and working adjacent to fields that are regularly sprayed. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, at least farm workers have access to protective clothing but no such provision is made for the local population. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said that spraying is already covered by the regulations, but the problem is the difference between the regulations and practice. It is obvious that the rules are not being adhered to in their current form, which is why we need to spell out more specific protections. This is what my noble friend Lord Whitty’s amendment does and why it particularly singles out spraying adjacent to homes, schools and health facilities. I would have thought that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, would have understood and agreed with that. We are not trying to ban the wholesale spraying of crops; we are just trying to put some limitations on it.
The UN report The Right to Food, published in 2017, highlighted that chronic exposure to agricultural pesticides is associated with a range of diseases, including cancer, sterility and developmental disorders. The local population, rather than professionals, were often subjected.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to reduce levels of pesticide use, combined with integrated pest management. We can all see the potential of harnessing the natural power of biodiversity and the advantages of precision applications in the future. But I agree with my noble friend Lord Whitty that the action plan on pesticides does not go far enough. We have to bear in mind the huge vested-interest lobby trying to draw out the reforms, which are needed more urgently. This does not answer the problem addressed in this amendment: we need to have confidence that, in any consultation, the voice of residents will have the same weight as that of the farming community. This is why we need the best independent scientific evidence to underpin our policies.
The Government clearly feel that we can farm with fewer pesticides. They have said that during the Agriculture Bill and in the action plan since. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, presented us with a false dichotomy. It is not a choice between growing food and public health; we can cut back on the application of pesticides and still grow food but live a healthier life.
However, for the foreseeable future, spraying will still take place and, as the UK Pesticides Campaign makes clear, the real problems often lie in exposure to mixtures of pesticides. Therefore, we cannot just sit back and wait for the technology or for nature-friendly applications of the future. We need measures to protect people from the suffering that is occurring now. It is clear that the regulations in existence are inadequate to protect the local population. I hope that the Minister has listened to this debate seriously and will give assurances that the Government will take these concerns on board.
We also wholeheartedly welcome the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, which would provide added protection for pollinators, particularly bees. We are now much more aware of the importance of pollinators to our crops and to levels of biodiversity, yet since 1990 the UK has lost 13 out of its 35 native bee species. All the evidence shows that pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoids, are seriously harmful to our dwindling bee population. This is why the EU has a ban on the use of neonicotinoids.
We understand the concerns of sugar beet farmers, but sugar beet is a complex crop and ending the ban is not necessarily the solution to tackling crop blight. To quote a much-quoted Michael Gove again,
“Unless the evidence base changes again, the government will keep these restrictions in place after we have left the EU.”
In a Commons debate on the issue earlier this year, the Minister Rebecca Pow said:
“We supported the ban in 2018 and we stand by that now”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/1/21; col. 262]
So we have to ask what has changed, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has pointed out, the Government have now lifted the ban, even though evidence of its harm has not altered. To the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I say that a risk assessment was carried out, but the Government chose to ignore it.
This is why we support the eminently sensible amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, which would take the decisions out of the hands of politicians and pass them to an expert scientific authority. We need to be assured that the Government are not being put under undue pressure from the business sector to maintain its market access. I therefore hope that the Minister takes both these amendments seriously and comes back with a government proposal that adequately addresses these concerns.
I shall start by addressing Amendment 152 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Noble Lords are right to shine a light on this topic today, and I hope I can reassure them on the Government’s position. The Government fully agree that pesticides should not be used in a way that harms human health.
Under the current regulatory system, pesticides are authorised for use only where a comprehensive scientific assessment determines that there are not expected to be any harmful effects on human health. The assessment, carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, covers all situations where people may be exposed to pesticides. It specifically covers the potential impacts on those who live, work or take their leisure around treated areas. I am not going to pretend that it is a perfect system—if it was, we would not be having this debate. Historically, there has been an unnatural, unhealthy closeness between the regulated and the regulators, here and across the European Union. I remember the lobbying efforts which were deployed to prevent the European Commission introducing a tough approach to the regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. It was probably the biggest lobbying exercise that I have ever witnessed, and I remember writing about it years ago. That situation is true of the UK too, and I suspect of most countries. There is no doubt that despite the existing protections—which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, described as one of the toughest approaches, which is probably true—harmful chemicals have been poured into our soils, our waters and throughout our food chain. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is right that the status quo is not sufficient. I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack that it needs to be put under the microscope.
With that said, authorisation is frequently refused because the proposed use of the product is not demonstrated to be sufficiently safe to people or the environment. These controls allow pesticides to be used where they are deemed to be safe and where they are considered necessary for UK farmers. Unfortunately, in the current system, pesticides are a core part of the control of pests, weeds and diseases. Without them, it is estimated that UK farmers would produce around one-third less food. At the same time, we must—and do—recognise the need to change the current system and to reduce our dependence on the use of pesticides. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about productivity, and I want to throw into the debate that it is not always the case that large intensive monocultures for export are more productive than the smaller, more diverse and perhaps more traditional farms that they often replace. A seminal report was conducted by the UN FAO and the World Bank, which surprised themselves by discovering that the small diverse mixed farm was productive per unit of land, where the large intensive monoculture for export was often more productive per unit of labour. In terms of getting food off the ground, it is not always the case that modern industrial farming produces more.
Under the 25-year environment plan, the Government committed to developing and promoting integrated pest management. Applied properly, this approach maximises the use of non-chemical control techniques and minimises the use of chemical pesticides, including by pursuing nature-based, low-toxicity solutions and precision technologies. This will reduce risks from pesticide use and the amounts used over time. In addition to that, as noble Lords will know, we are moving to a system away from the common agricultural policy toward the environmental land management system which will be rewarding and paying farmers for the delivery of public goods. That means, among many other things, a clean environment. I add that in their consultation on the draft revised national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides, the Government also committed to reviewing the code of practice that governs all professional users of pesticides. The code’s statutory basis means that it can be used in evidence if people are taken to court for offences involving pesticides.
Turning to Amendment 254, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, she is of course right that the use of pesticides must not put pollinators at unacceptable risk, for all the reasons that she gave and which I will not repeat. It is impossible to exaggerate the existential damage that would be done were we to see the continuing decline of pollinators on the scale that we have seen in recent years, so I will not take issue with her at all on that.
Current legislation requires that active substances and pesticide products must have
“no unacceptable effects on the environment, having particular regard to … its impact on non-target species”.
Decisions on pesticide authorisation are based on assessments by the Health and Safety Executive, and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides advises on novel scientific issues. The scientific risk assessment relies on detailed data requirements and processes carried across from EU law at the end of the transition period. The Government will ensure that they are updated so that they keep step with developments in scientific understanding.
In relation to comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the lifting of the ban on neonicotinoids, we have not reversed the ban. It remains in place, but under EU legislation it is possible to grant emergency authorisations. A number of countries, including Belgium, Denmark and Spain did exactly as we did, although I am pleased to say that, having created the space for this emergency authorisation, it was not in fact used, which I think we can all agree is a good thing. Risk assessments made for active substances are subject to public consultation. These assessments establish the key risks posed by pesticide substances in representative conditions of use.
I hope that I have managed to persuade noble Lords that the Government are committed to reducing pesticide use and recognise that, in order to do so, we need to change the manner in which the land is managed so that we reduce our dependence on pesticides. We cannot afford to remove pesticide use and see food production collapse but, as many noble Lords have pointed out, that link is far from inevitable. We continue to look very closely at this issue, and I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that I of course take these amendments extremely seriously and I share the intention behind them. The Government will continue to take measures to reduce pesticide use across the board to protect people and nature so for the time being, I respectfully ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
I am most grateful, and I thank my noble friend for his answer. He may have said this in his reply, but I ask again because I could not pick it up. When authorisations are given for substances, is the mixture—the toxic cocktails, if you like—actually checked? I am no scientist, but I do know that when you mix certain chemicals together, they have a different effect from what they have when they are on their own. I am just wondering whether that is checked to make sure that the effects are not harmful.
My noble friend raises an incredibly important point and I have to be honest and say that I cannot give him an authoritative answer. He is right that the synergistic effect of mixing chemicals creates entirely new qualities, and two relatively harmless chemicals, or not particularly dangerous chemicals, mixed together can create something that is lethal. A decent, proper and thorough regulatory system absolutely would test new chemicals as they enter the market on the basis of how they are likely to interact with chemicals that they are likely to meet. I am afraid this is not an area I have any expertise in, but I will look into it as a matter of urgency, and I will write to him and place my answer in the Library.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and all noble Lords who supported my amendment. I find the Minister’s reply slightly equivocal. I have been in his shoes, and I know that sometimes you have to read out stuff with which you do not entirely agree. I rather think that, in the light of his final remarks, that is the position the Minister finds himself in today. Nevertheless, there are some points that we on our side have to take into account, but I ask that the Minister takes our position into account.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for welcoming me, but he was wrong to say that there are relatively few cases. There is a significant number of cases, some of which are due to historic exposure but, nevertheless, there is a large number of cases—thousands. Around the world, there are several tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of people who are seriously medically affected, in some cases lethally, by the use of pesticides.
I applaud the Government's long-term aim of reducing pesticides, in one sense. I would prefer the long-term aim to be the elimination of non-organic pesticides, but that is for the long term. The amendment deals with a very specific and, as I said, modest proposition in the more or less immediate term.
To reply to the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Cormack, the present regulations are not effective. They largely depend on codes of practice, which are not directly legally enforceable. The rights of residents are only minimally covered. I agree that we need to put those regulations under the microscope, but my belief—and that behind the amendment and shared by those who support me and the thousands of people who have been affected by pesticide exposure—is that, having put them under the microscope, we must reach the conclusion that those areas where people permanently live, work or attend must be permanently removed from airborne crop-spraying application of pesticides.
It is not a simple question, and there is not a simple scientific argument, about how far that should be, because the wind changes and methods of application change. I was slightly alarmed, although I think it was supposed to be reassuring, that part of the medium-term development of pesticide application could be the use of drones. On one level, they may be more precise, but on another, they are less controllable. Rural residents will certainly be fearful of that.
All those issues must be taken into account. Some of us may want different and more radical long-term objectives, but the amendment relates to the distance between places where people are in our countryside and where toxic material is being put into the air which they can breathe and which touches them and can affect them and their children.
Any putting under the microscope of the present situation would reach the same conclusion: we need a distance. As I said earlier, the exact distance and regulation is a matter for further discussion with the Government, but the principle needs to be in the Bill, and I shall return to this at a later stage. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 152 withdrawn.
Amendments 153 to 156M not moved.
Schedule 12 agreed.