Amendment 118

Environment Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:47 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Baroness Boycott:

Moved by Baroness Boycott

118: After Clause 136, insert the following new Clause—“National Food Strategy (1) Within two months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must review the National Food Strategy (the “Strategy”) in the light of this Act, in particular the Strategy’s approach to addressing the effect of food production and agriculture on—(a) biodiversity, and(b) greenhouse gas emissions.(2) In conducting the review the Secretary of State must consider—(a) the implications of this Act for the Strategy and any changes that should be made to the Strategy as a result,(b) how the provisions of this Act, including functions given to the Secretary of State by virtue of it, should be implemented to give effect to the Strategy, and(c) any related matters.(3) The Secretary of State must publish the review and lay it before Parliament.”

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Hayman of Ullock, for supporting this amendment. I also need to declare my various food interests, in particular in this instance that I was an adviser on the food strategy—although I have to confess that it really was all done by Henry and the people in Defra.

I have tabled this amendment because the role and significance of food in its own right is lacking in this Bill. During the passage of the Agriculture Bill, food was, again, never considered as a whole—from what we eat to how we grow it and how we sell it. It was never appreciated, it seems to me, as a system of high complexity, and it is not appreciated here in the Environment Bill either. The only way I know of trying to address what I see as alarming oversights is in encouraging the Government to take the Dimbleby review very seriously. I will try to explain why—and will try not to take too long, as it is late.

The elevator pitch, if you will, is that we cannot make it to net zero without changing the food system. The key word here is “system”: food is integrated into all parts of lives, our trade and our commerce. It is the primary cause of deforestation, damage to oceans, overfishing, plastic waste, methane emissions—the list is incredibly long. The system as a whole, whether it is agriculture, food production or distribution, releases more greenhouse gases than any other sector apart from energy. It is responsible for 25% to 30% of global emissions; that is overwhelming when compared with the 3.5% accounted for by all aeroplanes. Here in the UK, the food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions, but that rises to around 30% if we start to count our emissions honestly, namely by including all the food we import. I might eat a blueberry from Chile one morning, but the emissions are accounted to Chile, not to me.

There are four ways in which food specifically contributes to climate change: the damage to wild areas when they are converted to farmland or deforested; the release of carbon from farmed land that is deep ploughed; the use of fossil fuels throughout the food system, from pesticides to plastics; and the release of methane and nitrous oxide, the two most potent greenhouse gases.

Then there is the question of biodiversity. Ecologically, the food system is a disaster. Many noble Lords have expressed deep concern about biodiversity during these debates. As we know, it is crucial to our societies worldwide. Biodiversity enables carbon to be stored directly in soil and maintains its fertility. Through pollinators it provides the food we eat and supports the production of all our food through pest control and soil health. Biodiversity also provides crucial cultural benefits and well-being. We should no longer argue about the benefits to mental health that accrue from spending time outdoors. That is now abundantly clear.

Despite that undeniable and fundamental importance, thousands of species have gone extinct in this century and the primary cause of that is the production of ever more food through industrial methods. Habitats are lost, freshwater rivers are first abated and then contaminated by run-off from chicken farms and other agricultural chemicals that flood the water and destroy aquatic species. However, the biggest driver has been the conversion of natural ecosystems into crop production or pastures. Currently, land for food production accounts for 40% of the whole world’s land that is not desert and uses a staggering 70% of our available fresh water. Instead of wild animals, farmed animals now dominate—mostly cows and pigs, which now constitute 60% of the global biomass of all mammals. Humans—us lot—account for 36%, with wild animals a woeful 4%. For birds, the figures are 29% wild but 57% chickens. More than three-quarters of all agricultural land is now used to feed those animals directly or by growing stuff for them to eat. Overall, agriculture is an identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 terrestrial species under threat of extinction.

While current food systems threaten our biodiversity, a sustainably managed food production system can support and enhance it. At a global level, according to the recent report by Food Tank, we produce more food than we need per capita—approximately 40%. That brings us to another axis where the food system crosses environmental problems. Food waste, as all noble Lords agree and have talked about, is a scandal, and a preventable one, but single-use plastic and plastic waste in general is so much the responsibility of the food system. Food wrapping and production accounts for 8.2 billion kilos of the 20 billion kilos of plastic that comes to Europe, so much of which ends up in our seas and on our land.

Plastics are not just a problem when they are thrown away. They are a problem when manufactured, as it takes petroleum, chemicals, minerals, water and energy to make them. UK households use over 500,000 tonnes of plastic per year to wrap up or preserve food. A scrap of that is recycled. But if we change our farming system, shop more locally, buy vegetables individually and take them home in paper bags or, better yet, in reusable containers, and use less ready-made and fast food, we can crack down on this too

As someone who has worked in this field for many years, I know that tweaking bits and pieces of the food system does not really work. Yes, we have amendments in the Bill that, to achieve demands, will ask for changes to the food system such as banning plastic spoons, forks and cups. That is all great but, faced with this mountain, it is a bit like using a fork to plough a field.

Food is a system. It covers many Ministries and crosses many boundaries. As was the case when we debated the need for land reform and a land use strategy, it is not just the responsibility of Defra but should be considered in education, culture and the Treasury.

Henry Dimbleby’s report is the first such strategy that attempts—and, in my book, succeeds—in looking across this complex system of dynamics. It ranges across health, trade and inequality. I have not mentioned health today, but we all know what the food system is doing to it. The system overlooks the impact that food has on nature, climate and carbon emissions. We must take this issue seriously. It would be such a waste, literally, of an opportunity if the proposed strategy ends up gathering dust on a Ministry shelf.

When food came up during the Agriculture Bill, one of the solutions offered was the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, so I have communicated with Tim Smith, who is the head of it, who gave me permission to read some of his email in reply. He said the key issue is that

“months after we delivered the report we’ve had no response from ministers despite them being briefed throughout our working between July 2020 and February 2021.”

He further said that the Government’s response to its recommendations has not been bad, but very slow, specifically on

“animal welfare … environment … balancing consumer protections with trade liberalisation” and

“establishing the statutory TAC to scrutinise”.

Tim also said:

“I’d add my concern at the response to Henry’s report – the industry gets it even if ministers don’t.”

Tonight, I would like to say that we can do this. The good news is that, if we take the plunge and start transforming this system, through land policies, nature-based solutions to capture carbon and so on, the results would be a win-win. It would certainly be a lose-lose if this fine report ends up going nowhere.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I was delighted to add my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I congratulate her on moving it so eloquently. Given this opportunity, I just ask my noble friend when the Government will respond to both parts 1 and 2 of the national food strategy. When does he expect the Government to publish the food strategy plan and what will the timetable for its adoption be? That will be the conclusion of a fantastic debate, started by the Dimbleby report, both parts 1 and 2, on the national food strategy.

I say in passing that farming wishes to play an active role in reducing emissions and achieving net zero. There are additional ways to those outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, such as seeking to substitute food imports with home produce. Closest to home, Shepherds Purse cheese is benefiting from this, with Mrs Bell’s Blue and other of its blue cheeses competing favourably with Roquefort. That is not to say anything is wrong with Roquefort, but the food miles are less if we buy cheese closer to where it is produced, and it contributes to the local economy and provides jobs, as well.

I also echo earlier disappointment. I congratulate the new incoming International Trade Secretary, and hope this is something she runs with, but I hope the Government pay more than lip service to maintaining high standards of animal welfare in imported food and ensuring food standards of any imports into this country match the very high standards that our farmers meet. I believe this is a timely amendment, and I hope my noble friend uses this opportunity to tell us more about the Government’s thinking about the food strategy plan.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I have my name on this amendment. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on the way she introduced it and am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for what she just said. The timing of this amendment today is particularly appropriate. It is Back British Farming Day, and I am glad that the Minister supports that. I hope that he, like me, will congratulate all the farmers in this country, who have done so much to produce good food, as well as to maintain and try to improve our biodiversity and nature. They have had severe difficulties because of what we politicians have asked them to do in the past. That is why biodiversity has been declining in some areas, but a lot of farmers have bucked that trend and, with the help of organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, have increased biodiversity on their farms and farmed profitably.

It must be galling for a farmer to produce first-class food, only for it to be turned into processed rubbish that is fed to the processed food capital of the western world—the UK. That processing of food has undoubtedly affected the way farmers farm and if we, with the help of the national food strategy, can change our diets, it will help to change the farming system, as well. That can only be to the benefit of this country and farmers. We must never again go down the route of nature being separated from farming. I know that my noble friend is particularly keen that we get back to a more united and comprehensive approach to farming, and I thoroughly support him on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was absolutely right to mention the disappointment that so many of us feel that the Government have not responded before now to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s report. It is so unfair on the commission and breaks many of the good words that were said to us during the Agriculture Bill. Given the concessions that we had to make on the trade deal with Australia, it is even more important that we recognise the importance of the national food strategy and that the Government take it seriously.

Given these two examples, I have my doubts that the Government will take this seriously, but I hope that my noble friend can reassure me.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 9:00 pm, 15th September 2021

My Lords, I rise briefly to offer the Green group’s support for this amendment—there not being enough space, given the cross-party and non-party signatures already on it. I particularly compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on her comprehensive introduction, and the following two speakers on their excellent additions to it.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made a point about processed food, particularly ultra-processed food, a definition which the Government unfortunately still have not accepted, despite it being widely accepted around the world in terms of nutrition. Ultra-processed food accounts for 68% of the calories in the British diet. That is so-called food that bears no relationship to what started out on the farm. We know what we need for public health and for the state of our natural environment: far more production of vegetables and fruit, ideally produced here in the UK, meaning real changes in our farming systems.

I note the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, to the Climate Change Committee’s land use report. That said that we need to see a 20% reduction in food waste and a 20% reduction per-person in the consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy. Essentially, we need to see a massive reduction in factory farming, in methods of production that are causing enormous environmental damage, and we must stop food waste. Feeding perfectly good food to animals to produce a small amount of protein is food waste.

It was very disappointing that, in response to the Dimbleby report, we heard, though not in this place and perhaps not even within Parliament, some very dismissive comments from Ministers, yet we went right through the Agriculture Bill, the Trade Bill, and this Bill, being told: “Wait for the Dimbleby report, wait for the Dimbleby report.” That was supposed to be providing the direction. If the Government do not adopt that, we need to see this on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, sadly, I was too slow to get my name on to this amendment, but I think that it has complete support around the House. I have just one point, which is that this is something that we must be focused on not only in the UK but globally. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, we must have farming that is absolutely hand in glove with nature. When the Select Committee on Environment and Climate Change looked at COP 15 and some of the essential issues that must be tackled, this whole issue of addressing the global food chain was absolutely critical. Therefore, we commend the noble Baroness for all her campaigning on this issue and hope that the Government take the food strategy seriously as all of us in this House know that they should.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I am very pleased to support Amendment 118, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, to which I have added my name. I commend her for the way she so ably introduced it—her knowledge is far greater than mine.

We have strongly welcomed the National Food Strategy and its recommendations that aim to deliver “healthy, affordable food” and build a sustainable agriculture sector in an efficient and cost-effective way. However, we support the noble Baroness’s amendment because it draws government attention to critical aspects of the impact of the ways in which we farm and produce our food, which, as she quite rightly says, are absent from the Environment Bill.

Amendment 118 first looks at the effect on biodiversity. There is no doubt that the precious biodiversity that sustains our food systems is in decline. The first ever global report on the state of biodiversity for food and agriculture, launched two years ago by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, confirms this. The National Food Strategy rightly observes:

“The global food system is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife. It is the second-biggest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry.”

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, explained that, in the UK, agriculture contributes to, and is affected by, climate change. Every stage in the food production cycle—from preparing, growing and harvesting, through to production, storage, processing, packaging, transporting and cooking—releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Methane produced by livestock during digestion has received a lot of media coverage, while nitrous oxide emissions from mineral nitrogen fertilisers are also a problem. The Government have demonstrated that they are working to tackle this through the new ELM schemes, for example, but, as the strategy confirms, this will not be enough on its own.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, spoke up for our farmers and, very importantly, said that never again should nature be separated from farming. The National Food Strategy also contains recommendations to address the major issues facing the food system, including climate change, biodiversity loss, land use, diet-related disease, health inequality, food security and trade. So it makes absolute sense to me that the approach should be reviewed, as proposed in this amendment, to ensure that it is making progress and continues to do so.

Amendment 118 also looks at the effect of greenhouse gas emissions and asks for a review in this area. If you read it, the National Food Strategy has an awful lot to say on emissions. For example, it says:

“Agriculture alone produces 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions” and that our

“food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions—but that figure rises to around 30% if we factor in the emissions produced by all the food we import.”

So there is no point in making UK farmers do all the hard work necessary to reduce carbon emissions and restore biodiversity, only to open up the market to cheap food produced to lower standards abroad. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about trade and referred to the impact of food miles. If we export all the environmental harms that we wish to avoid, while undercutting and potentially bankrupting our own farmers, we achieve nothing.

It is not a simple task to dramatically reduce emissions from food production or to monitor and review progress. This all needs to be an integral part of the process. So I commend the noble Baroness’s amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank noble Lords for their contributions during this debate, and I also offer my thanks, in addition to those already given by the Secretary of State, to Henry Dimbleby and his team for their comprehensive review of our food system. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, not just for tabling this amendment but for her erudite and thoughtful speech, the contents of which I very much agreed with. Although the amendment here largely relates to domestic policy, all of the arguments that she raises are driving the policies and campaigns in the run-up to COP 26.

In the last debate I mentioned breaking the link between commodity production and deforestation. Even more important, perhaps, is the campaign to try to build an alliance of countries committed to identifying and then shifting those subsidies that often drive destruction. It is an extraordinary thing that the top 50 food-producing countries spend $700 billion a year subsidising often the very destruction that we are debating here today. That is four times the world’s aid agency budgets combined. It is also the same amount that scientists believe we will need to spend if we are going to get out of the hole that we are in from a biodiversity point of view. That is a really important campaign and one that I very much hope we will see some success with.

The Government have committed to carefully considering the review that Henry Dimbleby put together and responding in full with the government food strategy White Paper. This will cover the entire food system, from farm to fork. That White Paper is an opportunity to achieve our net-zero, nature recovery and biodiversity commitments, building on work already under way in the Environment Bill, as well as docking into wider government priorities, including net zero and the 25-year environment plan.

This is one of the Government’s top priorities, as we have said. Defra is working with the relevant departments across the whole of government to explore options to reduce carbon emissions from food production, to incentivise land-use change, to sequester more carbon and to restore nature at the same time, as well as preserving natural systems and natural resources. The White Paper that we produce will consider the food system in its entirety, as I said, along with its impact on the natural environment, the nation’s health and our exceptional British food producers. I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Caithness in his tribute to our farmers.

The White Paper will be published shortly after the passing of the Bill. I cannot provide an exact date, I am afraid, but it will be imminent—assuming that the Bill gets Royal Assent, which we all very much hope it does. It will also reflect and build upon the work of the Bill to address the impact of agriculture and food production on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity.

We are committed to listening to opinions from stakeholders across the entirety of the food system. We are actively engaging with internal and external stakeholders on the development of the White Paper, and we will factor the helpful views of your Lordships’ House from this and previous debates during the passage of the Bill into the White Paper, and we will continue to engage following its publication. So while the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, is right to seek assurances as to its progress, I hope she agrees that there is no real need for the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

I thank the Minister and all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment. Many interesting points have been made. I definitely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about ultra-processed food. In fact, I was chairing something this morning where someone put up a slide pointing out that if you spend £1 in a British supermarket at the moment, you can get three peppers, six apples or a very large packet of biscuits. Obviously, if you have really hungry children at home who are craving food, you are going to end up with the biscuits. There is huge distortion within our food system, which is why the response has to be systemic change.

It was really good to hear from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I am sorry that I forgot Back British Farming Day—many noble Lords here today are wearing ears of corn—but I know that farmers want to get this right. It is important that we must never separate nature from farming; they go hand in glove with each other. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, echoed the same point, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in her excellent speech, from which I learned a lot. She is absolutely right to say that we must not open up the market to cheap food.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said that farming wants to play a role. I absolutely believe that; I do not think any farmer wants to grow something that they do not think will end up providing nice, nutritious food. I was also glad to hear what she said about cheese. I come from the West Country. Last night, I had a lot of people to dinner, and I had seven different West Country cheeses, all of which were eaten by the dog just before everyone arrived. The dog was quite ill.

I thank the Minister very much for his response. I know he means everything he says. I am pleased that, in the run-up to COP 26, we are going to be looking at many of these issues and that, most importantly, the food strategy is going to be considered across government. This issue does not just belong to Defra, and that is the most important thing.

On the strength of what the Minister has said—and I think he understands the commitment of everyone in the House to trying to make this work—I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 118 withdrawn.