– in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 8th September 2022.
Moved by Baroness Boycott
To move that this House takes note of the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss on food security.
My Lords, I am very pleased to introduce this debate today. It was topical when I first tabled it, and it is even more so now. I thank all noble Lords who have signed up to speak, and I especially welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, who will be making her maiden speech today. I am sure I join everyone in the House in welcoming her and being extremely grateful for her expertise, which is much needed now. I am also sure, like everyone else, we send our best wishes to the Royal Family.
The war in Ukraine has weaponised global food supply. In blockading ports and destroying infrastructure, Russia has severed the ties between acutely food insecure populations and the Ukrainian wheat and cooking oil on which they depend. The war is not the sole cause, but it has thrown fire on an already unstable situation which is being undermined across the world by climate change. The record-breaking 40-degree heatwave and prolonged drought in the UK—July 2022 was the driest July since 1911, and it has been the driest nine months since 1975—are stark reminders to us all, not least for the farmers and food producers in the UK. Retailers are rejecting vegetables because they are stunted due to a lack of water. Some 50% of the potato crop is not going to be up to much. They are being ploughed back into the soil—a quite horrific prospect as we face the most severe cost of living crisis in my lifetime. Livestock farmers are already using their winter silage or haylage due to a severe lack of grass. What is this going to mean for the winter months ahead? No one knows, because there is no plan.
This is not a problem for us alone. The shocks from climate change, such as drought and other extreme weather, and the associated biodiversity loss are not going anywhere. They are everywhere. Like us, China and Kenya are experiencing their worst droughts in living memory. Alarmingly, research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine highlights that we import 32% of our fresh produce—the key to healthy diets—from countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.
But I now turn to the other part of the debate: biodiversity. All too often it is overlooked as part of the fight against climate change. But make no mistake: you will not get one without the other. Some 40 years ago, the world scoffed at James Lovelock’s understanding of the interconnectivity of life on earth—now, when it is almost too late, we are starting to understand just what a miracle it is.
A 2021 report gave a damning verdict on biodiversity in the UK: we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Institutionally, we are not just failing nature; we are actually hastening its demise. The Dasgupta review, published brilliantly by our Treasury in 2021, highlighted this in one shocking statistic: globally, we subsidise the destruction of nature to the tune of between $4 trillion and $6 trillion annually. In the UK, it is a minimum of $70 million. COP 15, taking place in Montreal later this year, will be a critical test of the world’s resolve and a chance to change that trajectory.
Back to the UK specifically, since the 1970s our food system, from farm to fork, has been the key driver in the decline of nature. A study by the Natural History Museum found that we have lost half of our biodiversity since the industrial revolution. At present, we know that over 40% of UK species are in decline and that one in 10 are threatened with extinction, and that 85% of our soils have been severely degraded. Changes in the way we farm—overusing chemicals, planting monocultures and removing habitat features, partly driven by our own implementation of subsidies—have been a leading contributor to this loss.
Biodiversity plays a central role in both tackling climate change and establishing a farming system that naturally provides pollination and pest predation, as well as soil fertility and carbon storage. We cannot tackle these two issues in isolation; we must see them as one challenge.
Solutions start with the food system. It can be tempting to see something as sprawling as the global food system as completely beyond the reach of Governments. Yet global food insecurity and our food insecurity are the product of policy decisions—they did not just happen. The virtual exclusion of agriculture from climate change policy has spared the sector from the pressure to transition to more sustainable practices. Just as Governments have favoured fossil fuels over renewables, so they have favoured large corporations that say they will deliver cheap food and economic growth. We need to reimagine this system, from what happens in the field to what we eat.
Research is helping us understand that embedding biodiversity into farming systems and increasing the carbon content of soil will improve yields. But how do we manage that soil and the land to feed people and nurture the planet? That is critical. As the national food strategy set out, 22% of land that produces food in the UK is used to produce crops to feed animals. This is massively inefficient.
On land use, I want to debunk something that has been doing the rounds. It has been said that solar farms are a threat to food production. This is emphatically not the case. Solar farms currently take up 0.1% of land in the UK. Even if that is rapidly scaled up, as the previous Government said they would, that would still rise to only 0.3%. In context, that is only 0.5% of all our farming land and about half the size of the land used for golf courses. In addition, solar farms can be biodiversity hotspots if they are not grazed. On this, as on many aspects, we can hit multiple birds with a single stone.
The ecosystems that we degrade through overuse should be helping to absorb carbon, regulating surface temperature and protecting against the destruction wrought by weather and extremes. Instead, we have relentlessly weakened nature’s resilience and limited the capacity of soil to deliver healthy harvests. Agro-ecological approaches have very encouraging outcomes. For instance, Hillesden Farm, a 1,000 acre farm in Buckinghamshire, has since 2005 increased biodiversity while never losing crop yields. As farmers manage 70% of the UK’s land area, and the need to tackle the climate and nature crisis is great, the Government must consider increasing the budget for farming from its current £3.2 billion a year. A land-use framework for not just farmland but all land is crucial, and the Government must not miss the opportunity they now have to act.
Let us turn to another part of the food system. We know that the agri-food supply chain on both an international and national level is concentrated within a handful of companies which hide behind opaqueness. The just-in-time model and the oligopolistic nature of our food system make it vulnerable and fragile to geopolitical and climate shocks. We must have shorter supply chains and local food systems that are built on diversity. The Sustain alliance carried out a significant piece of market research in 2021 which found that most farmers in England and Wales want to supply much more locally and regionally. However, there are very big barriers, from a lack of affordable finance to any investment in infrastructure such as abattoirs.
There is a massive opportunity for our Government to marry up the levelling-up agenda and the net-zero strategy to deliver more climate-friendly and resilient supply chains that create decent jobs and put some pride in place around farming and food. Can the Minister confirm whether he will push for this to happen?
On procurement, the public purse spends over £2 billion a year on catering. It is therefore one of the Government’s most direct tools to change what people eat, reduce the amount of cheap industrial meat and introduce more fruit, veg and pulses, but the standard of public sector food across the UK is really patchy. It is the Government’s job to set standards that all caterers are legally obliged to follow, so that they will serve nutritious meals that demonstrate and normalise healthy diets, rather than cheap junk food.
The Food for Life programme, run by the Soil Association, is proof that good food can be served on public sector budgets. I have seen this for myself over many years. It serves 2 million meals a day and is produced to higher environmental and welfare standards. The Government are currently consulting on introducing a target for 50% of local food, of which at least 20% should come from high production standards, as I have proposed in an amendment to the Procurement Bill.
On what we actually eat, changing how we farm will not be enough to break the vicious cycle of poor diets and environmental harm; only by radically lowering the demand for meat in high-income countries can we do that. Animal products are an important part of high-quality protein but they are a huge drain on global resources. Our overconsumption is costing us our planet as well as our health. One-third of all the grain grown in the world is destined for animal feeds, and if population and the demand for meat keep rising as is forecast, agricultural production will have to increase by 50% in the next 30 years. Clearly, that is quite impossible. As an aside, right now there are 80 billion animals living in cages or feed-lots to feed us—that is four for every single person. It is quite disgusting.
The Committee on Climate Change has repeatedly called for the UK to reduce meat and dairy by a fifth, while the Dimbleby-led national food strategy called for a 30% increase in fruit and veg. How do we get there? The time for being reticent on making policy interventions to shape how we eat must be over. We are not just facing a climate and nature emergency but a big public health one. Governments, policymakers and parliamentarians can no longer claim that this is a simple case of educating children better or asking them to exercise more. In England alone, 28% of adults are obese and 36.2% are overweight; the Covid pandemic has exacerbated that. This is a disgrace.
How have the Government responded to this new challenge? In April, they cut £100 million of funding to local authority weight management services and in May introduced a go-slow on their own obesity policies to restrict “buy one, get one free” on junk food and junk food marketing. I would be interested in hearing from the Minister an explanation of exactly how junk food adverts help citizens afford good food.
The problems of poor diets do not just lie at the feet of individuals, and not all meat and dairy has the same impact. The challenge for all of us—government, policymakers and businesses—is how, in the face of a rocketing cost of living, to guarantee that everyone has access to a healthy diet that does not cost the earth. According to the Food Foundation, there has been a 57% increase in food insecurity since January 2022, and we now have 17.2% of households with kids experiencing lack of food, which affects 2.6 million children. The poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 47% of their disposable income just to meet the cost of the government-recommended healthy diet. Clearly, they cannot do it.
Here are some things that the Government could do: uprate benefits in line with inflation; increase Healthy Start; and have supermarkets, the top four of which announced pre-tax profits this year of £4 billion, top up the value of vouchers. Government could auto-enrol eligible children in free school meals. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that currently nearly 900,000 kids are missing out, and they have parents on universal credit. If we are to live in a green and pleasant land, all children going to school must receive a hot and healthy meal, in the same way that they receive a pencil and a ruler.
Can the Government think more creatively about shifting dietary habits? Are there ways that prices could be lowered on healthier foods? Given how resource-intensive and damaging intensive meat farming is, what could Governments, national and local, do to curb their spread? We need to study food insecurity in the round. We should at the very least have a special inquiry into this issue.
It is possible to get a better world, but changes must be fundamental. Farming lobbies are powerful, leaving politicians reluctant to shift from large-scale agriculture. while advising people what to eat is regarded as the nanny state. The result is that our tackling of the environmental harms of industrial agriculture is weak to pathetic. The worst health outcomes have been blamed on the individual, never the system. Food poverty and food insecurity is the result of being unable to cook or being a rotten household manager. We have done everything to prop up a system that is not only killing us—diet-related disease is now the number one cause of preventable death on the planet—but killing our wildlife and soil, and contributing massively to the climate change that is destroying the planet.
Finally, what are the Government for if they fail to look after their people and ensure that they are adequately fed, their children can grow into healthy adults and the soil, the country and the fields they inherited are not used just as an inexhaustible cupboard? This is no easy task for any Government, but I should really like the Minister to agree that just because something might be really difficult does not mean it is not worth doing.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate and the amazing tour de force of her speech. Food security is a huge area, but she covered most of it and I shall not attempt to try to do the same. I am also glad to see my noble friend on the Front Bench; I hope he has a good deal of Araldite to keep him there a bit longer, because we need his experience and knowledge.
It is also a pleasure to welcome the recently published government food strategy. I should like to mention three aspects in particular: the commitments to maintain the current levels of domestic food production, which is very important; to a separate horticultural strategy; and—such good news to me—to develop a land-use strategy. At long last: we have been banging on about this for many years and have always had the thumbs down from Defra. At long last, the Government will produce a land-use strategy next year, and I look forward to it. However, I feel it is a bit of a cart before the horse, because the Government are half way through the ELMS programme, and we needed a land-use strategy before a policy for the land.
It is good to see the change in Defra’s approach, because the past decade has not been its finest. In the first part of the past decade, it flirted with sustainable intensification in agriculture. That followed Professor John Beddington’s Foresight report—many of your Lordships will remember it. No sooner had that gone cold and started to collect dust than the pendulum swung and Defra moved off in totally the opposite direction, on a rather nebulous path to sustainable agriculture. At long last, the pendulum is a little more central.
I fear that in the past few years, Defra has been too influenced by some NGOs and well-meaning environmentalists who have rather a picture postcard view of the country and what farming was about. Ideals were based on emotion rather than science and fact. I now want to concentrate on the importance of Defra making all its decisions on hard, provable science. Without that, we will not get the resilience and sustainability in our farming system that we so badly need, as just highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott.
Let me start with production levels. I go back to the 1960s, when I was working on farms before I went to agricultural college. If we had kept the same yields as we achieved then, we would have to farm 85% of global land surface, rather than the 35% we do at the moment. That is a huge credit to our farmers, not just in this country but throughout the world, who have increased their production to keep us fed as they have. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and we rely on them to keep us fed in future. Can my noble friend confirm that the strategy set out by Henry Dimbleby in his National Food Strategy will be followed by the Government: that is, to have high-yield farming, low-intensity farming and natural habitat? It is important that there are these three different parts.
Conservation scientist Andrew Balmford said:
“Most species fare much better if habitats are left intact, which means reducing the space needed for farming. So areas that are farmed need to be as productive as we can possibly make them.”
That will be anathema to some people, but it is absolutely vital because we must improve the biodiversity. Is it possible to farm in the way that Henry Dimbleby suggested? It is; we have been doing so for 30 years at least. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, in its Allerton project, have been doing exactly this. It has increased the number of farmland birds, productivity and the areas of land subject to wildlife and to low-intensity farming. It can be done, and I hope the Government will use that as a template for the future of farming in this country. That was a question I posed to my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble when he was a Minister; I am glad to see him in the House. He did not give me an answer then, but I hope that my noble friend the Minister will give me an answer today.
It was the late Harold Macmillan who allegedly said, “Events, dear boy, events”. The question of Ukraine and what it has done to farming was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but it shows how resilient and adaptable we must be in the future, to adapt to all the new circumstances thrown at us.
My penultimate point is to ask my noble friend about the soil health action plan for England. Many of us were delighted when we got a commitment from my noble friend Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park that there would be a soil health action plan. Alas, Defra seems to have gone to sleep on it. It was promised to me in a Written Answer in the spring. Well, spring is a long time away. I have followed that up with Written Questions but there has been obfuscation. I wonder whether we were accidentally misled by my noble friend, or whether there is a new policy in Defra. Can my noble friend tell me what the up-to-date situation is?
In conclusion—this is all related to science—I pay a particular welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown. Being a scientist, she is exactly the sort of person we need in this House, to help us and guide us through our deliberations. Some of our hard—perhaps crusty is the wrong word—farming and environmentalist noble Lords are in the Chamber at the moment, and the noble Baroness will get to know us all pretty well in a short time.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for this timely debate, at a time of growing concern about rising food prices and increasing food shortages. I add my welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, who comes with a significant reputation already. We know that she will make a major contribution to the environmental debates that we will be involved with. This debate is also timely because we have a new Prime Minister, a new BEIS Secretary of State, and a new Defra Secretary of State. We are all anxious to know what their plans are for the environment. I have to say that, so far, it is not looking good.
Of course, Liz Truss has been the Defra Secretary of State before, so I was keen to see what she made of it last time. I googled her record. In the two years that she held the post she never made one keynote speech and gave the impression that she could not wait to leave. What we do know is that in that period she cut the Environment Agency’s budget so much that it became unable to act against water polluters, a legacy that we are still living with today.
Today, she announced the opening of new oil and gas licence applications, and the lifting of the ban on fracking. She is also cutting the green levy, which was introduced to help energy companies fast-track to renewable energy growth. As a result, our progress towards delivering net zero by 2050 is in danger of going into reverse. Can the Minister please tell us whether the PM is still committed to the net-zero target? If so, what steps is she proposing to take to achieve it, given that we are already behind on the current targets and her emphasis on gas and fracking will make matters worse? Given that she has made great play of her plans to rip up remaining EU legislation, where does that leave the retained environmental legislation, such as the habitats and birds directives, which underpin our current biodiversity strategy?
One of the reasons there is so much uncertainty about the future is that Defra lacks a coherent plan to deliver its climate change and biodiversity strategies. The Committee on Climate Change and the Commons EFRA Committee have consistently criticised the department’s approach to this. As they have said, a long-term strategy is required to prepare the agriculture sector for the risks and opportunities that arise from climate change, including higher temperatures, drought and increases in the spread of pests and diseases.
We have seen the huge impacts that arise from extreme weather globally, in the devastating droughts and fires in Australia and the loss of life and homes in the recent Pakistani floods. Clearly, the droughts that we faced this summer are a portent of things to come. The result is lower yields of crops, livestock being fed winter feed as the dried-out grass cannot sustain them, and poor horticulture outputs. This is impacting the bottom line of farmers and growers at a time when fertiliser and energy costs are already making their businesses increasingly unviable. So I ask the Minister: where is the Defra plan to help farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change, so that they can play their full part in delivering net zero?
We already know that the water companies are failing to play their part. We clearly need a strategy to preserve the increasingly scarce and precious water supplies that exist. This means building more reservoirs for storage and fixing the leaks in existing pipework. Farmers and growers need to know what is expected of them from future water use.
A couple of years ago, I spent the day with Norfolk farmers, who are growing many of the fruit and vegetables that feed the nation. They had been told by the Environment Agency that their access to the local aquifer was about to be restricted, as it was running low. Their argument, which was well made, was that if they had been given longer notice of this change, they could have invested in their own water supply units. They simply did not have time to adapt, given the short notice they were given. These are the sorts of challenges that producers across the country are facing.
We know that much bigger changes in agricultural practices will be needed to meet our climate change obligations, including a switch away from livestock farming. This has the twin advantage of also improving the nation’s health. But where is the Defra plan to reduce our share of carbon emissions from agriculture? We are falling badly behind the necessary targets.
Meanwhile, as Minette Batters has said, proposals to help farmers increase food production have been stripped to the bone. We know that costs are rising dramatically for farmers and food producers, putting further pressure on food price inflation. The closure of the UK’s biggest fertiliser plant will add to costs, as will its impact on the supply of CO2. At the same time, tonnes of food are being left rotting in the field and over 40,000 pigs have been culled, simply because of labour shortages—a problem of the Government’s own making. Our farmers are increasingly being undercut by low-quality imports from abroad.
Where is the plan to support British farmers to increase local food production and ensure that British food is affordable? The Committee on Climate Change flagged up the possibility of a major switch to produce food more suitable to hot, dry climates, such as peaches, apricots, tea, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, watermelons, walnuts and, of course, wine. Is this the future the Government see for horticulture? There is huge popular support for the notion that we should become more self-sufficient in food production in the UK. The increasing food scarcities from war and drought will exacerbate that need, so why do the Government not aim to increase our home-grown production of vegetables beyond the current 54%? Why do we not incentivise planting more fruit trees as part of our tree planting strategy? At a local level, why do we not encourage communities and individuals to grow more of their own food in gardens and public spaces?
Last week, volunteers on my allotment picked six crates of apples and pears to give to FareShare. This is, in effect, free food, and we should replicate that model in communities wherever we can.
Of course, we did have a comprehensive food strategy that began to address these issues. The Dimbleby report set out a comprehensive road map that would have allowed us to fix the broken food system and provide more nutritious and accessible food for the nation. Sadly, as we have debated before, the Government’s response was late and totally inadequate.
The truth is that the Government have failed to deliver a food strategy, are failing on our climate change commitments and are failing farmers. I suspect that they will be punished—rightly—by rural communities at the next election. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I doubt there is much he can do to stop that inevitability.
My Lords, it is a great honour to address this House for the first time. I start by thanking all the staff in the Chamber of your Lordships’ House, as well as my fellow Peers, for the very warm and helpful welcome that I have received. I also commend the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate.
I started my academic life as a palaeoecologist, which is one of those terms that makes people look very puzzled when I mention it. For the benefit of the Convenor and others who might not know, this is the study of fossil pollen, plant macrofossils and leaves contained in lake sediments over thousands of years, which you can then use to reconstruct vegetational responses to external perturbations such as climate change. This is particularly important for larger organisms, including one of our most important, our trees. If you think about it, the average generation time of most trees is 50 years. You need these longer-term records to understand how trees will respond.
This research was looking predominantly at dead plant parts, but this all changed when I went on secondment to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for five years as its first director of science. Suddenly I was surrounded by this incredible biodiversity of plants. In fact, in a single lunchtime I could see the world in plants. When at Kew, I was responsible for around 360 scientists. Many people do not realise how many scientists there are at Kew. I was also responsible for the incredible collections in the Millennium Seed Bank, the Herbarium and the Fungarium. Since returning to Oxford from Kew, I have held a professorship in biodiversity in the department of biology, and I am also head of one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, St Edmund Hall.
“that this House takes note of the impact of climate change and bio-diversity loss on food security”— therefore links very closely to my current and past roles. In terms of understanding the scale of biodiversity loss, some of the most startling evidence I have ever come across as an academic was when I co-led a team of scientists from all over the world to assess biodiversity trends in the last 50 years. This was as part of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. We examined thousands of records. It was incredibly depressing, because plants, animals, fungi, species, communities and genetic diversity have all declined significantly in the last 50 years. Two main drivers emerged from this biodiversity loss: land-use change and climate change.
But why should we be concerned about the impact of global biodiversity loss on food security? Often when we look at global biodiversity, we think about David Attenborough programmes and beautiful landscapes, but there is actually something much more critical here, which is its impact overall on food security. This is why: of the nearly 420,000 vascular plant species that we know about on the earth to date, just nine supply over 75% of our plant-derived calories in human diets, with wheat, rice and corn alone providing almost half of the world’s calorie intake.
These crops have been selected for decades, if not hundreds of years, for the high yields that we heard about earlier. This has resulted in high yields and the very good-tasting food that we want to eat, to buy and to feed ourselves and livestock, but as a result we have less and less genetic diversity and smaller and smaller species numbers. The loss of that genetic diversity means that in these crops we have lost our resilience to climate change.
A lot of modelling is going on, and it indicates alarmingly that with global warming of even 2 degrees Celsius, there will be a 20% to 40% reduction in cereal grain production, particularly in Asia and Africa but also in the UK. So we urgently need to restore the genetic diversity of our crops or find alternative, more climate-resilient crops, and this is where there is a critical link back to biodiversity.
Work by scientists at Kew and other institutions, notably the Crop Trust, have identified around 320 species of wild relatives of crops and more than 7,000 wild and semi-domesticated plants used by societies all over the world that are not in major production. The vast majority of these crop wild relatives and underutilised plants grow in much more extreme climates than their highly domesticated versions and, crucially, have genes that allow them to do so. They are effectively climate-resilient. We need to breed that kind of resilience back into our crops. This work is already going on. Some notable institutions, including the John Innes Centre in East Anglia, are breeding climate-resilient crops from the crop wild relatives. The species being looked at are rice, durum wheat, legumes and potatoes.
In line with United Nations sustainable development goal 2, we need to be conserving these crop wild relatives and underutilised crops, yet this is where the problem comes in. These wild relatives of crops and underutilised plants grow in the same biodiverse landscapes where we are seeing the most dramatic declines. Biodiversity loss, including of these crop wild relatives and underutilised crops, is removing in many ways our get-out-of-jail card when it comes to creating create climate-resilient crops, and we should be deeply concerned by that.
However, it is not just the impact of climate change and biodiversity above ground that we need to worry about—we have already heard some of this—it is also about the impact below ground and, in particular, the mycorrhizal fungi that are attached to 80% of terrestrial plants across the world. It is a symbiotic relationship, which means that the fungi get food from the plant and in exchange there is a network across the soil that greatly enhances the uptake of nutrients and minerals and water retention by those plants. Many plants, and many of our economic crops, have very specific mycorrhizal assemblages associated with them.
Application of mycorrhizal fungi to crops has already shown that it can increase grain yields by 16% in crops such as corn, rice, sorghum and wheat. There is now clear scientific evidence to show that this is one of the ways forward to get climate-resilient crops. However, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, temperature and pH significantly alter the composition of fungi in the soil and affect their ability to function, so I would go as far as to say that the hidden impact below the ground of climate change and biodiversity loss might be even more significant than the impact above ground. Without the right fungi in the soils, some crops will simply not grow.
To conclude, the combination of climate change and biodiversity loss poses an extremely serious risk to global food security and, in particular, to our ability to grow high-yielding, climate-smart crops. I therefore strongly commend this Motion and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for bringing this critically important topic to the attention of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, what a pleasure to rise to congratulate the noble Baroness on her maiden speech, which I do on behalf of everyone present here today. She put a powerful and persuasive argument utilising all the expertise she could bring to bear. You would never know that the noble Baroness has been a Member of this House for such a short time. The House will recall that she took her seat on the last day before the Summer Recess, and here she is making her maiden speech four sitting days later. I do not know what the record is for the gap between being introduced and making a maiden speech—I dare say some Minister holds the record—but nevertheless for a Cross-Bencher it is a very distinguished way to start.
The research to which the noble Baroness modestly alluded, whether conducted at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge or Bergen, or at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is an example of how important it is that the House of Lords Appointments Commission can produce for this House people of the noble Baroness’s calibre. We are due tomorrow—though I understand a statement is to be made at 6 pm tonight—to discuss the Appointments Commission, but we will see. In the meantime, I congratulate the Cross Benches on the arrival of their latest Member. I hope she will not mind if I say this, but I have found since my relatively recent arrival that it is the almost intolerable good will of this House that is sometimes difficult to bear. I hope that I have conveyed just a hint of it in welcoming her speech today. The trouble is that I now have to make some remarks of my own.
I begin, like others, by saying that we all owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for introducing the debate in the way in which she did. You cannot imagine a more important debate than one on the future of the planet earth and our ability to feed ourselves. It is very timely, and I compliment the noble Baroness on the way she introduced it.
In my short contribution, I want to mention some of the risks of biodiversity loss, because biodiversity loss and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Biodiversity is a term we use to describe the variety and variability of life on the planet, from the biggest mammals to microscopic single-cell organisms. The diversity of life and the interactions between organisms are what create the natural ecosystems that in turn regulate the environment and make the earth habitable.
As the House will know, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, among many others, has drawn attention to the fact that biodiversity loss is accelerating by stating:
“Despite increasing recognition of the crucial role of biodiversity in maintaining human and planetary health, biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history, and perhaps as fast as during any mass extinction”.
That is a serious warning we need to take seriously.
I heard the other day that it is thought that by 2035 the National Health Service will be spending more money on the complications arising from type 2 diabetes than on cancer. That is a result, in part, of what might be called the “junk food culture” of the western world, because we are not necessarily eating the best or most healthy food. When it comes to mind-blowing statistics, I understand that the world is going to need to produce in the next 40 years more food than it has produced in its entire human history—which shows the scale of the challenge we face.
As the noble Baroness correctly pointed out, I think about two-thirds of the world’s plant-based food comes from just nine species of crop. The House really needs to know how vulnerable we are when we read a statistic like that, and the noble Baroness speaks with much greater authority than I do. The noble Baroness also referred to the resilience of plants, which is going to be crucial to our survival. Converting land to agriculture does not just destroy natural ecosystems such as prairies, grasslands and forests. It also deprives wildlife of the food sources and shelter that it depends upon to survive.
Beyond the destruction of ecosystems, the intensification of farming is also driving biodiversity loss. I think it is estimated that about 100,000 species of insects, as well as birds and mammals, pollinate more than two-thirds of the food plants that are responsible for about one-third of the world’s crop production. I am only in many ways repeating in a pale form some of the points made by the noble Baroness. The variability and availability of living organisms are essential to agriculture as they ensure that the natural processes can take place, contributing to important functions such as soil fertility.
There are one or two things that are going wrong, and I will briefly draw attention to them. Land use, which has been mentioned, is a major driver of biodiversity loss and many agricultural practices are unsustainable in the long term. I suppose the deforestation of the Amazon is the most obvious example.
Then there is corn. We have been growing corn for 9,000 years but, as demand for it has soared, one of the most worrying aspects is the loss of diversity within the crop itself. Studies have pointed to a troubling erosion of genetic diversity within corn crops that could impact the crop’s ability to be sustained and grown in future.
In the last 40 years there has been a reduction of about one-third in all insect pollinator species where they have been measured, while biodiversity loss in marine fisheries is likely to continue and global heating can threaten that recovery completely as the oceans warm and become increasingly acidified. That matters because about 3 billion people on the planet rely on fish for a whole host of their food intake. In light of the time, I shall close by saying that biodiversity loss is as great a threat to the world as the phasing out of fossil fuels.
Perhaps I could conclude with a word of hope. I think I am right in saying, although I am sure I will be corrected if not, that there has been some fascinating scientific research that hints at breakthroughs in the productivity of plants and the possibility of significant increases in, for example, the yields of soya plants that could make a big difference in a world with a growing population and significantly amounts of farmland lost to climate change.
I hope the Minister might say a word about the current COP 15 process in relation to biodiversity and when we might expect a White Paper from the Government in response to the recommendations of the national food strategy, as referred to by my noble friend among others. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in his reply, and I end by congratulating once again the new expert Member of the Cross Benches on biodiversity, the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown.
My Lords, I begin by adding my own compliments to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, on what was a most excellent maiden speech. I am very much looking forward now to her deep scientific learning informing many future contributions. We need good science in this House. I also echo the sentiments of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham in the previous debate, assuring your Lordships that Her Majesty is very much in the prayers of the Lords Spiritual at this time.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing time for us to discuss the important matters in this debate. I draw attention to my interest as set out in the register as a Church Commissioner; we are one of the largest owners of agricultural land in England.
This year we have seen unprecedented consequences of climate change, both at home in the UK and abroad: record temperatures, shifting weather patterns, rising sea levels and biodiversity loss. Climate change is alive and kicking, and we need to work together at all levels, locally, nationally and internationally, to address the crisis.
I am glad to be able to commend actions taken by the Government to address food security here in the UK. The Government’s food strategy that was published in June was a clear step in the right direction. However, much more still needs to be done to address food security across the country. Like others, I urge the Government to pay attention to the Dimbleby review, particularly its recommendations to pass new legislation to protect our food security and the environment.
As the cost of living crisis and energy bill increases bite—I do not know what the Prime Minister planned to announce today—we must ensure that we are doing all we can to guarantee food security for all. Almost all the churches in my diocese have a food bank that they are supporting. But there other things that we can do: we can invest in the transition to sustainable farming and fisheries, and we must strengthen local food systems and reduce both UK meat consumption, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, urged, and food waste.
I want to speak mostly beyond the UK. We need to look over the horizon to the need for global food security. The United Nations has estimated that 50 million people in 45 countries are living
“each day on the edge of famine”.
Indeed, speaking at the Global Food Security Call to Action ministerial in May this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke of climate change’s impacts on global hunger, saying:
“Over the past decade, 1.7 billion people have been affected by extreme weather and climate-related disasters.”
As noble Lords have discussed, the impacts of climate change on food security are only going to worsen. The IPCC has said that an increase in global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade would increase pressure on food production and access. Beyond 2 degrees, it would lead to severe food insecurity across certain regions, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Global warming beyond 3 degrees would significantly expand the areas impacted by severe food insecurity. As we have heard, these changes compound biodiversity loss, which in turn compounds food insecurity—this is a vicious spiral.
Two days ago, I returned from a trip to Namibia. I have been visiting churches and communities in that diocese because we in the diocese of Manchester have the pleasure of being twinned with it. The majority of Namibia’s population depend, directly or indirectly, on the agricultural sector. It is estimated that the mean annual temperature will go up by 2.7 degrees in the next few years and that annual precipitation will decrease by 7%. This is likely to cause longer droughts, increased heatwaves and greater flooding, and implications for the agriculture sector in the country are obvious—food production is already being destabilised.
Namibia is a semi-arid country; the soil in many places is almost like the sand on a beach. It is highly dependent on grazing animals that can survive through the long dry season on its marginal grasslands. Namibia is probably one of the few countries where I would struggle to maintain my meat-free diet. Sadly, poor rains in the last few years have increased the numbers of people who have lost their cattle. Many have been forced to migrate, particularly from the rural north to the capital, Windhoek. This has created huge pressure on services in the city, led to increased numbers of people living in wholly unacceptable conditions—these have to be seen, heard and smelled—and raised the number of people, especially young men, who lack meaningful employment. Elsewhere, as noble Lords are well aware, such factors have been observed to put social harmony and cohesion at risk.
My diocese is also twinned with the diocese of Lahore in Pakistan, and it has been heart-wrenching to see and hear of the devastating impacts of climate change there. Noble Lords will have seen that more than 33 million people have been displaced from their homes by the recent floods, which cover more than one-third of the country. Huge swathes of farmland, crops and stockpiles have been destroyed, while supplies of rice, vegetables and wheat have been severely disrupted.
These are just two countries—two I happen to know well—among many whose food security is already being negatively impacted by a climate crisis for which they are not primarily responsible. I hope that, in this debate, the Minister will be able to assure us that Her Majesty’s Government will use all their influence and powers, not least to uphold the pledges made at the COP 26 summit to address the challenges of adaptation, loss and damage. It is essential that we all take responsibility, not just individually but collectively, for our part in climate change and biodiversity loss, and that we act to stop them now to ensure a more food-secure future for us all. Let this debate be a significant step in that direction.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this important debate. I add my welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, and congratulate her on her excellent and highly informative maiden speech.
There is no greater illustration of the impact of climate change on lives, livelihoods and, inevitably, biodiversity and food security than the calamitous events that have unfolded in Pakistan in recent days. I will use the time allocated to me to focus my remarks mostly on that country. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, an area the size of the United Kingdom has been flooded due to torrential monsoon rains even more forceful than the norm, following the soaring temperatures this year, and due to the melting glaciers in the north of the country. The impact of these floods on those directly affected and on the country as a whole cannot be adequately expressed.
Noble Lords will be familiar with the statistics: more than 1,900 people have been killed, more than a million homes have been damaged or demolished, 10,000 schools have been lost, 900 health facilities were wrecked, and more than 3,000 kilometres of road and over 100 bridges were destroyed. There is the additional destruction of huge tracts of farmland, with roughly 2.2 million hectares of crops ruined and 800,000 livestock swept away. The estimated total loss to the economy is $30 billion. Rice, cotton and sugarcane —both in the fields and in stores—were destroyed, and 1.7 million fruit trees were ravaged. It is an apocalyptic scene, the kind that might be imagined in a disaster movie. Sadly, however, this is reality and a sign of things to come for our planet.
Pakistan is just one of a number of countries on the front line of climate change, while also being one of the countries which contributes least to pollution. The challenges the country faces on food security are beyond measure. Wheat planting in the month of October is now under threat, and the shortage of around 2.6 million tonnes, even before the floods, will be further compounded. Vegetables, such as onions and tomatoes which are a staple in that country, are in some areas completely wiped out. Prices for these foods prior to the floods had soared due to inflation, but they are now unaffordable for many.
The Government of Pakistan have warned that there is a food security crisis looming. The UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan has described the emergency as a “climate-change driven catastrophe”. With Pakistan the fifth largest exporter of rice—exporting around 4 million tonnes—the loss of crops will have an impact on availability and prices elsewhere.
In 1989, the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on global environment that:
“Of all the challenges faced by the world community … one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance … the threat to our global environment”.
That was 33 years ago, but we are nowhere near meeting the challenge or putting in place adequate defences to mitigate the impact of climate change. The climate finance target of $100 billion by 2020 promised by the wealthier countries, as a recognition of their responsibility for historic carbon emissions, to lower-income countries to deal with the impacts of climate change has never been reached.
With other vulnerable countries on the front line of what has been pointed out by experts as an exponential growth in climate change, it is fair to say that these events will happen more and more frequently and with equally devastating consequences. Bolstering the resilience of countries most immediately vulnerable to climate change should be paramount. I know that this is not the responsibility of Defra, but I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give some assurance that Her Majesty’s Government would offer a commitment in this regard, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, pointed out, everything is interconnected.
In Pakistan, the devastation of food crops due to flooding is starkly visible, but the full impact and the loss of biodiversity will become apparent in due course. When vegetables and crops are replanted, once the waters have subsided and the conditions will allow, there is a danger that the pollinators will no longer be there. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has argued that
“biodiversity loss would leave agricultural systems more vulnerable to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change”, and that it would lead
“to an increased risk of crop failure”.
The current devastation will be tragically further compounded by disease and malnutrition.
Here in the UK, heavy rainfall and flooding in some areas in England have caused sewage overflows into rivers and around the coast. We have also experienced unusually high temperatures this year, with the Environment Agency declaring droughts in parts of the south-west, southern and central England, and the east of England. As a result, it is estimated that food yields may be lower. If local food supplies continue to decline due to the impact of climate change, then imports of cheaper or lower-quality, highly processed foods that have little nutritional value would have a detrimental impact on health and further exacerbate the stresses on our healthcare system.
What has happened in Pakistan is of proportions that are unimaginable. It can seem that such events are very far away, but the threat is accelerating and will reach us sooner than we imagine. The hope remains that technological advances and human innovation will save the day, but the emergency is real and immediate and requires urgent action and co-operation at every level and among all nations.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of the Woodland Trust, as a commissioner at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and as vice-president of a range of environmental and conservation charities. I commend and welcome the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Willis; it is really great to have another biodiversity freak on board. I very much endorse the statements made about the powerful contributions that excellent scientists have made in this Chamber—it is great to have the noble Baroness here.
Climate change, biodiversity and food security are totally and deeply interdependent, both globally and nationally. The Armageddon in Pakistan described by the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, is absolutely an example of that, and we will increasingly see other examples. Climate change, biodiversity decline, and food and survival catastrophes for people across the world will become more and more frequent.
Right now in the UK, apart from any of the international actions that we can take, we need to ensure that policies are in place that focus on the environment and climate change impact not only of our food production but on our food production. Both are equally important. The current international tensions make it even more important that we address issues of food security in this country. The UK will never be self-sufficient in food production until we learn how to grow pineapples in Kent—that may yet come, of course—but there are some commodity groups where we could produce more of our own food. We are currently only 16% self-sufficient in fruit, 54% in fresh veg and 71% in potatoes, so we could do more. I raise this issue of self-sufficiency in these commodities simply to indicate how that in itself raises a challenge. Expanding potato production, for example, would need more land and water, and potatoes are notoriously hard on soils.
That takes me to the key point on which I want to focus. There are many in the Chamber today who will have guessed that I want to bang on about land use. There are many competing demands for land in this country: agriculture and food production; biodiversity; carbon sequestration; generation of energy; timber production; water protection; development; housing; infrastructure; and land that people can access close to where they live and gain the health and spiritual benefits that those services provide. There are more land needs and pressures than, at the moment, it would seem we have land for. The Cambridge Conservation Initiative has calculated that, if we were simply to use land in the way that we do currently, we would need a third more land than we have. The risk is that we consider all these land-use needs as being in competition and that we continue to make decisions about them in silos.
As I said, many noble Lords will have heard me banging on for years about the need for a land use framework for England, which would provide support for decision-makers at all levels in breaking down the silos of decisions about land use. I simply say that Scotland is on its third land-use strategy. I know that our new Prime Minister does not think a lot of the First Minister of Scotland, but she may have got it slightly more right on this occasion in having a third land-use strategy. It brings into one policy framework the land aspects of a whole range of issues: food production, biodiversity, climate, economic development and social justice. We are not making any more land. I thought it was really fascinating that we have lost sight of the theme of the post-war settlement in this country—of the three capitals: of labour, capital and land. We have lost sight of the fact that scarce land is as important a national asset as capital and labour. I commend that thought to the Treasury and the new Chancellor.
As has been said, the Government recently agreed, in their response to the Dimbleby food strategy, that England needs a land-use framework—hurrah—but we appear to have rather a different Government today, so I ask the Minister to reassure the House that the Government are still committed to developing and launching a land-use framework by 2023. I urge him to widen the perspective of the strategy to cover not just the narrow range of Defra issues of carbon biodiversity and food production, but also the whole range of land-use pressures, especially infrastructure, housing, the built environment and energy generation. In particular, the framework needs to be completely seamless with whatever changes to the planning system the Government are working on. I also press him to give us an indication of the Government’s current intentions on planning reforms, because at the moment they have kind of gone into a hole.
Some other wider government policy currently seems a bit confused as well. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said, the solar panels versus food security argument is unreal, although I do not think the new Prime Minister has yet twigged that. If the Government were to tackle, systematically and urgently, a major programme of energy efficiency and retrofitting in all domestic and commercial properties, and if they were to restore their own zero-carbon new homes policy that was cancelled in a rather cavalier fashion by George Osborne in 2015—if these two things were done—we would need less energy and we would not need solar panels on farmland, because solar power would be generated intrinsically on buildings.
The biodiversity versus food security and carbon action versus food security dichotomies are also unreal. Modelling commissioned by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission shows that multifunctional land use, where the same land delivers for a range of purposes, means that we can have enough land for all our needs and one land use need not be at the expense of another. Many of the decisions about the best multifunctional land use are made, in reality, at local level by myriad land managers. Whatever framework the Government develop needs to be able to inform decision-making processes below national level, at regional and local level, involving land managers and landowners of all kinds.
Let the science speak: when the land is used effectively in a multifunctional way, we can see a wholly revitalised landscape that is rich in both food and nature and combats climate change. This is about being smarter with the finite land we have. At the risk of a pun, we need to be able to have our land and eat it. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell me whether he is still committed to a land-use framework that will be broader than just the Defra issues and how the planning reforms are going.
Before I finish, at this tense time for the country in a whole variety of ways, I commend the Queen’s Green Canopy initiative, which Her Majesty has hugely supported and has very graciously allowed the Woodland Trust to be involved in. Her Majesty knows about these things.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for securing this debate, and add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, on her excellent maiden speech. I look forward to hearing more in the future.
As Peers will know, I am something of a climate change obsessive, but I tend to focus mostly on energy. However, I have become much more interested in agriculture, food and land use and how it relates to climate, because it is a fascinating area. It is one of those aspects of life that we tend to take for granted, but the way we manage our land will be severely affected by climate change. It is also a source of that change to our climate and, unlike energy, which—although let us see what happens—is largely a privatised system, with the Government providing guardrails to companies to make decisions on how we produce our energy, there is huge involvement of the public purse in agriculture. We have a very large subsidy that passes from the public purse—the Treasury—to the guardians of our land every year.
It has been really curious watching this evolution of policy, with Brexit coming into force and Michael Gove uttering the immortal words that we will pay only
“public money for public goods” before departing the scene, leaving us slightly unclear as to what he actually meant by that, and what the detail will be in terms of knowing what we will be paying for in the future. I have a question for the Minister: can we press ahead with providing clarity for the guardians of our land and our agricultural stewards so that they can plan for the future?
It strikes me that farmers are a very isolated breed in general. They obviously have ways in which they communicate among themselves but, by and large, they are being guided by people in whose interests it is to keep them purchasing fertilisers, seeds and chemicals. The people who visit the farm regularly have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. I am not saying that this is true of all farming, but there is a need to think about whether this is right—whether we are providing farmers with the right information for them or the right information for those who benefit from this highly industrialised form of agriculture that has become a norm. I wonder whether there is more of a role for government to create an educational service for farmers to help them understand what they are likely to be facing—a destabilised climate in this country—and how they can expect things to change around them. They are witnessing it themselves but they may not be thinking 20 years hence, when we know that this is just the beginning of the impacts we are likely to see.
Coupled to that, can we be clearer about the payments that we will make to the guardians of our land to provide us with public goods? It strikes me that this subsidy is very good value for money, because we get a whole host of services from our land that are not accounted for or paid for directly. We could say to farmers that this is the minimum level of public money they can expect because of the stewardship role that they provide, and that we would increase it further if they could get to a point where they were helping not only to mitigate their own impact on climate change but acting as an active carbon sink. This would allow other sectors to continue to emit because farming and land use, and our land-use strategies, would deliver over and above, and we would become much more carbon-rich and store more carbon in our land than we currently do.
That is not easy, but it is not impossible. I looked at the greenhouse gas inventory: at the moment agriculture contributes around 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, from agricultural tractors, transport uses and direct use of energy. Overall, however, our land-use area is a natural sink of around 3 million tonnes at the moment. We are not far from parity in terms of CO2 emissions. Of course, that picture changes completely when we factor in other greenhouse gases, for which agriculture is largely responsible. Around 25 million tonnes of methane are emitted from the land-use sector into the atmosphere every year, and around 15 million tonnes of nitrous oxide. We have a long way to go to get this sector into a carbon-neutral position so that we can be ready for our net-zero targets.
We have a rather large amount of money available to us that we have been paying out for years and years in agricultural subsidies. It could be repurposed to deliver this increased carbon sink and will, I am sure, deliver increased biodiversity. To get there, we will have to embrace science and I endorse the words of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness: we have to allow modern technology and approaches into our agricultural system to allow us to spare the land. and let nature take a greater role in other parts of the land. We can do that only if we have a land-use strategy and framework that enables us to see where the use of science will be appropriate to increase yields, and where we can afford to allow land to return to a less productive state and deliver more social and environmental benefits.
I have come back from a summer holiday in the Brecon Beacons; it is a beautiful part of the world and I highly recommend it. There are about a million sheep there, however, and I was talking to local ecologists who said the carrying capacity of the area is probably about 100,000—nowhere near a million. We are by a factor of 10 overgrazing this part of the world, which is an incredibly important eco-system with all sorts of benefits. We have to find a way to help farmers move to a position where they are, yes, still farming the land and providing us with the things that society requires, but not encouraging them to keep with livestock that creates methane and is damaging our biodiversity, while probably exacerbating flooding and changing the way the landscape appears aesthetically.
There must be a way of doing this. We have the money and the intention, but we do not seem to have the plan. We need to open up a way of getting farmers to think creatively about how they can contribute. It could be done by setting aside a portion of the money into an auction, so that we pay people to deliver the outcomes we seek. I know some trials have taken place under the ELMS reforms, but that is an established way of helping people to find the best and least-cost solutions to reducing greenhouse gases. I am sure we have the capacity to do that; our carbon markets and carbon financing expertise in the UK are second to none. If we can harness them and help to unleash the creativity that I know is out there in our country, then we stand a chance of having agriculture neutralise its own emissions but then contribute to the reaching of net zero across the economy.
Although I am, in general terms, quite depressed and rather scared about where we are on climate, I think the UK is uniquely positioned. There is huge potential to lead the world in showing that this sector can not only reach a sustainable future for itself but assist us in solving climate change more generally. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and I thank my colleague and noble friend Lady Boycott, who I know will continue to champion these causes in this House. Thank you.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in sending our best wishes and prayers to Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this debate and on her very powerful introduction. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, for her maiden speech, and what an excellent maiden speech it was. I am not sure it was only the Lord Convener who needed her previous title to be explained, but thank you for that. The noble Baroness’s expertise will be hugely appreciated in this House.
I want to focus on the impact on developing countries, and I declare my interest as co-chair of APPGs on Africa, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Some 38 years ago, aged 14, I sat down and watched the famous broadcast by Michael Buerk from northern Ethiopia which brought the world’s attention to the catastrophe that was going on in that region. As many noble Lords know, that inspired many people; it created Band Aid and Live Aid, and a whole movement to try to change things.
As a precocious 14 year-old, at the time of EU intervention in stocks and the grain mountains, butter mountains and wine lakes, I felt, along with many others, the outrage that people were starving in parts of Africa when we were awash with plenty. Perhaps unlike most other 14 year-olds, I decided that I was the only person who could solve this, and for complicated reasons—I will not go into them now; I do not have the time—I ran away from home to Ethiopia. I arrived in Addis Ababa, and I quickly discovered, as your Lordships may not be surprised to hear, that the demand for totally unskilled 14-year-old English kids was zero, and that Ethiopia at that time, under a Marxist military dictatorship, was a pretty scary place to be.
Thankfully, I was rescued from that situation by an Anglican clergyman. He gave me some very good advice: first, to go home, although he was kind enough to let me stay there for a little while. He also told me, “Do not lose interest in these issues, because they will be ongoing, but go and get yourself some skills”. I took his advice and subsequently worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe, and in the first democratic Parliament in South Africa.
One of the tragedies is that, today, we are again facing a perilous situation in Ethiopia and the Horn, which is driven by climate factors but exacerbated by conflict. Large parts of the world are facing acute food insecurity. The World Food Programme tells us that it is delivering more food aid at present than it has in the whole of its 60-year history. A study published earlier this year in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism on tackling protein-calorie malnutrition during world crises highlights the fact that 54% of children are malnourished, while 1.9 billion people are overweight or obese. The statistics around malnutrition show that 462 million people are underweight. In the most vulnerable population, that of children under five, 45 million are wasted and 149 million stunted. We know that that point in life, between ages one and five in particular, is crucial to the future life chances of those children and the all impacts this has on future economic development in those societies.
The acute crisis in food security, driven by climate and biodiversity loss but exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and Russian aggression against Ukraine, is creating a terrifying situation in the world. I was in Sudan a couple of months ago, and the fear of what is coming is palpable. I spoke to the new South African high commissioner in London yesterday, and the impact that the situation is having on household budgets here is of course terrifying, but in places with much more vulnerable populations and economies, it is absolutely terrifying. We have sadly chosen this time to cut our aid budget massively, slashing the nutrition budget by 80%. That is a tragedy to me, because one thing I learned when I was in Ethiopia is that however precocious or determined you are, you cannot change the world on your own. But you can change it if you stand with other people and campaign with them.
One of the things I did when I came back from Ethiopia was to get involved with many other people—across all parties and none, from the faith communities, et cetera—in arguing for us to play our part in sharing some of our wealth with other parts of the world. I was delighted that, during the coalition Government, we reached that 0.7% target. We did much good, not just with the money but with the expertise that DfID developed in issues such as nutrition and food security. Sadly, we are losing that, and that is a tragedy.
It sometimes seems like we have just noticed climate change, because we had temperatures of 43 degrees and there were wildfires in California, and realised that something is happening to the climate. Something has been happening to the climate for a long time. Talk to people in the climate-vulnerable countries—Zimbabwe is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on earth—which have suffered over many years some devastating impacts, such as waters drying up. Rivers in the rural area where I used to teach were no longer functioning. There was also a terrible cyclone in east of the country driven by climate change. This is not something new; it is something that has been happening for a while and we have to get a grip on it.
We have had much focus on climate, rightly, but it is very important that we also focus on biodiversity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and others have said, they are intrinsically linked and we cannot tackle one without the other. Indeed, all three issues are intrinsically linked.
The noble Baroness, Lady Willis, made an important point, which I hope I have got right: nine out of 400 vascular plants are responsible for the majority of the staple foods that we rely on and, in the face of climate change and the need to build resilience, we have to develop the genetic diversity of crops. It is critical.
The noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, made a very powerful point about the situation in Pakistan, where flooding has been going on since August, if not before, and noted its impacts on people and food security.
We face many challenges. What can we do? The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, gave us some hope about approaches to farming which can help deliver food security and restore biodiversity. There are many initiatives. The Food and Land Use Coalition has put out a 10-point transition plan about how we need to deal with these things holistically. The most important thing we have to do is act on the things we know how to do. The Climate Change Committee has told us many of the things we need to do in the UK and we know many of the things we have to do in the world.
We also all know that story about the frog which, if put in a pan of cold water that is heated up to boiling point, allegedly will not jump out. We probably also know that frogs are not that stupid and they will jump out. However, that story still appears to be true; it is just that it is about humans. We have been watching what has been going on with the climate and biodiversity and we have just sat in the pan and let it get hotter and hotter. We have to jump out now and start to act seriously, in line with the crisis that we face.
My Lords, Her Majesty the Queen and her family are very much in our thoughts at the moment. I am sure that across the House we are all deeply concerned.
This is an important debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on bringing it to the House and on her comprehensive introduction, which was often quite sobering. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Willis of Summertown, on her maiden speech, which was excellent. There are few maiden speeches that I have learned quite so much from. It was very interesting and I look forward to her future contributions in the House.
On the debate, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that global loss of biodiversity is threatening the security of the world’s food supplies and the livelihoods of millions of people. Land use changes, pollution, overexploitation of resources and climate change were listed as the biggest drivers of this biodiversity loss. My noble friend Lord Stansgate said that biodiversity loss and climate change were two sides of the same coin, and I absolutely agree with him.
Agriculture and its related industries depend hugely on the climate. Crop production and livestock are the largest global food industries and are highly sensitive to climate change. Increases in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and changes in storm frequency and severity all can significantly affect food production, and we have also heard about the added impact of the war in Ukraine. So it is clear that, in response to these huge challenges, agricultural production and how we manage our food security have to change.
Over the past 20 years, most countries have industrialised their animal agriculture practices, and there is an increasing amount of trade in animal products globally. The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, talked about the impact of industrialisation. Yet, insufficient steps are being taken to address this issue and curb practices which drive greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss. Farm animal waste and other aspects of the animal agriculture sector generate greenhouse gas emissions, as we have heard during this debate. The national food strategy considered the impact of animal agriculture, so I ask the Minister whether the Government have looked at how to address this further.
The IPCC has stated that climate change is already directly affecting food security and nutrition, which it defines as
“when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
We need to look at how we can make sure that we provide this, not just for people in our country but right across the globe.
The RSPB says that the role that agriculture, land use change, pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, climate change and development have played in the significant loss of biodiversity in the UK is now widely accepted.
The NFU rightly recognises that climate change is arguably the greatest challenge facing the world and that British farmers are in the front line of increasingly frequent weather extremes. July this year was the driest in England since 1911, and before that were the driest nine months since 1975-76. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester talked about the clear signs of climate change right across the world this year, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, talked movingly about the impact on Pakistan.
Farmers are clearly concerned about the future and need support in protecting, maintaining and enhancing the environment. The NFU also agrees that optimal environmental outcomes should seek to improve nature, enhance air and water quality and build soil health, and has set itself the challenge of agriculture reaching net zero by 2040 in the UK. But the Government have a crucial role to play in this. Food security must be placed at the heart of wider government policies, with a reporting system and clear oversight to ensure that we do not allow our domestic food production to diminish.
CAFOD provided a helpful briefing in which it reminded us that the UK Government made welcome commitments at COP 26 on food and agriculture under the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Can the Minister give an update on progress towards delivering on these commitments? We need clear indicators for reporting on new policies and laws, as well as on reduced rates of deforestation, increased land titles for indigenous peoples and local communities, finance for agroecology and actions to repurpose agricultural subsidies.
In their 2021 Food Security Report, the Government described food security as a “complex and multi-faceted issue”. At the same time, it identified risks to the UK’s long-term food security. It said that climate change, climate variability and biodiversity loss all threatened the long-term security of global food production, and concluded that climate change and biodiversity loss were among the biggest medium to long-term risks to UK domestic food production, alongside other factors such as soil degradation and water quality. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, mentioned the soil health action plan, and I look forward to the Minister’s update on where it is.
As we have heard, the Government also commissioned the Dasgupta review, which looked at the risk to the world economy of the loss of biodiversity, particularly to food security. It also said that biodiversity loss was damaging the health of the soil needed to grow the food. The noble Baroness mentioned this in her maiden speech, and it is absolutely critical.
Defra’s outcome delivery plan for 2021-22 reaffirmed the Government’s “vision and mission” for the environment. It said:
“We are here to make our air purer, our water cleaner, our land greener and our food more sustainable. Our mission is to restore and enhance the environment for the next generation, leaving it in a better state than we found it.”
Further, the government’s agriculture transition plan said:
“By 2028, we want to see … a renewed agricultural sector, producing healthy food for consumption at home and abroad, where farms can be profitable and economically sustainable without subsidy” and with
“farming and the countryside contributing significantly to environmental goals including addressing climate change.”
All the work I have just mentioned is excellent—there are lots of fine words here—but we need an integrated approach and real action. The NAO, the Environment Audit Committee and the Treasury have all highlighted the need for Defra to take a lead role in demonstrating the value of more integrated approaches to environmental policy-making, and there are opportunities to develop these approaches. In particular, the National Food Strategy, about which we have heard, and the enabling provisions in the Agriculture Act provide the chance to consider food use, land use and environmental systems all together, so that we deliver for the environment as well as for the economy and society.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, mentioned the land use strategy, and my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone spoke with her usual passion about the importance of land use. Why are all these opportunities not being fully grasped and acted on? There is plenty of strategy and policy coming out of government, but to be successful, we need effective delivery. Little is achieved by strategy and policy alone. The resilience and sustainability of our farming system are absolutely critical. The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, mentioned that the UK has huge potential to lead the world on this, so let us get on with it, act on that potential and deliver what we need.
We know that any farming system we set up, and any new arrangements that come out of the ELMS agreement, must not be at the expense of tackling climate change and mitigating biodiversity loss. Farmers will need proper government support to achieve this while maintaining food production. My noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch mentioned the lack of a coherent plan in Defra. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, said that we know what we need to do. My question to the Minister, who I am sure has listened very carefully to the debate, as he always does, is: what plans do the new Government have to deliver on all their fine words?
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on securing this debate, and welcome this opportunity to respond on the matter of climate change and biodiversity loss impacts on food security. I thought she made an outstanding speech. I agreed with so much of it, and I shall try to address as many points as I can in the course of my speech. I recognise her extensive experience in the area of food insecurity, particularly as chair of the London Food Board and as a trustee of the Food Foundation.
The Food Foundation is a fantastic organisation doing extensive work on the rise in UK households experiencing food insecurity and providing key research in this area, helping the Government to shape policy.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for drawing to our attention, on this poignant day, the Queen’s Green Canopy. I echo all the sentiments offered to the Royal Family in today’s debate.
I join everyone in welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, to this place, and congratulate her on an absolutely outstanding maiden speech. One of the best duties that I have as a Minister is being responsible for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and before being a professor of biodiversity at the University of Oxford, the noble Baroness was director of science at Kew, an extraordinary institution of global repute. It delivers so much for this country, not just in terms of what it provides to us as policymakers and to people who learn from it, but also soft power abroad, giving enormous heft to the attempts to tackle the very subject which we are debating today. The role of the noble Baroness there, and the roles of those people who are still at Kew, are extraordinary. Her addition to this House will be of enormous value. We need people who understand science and who can inform debates. I welcome her wholeheartedly and congratulate her on her maiden speech.
In the UK, we are privileged to have a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated in the Covid-19 response. It is well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause disruption. Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources: strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes. We produce 61% of all the food we need, and 74% of the food we can grow or rear in the UK for all or part of the year. These figures have changed little in the last 20 years.
It is vitally important that we continue to meet our food production needs, while protecting our food supply and resilience from the adverse effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. As the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite said, the FAO, in its report The State of Food and Agriculture 2021, asserted:
“To feed a world population forecast to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, agriculture may need to produce 40-54% more food, feed and biofuel feedstock than in 2012. Improving water security, restoring species abundance—particularly in pollinators—and protecting soil health so that it functions effectively, is crucial to food security, and closely linked to the significant action that we are taking to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.”
It is very welcome to have the Climate Change Committee’s chair here today. Its Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk was published in 2021. It offers a detailed and up-to-date insight into the growing risks and opportunities that the UK faces from climate change, including the risks to food supply chains. In this report, the committee notes that the risks to future domestic food productivity and food supply chains are high. Water scarcity is likely to be an early factor affecting the viability and quality of agricultural land in many parts of the world, impairing the ability to grow crops in the conventional way. Many noble Lords have made powerful statements about both the domestic experience that we have had here of recent weather extremes, and experiences abroad.
This means that international food security could become more dependent on the ability of the temperate regions of the world, such as the UK, to produce food sustainably. Here in the UK, climate impacts could include reduced soil function due to erosion and through extreme weather events, causing flooding and leading to increasingly compacted soils, and droughts, thereby causing low soil-moisture levels. There is also a greater risk of pests, pathogens and invasive species, as well as disruption to supply chains from climate change overseas.
Every month, we have a biosecurity meeting. I confess, at times, the picture of some of the pests and diseases that are either here or coming here, and with which we are trying to deal, is very bleak. This is a very sobering immediate impact from climate change to which we need to react.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about net zero. The simple answer is that, yes, there is an absolute commitment. It really would not matter if there was not, because it is in law. No Government could possibly get a reversal of our intentions to achieve net zero through both Houses. It was announced today that my colleague in the other place Chris Skidmore is to lead a review on net zero to find the most efficient and fastest way to reach our climate targets. That will report to the new Prime Minister by the end of the year.
Recognising the importance of food security, under the Agriculture Act 2020 the Government made a commitment to produce an assessment of our food security at least once every three years. The first UK food security report was published last December and covers food security in the widest sense, from global food availability and sustainability to domestic supply chain resilience, household food security and food safety. We published the government food strategy this summer, setting out a plan to transform our food system to ensure it is fit for the future.
The point of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, about the ability to produce food from less land was well made. Martin Lines, who runs the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said to me—I think this is right—that he is producing the same amount of food from 11% less land. That 11% is turned over to nature. I will come on to talk about how we can be positive because, as we have seen, nature can recover very quickly. There are plenty of examples of that now. We can produce food and be secure in our supply chains, but we can also do it sustainably and protect future generations, as the Dasgupta review requires of us, if we follow that excellent report.
We announced in the food strategy that we will publish a land-use framework for England in 2023, which will set out land-use change principles to balance climate, food and environmental outcomes. We are seeking to deliver as much as we can from our limited supply of land and to deliver the full range of government commitments through multifunctional landscapes. I hope this addresses the good point that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made. A decade ago, people such as Sir Graham Wynne were talking to me about this need and, I confess, I did not really understand what was meant. I do now and it is vital. The House of Lords report that presaged this government commitment is worth reading; it is the most powerful reason for backing what we seek to do. I hope to keep the House informed of progress, if I am still here—I have yet to be told, in answer to that question.
I was greatly moved by what my noble friend Lady Mobarik said about Pakistan. The UK has committed to spend £11.6 billion of climate change finance, of which £3 billion will be on nature. We are one of the biggest contributors to the International Climate Fund and this will help economies such as Pakistan to cope with these sorts of terrible moments. We are very focused on food vulnerability across the world. We committed an extra £130 million to the World Food Programme and we are a major investor in research and development, especially in areas where agriculture is destabilised by the climate and method of farming there. We need to support those countries to move to more sustainable systems.
The Government are committed to taking action to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its impact. To support farming, we are introducing three schemes, which have been referred to: the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery. Together, these schemes are intended to provide a powerful vehicle for achieving the goals of the 25-year environment plan and our commitment to net zero by 2050, while supporting the rural economy. Through these schemes, farmers and other land managers may enter into agreements to be paid for delivering public goods, including adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.
In her excellent speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, talked about what more could be done in addition to ELMS and whether this was all. There are many other schemes that farmers can access, but I emphasise the importance of the private sector here and the ability of private sector green finance to enhance farmers’ income by doing public goods. Getting some of the trillions of dollars of ESG money sloshing around into dealing with climate change and reversing declines in biodiversity is a very important part of what we are trying to do in promoting green finance spending that is honest and is not greenwash. That is a very important priority that we have in the department.
We included a requirement in the Environment Act to set a new, historic, legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030. That is seven years away. To be pessimistic, there are many reasons why any Government could fail to hit that target, but we are utterly determined to hit it. But if I want to be optimistic, I point out that the ability of nature to recover very quickly has been proved, on land and at sea, if we protect and enhance those environments in the right way, with highly protected and properly managed marine protected areas. The ability of soils to function properly and the ability of nature to restore and regenerate can be remarkably quick. Nature can be kind to us in that respect if we get on with it. That is what we are doing.
Several measures are being developed to help improve and protect soil in England, making it more resilient to the impacts of climate change. This includes new future farming schemes, which will pay farmers for sustainable approaches to farm husbandry that deliver for the environment, improve and protect soil health and support farm productivity. I say to my noble friend Lord Caithness that the soil action health plan will be incorporated into the environmental improvement plan, which is to be presented to Parliament, as is legally required, by January. It might be before then, but it will be by January.
On the important point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, about biodiversity, we in the UK have to do that in seven years, as I said. In nature terms that is a heartbeat, but we are setting out very clear plans as to how we are to achieve that.
The UK is co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, a group of more than 100 countries that are championing a global deal for nature and have signed up to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, to halt the accelerating loss of species and to protect vital ecosystems that underpin our economic security. Also, COP 26 showcased ambition and action on repurposing public policies and support to deliver sustainable agriculture and food systems. The UK presidency placed nature at the heart of the UNFCCC. Some 45 nations pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and to shift to more sustainable ways of farming. A ground-breaking package was agreed to halt and reverse forest loss and to transition towards sustainable land use. It includes 142 countries, representing over 90% of the world’s forests, pledging to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.
The UK has also announced a £65 million Just Rural Transition support programme to help communities move towards more sustainable methods of agriculture and food production. The UK is driving up global ambition on biodiversity, and hopes to create a Paris moment for nature at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal this December.
In the few minutes I have left, I will try to address some of the other points that were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, made a very important point about our position in the global battle to tackle these problems. We are stepping up to respond. We are calling for all countries to keep food trade flowing. At the World Bank and the IMF spring meetings in April, the UK and our partners secured the largest ever financial commitment from the World Bank, of £170 billion before the end of June to support countries that are facing economic hardship resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With G7 allies, we are discussing Germany’s proposal for a G7 global alliance on food security to scale up a rapid needs-based co-ordinated response, building on current peace and security architecture and avoiding a fragmented global response.
Obviously, tackling domestic food poverty is a key priority for the Government. In the Spring Statement the Chancellor announced that we are continuing to provide targeted cost of living support for households in most need. From April, the Government are providing an additional £500 million to help households with the cost of essentials, bringing the total funding for this support to £1 billion. We take food insecurity seriously, which is why the Government added internationally recognised food security questions to the Family Resources Survey. The latest national statistics from the survey show that 93% of households are food secure, but we are working hard and accept that large numbers of households are facing wider cost of living issues.
I think I have already addressed the points made by a number of noble Lords on the food strategy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked how resilient the UK food supply is. Thanks to our farmers, we are almost 100% self-sufficient in fresh poultry and certain vegetables and close to 90% self-sufficient in eggs. A lot of points were made about fruit and horticulture. Our horticultural plan is soon to be announced, as well as incentives to support that sector and make sure that we are producing as much as we can nationally and locally. We want to disrupt the rather clunky supply chains through new technologies such as vertical farming, and we will see this happening in coming years.
There are a number of other points which I will seek to write to noble Lords about, given the pressing time.
I finish by saying that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith has been leading work to ensure that the success of COP 26 is embedded in the COP 15 conference, which was due to the held in Kunming, China, as half of the food we eat is totally dependent on biodiversity. This is a key point. This COP could not come at a more important time, and we have to make sure that we have success at the end of it. What we do nationally and domestically is important—it is important to our citizens; people really mind about the state of our countryside, nature and how we produce food—but we cannot do it in isolation from the global challenges that we face at this important time. Frankly, with the at times terrifying statistics on biodiversity decline, we need to be part of international focus on trying to tackle that as well as making sure that domestically we are farming and producing food sustainably and reversing the tragic decline in species that we have seen in recent decades.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. As I think he knows, I have a great deal of time and respect for his points of view. I am afraid I do not completely share his optimism that we are getting it all right and looking at green and pleasant lands or sunlit uplands—whatever you want to call them. I have been told that I only have two minutes, so I cannot refer to everyone’s fantastic contributions, but I would obviously like to single out the noble Baroness, Lady Willis, and say how thrilled I am that she is here.
I also point out that people have talked about what is happening in Pakistan and across the world. In this country we have always been shielded from this stuff; we do not think it affects us. In fact, it is affecting us hugely. The noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, talked about the rice production of Pakistan being severely curtailed. That will affect not only our supply but our prices. I chair Feeding Britain and see this every day.
Food security is to do with everyone. Food is at the bottom—or top, wherever you want to put it—of practically everything we do. We can live without energy, but we cannot live without food. This has been shown by the fantastic contributions from everyone in this House. It is in everything, whether we are talking about water, soil or big companies that run the world. It needs an extreme shake-up. At the moment, we fiddle at the margins. Politically it looks impossible, but that is no reason to say that we should not try.
I thank noble Lords very much for being here tonight. I would be grateful if the Minister could write to as many people as possible as some really important points were made.
House adjourned at 5.35 pm.