Monitoring pesticide use and alternatives

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 20th November 2018.

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(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of Royal Assent being given to this Act, publish proposals—

(a) to monitor the use and effects of pesticides in the management of livestock or land, to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control and to promote their take-up, and

(b) to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control and to promote their take-up, and

(c) to consult on a target to reduce the use of pesticides.

(2) The proposals shall include steps to measure—

(a) the effect of pesticides on environmental health,

(b) the effect of pesticides on human health,

(c) the frequency with which individual pesticides are applied,

(d) the areas to which individual pesticides are applied, and

(e) the take-up of alternative methods of pest control by land use and sector.

(3) “Environmental health” in subsection (2)(a) includes the health of flora, fauna, land, air or any inland water body.

(4) “Human health” in subsection (2)(b) means the health of farmers, farmworkers and their families, operators, bystanders, rural residents and the general public.—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish proposals to monitor the impact of pesticides, to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control, to promote their take-up, and to consult on proposals to set a target to reduce the use of pesticides.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Now we are moving on to pesticides. Now that we have dealt with animals, we can go on to crops. Again, in its own way this new clause would not radically change the Bill, but the pesticides argument is important. We are all obliged to move toward higher environmental standards—dare I say it, that is the whole point of the Bill. One way in which we will measure those higher environmental standards is in terms of less pesticide use.

I accept that this is a very divisive issue. On the one hand we have the Pesticide Action Network UK and on the other we have the Crop Protection Association, each with radically different views on whether we are doing the right thing already or we should move in a different direction so that we see much less reliance on pesticides. Certainly, the agro-ecological approach would be to look at how we can substantially reduce, if not remove, the reliance on pesticides.

That matters because the British public seem overwhelmingly to want us to have less reliance on pesticides. We have had the big debate on neonicotinoids; we also have the debate on other pesticides. At the moment, that has been abdicated to Europe, and Members of the European Parliament voted on whether glyphosate should be banned. In the end I think both Conservative and Labour MEPs chose not to ban it, but if we leave the EU the decision will be fairly and squarely back with the United Kingdom Parliament. We cannot pretend that this is not something that we will have to make our opinion known on, and that will be subject to future legislative requirements.

We are not asking for the end of pesticides or necessarily for a dramatic change in policy. We are looking for an indication from the Government that they intend to look, through the environmental payments, at how pesticide use will be measured and monitored with a view to reduced dependence. That is important because the Bill is all about soil quality and water management, and if we do not control pesticides, we might as well give up on both those things, because they will not happen.

Again, it is not just about our environment per se, but about the impact on ourselves—human beings. Those of us who were involved historically with organophosphates know that they are sadly still an issue; I still have people coming to me to say that they feel that was never properly investigated. I know that there are research findings.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling)

Is it not part of the point? If we do the research and carry out deep investigations now, it is entirely possible that we will be able to be at the forefront of the new range of pesticides that are more environmentally friendly, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Exactly. As I have made abundantly clear, we will get one chance to debate this in 50 years, because that is the likely length of time that this piece of legislation will last, if the Agriculture Act 1947 is anything to go by. These pieces of legislation do not come around very often, so we make no apology for bringing forward the debate on pesticides now. We are subject to correspondence on it and people want to know where we stand. I hope the Government are listening.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower 3:45 pm, 20th November 2018

This is a very important point and I welcome the new clause. Local testing is going on in Gower and we have shocking levels of weedkiller in local rivers. I hope that my hon. Friend will press the new clause to a vote.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that is a hint. Given we did not divide on live exports, we might divide on pesticides instead. It is important to have this debate and look at this opportunity. The new clause is not doing anything dramatic. It asks us to use this piece of legislation to review current pesticide use, to consult on it, and to monitor it better. It says that that is something that should be in land management contracts. If it is not included, how can we find a way to secure a measurable improvement in our environment? As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower says, we only have to look at our watercourses to know that pesticides get into them. Most of us see that as unacceptable and we have to do something about it.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope I will be able to persuade the shadow Minister that he does not need to press the new clause to a Division. We rehearsed in an earlier discussion on clause 1 the fact that the Government are actively looking at holistic schemes to support and incentivise what could be called integrated pest management. We are considering whether we can reduce our reliance on synthetic chemistry by using more natural predators and different agronomic approaches and being willing for the first time to incentivise farmers financially to do that.

One of the things we are looking at is an incentivised integrated pest management scheme to advance this policy agenda. We also set out in our 25-year environment plan the idea of moving forward and embracing integrated pest management more than we have done previously. The new clause deals with publishing reports and measuring impacts—I have said previously that DEFRA needs no encouragement to produce reports through statutory requirements; we love reports. As I explained, I regularly have to read and sign off reports and I sometimes question whether anyone else is reading them. For some reason, many reports seems to congregate around June, so during that month my box is weighed down with annual reports of one sort or another.

I will share with the hon. Gentleman some of the reports that we have received. I have a lot of reading here that he can take away as a memento of this Committee. The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides—the ECP—which gives us advice on emergency authorisations and on some of the tricky chemical issues. It is a standing advisory committee to the Chemicals Regulation Directorate. I have with me its annual report for 2017, all 22 pages of it. The Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food produces a separate annual report, on top of the one by the Expert Committee on Pesticides, so we have two expert committees in the pesticides space, one on residues and one on broader environmental impacts, both of which produce a report. The report on pesticide residues lists all the findings and surveillance on residues on a wide range of imported products and products produced domestically. It runs to 48 pages and is an annual report.

If that is not enough for the hon. Gentleman, the pesticide usage survey report, is produced by the National Statistics Office and focuses on all sorts of different icrops. I have with me the 2016 report for arable crops, all 92 pages of it, with lots of tables demonstrating exactly what is produced. That key survey already monitors the use of pesticide-active substances on each crop.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

In addition to that, does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that farm assurance schemes carry out detailed scrutiny of the records kept by farmers on the pesticides that they use within the rules?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend is correct: schemes such as the red tractor assurance scheme have additional checks and enforcement to ensure that there is nothing out of order, and on top of that they generally require MOTs, for instance, for sprayer equipment.

The pesticide usage survey covers the frequency of application, which picks up the measures in subsection (1)(c) of the new clause, and the area treated, which covers subsection (2)(d), as well as the weight of active substance. It also includes figures on some of the alternatives to chemicals, such as the use of viruses that can target insect pests. In addition, the National Poisons Information Service collects and considers reports of possible harm to people, which covers subsection (2)(b). Results are not published, but they are reported to DEFRA and other interested Departments, as well as to the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides.

Finally, the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme looks at reported incidents of possible harm to wildlife, which I think is what subsection (2)(a) of the new clause is trying to get at. Results of the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme are published on the Health and Safety Executive website, and the Environment Agency also monitors levels of pesticides in water.

I understand that there are very good intentions behind the new clause, but I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Stroud that we have a plethora of reports that cover pesticide use and pesticide issues in great detail. I hope he will withdraw his new clause at this stage, take some time to read the reports, which I would be happy to leave with him, and consider whether he still feels the measure is necessary on Report.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It was always a good teaching ploy, when someone was really stuck, to give the kids lots of reading on the basis that that person could try to escape from the fact that they did not really know what they were talking about, hoping that the kids might be able to tell them in due course. That is just me as an old-fashioned teacher. I look forward to receiving the documents the Minister will give me to read, but I will press this to a vote, because the Government need to understand that the direction of travel is about environmental moneys being paid for environmental goods, whatever an environmental good is—it will be interesting to define that in due course.

Like previous versions of the Department, DEFRA has undertaken huge amounts of consultation, but when it comes down to it, it is about the action on the ground. It is important that we know that pesticide use will be one of the features that will be measured. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower says, one would assume that over a period of time, when pesticides get into watercourses, that will be picked up and dealt with under land management contracts, so that someone will lose their money if they are seen to be polluting the local brooks. Otherwise, what is the point of this particular bit of legislation? We have both to lay down the law and to see how it will be enforced in practice.

Pesticides are a pretty important aspect of what happens to our landscape. I have always bought the argument that farmers, for all sorts of reasons, would want to spend less money on them, because it is an imputed cost and they feel very strongly that they want to minimise their costs, but sadly we have seen that many aspects of the environmental degradation of our countryside were down to misuse of pesticides, which have been seen as a shortcut to getting more output from farms. That is why we will put this motion to a vote. We let the Government get away on live exports, although that will no doubt come back.

On this motion, what is the point of environmental moneys if they are not properly scrutinised on the ground? Whoever may be advising is one thing, but this is something that presumably the payments agency will have to measure. Unless we have something that sets that out in the Bill, it will come down to vague promises. That is not acceptable in legislation. We either do it properly or we do not do it at all. Let us do it properly.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 28 Decision Time — Monitoring pesticide use and alternatives

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 29