Examination of Witness

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 13th February 2020.

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George Monbiot gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 2:30 pm, 13th February 2020

We will now hear evidence from George Monbiot. Welcome to the Committee. This panel will finish at 3 pm. Would you introduce yourself, please?

George Monbiot:

Thank you. I am an environmental campaigner and journalist.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip, Government Whip

Q What do you think about the public good provisions in the Bill, and to what extent do you think they are correctly defined? Is there further scope for the definition of public good?

George Monbiot:

I think it really important to tighten the definition and to stick with, basically, the classical definition of non-rivalrous and non-excludable. There is potential for slippage within the wording of the Bill, for example into food production that does not fit the definition. We should basically also be funding public goods that are additional and which are not going to be delivered anyway.

We should be very careful not to use subsidies as a substitute for regulation. There is a real danger in saying, “We will put all this on a voluntary basis and we will pay people to do the right thing,” rather than saying, “You may not do the wrong thing.” I feel that there have already been a lot of failures in monitoring and enforcement of cross-compliance under the current subsidy regime. If we are not careful, we could see those failures become a lot worse.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon. Since the Bill was introduced a couple of years ago, the world has moved on in some ways. There is greater awareness of the challenge that we face, and the Government have conceded that there is a climate emergency. Do you think that the Bill is up to the task and, if you started with a blank sheet of paper, what would you do?

George Monbiot:

One of my aims would be to reduce the area of land used for agriculture. All agriculture is a radical simplification of ecosystems, until you get to the point at which it is so extensive that it is not really agriculture. The Knepp Castle Estate, for example, is a wonderful example of rewilding, but I worked out that if we were to universalise that across much of the UK, we would need to cut our meat consumption by about 99.5%—that is not a great example of agriculture. Until you get to that level of extensification, you are really removing huge numbers of species and a huge amount of potential carbon storage that would otherwise be there.

In this country, we suffer grievously from what I call “agricultural sprawl”—large areas of land used to produce small amounts of food. It gets to the point at which, for instance, sheep farming in the uplands, according to my estimates, occupies roughly 4 million hectares—almost as much land as all our arable and horticultural production put together—yet produces roughly 1% of our food by calories and roughly 2% by protein. That is a remarkably wasteful use of land, which could be much better used for carbon storage through regeneration and rewilding, and for the great resuscitation of ecosystems and the recovery of our very put-upon wild species.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q I have one additional question that has not come up very much. We talk about public goods and public money, but should there be some public voice in all this, for any decisions about what goes on locally? Where are the people in all this?

George Monbiot:

That is a very good question. The Bill discusses both natural heritage and cultural heritage. Both are very important values and neither should be dismissed, but there is an assumption in a great deal of rural thinking in Britain that they are one and the same. We have to acknowledge that they are often in direct conflict. Maintaining sheep on the land is highly damaging to ecosystems, but getting rid of sheep farmers can be highly damaging to local cultures and languages. We have to see that a balance should be struck.

We have so often fudged the issue, the classic example being the world heritage bid in the Lake district, where they were assumed to be one and the same. It is always resolved in favour of farming, because farming is assumed to be good for ecosystems, but in the great majority of cases it is not—the best thing to do for an ecosystem is to withdraw farming from it. But because we do not acknowledge that there is a conflict, we do not produce a balance that ever favours wildlife.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Mr Monbiot, you are on record as saying that

“farming is no longer essential to human survival”.

In contradiction to what the Soil Association told us this morning—that we should have more mixed farming and more livestock, allowing soils to be improved by the use of natural manures—you suggest that we should abandon livestock production, particularly on the uplands, and plant trees and rewild large areas of our country. Is that a correct appraisal?

George Monbiot:

That is broadly correct. One thing to say is that in the uplands there is almost no mixed farming. In fact, it would be very hard for mixed farming to be established in the uplands, which are very unsuitable on the whole for arable. In the lowlands, if we were to reintroduce mixed farming, at the microlevel that could be a very good thing by comparison to the arable deserts of East Anglia, but we would see a major decline in total yield. There is very little research on what that decline would be, but everyone can more or less accept that we will see that decline.

The global conundrum we are in is that roughly half the global population is dependent on NPK, to put it crudely, and certainly on nitrogen and other artificial fertilisers. If we were to take those out of the system, we would have mass starvation—huge numbers of people would die. However, we are aware that applications of N, P and K and others are causing global disaster: they contribute significantly to climate breakdown, soil loss, downstream pollution, air pollution and a whole load of other issues. We cannot live with it and cannot live without it. We are in an astonishing and very difficult conundrum. If we were to switch—as the Soil Association recommends and as my instincts would tell us to do—to mixed rotation or organic farming, we would not be able to produce enough food. It is as simple as that.

How do we get out of that conundrum? I see some hope in factory-produced food—microbial protein and cultured meat. That could be the only way of reconciling environmental needs of future generations and the rest of life on Earth with the need to feed people alive today and in future. We need to find ways of feeding the planet without devouring it. That could be the way.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

CouldQ we talk about peatlands? You have been very involved in trying to make the case for the restoration of peatlands and their role as a natural climate solution. Do you think more can be done in the Bill to encourage their being left alone?

George Monbiot:

I do not know whether this would fit in the remit of the Bill, but I would certainly favour banning driven grouse shooting, which is a major cause of peatland erosion. I would look at the strongest possible measures we could introduce for the restoration of blanket bogs. I would, at the very least, commission new research into the impact of agriculture on peatlands, and whether we are better off without agriculture on peatlands in terms of the carbon budget.

There is a paper in Food Policy by Durk Nijdam that points out the extraordinary levels of carbon opportunity cost on Welsh farms with high organic soils. He talks in some cases of 640 kg of carbon per kilogram of lamb protein, as a result of the lost opportunity to protect those organic soils, which is a result of farming continuing there. It would be far better in carbon terms not to farm soils, if his research is replicable.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

I am interested in your view that we should be looking at reducing farming land usage. As we leave our present farming relationships due to Brexit, is this not a time of national need when we must preserve our acreage to feed our growing population? I am asking whether you have a political slant that is not directed at feeding the nation and securing the interests of our home farmers and workers. Is it not fanciful to think that we should give up a large amount of our acreage? Do we not need it to save us against the trials and tribulations of the post-Brexit worldQ ?

George Monbiot:

There are a lot of things we need to save ourselves from at the moment, and the most urgent is climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Huge tracts of this land are scarcely feeding us at all. There are very large areas of land where you have one sheep per hectare, per 2 hectares or, in some places, per 5 hectares. That is not producing food in any appreciable amount, yet that land could be used to draw down large amounts of carbon, to stop the sixth great extinction in its tracks, for the restoration of wildlife and ecosystems, or to prevent flooding. There is a whole load of ecological goods—public goods—that that land could be delivering, but it is not currently delivering them, because it is producing tiny amounts of food instead. We are probably all against urban sprawl and believe it is a bad thing because it takes up huge amounts of land while delivering not many services for the people who live in a sprawling city. We should be equally concerned about agricultural sprawl, which takes up far more land.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q With respect, what do I say to my farmers in the Derbyshire dales, where, by necessity, the land is good only for sheep in some areas? Do I tell them they should not be able to earn a living and feed the country? It is a bit fanciful to think we can give up huge tracts of land. Is it not the case that we will get the best outcome if farmers work in conjunction with places such as the Peak park authority?

George Monbiot:

I would characterise the Peak park as an ecological disaster area. It is remarkable how little wildlife there is. You can walk all day and see just a handful of birds; I will see more in a suburban garden. We need a completely different approach to managing land like that.

What you can tell the farmers is, “Let’s pay you to do something completely different, such as restoration, rewilding, bringing back the missing species or bringing back the trees.” Where are the trees above around 200 metres in the Peak district and, indeed, most of the uplands of Britain? They simply are not there. This is a disaster. Anyone who visits from another country—someone from Brazil or Indonesia, my friends, tropical forest ecologists—says, “What’s happened here?” They see these places we call our national parks and say, “How can you call that a national park? It’s a sheep ranch.”

By all means let us keep people on the land, but let us use public money to pay them to do something completely different. Let us face it: there would not be any hill farming in this country without public money. It is a loss-making exercise. If we, the public, are going to pay for it, I think we, the public, have a right to determine what we are paying for. We should be paying for public goods, not public harms.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Hi George. There has been a lot of publicity about the carbon footprints of different types of food. For example, 1 kg of vegetables produces approximately 2 kg of carbon dioxide, whereas 1 kg of beef produces about 27 kg of carbon dioxide. Do you think the Bill should go a step further and focus on those who produce foodstuffs with low carbon footprints rather than those who produce foodstuffs with higher carbon footprints?Q

George Monbiot:

I think this should be the perspective through which we start to see everything. This is the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced: the breakdown of our life-support systems. The Governments that will be judged favourably by future generations are those that put that issue front and centre. Other things are subsidiary to our survival. It is imperative that we should start favouring a low-carbon diet and use public policy to disfavour a high-carbon diet. Whether through farm subsidies—I think that does play a role—or meat taxes, which I think could also play a role, we should find all the instruments possible to steer and encourage people to reduce the environmental impacts of their diets.

The most important metric here is what scientists call carbon opportunity costs, which is basically, “What could you be doing on that land if you weren’t doing this?” If, for instance, you are producing beef or lamb on this piece of land, what is the carbon opportunity cost of that? What would be the carbon storage if, instead, trees and wild habitats were allowed to return? There has been some new research just published, or a new compilation of research, on Our World in Data showing that when you look at the carbon opportunity costs, those of beef and lamb are massively greater than those of anything else we eat. It is really, really huge. Even when you take food miles into account, they are tiny by comparison to those carbon costs, and that is what we should focus on.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q I have one yes/no question and then a slightly fuller question. The yes/no question is, did you say that we should take food production out of the Bill? Food production is something that has been added, as an objective of the new system, and I think you said that it should not be an objective of the Bill.

George Monbiot:

It should certainly not be linked to the public goods agenda; it should not be seen as a public good.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q It should not be seen as a public good. Okay. Thank you.

My next question is this: do you agree that a grass-fed cattle herd on open pasture in Wiltshire has a net positive effect in terms of carbon capture? I appreciate that you have an argument about opportunity costs—missed opportunities from grazing—but the terrible carbon impact of beef is because of intensively farmed, closely packed cattle—

George Monbiot:

No, that is not true at all.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q However, a good pasture-fed, grass-fed cattle herd has a net positive effect in terms of carbon. Do you not agree?

George Monbiot:

No, that is simply not true. That claim has been made many times, and it is now basically reaching the level of climate denial—climate science denial—because it is so far removed from what the science base actually tells us.

I can pass the papers on to you if you wish. There has been a meta-study done by the Food Climate Research Network that looked at those claims. It investigated 300 sources and found that in none of the cases that it looked at was carbon sequestration in the soil under pasture compensating for carbon losses. The highest level of compensation was 20% to 60% of the overall carbon losses; there is a net loss in every case. The extensive grazing systems also have a higher net loss and a higher carbon opportunity cost than even the intensive grain-fed systems.

There is a paper by Balmford et al in Nature, I believe. There is another one by Blomqvist et al—I think it is in Science of the Total Environment. They show that, paradoxically—unexpectedly, perhaps—intensive systems per kilo of beef produced are less carbon-damaging than extensive systems per kilo, and that is simply because of the amount of land that they occupy.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q You were speaking just then about the conflict between natural heritage and cultural heritage, and you will know that the highlands in Scotland still have a wonderful cultural heritage, despite what was at times a quite systematic depopulation of the area. I wondered what sort of future you envisage for the people who live there now if they turn from being farmers on the uplands, which, as you know, are basically largely suitable for rough grazing—that is one of the reasons why sheep, and to a lesser extent cattle, are grazed there. If they do that, what do they then become? Just on a practical, day-to-day level, what do they then become—just land managers, because they get subsidies for food production, which only supplements part of their income? What do those people do, and how do we keep them there so that we still have communities in the highlands?

George Monbiot:

I would see them as ecological restorers—people who have a different but very rich relationship with the land, bringing back wildlife and ecosystems. We would hopefully see a constant racking-up of ambition as time goes by.

It is hard to universalise it, but there is now quite a big literature on nature-based economies, showing that, certainly in some circumstances, they can employ a lot more people than farm-based economies, even in quite fertile areas. For instance, I was at Gelderse Poort in the Netherlands last year, in an area that was previously dairy and maize farms. For the purposes of creating more room for the river, the dykes were taken a mile or so back from the river and the land was rewilded. The farmers were saying there would be a loss of employment. In fact, it turns out that there was an increase of between five and six times the total employment as a result of the tourists who have come in to see the wildlife, the bed and breakfasts, the cafes and the rest of the things associated with that. The farmers have done very well out of it.

I do not know the answer to whether we can replicate that everywhere, but we should be urgently investigating other new rural economies based around the restoration of wildlife and nature. Given that we are competing here with a loss-making economy—an economy where the farmers would make more money if they took the subsidy and stopped farming—it is not a very steep competition that we have to win if we are to show that nature-based economies are more productive in terms of employment and income.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q My farmers would argue that food production and environmental delivery go hand in hand, and you cannot have one without the other. They would not be able to make any money if they did not have good soil, clean air and clean water, and they are responsible for maintaining that. If we did adopt your model of removing land from agricultural production, who would be responsible for ensuring those environmental benefits? Who would be safeguarding that?

George Monbiot:

Yes, how did nature survive before humans came along? It is extraordinary, this idea of stewardship and dominion—this idea that humankind has to intervene to protect wildlife and ecosystems. We do not. We can do a lot to encourage the protection and to kick-start things, and we will always need a role as rangers to ensure that there are not too many conflicts between people and ecosystems. However, the idea that we are necessary to create healthy soils and healthy ecosystems—the best thing we can do in the great majority of cases is to remove extractive economies from the land and to let ecosystems recover. We need to bring back missing species, to take down fences, to kick-start woodland in places where there is not a seedbank left and stuff like that, but we need very little human intervention to get a healthy ecosystem going. While farmers are absolutely right to say that they need a healthy ecosystem to sustain their farming, we do not need farming to sustain a healthy ecosystem.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

Q Mr Monbiot, there is a significant difference between your ambitions and the ambitions of the Bill and agriculture more generally. If you were to get free rein with one element of the Bill—some operational amendment that you could make to the Bill, rather than a theoretical one—what would it be, and how would you achieve it?

George Monbiot:

I think it would be a clear distinction between the additionality that public payments for public goods could produce and the regulatory environment. I am not skilled in framing policy, but basically we need to lay down a distinction between, “Here is the list of things that you as a steward of the land are expected to do. That will be a matter of regulation with monitoring and enforcement. For most of those things, you will not get paid,” and, “Here are the additional things that are not being done anyway, for which you will be paid if you do them.” Quite how you draft it to deliver that, I am not sure. Is that a clear enough answer?

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

In terms of those things that you would have them do, are these elements of rewilding or some form of carbon—

George Monbiot:

Rewilding, carbon storage, watershed restoration—there is a whole series of additional ecological interventions that you could consider that would clearly fit the notion of public goods, but I worry when I see things like, “Animal welfare will attract public payments.” Surely animal welfare should be something that we legislate for. Hopefully we legislate for ever higher animal welfare standards.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Conservative, Rutland and Melton

I apologise, perhaps Mr Zeichner planned to ask this, as he is an east of England MP, but I found your description of the east of England as an arable desert slightly confusing, having grown up there. It is better known as Britain’s breadbasket, so I wonder how you came to that conclusionQ .

George Monbiot:

It can be both. It can be highly productive in producing a handful of crop species and deserted in terms of wildlife. There are large areas of arable land, particularly in East Anglia, where there is little wildlife. We see a lot of nitrate pollution, soil erosion and water pollution. It is not in a good ecological state, even though, thanks to lashings of NPK and lots of pesticides, we are producing a lot of food there.

We must recognise that what is great on one metric is not so great on another. The attempt to pretend that they are one and the same—that agriculture is good for ecosystems and that the more we have, the better it will be for ecosystems—clouds this whole debate. There is an inherent conflict between an extractive economy, which simplifies ecosystems, and the complex, rich ecosystems, with food webs that are both wide and deep, which an ecologist like me wants to see.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

George, Parliament has declared a climate emergency since the last agriculture Bill. What changes can you see in this Bill that deliver the urgent action neededQ ?

George Monbiot:

I am afraid I have not seen changes commensurate with the declaration of a climate emergency. This should be front and centre. An emergency is an emergency. We should be maximising mitigation and absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. The Paris agreement asks us for the greatest possible ambition; we do not see that in the Agriculture Bill.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

Q I have a quick supplementary question. How far does this Bill go in doing that?

George Monbiot:

The public goods agenda is something useful that we can build on. It is a massive improvement on the common agricultural policy, but it must be much more explicit about what public goods are. Carbon storage, as a metric, must run throughout it like a stick of rock, but also ecological restoration—we do not want to make it just about carbon. We want to maximise the recovery of wildlife and ecosystems, which are in such a dire state in this country.

It must be recognised that the ecological difference between farming and not farming, particularly in the uplands, is far greater than the ecological difference between, say, BPS sheep farming and HLS sheep farming, which is very small in ecological terms. Having a cessation of farming in those areas, bringing back many of the missing species and having an ecosystem dominated by trees and other thick vegetation would be massively better, in terms of both carbon and ecology, than a modification of farming in those places.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Conservative, Stafford

Thank you. Farmers are at the forefront of climate change and, I think, do a huge amount to help conserve the countryside. Do you think that farmers and land managers should be financially supported to deliver environmental improvements, or should it just be required by regulationQ ?

George Monbiot:

As I say, we should distinguish between environmental improvements and not doing harm. I do not think we should be offering payments for not beating up old ladies. That is the way I see it. Lots of people do not do bad things in society, but they do not get paid for refraining from doing bad things. Keeping soil on your land should be a regulatory requirement. We should not have to pay people to do that; we should say, “You are not allowed to destroy our natural heritage in that way.” But we should pay for bringing in ecosystems that do not currently exist.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. That brings us to the end of this session. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your evidence. I apologise to those members of the Committee who would have liked to ask questions. You have answered more questions per minute in half an hour than anybody else. Thank you very much.