I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the interdependence of modern farming and the environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This subject is close to my heart; and for clarity, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have interests in conventional and organic farming, as well as the agrifood industry.
It may be patently obvious that farming and the environment are interdependent, but a narrative exists that agriculture undermines the environment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described farmers as
“the original friends of the earth”.
The essence of today’s debate is that, certainly in the UK, the environment, the countryside, has been shaped by farming and human beings. Even in Scotland, where 85% of the land is less favoured areas, almost every acre has been shaped by human intervention.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland is clear in its view. It says:
“Active agriculture is best placed to manage land for environmental benefit” and the objectives of production of food. The NFU of England and Wales produced a paper entitled “United by our environment, our food, our future”. It makes it clear that food production is at the heart of land use and that public goods are directly affected by agriculture. The responsibility for those public goods lies disproportionately with agriculture, but most importantly, the sustainability of our environment has always been key to the future of farming, which we have been doing for generations.
What more does my hon. Friend think that we and the Government can do to encourage the positive ecological effects of beekeeping? It seems to be incredibly important in plant pollination, among other things.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have to ensure that we have joined-up thinking in relation to beekeeping. There is an example from Scotland. Neonicotinoids have been banned, and the possible result is the use of other sprays. No less a supplier than one to Her Majesty the Queen at Balmoral considers that the flea beetle, which is now not controlled by neonicotinoids—that is a very difficult word to say—was potentially the reason for the destruction of an oilseed rape crop and therefore why he produced less honey. This is one of the questions that I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister: we must have joined-up thinking.
As custodians of the land, we see and manage the whole picture. That is really the point of policy as we go forward. Farmers and agriculture draw together the entire picture.
I meant to let my hon. Friend finish his point before I intervened, but I thank him very much for letting me in. I, too, draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For me, the most important thing as we go into the future is that the food we grow not only will be top quality, but should be fed to people. I strongly support the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, of which I am chairman, because we believe that grass should be consumed by animals. That does not work unless the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs changes the labelling so that people know that if it says “grass-fed” on the package, that means 100% grass-fed, so anything that my hon. Friend can do to support better labelling, better information for the public and therefore better support for our farmers would be most welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I have to say, coming from north of the border, where it is slightly colder and we keep cattle inside for several months—I am a cattle finisher myself—that Scotland clearly produces the best beef in the world by some measure. Cattle inside my buildings were fed silage, which of course is grass as well as cereal, so I do not disagree with the point that my hon. Friend makes.
This point is not allied to the last one, but the police have raised with me their concerns that the grubbing up of hedges and boundaries around farms has not only destroyed habitats, but made it very difficult for them to police the environmental aspects of agricultural establishments in particular, because there are just open fields that can have hare coursing and things like that conducted on them. Has my hon. Friend come across that?
I recently met the chief of police in my area, and I have to say that rural crime is fought very much better, partly because of technology. There is a great deal of usage of text messages and WhatsApp, which enables us to keep in touch. I would say that, if anything, in the north-east of Scotland, every time that a white van drives mysteriously anywhere, NFU Scotland is immediately raising suspicions that the white van may be up to something. I therefore take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
Sustainable food production is underpinned by five key areas on which I think we can all agree: landscape, biodiversity, soil, water and air. Farmers, by design or results, pull all five together. Farmers, by the very nature of what we are doing, have shaped the landscape and have a responsibility. It is important that farmers engage with the general public, apart from allowing them access on to land, because they are of course the ultimate consumers of what we produce.
Farming is integral to protecting habitats and wildlife and key to protecting and rebuilding our biodiversity. We have heard reports recently that other parts of the world are having significant problems in that respect. British agriculture, the agriculture of the United Kingdom, is doing much to be careful of our biodiversity.
The hon. Gentleman is one of the best qualified of our colleagues in this place to talk about this subject, given his expertise. Farming and crofting are crucial to the viability of my constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. My concern is that the next generation of crofters and farmers are not necessarily coming forward, as they are being discouraged from going into the business. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have to ensure a follow-on, with generation succeeding generation, to ensure continuity of life on the land?
I absolutely agree. I am particularly conscious of the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country and the low-population areas represented by other hon. Members. It is important that we get a number of things right. First, we must give new entrants an opportunity to get into farming. We must ensure that tenure and ownership or tenancy of land is clear and clarified, so that people have the confidence to rent land and to rent land out, which as politicians we must get the policy right on. We must also recognise the financial burden of getting into agriculture. Let me say this to the Minister. As we go forward, we have to be very conscious of how we give new entrants a leg-up. The reality is that land no longer has any connection to the value of what it produces. We have to be very conscious of how we will give new entrants a leg-up and how Governments can play their part in that.
Soil is clearly the basis of farming.
My hon. Friend has just made a point about new entrants. Does he agree with me, a fellow son of a fellow farmer, that it is just as important to encourage next-generation entrants into the business as it is to encourage totally new entrants? Sometimes it is assumed that the son or, indeed, the daughter of a farmer will just follow in their footsteps, but they also need that support.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Young as I look, it was not many years ago that I was one of the—[Interruption.] Is that going to be a point of order? I was one of the youngest people sitting round the ring at Thainstone mart, buying cattle; the average farmer was aged 60 to 65. Let me comment, in response to my hon. Friend’s point, that perhaps the common agricultural policy payment scheme has, if anything, stopped the intergenerational change, and now that we are able to design our own policy, I hope that, as I said to Jamie Stone, we can find a process to encourage new entrants. However, we cannot get past the fact that this industry is hugely capital-invested. We have to be realistic about what we are bringing new entrants in to do.
Since the war, there have been three generations on my farm in the north-east of Scotland. My grandfather was a doctor from Glasgow, but mysteriously decided to be a farmer. Apparently, land was cheap in the 1940s—there was a chap with a moustache who wanted to devalue most of the land in Europe. My grandfather bought a farm in the north-east and he will have started off the soil process of modern farming by putting on lime and draining the land. My father will have gone to the next stage by analysing the nutrient value of the crop and trying to do something about further drainage of the land and improving the soil. It is an ongoing process. Finally, I tried to introduce precision farming to reduce the compaction of soil.
It is important to recognise that farmers have made mistakes on land usage. My businesses previously were in east Anglia, where I saw monocultures. I recognise that monocultures do nothing for the soil. We have a relatively traditional approach in Scotland. Water will clearly become more of an issue, even in wet Aberdeenshire, where we already have nitrate-vulnerable zones. We must be conscious that the water is affected by everything that runs off our land.
On that point, having run businesses before, I was amazed to discover that as much as 75% of the nitrogen used on crops cannot be used by the crop. If cars leaked 75% of their fuel from the tank, we would try to redesign the system. Farmers are well aware that some of our farming practices can be improved. There are great opportunities in technology. Air is clearly a public good. Agriculture is said to produce 10% of gases emitted, but we have come a long way.
The NFU’s report showed that we increased economic growth in agriculture, while reducing the inputs, between 1990 and 2016. Farmers are taking action while output increases. This is an important point. Modern farming tries to produce as much as it can from an acre, in an efficient and sustainable way. Some 87% of farmers are recycling waste materials from their farms, 69% are improving fertiliser application accuracy, where, as I have said, an enormous amount can be done, 75% are improving energy efficiency, not to mention the amount of renewables, 38% are increasing their use of clover in grassland, 27% are improving nitrogen feed efficiency for livestock, and 27% are increasing the use of legumes in arable rotation. In all those figures there is still a great deal of room for improvement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making a good point about the contribution that many British farmers are making to reducing their carbon footprint. Does he agree that there is an environmental argument for supporting British farmers, in order to reduce the food miles associated with importing a lot of food, and that, particularly in the post-Brexit landscape, supporting British agriculture to reduce our carbon footprint and ensure sustainability will mean reducing the food miles from imported food?
It is also an issue of displacement. If we are too restrictive and prohibit too much in the UK, we may simply displace productivity to other regions, such as the Mediterranean, where water is obviously in short supply, and where aquifers may be used that cannot be resupplied, or—the classic example—the rain forest; we may import beef from there, because it is cheaper, but there is a huge environmental impact. When we make policy decisions, we have to be careful not to displace production from the UK, where we have high sensitivities, to other countries. Perhaps we need to find technological answers to that problem.
There are examples of piecemeal policy on renewable energy. The report from the National Farmers Union and NFU Scotland both commented on this. Take the issue of anaerobic digesters in the renewable heat incentive scheme. There are monocultures of maize in northern Europe, Germany, the Paris basin and, to some extent, parts of England. In creating a monoculture, we have to be very careful not to create a problem, whether that is soil erosion or potential for further flooding, for the sake of producing what is effectively very expensive energy. In the north-east, a 3,000-acre traditional rotation farm might these days just grow grass. Growing grass is less damaging than growing maize, but I am concerned that we are subsidising things that distract us from our primary aim, which is to produce food. We have to make sure that the policy is sustainable. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at the fuels used in anaerobic digesters.
Also on the renewable heat incentive scheme, there is concern in Scotland—and, I am sure, England—that in the forestry industry, raw material is being cut down immaturely for use in RHI. We policy makers must not deal with one issue or priority without thinking about what could roll on from our actions.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I expect he will come on to the fact that the common agricultural policy disproportionately rewards larger farmers and large landowners, at the expense of many smaller farmers in the UK. A consequence is that many smaller farmers are looking to diversify out of necessity, to maintain the profitability of their main farming business. As part of our green and environmentally friendly agenda, we should help farmers into suitable diversification into renewable energy where that can help the profitability of the farm.
I would say there is an opportunity there. Smaller farms can come together to share machinery. There are also schemes for them to come together to share environmental and biodiversity priorities. There is an opportunity for smaller farms to interact. Scale is not everything. Clearly, sharing a combine over many thousands of acres will lower the cost of that equipment per acre. Aberdeenshire is not unusual in that respect. It is rural, but not all of it is arable. I would rather not suggest that this is all about farms becoming much bigger, and us ending up with a similar situation to East Anglia, which is a relatively large-scale operation. East Anglia is also a good example. In Cambridge and Suffolk, G. S. Shropshire & Sons Ltd are doing some brilliant things on biodiversity and having a more holistic approach to their farms, instead of simply using the land for the crop that they want, and not being concerned about the next stage.
If we are to preserve the environment, wildlife and habitats, we must consider the potential of the most productive land. In Scotland, under the CAP regulations, we have seen as much as 10% of very productive land being taken out of arable use, rather than other land that would be better suited for environmental schemes. We all remember set-aside, which, in the long term, created weed banks and other problems on farms. We have to consider how to make the most of the best land, and make it as productive as it can be, in a holistic and sustainable way.
I recently read about gene editing technology, which offers us an opportunity as we leave the EU. I hope the EU changes its mind about this technology. It could offer the answer with regard to drought resistance, plants capturing nitrogen, pest resistance and the reduction of pesticides. On animal diseases, too, there are opportunities and technologies that we should be looking at.
Last July, the European Court of Justice declared that gene-editing crops had to jump the same bar as genetic modification, but it is significantly different technology. While I am not an expert on it, I would like us to explore it further. I am particularly conscious that we have some of the best research and scientists in the world, yet we are giving up an opportunity to look into a very interesting area that could have answers. According to scientists from the Sainsbury laboratory,
“This ruling closes the door to many beneficial genetic modifications such as breeding of disease-resistant plants”.
They added that it was
“A sad day for European plant science.”
While we do not want to drop our standards, there is genuine science that we should be exploring and looking at. Policy mistakes have been made in other parts of the country that I do not want to see here, so I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about gene editing.
Farming should be able to monetarise environmental benefits such as carbon sequestering. The Scottish NFU says that it is
“supportive of measures such as carbon accounting, which offer farmers the tools and recommendations to make efficiency improvements whilst also taking into account business operations.”
That is poignant, because if there is a zero-carbon target, we have to get much better at accounting for sequestering carbon on farms. We hear about industrial ways to capture carbon, but every day that we are in the countryside, we are standing on the biggest carbon bank that this country has. Particularly in northern Scotland and the central highlands, with regard to reinvigorating—
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. There is an opportunity there. We should reverse the idea that we are going to grub up every inch and acre, but equally, we have to monetise that value. Again, we do not have a holistic approach to that.
The Department’s 2018 farm practices survey showed that 50% of farmers took action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of those, 83% did it because they considered it good business practice; 68% did it through concern for the environment; and 53% did it to improve profitability. That is clearly an example of farming realising the monetary benefits.
Again, however, policies have unforeseen consequences. The EU considered banning glyphosate, which would limit minimal tillage and reduce the potential benefits from controlling greenhouse gases. Minimal tillage does not work everywhere, but it works in many parts of the country. Banning glyphosate would certainly mean that we would have to return to deep ploughing to bury slug eggs and weeds, so we would simply use another chemical. I was asked about bees. It was Mr McGregor from Blairgowrie—it is almost a made-up name—who recently said that his honey production was being limited by the flea beetle. We have to think about the consequences of our decisions.
I will move on; I realise that I am using up all the time, but I will soon finish. On policy to increase biodiversity, what we have done to date in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is to be applauded. I highlight that shooting estates are an integral part of modern agriculture. The James Hutton Institute, along with Scotland’s Rural College, investigated the economic and social contribution of the moors in fragile landscapes in Scotland. Grouse moors support 2,500 jobs, of which the vast majority are local, and they increase wild bird numbers because vermin are controlled. In contrast, Scottish Labour wants to restrict shooting, but we have to be aware of its economic contribution. It may be a minority sport, but it is a countryside pursuit that is also making environmental headway.
We need a pragmatic approach. Many hon. Members will be aware that in the highlands, there is no longer a top predator of the red deer, so whether by Scottish Natural Heritage or the Red Deer Commission, the numbers have to be controlled for wholly laudable reasons—to protect our environment and to try to allow tree numbers to come back up. We hear in the press about rewilding parts of the country, but this is not Alaska or Siberia. With the greatest respect, if we put a predator such as a wolf back anywhere, it will eat the sheep, then the dogs, then whatever cannot run fast, then finally, perhaps, the red deer. We have to be realistic about that. Why anybody would go hill walking in the highlands if they thought a wolf was running around is beyond me.
I am keen to hear other hon. Members’ contributions; they must be wondering how long I will waffle on for. Farming policy can shape interdependence, so I have a few questions for the Minister that are all shaped towards improving the environment and modern farming playing its part. Should the Agriculture Bill recognise food and its production as a public good? Outwith the EU, how are we going to join up policy? Instead of Europe’s one-size-fits-all approach, can we come up with policies and frameworks for the whole United Kingdom that will protect the environment?
Raising productivity per acre in a sustainable way will raise output and food security, so will the Minister consider amendments to the Bill on that? Will he take into account the risk of displacement where domestic policy encourages imports and there are environmental impacts? Most of all—this is what I would really like—to protect the environment, modern farming needs a sustainable financial model; will he support a multi-annual settlement? We will do our part to convince the Treasury that that is the way forward. Modern farming has a clear interdependency with a healthy environment.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to be reunited with two former colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee, Colin Clark and the Minister, who have both gone on to other things. We also went into battle on many occasions during the Agriculture Bill Committee, although it is fair to say that we were not always on the same page about everything. Now the Minister has taken up his post, to which I welcome him, he may have to revisit some of his views, compared with the freedom he had as a Back Bencher.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, I support the idea of a whole-farm system based on nature-friendly farming. As a nation, we should do far more to make organic farming and agroecology mainstream, as they do in France. Organic farms have on average 50% more wildlife and 30% more species than conventional farms. We should also do more to support agroforestry; pasture-based livestock systems, which have already been mentioned; integrated pest management; and low-input mixed farming, as we look to restore ecosystem services and our long-term food security. At every opportunity, we should move away from unsustainable intensification and an over-reliance on agrochemicals.
Over the years, numerous studies have shown that farming in an environmentally beneficial way is not just good for nature, but better for business. In 2018, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board found that introducing wildflower margins around the edges of fields increased bumblebee numbers in courgette fields and boosted yields by 39%. Due to the reduced input costs required from the farmer, that provided pollination services valued at £3,400 per hectare, so just because land is taken out of production, the farmer does not necessarily lose out. At the moment, under the common agricultural policy, there is a distorting incentive to farm absolutely every inch of the field, but we will hopefully move away from that under the new public-money-for-public-goods approach.
Despite a lot of professed support for more nature-friendly farming, the reality on the ground is different. Soil degradation in England and Wales costs £1.2 billion every year, with a staggering 2.2 million tonnes of soil lost annually. In the Agriculture Bill Committee, this Minister was sceptical about that and said that the soil on his farm had never been healthier, but the then Farming Minister, George Eustice, subscribed to the view that we need to do far more to support our soil. I suggested that we need a specific public good in the Bill, but the then Farming Minister said that that was already covered by the listed public goods. Whatever our views as to the wording required in the Bill, we all need to do far more to improve soil quality.
The decline in bees has been well documented over the years, but farmland birds are another indicator. Their numbers have declined by 56% in the past 46 years and 12% of British farmland species are now threatened with extinction.
The State of Nature report 2016 identified the intensification of agriculture as having, by a huge margin, the biggest negative impact on wildlife in the UK when compared with other sources of wildlife decline. As has been mentioned already, that has partly been driven by the CAP. I hope that we do not leave the EU, either today or towards the end of the process, but I would be glad to see the back of the CAP.
To reverse the decline of species and address the serious environmental challenges facing us, farmers must be incentivised to provide environmentally beneficial outcomes. That is why I have supported the introduction in the Agriculture Bill of the new environment land management scheme, based on the principle of delivering public goods, such as adaptation to climate change, improved water quality and public access, for which no functioning market exists. This approach is overwhelmingly supported by the public. A World Wide Fund for Nature/Populus poll found that 91% of those surveyed wanted the Government to pay farmers to protect nature.
However, as has already been mentioned, farmers need funding certainty if they are to go down that path. They need certainty beyond 2022 and I support the amendment that the Chair of the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, has tabled to the Agriculture Bill—whenever that Bill reappears—because we need multi-annual funding to give farmers that certainty.
We also need a strong regulatory baseline for the farmed environment to thrive, which is something that we discussed in the Agriculture Bill Committee, and if we have those standards, they must be enforced by a new farm inspection regime.
The other issue that will have a massive impact on farming in a post-Brexit world is what trade deals we negotiate with other countries. Again, this issue has been discussed in a lot of detail in other forums, so I do not intend to dwell on it here. However, as I have said, the Chair of the EFRA Committee has tabled new clause 4 to the Agriculture Bill and I have tabled new clause 1, which is very similar; we are working together, on the same page, on this issue. We are at serious risk of exporting our environmental footprint abroad while sparking a race to the bottom in food production and safety to compete on price at home. There is no point in having all this talk about keeping our environmental standards and promoting nature-friendly farming in this country if we allow imports from other countries that are produced to much lower standards than our own produce. As Minette Batters, the National Farmers Union President, said a few weeks ago:
“Mr Gove has said that over his dead body would British standards be undermined. I don’t want it written in blood. I want it written in ink.”
We want it “in ink” in the Agriculture Bill and we want that Bill to come back sooner rather than later.
The final issue that I will mention is climate change. We have 12 years to avoid a catastrophic climate emergency, and we must openly discuss the impact of livestock on climate change and the environment more frequently in debates such as this one. It is now almost 13 years since the Food and Agriculture Organisation published its “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, which stated that
“the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.”
Nearly 10 years ago today—it was actually
In its 2018 progress report to Parliament, the Committee on Climate Change identified agriculture as one of the key priority areas for an emissions reduction programme over the next decade. Otherwise, we will not meet our fourth and fifth carbon budgets.
I know the hon. Lady is very passionate about this issue, and I believe that we are both on the soil inquiry that is being conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee. Does she agree that if only we could get our soils to the right level of health and standards, that would go a long way towards reaching all of our climate change targets, because soil holds so much carbon?
Sorry—I did not quite get that. And, yes, soil is absolutely brilliant for carbon sequestration.
I will just conclude, Mr Evans; I apologise, as I did not know that you had said Members should take five minutes. The signs that are being sent out by the Government at the moment are that they are trying to head in the right direction with the Agriculture Bill, but the need to act swiftly is imperative, and I would like to see more ambition.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Colin Clark for securing this debate, and he is absolutely right that modern farming and the environment should be inextricably interlinked. Having been brought up on a farm, on which I also worked, and having studied the environment and worked on that, too, I have always thought that it is an absolute no-brainer that the two should just be part and parcel of one another, because, of course, without a sustainable and healthy environment we cannot produce healthy sustainable food.
That is more important than ever in the south-west—including in Taunton Deane, obviously—where we have so many farmers. Agriculture and the food industry collectively is our biggest industry, and it is beholden on us to ensure that this business and this industry can thrive, but it has to be sustainable. That point will be a key part of my speech today.
It is clear that although great work is being done by farmers and there are many great environmental schemes, for diverse reasons—not least the way that funding has been directed from the EU—we have reached a point where our environment, in the widest sense of the word, is under great pressure and much of it, sadly, has been severely degraded.
There are lots of modern techniques that we could use in agriculture and we must use them all; in fact, the agritech strategy encourages this approach. Whether it is drones, precision farming, field mapping, scanning, or thermal imaging, all of these things, along with breeding, must be utilised. However, sustainability must be at the root of all this.
Rural areas are the powerhouses for our urban areas, and we need to keep them stable and productive; they are the green lungs for our urban centres. So, they are even more important than we give them credit for at the moment, and that is not just about food production but about services being delivered. That is where we get to this new idea, which I am behind, and that is paying for the delivery of public goods and services, and our farmers are absolutely key to that.
It must be said that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already gone a very long way towards this aim. The Agriculture Bill is coming through, along with our 25-year environment plan, our Fisheries Bill and the Environment Bill. How exciting is that? It will be the first piece of new legislation on the environment for 20 years, and we have an enormous opportunity here to rethink completely our land use strategy.
Trust me, the farmers in Taunton Deane are all behind this plan. They want to do what they can and so indeed do the people of Taunton Deane, who come to see me in their droves, whether it is Taunton Green Parents, the Quakers, or the transition groups. They all say, “Please can you put sustainability at the heart of everything you do?”
I will touch on two main areas: one is biodiversity, which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon. Biodiversity is crucial to agriculture and food production, but the statistics about it are stark and devastating: 54% of farmland birds have been in decline since 1970; only 2% of our ancient woodland is left; only 3% of our wonderful wildflower meadows remain; and three quarters of flying insects are in decline—insects are crucial to our food delivery.
May I just check the clock, Mr Evans? I started at 3.4 pm, did I not?
Thank you so much, Mr Evans, because the clock in here is very confusing.
Biodiversity is at the root of everything we are now trying to do. Instead of just focusing on special areas—for example, those funded by our higher level studentship grants, which do great work—we need to raise the general standard of biodiversity across the board, and it is something that we need to introduce in our new legislation. For that, we need accurate monitoring and data, spatial plans and a statutory requirement to monitor what is being paid for. I would ask the Treasury, “Please, can we include the net gain principle in the Environment Bill?”
As many of my colleagues know, soil is one of my passions—strange, but true. A third of the world’s arable soils are degraded. Every minute, we wash away 30 football pitches’ worth of soil and send it down the water courses. In England and Wales, the loss of our soils is costing our economy £1.2 billion. That is unacceptable and we need to do something about it.
Soil delivers so many of our services: it cleans water; it holds water; it grows the food we need; and it holds carbon. That carbon-holding property is crucial and we could really tackle our climate change targets if we addressed soil.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I totally agree with her on soils. Does she not agree that the key is to raise organic matter? Raising it in soils means more carbon captured and also more water absorbed and held, which means sustainable crops in extreme weathers and huge benefits to our local environment.
My hon. Friend makes the case clearly: it is so important.
I really believe that soil should be included in part 1 of the Agriculture Bill and should be paid for as a public good alongside land and water. That seems a complete no-brainer, given the importance of soil. It is surprising, too, that in the 25-year environment plan, soil is not one of the 15 headline indicators and is instead buried in the framework as a systems indicator. We should surely get it listed as a proper headline indicator. If we do not, we will miss a massive opportunity to get soil health right. Conservatives were going to create a better environment than we inherited, and this is one of the key ways in which we could do it. As we leave the EU, it is one of the ways in which we can really show leadership. The addition of soil would act as a powerful demonstrator because it is not an EU directive as water is. It would show that we are going our own way and creating our own much better and much more productive and sustainable environment where farming is the key driver.
I can be many things, but I can never be Rebecca Pow—or Rebecca “Kerpow!”, as we call her.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate Colin Clark on setting the scene. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and as a landowner as well. For the record, I understand the interdependence of modern farming and the environment. On our farm we have retained the hedgerows, created two ponds and planted 3,500 trees. We have seen the return of the yellowhammer, which was missing for many years on farmland where I and other farmers live. We have seen the return of birds of prey and hares as well. Lots of things have happened because of our commitment to our farm and diversity and the environment.
“The food and farming industry is nationally important, generating over £108 billion a year for the UK economy and underpinning our food security. It is particularly important for our most rural areas where farming is often central to the economic and social life of the community, as well as playing a vital role in conservation.”
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the point made by Colin Clark about getting younger people back into the industry? I speak as the 53-year-old son of an 87-year-old farmer. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have never been tempted to enter the industry. If we can get this right, we can create opportunities right across our agricultural and rural communities, and get children into schools, keep post offices and shops open and keep public transport running in rural areas.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Bringing all those things together is key for rural communities. We need to encourage young people. I will quickly speak about sons and daughters taking over farms. In my constituency we have been fortunate over the years that that has happened. Some sons and daughters do not want to take farms on, but the ones who have are still there, so we have seen a progression of farmers’ sons or daughters taking over. Farming communities are not employees of the land, but caretakers of the land for future generations. I read in Shooting Times magazine that the wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we want. We hold it in trust for those who come after. That is a fact. That is what we do, and the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
Unless we recognise the dual role of farmers as food producers and conservationists, we risk turning farmers into environmental contractors, which we do not want to do. We want them to have an incentive to continue farming. A farmer does not farm to become rich—that is the case in my neck of the woods, anyway. A farmer farms because it is in his blood and it is his calling. I recently highlighted an important point in my local press, and I want to make the point here before the debate ends. The latest figures show that some farmers, especially younger farmers in my constituency, have had very high levels of depression. Strangford has a large rural community and many farmers have handed over the reins of their farms to their sons and daughters, but there are levels of EU bureaucracy—I do not want to bring in the dreaded Brexit word again—and red tape that have almost strangled the farmers, and they are sick to the back teeth of it. They understand that regulations are necessary to bring food up to standard, but they do not need all of the extra paperwork that goes with it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I also express an interest as a landowner. He knows that the uptake in the agricultural colleges in Northern Ireland has increased. There is an enthusiasm for the land from our young people and they need help to drive it forward.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen a great interest in farming in my community. The sons and daughters want to take the farms over and are doing so. I have written to the permanent secretary of DAERA—the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—in Northern Ireland to express concern about the mental health of young farmers and the levels of stress and depression among them. We cannot ignore such big issues. We need to address them.
The hon. Member for Gordon referred to rewilding, but it is not suitable everywhere. It is not just about wolves and beavers and all the other wildlife; home-grown mink and foxes need to be controlled, although others might not agree with that. Farmers are not nature’s enemies; they are caretakers. That is the starting point. When we listen to the knowledge and expertise that has seen successful seasonal farming for thousands of years in the wonderful soil of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is the starting point. We must ensure that the current different payments for farmers in less favoured areas under the CAP regime continue, under the principle that upland farmers require greater financial support. The hon. Gentleman referred to that as well.
To conclude, nature has a wonderfully delicate balance set in place by God Almighty. It is up to us to retain that balance as best we can, and we can do that only by working together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend Colin Clark for securing this excellent debate. It is also a great pleasure to have here our new Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, a good Yorkshire farmer. I also pay tribute to our previous Agriculture Minister, my hon. Friend George Eustice, for his five years’ great service to agriculture and the environment.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate because British agriculture is a great success story, not only for production but for the environment, and we all need to work together for a great new policy. I look forward to working with our new Minister to deliver proper, good food production along with securing the environment. We have a poultry and pig industry that has reduced the amount of antibiotics used in production. We are doing great things for the environment. We have the potential for gene editing with crops in future. We also have the potential to go down the route of a blight-resistant potato. We have to use all the tools to make sure that we have a better environment, but also greater production.
The point has been made this afternoon that if we are not careful and do not produce food here under good environmental and welfare standards, we will import it from across the world under lower standards. In Brazil they are driving cattle towards the rainforest, which they are knocking down, and they are ploughing up the savannah to grow crops such as sugar beet and soya. In the end, that is where production will come from. We must link it all together.
A third of the forests are in our farms, with our copses. We have the Blackdown Hills, which I share with my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow. Of course, they are even better when they get to the county of Devon. It is absolutely certain that we have got great farming, which is where so much of our wildlife and biodiversity is. We can do better, but we are doing extremely well. I know that I do not have to tell the Minister that the great landscape that we have across this country is not there because God provided it; it is there because it is farmed, looked after and managed. Therefore, we are the friends of the earth. Farmers do not have to prove that. We have to go out there and make sure we can produce good food.
Grassland holds carbon and we can capture more. My hon. Friend Julian Sturdy made the point that as we increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, it can hold more water, as well as carbon. We have an excellent story to tell. Kerry McCarthy pointed out the amendments that have been tabled to the Agriculture Bill, on the long-term funding of agriculture and the environment, and on making sure that imported food meets our high standards. The Secretary of State wants higher welfare standards, which is great, but let us not import food that does not meet those standards. As to animal welfare, let us not export to conditions across the world that are nowhere near as good. We have every possibility of doing far greater work in the future, not only with gene editing but with smart spraying, robotic spraying and even electrocuting weeds. All sorts of improvements are possible to reduce the use of chemicals, and achieve good production. I want us to produce good food to high standards, with less chemicals, and I believe we can do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend Colin Clark for securing this important debate. Amazingly, agriculture occupies more than two thirds of the UK landmass, and more than 60% of farmland is permanent grassland and common rough grazing. Almost a third of the UK’s forests and woodlands are on farmland. Those trees provide shelter and shade for livestock and a habitat for wildlife, as do hedgerows and dry-stane dykes—or stone walls—which have been introduced and, it should be remembered, maintained by farmers.
It must be appreciated that not all wildlife is welcomed by the farming community, as some birds attack newborn lambs and some mammals, such as badgers, potentially carry diseases transmissible to cattle. The introduction of beavers would not necessarily be welcomed by all in agriculture. However, pollinators such as bees are to be encouraged, as they are crucial to a healthy environment. Insect pollination of UK crops is estimated to be worth around £600 million per annum. Farmers are the custodians of much of the natural environment, which most of us enjoy responsibly, in accordance with the countryside code, but there are some foolish and selfish members of the public who are still irresponsible in allowing unleashed dogs to chase or in some cases worry and attack sheep, in particular. Also, fly-tipping takes place on agricultural land. Both those types of behaviour are totally irresponsible and unacceptable.
Access to the natural environment has the potential to enhance our health and wellbeing, and so does the nutritious food that UK farmers produce for us on a daily basis. Management of soil is crucial to that food production, and I am pleased to say that the rich Ayrshire soil is renowned for producing the famous potatoes that we up north would call “Ayrshire tatties”. Local quality produce, with its traceability factor, is popular at the regular farmers markets. However, that has not always been the case. Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who was a poet and a farmer and, I am sure, an environmentalist, wrote critically of the heavy clay soils at his father’s farm at Lochlie, and the soil of his own farm at Ellisland, as being simply worn out. Thankfully, science and research have assisted with soil improvements over the centuries. Farmers are more aware of the soil types of their acreages and how best to farm soil as a carbon storage area to mitigate climate change and lock in greenhouse gases. It is to be hoped that in doing so they will take account of the UK Government’s 2019 clean air strategy, as agriculture is responsible for about 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Farmers are undoubtedly innovative, and they are enthusiastically embracing the use of artificial intelligence, and diversifying. In East Ayrshire, an Ochiltree dairy farmer’s milking parlour epitomises the new approach, with its use of robotics and laser technology. I was pleased to note that animal welfare was at the top of the scale there, and at the forefront of the business plan. Educational visits by local school children to the farm are encouraged, to enhance their understanding of farming and the environment.
Under the Agriculture Bill, farmers will receive rewards proportionate to environmental benefits and the sustainability of food production. Collaborative working on projects will be encouraged where there is a common goal. I fully appreciate that agriculture is devolved and future policy in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. However, it benefits from UK-wide investment, and a large part of Scotland’s market for agriculture produce is the rest of the UK. Echoing the National Farmers Union, we need to ensure that our farmers are the first-choice suppliers in the UK and are competitive elsewhere. I ask the Minister, when he is promulgating policies, to continue to help farmers to achieve the dual aim of improving the environment and securing high-quality food production.
It is appropriate that we should be debating farming and the environment today, just 17 days away from our exit from not only the EU but the common agricultural policy. Our farmers—particularly those in my constituency—have always seen the CAP as a one-size-fits-none approach. Farmers are looking to the Government and the devolved Administrations to create a system more tailored to our sector and our environment. It is vital for the future of our agricultural sector that all levels of Government get the balance right between productive farming and enhancing the environment.
The Agriculture Bill is aimed at rewarding farmers for “public goods” such as good environmental stewardship, while encouraging them to continue growing high-quality produce in more innovative, efficient and sustainable ways. The omission of a schedule specifically for Scottish farmers from the Bill has left them—particularly the farmers in my constituency—in the dark. Therefore, I encourage the new Minister to make it a priority to work closely with Scottish Government Ministers to agree a way forward that respects devolution but also gives Scottish farmers the clarity and certainty they deserve about the future of their sector.
I am just checking whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Scottish Government recently announced that they would be introducing an agriculture Bill of their own.
I was aware of that, although I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. However, what is not clear is when that process will completed; when will there be Royal Assent? The UK Bill, from which a Scottish schedule is absent, is going through Parliament as we speak, and is due for Report any time now.
Brexit will pave the way for new trade deals with economies around the world, but it is vital that our high standards should be preserved in those deals. Many farmers are concerned that a trade deal with the United States, for example, could mean pressure on us to drop our standards or possibly could price British farmers out of a lot of the market. It is not that farmers are against free trade or free trade deals—quite the opposite. However, those things should not come at the price of our environment, food standards and animal welfare, or the prosperity of our own agriculture sector. I am therefore pleased that the UK Government have been consistent in saying that our high standards will be preserved in our future trade deals. I hope that, as we enter the Brexit transition period, in which new trade deals will start to be negotiated, that commitment will be reflected in reality.
There need be no conflict between embracing innovation and technological development, and having high environmental, quality and welfare standards. An example is the ground-breaking work of the James Hutton Institute, based in Aberdeen and Dundee, which is one of the biggest research centres in the UK, and is the first research centre of its kind in Europe. It is fair to say that the agriculture sector will face a number of changes and challenges in future, and that many of those could have an effect on the environment. It is worth noting that not all those changes will be technological. Farms are businesses, and farmers are increasingly applying new management practices from other sectors to their approach to agriculture. However, technological developments in machinery, food processing, artificial intelligence and, yes, genetics promise to have a profound effect on the sector. It is important that we take a balanced approach to those developments. There is no reason why advances that improve productivity should necessarily run counter to sustaining our environment and other standards of quality and welfare. That is what farmers do, after all. As other hon. Members have said, farmers are the original friends of the earth.
My hon. Friend Rebecca Pow mentioned the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill. I am looking forward to the Bill, which I hope will reflect a balanced approach. Agriculture is vital to the economy and to rural life across the country. Food and drink remain our largest export to the world. It is my hope that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations can work constructively to ensure that the sector can deal with the challenges and opportunities of the future in a way that maintains harmony with our natural environment.
It is a great delight to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. There may have been times in the past when farmers cared not a jot about the environment—I doubt it, but there is that possibility. A crofter or farmer who does not value and protect the land and environment would be devaluing their business, and good agricultural stewards are the guardians of future environmental protections.
Yesterday on Twitter I was interested to see Leigh Farm take issue with Chris Packham over his comments about farmers. She pointed to her pollen and nectar meadow as an example of good farming practice—something I certainly agree with—and she has previously offered photographs of her borage bee pasture, which seems to demonstrate a commitment to environmentally friendly farming practices on her Cornwall farm. She pointed to an article by another farmer that indicates the environmental benefits of flail cutting hedges—something of a surprise to me—although that practice is condemned by some environmentalists. My speech may have wandered a little, but it is important to bear in mind that none of us has all the facts, and experts may inhabit different sides of a debate. However, farmers are unlikely to wish wanton destruction on their land or ability to continue farming productively. There will always be rogues in every walk of life, but the nature of the agriculture industry makes it unlikely that a custodian of land would wish to see its destruction.
Agriculture provides us with public goods in the form of environmental protections and enhancement, by dint of farmers’ commitment to ensuring that their business prospers. We should support crofters and farmers as food producers and environmental guardians, and ensure that adequate financial assistance reaches the most marginal agricultural areas, rather than being siphoned off. Support for agriculture is support for communities that are often remote and do not have the same advantages that other communities enjoy. Take away that support and communities could struggle, wither, or even cease to be viable. They could suffer from depopulation, resulting in a loss of community services such as schools, post offices, shops and so on—I have seen that in areas of the highlands. Such problems are what less favoured area support under the common agricultural policy was designed to address, and it was frankly reprehensible for the Government to keep as convergence funding the £160 million that was supposed to go to farmers and crofters in Scotland. We still want that funding back, so perhaps the Minister will keep the issue in his new in-tray.
If we take away that funding—I know that some areas in Wales, England, and Northern Ireland face similar problems and have similar needs—we risk leaving land untended. Some may prefer such a rolling back of human intervention, but that ignores the fact that those lands have had human intervention for centuries, and are not in what might be considered their natural state. We also need that land to continue producing food—especially after Brexit does its damage—and the environment will benefit from that production. We are part of the environment; farming is part of the ecology of this planet. We are animals who have had a huge impact on the planet, but we are part of it and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Agriculture has changed and will continue to change, and in the main, today’s farmers are more environmentally aware than previous generations.
In Scotland, the Farm Advisory Service has been delivering the Farming for a Better Climate initiative, which helps farmers to optimise inputs on their farms, minimise emissions, lock in carbon, and get the best return for their investments in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. That is good news, and it has been a good project so far, but it is funded partly by the EU and partly by the Scottish Government, and since we have had no indication from the UK Government that they will keep their previous promises to match or exceed Scotland’s EU funding, its future is in doubt. I was also impressed by my introduction to the Soil Association in Scotland. Its programmes on mob grazing, and its “less toil, better soil” initiative, have had a tremendous impact. I thank it for enabling me to be part of such initiatives, especially on mob grazing, and to go out to farms and see it in action.
Such educational and enabling schemes seem a far better way to deliver environmental benefits than the vague and rather unusual public goods suggestion in the Agriculture Bill. Indeed, that strikes me as an idea that focuses public resources around harsh ideas of punishment and reward—the odd concept that deprivation of resources acts as an incentive to improve, or of us starving our way to perfection. There is no evidence to suggest that such a mindset creates true and lasting change in population behaviour, and scant evidence that it creates alternate behaviour in the short term. It could, however, create a thriving trade in ways around the system, or lead to ways to game the payments, resulting in large and already wealthy landowners sucking up more of the available public resources, while those who should get help fall foul of a system that was never designed to help them. Grouse moors and shooting estates will benefit at the expense of hill farmers and smallholders. I am not sure that I agree entirely with the comments by Colin Clark about shooting estates, because many questions remain to be answered about their biodiversity benefits.
If we wish to marry agricultural production with environmental benefits, the community buy-outs of land in Scotland should provide some pointers. One or two schemes have not quite taken off, but those that have are carving tremendous new futures for their communities and visitors. Environmental sustainability is not just part of the plan; it is central to people’s ambitions and the futures they see for themselves.
I am sure that if I had not intervened, Colin Clark would have done, because shooting contributes somewhere in the region of £20 million in Scotland. It reinvigorates the grouse moors and creates 2,500 jobs, and it boosts the economy, especially in rural areas where shooting is so important. The hon. Lady cannot ignore that.
I am aware of some of those figures, but there are still questions to be answered about many things to do with shooting estates; for example, I think the review that the Scottish Government are undertaking will include some interesting answers about the shooting of hares.
In conclusion, England is in need of serious land reform. It should take a long and hard look at what Scotland has done on land reform and community interest since devolution got under way 20 years ago. That started under the old Labour-Lib Dem Executive, and it is continuing under the new and vibrant Scottish SNP Government, who protect our environment as well as delivering community benefits.
I thank Colin Clark for securing this debate, and for the thorough way he presented his speech. It is good to have such expertise in the Chamber when discussing a sector as important as farming. I also welcome the new Minister to his place. The former Minister, George Eustice, was known to many of us, and his work commanded respect across the House. Indeed, since he left the Government, many of his statements have also commanded respect across the House, and I hope that that honesty will continue. There has been a trend of declaring interest in this debate, which I must also do. That is not because I have a farm tucked away, but because my wonderful baby sister is a rare breed sheep farmer in Cornwall. She does a fantastic job, and she has some chickens, too.
We have had an important debate so far, with good contributions from across the House. The Opposition Benches might not have quantity today, but we certainly have quality; I will come on shortly to the contribution by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy about agro-ecology.
Farming plays a vital role in promoting sustainability and nurturing biodiversity. It has shaped our landscapes through continual management, creating a patchwork of unique environments across the uplands and lowlands, and has adapted to the pressures of a growing population. We must ensure that we provide our farming communities with the resources they need to continue that stewardship of our agricultural land. Farmers must be well resourced, and incentivised to continue to fight climate change and to reduce the carbon emissions caused by their activities.
Almost every Member in this debate has said something about the new system that we will move to once we leave the European Union. Farmers are absolutely key to tackling climate change. We must welcome the work they have done across the country, but also re-commit to supporting them in continuing that work.
The National Trust, which is the largest private landowner in the UK, has called for the introduction of a new environmental land management system based on the principle of delivering public goods. Introducing such a system would help with heritage conservation, public access, adapting to climate change and improving water quality, but it must be supported by long-term funding based on an independent assessment of need, alongside the provision of good-quality advice for farmers, safeguards against the import of low-standard food—mentioned by a number of Members—a complementary approach to improving productivity and a strong regulatory baseline. The way that farmers manage their farms can have a positive or negative impact on the surrounding environment, and we need to support, especially through a decent financial and information support system, those who are taking extra steps to protect not only their local environment but the national one.
The National Farmers Union argues that if farmers are struggling financially, prioritising environmental objectives is nearly impossible. I would like to highlight the importance of linking the plans to reform agriculture with the existing challenges that farmers and land managers face. We all know stories of farmers struggling financially; we must ensure that the new regulatory environment supports farmers in both large and small landholdings, because we need farming to be sustainable, both environmentally and economically.
We cannot ignore the need to invest in new technologies and innovative infrastructure to provide farmers with efficient systems that work to reduce their carbon footprint. Many new innovative methods have been spoken about today; it is important that we take the public along with the farming community, especially when it comes to genetic engineering and technological interventions on our farming estates. It is important to have public confidence in new methods. Farmers should have access to the necessary data and information not only to link farming methods with the environment but to allow for continual exposure to the most up-to-date methods and environmental land management strategies, and partnership is key in that.
Encouraging farmers to engage in agri-environment schemes has to be done alongside a commitment to environmental targets. The Government have the responsibility to lay out those targets, especially in legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, which the Opposition believe is missing such commitments. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out when he expects the Bill to come back to this place. I know he is new in office, but I am sure that that was one of the briefings he would have been given.
For centuries, farmers and land managers have closely engaged with ecosystems, using the land and nature around them to build a home for their livestock and to create businesses. Farmers understand, more than most, the interdependent relationship between agriculture and the environment, not only because of their daily interactions with nature but because climate change has directly affected them, and will continue to do so.
With the necessary support systems, growing numbers of farmers would undoubtedly turn to agro-ecology. The Landworkers’ Alliance has spearheaded some great work on agro-ecology, making it a viable farming method for more people through initiatives such as the whole farm agro-ecological scheme. There are key examples of the impressive nature of agro-ecology in its integrated production, which, on mixed farms, recycles biomass and reduces waste, using by-products from one process as inputs in others. Nutrient availability is optimised over time by generating fertility on the farm, instead of using artificial fertilisers. That theme of reducing the amount of fertiliser through the use of new methods has come up in a number of interventions. With the optimal use of sunlight, space, water and nutrients, and through synergistic interactions between biological components, fewer resources are lost. These practices conserve and encourage biodiversity in agricultural species and the wider environment, creating diverse ecosystems that are more resilient to climate change.
A great example of agro-ecology is agroforestry, which has not been mentioned as much as I expected. Agroforestry includes traditional practices that are easily recognised in British landscapes, such as hedgerows, as well as new innovative systems such as silvo-arable cropping, a method of growing alleys of productive trees through arable land. If more farmers were supported with accessible information, relevant data and long-term multi-year funding, more of them could adopt agro-ecological approaches. The benefits would not only directly benefit the farmers’ land; they would help to fight climate change. The Soil Association has said that integrating trees into farms on a significant scale could dramatically increase the amount of carbon sequestered on those farms, as compared with farms where there are monocultures of crops or pasture—a point made by the hon. Member for Gordon. The Committee on Climate Change has highlighted that converting just 0.6% of agricultural land to agroforestry could contribute significantly to our meeting the fifth carbon budget target by 2030.
Alongside carbon emissions, we need to deal with a big issue facing the agricultural industry: soil erosion. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and my west country neighbour, Rebecca Pow, soil erosion costs England and Wales £1.2 billion annually, a cost we cannot continue to afford. Trees integrated into arable settings have been proven to reduce soil erosion by up to 65%. Agriculture is unique when it comes to dealing with the challenges of improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, because it can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in vegetation, generating low-carbon renewable energy. It also has a really important role in upstream flood prevention, as has been hinted at by Members.
This debate is so important because although the interdependence of the environment and farming is clear, unless the right structures, funding and support are provided for those working the land, we will not see the much-needed improvement to the environment that we all want. The environment must be at the heart of our future agriculture policy. Public subsidies have been used to fund destructive food and farming practices for too long. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, I am no fan of the common agricultural policy, and we must take time to ensure that the systems we introduce do not replicate its problems or create new ones. The Opposition are pleased to see pesticide reduction, improving soil health, cutting climate change emissions and supporting wildlife on the Government’s to-do list, but to deliver those things in a way that reverses the current damage, we will need adequate funding and bold ambition, including clear targets. How does the Minister intend to do that, given the scale of subsidy-related cuts we are expecting after leaving the European Union?
We recognise the interdependence of modern farming and the environment, but a fresh approach to agriculture cannot work by itself. The Government must introduce appropriate provisions to protect against unfair buying practices and to promote fairness in the supply chain. The EU regulations that protect our environment must be maintained, and we should look to build on them. For the avoidance of doubt, I invite the Minister to confirm that it is his personal as well as his ministerial position that environmental protections must not be reduced after Brexit. Will he reconfirm that any new trade deals that undermine our green standards or animal welfare must be rejected? If they were not rejected, the Government would be turning their back on British farmers.
This is a really important debate, and Members from right across the House have raised appropriate and timely issues. With that, I will sit down so that the Minister can respond to those points.
Thank you very much, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend Colin Clark for calling this important debate, and I recognise his work on the red meat levy on behalf of Scottish farmers. He began his speech by talking about “friends of the earth”, and I confess that, as is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I too am a friend of the earth. I had the pleasure of serving with my hon. Friend on the Agriculture Bill Committee, and he consistently championed the needs of Scottish farmers and the link between farming, food production and the environment.
I, too, would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend George Eustice. Not only did he serve the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so expertly for five years, but his vision has ensured that we are now taking up all the opportunities provided to us by leaving the inflexible common agricultural policy and the frustrating common fisheries policy. His will be a hard act to follow. It now falls to me to take the helm and guide the Bills underpinning our ambitious future policies through to Royal Assent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon talked about how we should get more new entrants into the industry. It is important that we get new young blood in, bringing with it innovation and energy. Sadly, I know from my own constituency that many farmers’ sons and daughters are not taking over family holdings, so we need to consider new ways of getting new entrants in. It was interesting to see on this week’s “Countryfile” new models of tenancies being tried out to get young people into the industry. The Agriculture Bill will certainly look for opportunities to bring new blood and diversity to the industry.
A number of Members referred to the concerns about the multi-annual settlements. Farming needs a sustainable financial model, and I am happy to agree with those who support the idea of a multi-annual settlement for the industry. It is a manifesto commitment that guarantees the same cash total until 2022—indeed, our farmers have more certainty than farmers in the EU. I welcome the efforts that have already been made by DEFRA, which is working closely with the Treasury on arrangements for future funding. We are committed to offering multi-annual contracts to farmers under the environmental land management scheme for the delivery of public goods.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon also mentioned gene editing. As somebody who studied for a degree in agriculture a whole generation ago, when gene editing and some of the more advanced methods of breeding crops were not known, I put on record that the Government disagree with the European Court of Justice’s ruling on gene editing. We argued that gene-edited organisms should not be subject to GM regulations if the changes to their DNA could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods. That remains our view, but the Court has decided otherwise, and its judgment is binding on the UK. We will be considering our future approach to regulation in the context of negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
We recognise the potential for advanced breeding techniques such as gene editing to make farming more productive and sustainable. We want to support innovation in that area, and ensure that any regulation is science-based and proportionate. We want the UK to be a leading player in developing the possible applications of new technologies, such as gene editing, building on the excellence of our science research base and our plant breeding sector. Ultimately, we want our farmers to have the best access to the tools available, so that they can remain competitive and boost productivity. The available evidence about the impact of current GM crops is variable, but it indicates that such crops have delivered both economic and environmental benefits. For example, a meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that, on average, the adoption of GM crops has increased yields by 22%, increased profits by 68% and reduced pesticide use by 32%.
At the current time, as a member state of the European Union, we must comply with its legislation. However, whatever decisions we make in the future must be based on the best available scientific evidence.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon raised the question of whether food is a public good. Food is a commercial good, and the prime purpose of British agriculture is to produce good food, fibre and fuel. Recognising that those products are integral to UK agriculture should be front and centre in all our policies. He also mentioned the displacement of CO2. I have previously been involved with that topic as a Member of the European Parliament, when energy-intensive industries such as the metallurgical industry were being exported to countries with environmental standards that were not as good as ours.
I agreed with Kerry McCarthy more than I had thought I would when she got to her feet. Having served on the Environmental Audit Committee with her, I know that her views are to be taken seriously. Organic farming has a part to play. Under our new agricultural regime, we may look at how we can encourage farmers to innovate, and organic farming is one of those innovations. However, organic production should be demand-led, because we do not want to create surpluses of organic food that cause a collapse in the market and make the farms that produce such food un-economic.
The hon. Lady also talked about wildflower margins. As part of a mid-tier scheme on my farm, we are planting those margins, which are certainly a public good. The Government are in the process of designing an environmental land management system to ensure that farmers are rewarded for the environmental benefits they deliver, such as creating habitats for wildlife. Decisions about how public goods such as biodiversity, clean air and water are delivered will be in the hands of farmers and land managers, who may choose, for example, to lower their pesticide use through integrated pesticide management. We will pay for the public benefits that they deliver.
A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East, talked about improving soil. The question of how we increase the organic matter in soil is important. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon talked about minimum tillage, and the chemicals needed to ensure that we can engage in minimum tillage contribute to the amount of carbon we can store in our soils. Mixed farming, including livestock production, is particularly important, as manures are a vital source of plant nutrients and improve the structure and heart of our soils. That means keeping livestock, and ruminants in particular, as they are the only way in which we can utilise some of our upland soil and areas that are not suitable for intensive cereal or crop production as upland pastures.
My hon. Friend Rebecca Pow is a champion of farmers and the rural environment, and she is right that soil is a public good. Some 300 million tonnes of carbon are stored in our upland peat areas. My hon. Friend Neil Parish chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to which I have given evidence before, but I look forward to appearing before him again. My hon. Friend Bill Grant represents a great farming area. When I was studying agriculture at university, we went on a field trip to Ayrshire, and I am very jealous of its mild climate, brought to it by the gulf stream. It is clear that food production and the delivery of environmental objectives are not mutually exclusive; there is a synergism between those two goals, and we need to deliver them in parallel.
My hon. Friend David Duguid asked whether the pursuit of trade deals around the world will jeopardise our high standards, as did the Labour Front-Bench representative, Luke Pollard. I am clear that we will not lower our standards. Indeed, our very high standards and high-quality produce give those countries with which we engage in trade deals a lot to worry about. We will have a great opportunity to market that produce around the world, as is already the case for good products such as Scotch whisky.
I am delighted to hear the new Minister’s comments. Does he support the amendments to the Agriculture Bill that would maintain high standards for imported food, so that we do not import lower standard food through future trade deals?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will be looking at those amendments line by line—who knows, there may even be Government amendments tabled that will achieve many of those objectives. I was a member of that Bill Committee, so hon. Members can look at what I said at the time. I will aim to be consistent with what I said.
Deidre Brock talked about the intra-UK allocation of domestic support. On
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for welcoming me, and I welcome him in return. He actually talked a lot of sense—indeed, the points he made were an oasis of sanity within Labour policy. I am confident that we can work together constructively to deliver a successful Brexit. If he really wants to help me with this, the first thing he can do is join me in the Lobby tonight, to ensure that we deliver a successful Brexit. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned forestry, and I look forward to working with Sir William Worsley, who has been appointed as the Government’s forestry champion. He is one of my near neighbours in north Yorkshire, so I have visited him there and know that he has an amazing tale to tell.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon for securing the debate, and all those present for their contributions. The UK is a global leader in environmental management and scientific breakthroughs, including earth observations, sensors, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics. The agriculture sector can be transformed when we apply those strengths alongside our excellent reputation for producing food. The Government are committed to delivering a modern, tech-savvy and sustainable farming sector in England, with the protection of the environment at its core. The Agriculture Bill is paving the way for that shift, and I look forward to sharing further information and engaging with colleagues about our future policies in due course.
This has been an excellent debate. I think we now have 18 or 20 proponents of agriculture and modern farming, and I expect all hon. Members present to jump up in the Chamber to defend modern farming at every opportunity. I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate him on his position—I am delighted that we have a hands-on farmer in DEFRA. It is important that we think through the implications of policies announced by Ministers and Government, as we have seen in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the interdependence of modern farming and the environment.