I’m grateful for the opportunity to put forward my amendments this afternoon and to support several others.
First, New clause 5 helps to rectify the absence of anything in this Bill to cut pesticide use.
It requires the Secretary of State to take steps to protect members of the public – both rural and urban – from the hazardous health impacts of pesticide use, for example by specifying a minimum distance between where a pesticide is being applied and public or residential buildings.
You don’t need to look hard to find evidence of the ‘insect apocalypse’ and the serious risks of pesticides to humans and nature. Recently, a call from over 70 scientists urged the phase out of pesticides as a ‘no regret’ immediate step, stating: “There is now a strong scientific consensus that the decline of insects, other arthropods and biodiversity as a whole, is a very real and serious threat that society must urgently address.”
On human health, pesticide cocktails are of particular concern, as they can be more harmful than individual pesticides, yet the UK’s regulatory system assesses the safety of one chemical at a time. Plus there’s the exposure of rural residents to pesticides applied to nearby farmland.
The lack of anything in this Bill on pesticides is even more disturbing given the government’s dubious stance to the precautionary principle: refusing to transfer it fully into UK law and refusing to legislate against the risks of a US trade deal undermining it.
My Amendment 42 is on the sustainability and resilience of agriculture more widely.
It enables the Secretary of State to set and monitor progress towards targets for the uptake of Integrated Pest Management based on agroecological practices, including organic farming.
This would help ensure that the catch-all clause on productivity payments does not undermine environmental objectives.
This week, a leaked copy of the EU 2030 biodiversity strategy revealed proposals for at least 25% of farmland to be organic – alongside a wider uptake of agroecological practices; a 50% reduction in pesticide use; and cuts to mineral fertiliser use.
At Second Reading, the then Secretary of State claimed that leaving the EU meant a greener future for British farming, where the UK would do so much better for wildlife and landscape.
If that’s to be reality and not just rhetoric, we need an Agriculture Bill that matches or goes further than these EU proposals on pesticides, agroecology, and organic farming.
The RSA Food Farming and Countryside Commission proposes a 10-year transition to agroecology for the UK. A leading agricultural research institute has shown that healthy food security, farmer livelihoods, and an effective response to the climate and nature emergencies can go hand-in-hand.
Farmers can lead this transition to agroecology, but government must get serious too.
In response to covid 19, some argue that we should downplay nature and sustainability and dial up food production. But this would risk doubling down on a food system that is contributing to what scientists last month called a ‘perfect storm for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people’. One example is forest loss driven by rocketing demand for vast quantities of soya that’s fed to pigs and chickens – including in the UK.
Agroecology is our route out a dangerous dead-end debate that pitches food security, environmental protection, and public health against each other. We can and must do better than that.
Finally, my new clause 14 goes some way to fixing the bill’s worrying lack of attention to the climate emergency.
Having highlighted regulation as a gaping hole in this bill at Second Reading, I strongly support New Clause 8 [in the name of the leader of the opposition] and I’m pleased that it includes specific provision on climate.
My New Clause 14 would complement this by setting a target of Net-Zero greenhouse gas emissions for agriculture and land use in the UK by 2050 at the latest. That is very much too late in my view, but I hope the Government will pick this up. It would also place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish interim emissions reduction targets – and policies to ensure those targets are met.
The Committee on Climate Change has said that ‘strengthening the regulatory baseline’ is an essential step that government must deploy urgently to meet climate goals.
I hope the minister will support not just specific climate targets for agriculture as new clause 14 proposes, but policies to meet them that place equal emphasis on biodiversity and public health.
The climate emergency is just one reason why ministers must say no to business-as-usual and yes to a resilient, re-localised and regenerative food and farming system.