Debates between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 15th Sep 2021
Mon 28th Jun 2021
Thu 9th Jul 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for introducing the amendment because it gives me a chance to say two things quickly. One, which she alluded to, is our discussion in Committee about detectability by analytical methods. I asked Wendy Harwood from the John Innes Centre to give me an exact form of words about that, which I shall repeat with her permission. It confirms, in a way, what the noble Baroness has just been saying. Wendy Harwood said:

“If you had details of the exact edit made, then you could detect”


the PBO by polymerase chain reaction,

“followed by sequencing of the PCR product. If you were just presented with a plant, and no audit trail and asked whether it was genome edited, you could not determine whether it was or not.”

One therefore needs an audit trail in order to be able to tell. She continued:

“If exactly the same change had been made by precision breeding as had been made by traditional breeding, and you tested by looking for that precise change, then you would not be able to tell which was which. Again an audit trail would be required. You might however have a case where both PB and traditional breeding had made changes to the same gene, giving the same trait, but these changes were not identical at the DNA level, in this case you could tell the difference.”


That emphasises that if one is serious about knowing which products on the shelves are produced by PB, there needs to be an audit trail.

On whether whole-genome sequencing is of value, one angle is that so much mutation in the genome is going on all the time that it is hard to know what one’s reference material would be. The Royal Society produced in its evidence to the Defra consultation a calculation that in a hectare of wheat there would be at least one mutation for every base pair in the wheat genome. There are 10 billion base pairs in a wheat genome. In a one-hectare field of wheat, there would be a mutation somewhere in every one of those base pairs. So the difficulty with using whole-genome sequencing is what one makes of the information one gets. There will be huge variation and one does not quite know what the value of the information is.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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I think we have agreement that some parts of the genome are functionally relevant and have a particular functional significance. We perhaps have points of disagreement about how relatively protected some of those may be from natural mutations. There are lots of mutations that happen naturally in areas that may be beneficial to the plant but only in certain parts of the genome and with certain sorts of functional effects. The parts of the genome that are particularly crucial to the function of the organism are the structural, basic ones, where there are far fewer natural effects. If you read the complete list of the genome, you are going to look at certain bits to see which changes are significant, which ones may be deleterious and which ones are less significant. Does the noble Lord agree?

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, the amendment is in my name together with those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

The amendment replaces four amendments that we debated in Committee. It has the same intent as those four amendments: to ensure that the Secretary of State cannot amend the habitats regulations without due process and constraints.

Bearing in mind the admonition we recently heard, let me recap very briefly. The habitats regulations protect our most valuable conservation sites, habitats and species. While these sites account for only a modest proportion of our land and marine area, they certainly punch well above their weight when it comes to protection of species. Unlike the targets in Clause 3, which apply to the country as a whole, the habitats regulations refer to specific places. This is an important distinction.

Clauses 108 and 109 allow the Secretary of State to amend these regulations, and they do not give enough safeguards to ensure that our most valuable habitats will be protected in future. Amendment 99 would provide those safeguards, stating explicitly that any changes to the habitat regulations would not breach any of our international obligations, would contribute to enhancing the conservation of habitat sites and species and would not reduce current levels of protection. It would also require the Government to consult the appropriate statutory expert bodies and other relevant experts. In short, it places in the Bill the commitments that the Government have already made in debate in Committee, when the Minister reassured us on every point.

So what is not to like? The Minister told us that key reasons for Clauses 108 and 109 were contributing to “international obligations” and ensuring

“our protected sites can be restored to good condition”.

This is made clear in Amendment 99. He also told us that the powers in these clauses would be used only to strengthen environmental protection. However, as it stands this would be a test of the Secretary of State being satisfied that protections are not reduced. Although the Minister described this as a “high bar”, it is a subjective judgment. Amendment 99 would replace this subjective test, whereby Ministers mark their own homework, with an objective requirement. The Minister pointed out that the Secretary of State’s judgment could be challenged in the courts, but that seems to me to be setting up a system that would generate money for lawyers and take up large amounts of time with uncertain outcomes. Why not simplify with Amendment 99?

The Minister said that the Government would consult the office for environmental protection before making any changes to the habitats regulations. Amendment 99 extends the consultation requirement to include other relevant bodies. He also referred to a review led by the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, but did not tell us who was consulted in this review and what its impact will be. Perhaps he can expand on this in his reply.

As I have already mentioned, a crucial difference between the habitats regulations and the Clause 3 commitments is that the habitats regulations protect particular sites, habitats and species, while the Clause 3 targets do not. The Minister told us that Clause 108 is

“designed to allow requirements to specify … protections for habitats and species”.—[Official Report, 12/7/2021; cols. 1620-1.]

However, this does not guarantee those protections. The Minister also told us in Committee that the habitats regulations had not worked. I am not sure to which studies he is referring, but the evidence, as I understand it, from peer-reviewed literature, is that protected species fare better in countries where protection of the kind provided by the habitats regulations is most extensive and long-standing. This is not to say that things could not be improved. However, the Minister did not give us specific examples of how the powers of Clauses 108 and 109 would lead to an improvement. In fact, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that this was a post-Brexit opportunity to cut red tape and bureaucracy—hardly a reassuring message.

In summary, I have not heard any convincing arguments against the habitats regulations being maintained, and Amendment 99 will ensure that any changes in future will strengthen rather than weaken them. I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say in his reply but, as things stand, I would wish to test the opinion of the House on this crucial amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, your Lordships’ House will hear from me a great deal later on, so I will be very brief in this contribution. I have attached my name to this amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which of course has full cross-party and non-party backing. The noble Lord has set out an overwhelmingly powerful case for why we should have this amendment.

I make two comments. We were promised non-regression with Brexit, and this would restore some of the protections that we lost with Brexit and, more than non-regression, we were promised improvements. This is simply standing still, so the Government really must commit to this amendment.

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Monday 6th September 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I join other noble Lords who have already spoken in warmly welcoming government Amendment 6, which accepts the spirit of the amendment we had put forward. To halt the decline in species by 2030 is a very stretching target and I congratulate the Government on their clear ambition.

For many species, reversing the declines and halting them will require dramatic changes in land use and in habitat restoration. It will involve responding to the vagaries of unpredictable events, such as extreme weather and disease that could easily set progress back. So it is, without doubt, a very stretching target. I will ask the Minister to clarify a few points about it—perhaps, even if he cannot now, he might be able to subsequently in writing. First, what will be the baseline from which the target of halting will be judged? Secondly, which species will be included in the target? Thirdly, how will a composite measure of halting declines be computed if, as seems likely, some species will continue to decline while others do not? Fourthly, who will carry out the independent monitoring to check whether the target has been met: will that be the role of the OEP? Last but not least, who will be accountable if the target is not met?

I now turn to the two other amendments in the group. The amendment to which my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington has just spoken seeks to go further by requiring the Government to reverse the declines. I support it, but, as my noble friend said, this should be a longer-term aim. If the near-miracle of halting declines by 2030 is achieved, I think, inevitably, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, the measures put in place to halt declines will, in the longer run, result in reversal of the declines—for example, by habitat restoration or creation.

That brings me neatly to Amendment 9 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, to which I have added my name, along with those of my noble friend Lady Boycott and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, no one would dispute the fact that, if you wish to maintain or restore species abundance, you have to create, maintain or restore the habitats on which those species depend. Therefore, this amendment is, in effect, a necessary precursor to government Amendment 6. Achieving the objective of halting and eventually reversing species decline will depend entirely on our understanding of and restoration of the habitats on which those species depend.

Habitat restoration is in itself a subtle art. In Committee, I referred to the example of the large blue butterfly and the complexity of its habitat requirements that have led successfully to its recrudescence in the south-west of England. Habitat heterogeneity is often crucial. Ecologists agree that one of the important ways in which agricultural intensification has caused dramatic declines in wildlife is because it has replaced a patchwork of different habitats with uniform monocultures. The relationship between species abundance and habitat heterogeneity is complex and needs to be understood.

Finally, in relation to habitat restoration, the so-called Lawton principles, put forward by Sir John Lawton in his review, Making Space for Nature, emphasise that not only do habitats have to be improved—be bigger—but they also have to be better connected, so that fragments of high-quality habitat are connected and crucial individuals and species can move between them. Amendment 9 is part of the package for halting species decline, and I hope that the Minister will accept that it is an essential precursor and adjunct to Amendment 6.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I briefly offer my support for Amendment 7 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which I thought I had attached my name; it was an administrative failure on my part that I did not. I also support Amendment 9 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Both amendments have strong cross-party support. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. Indeed, his questions about how the Government plan to define and measure biodiversity are questions that we canvassed extensively in Committee. I do not believe—I would be happy to be corrected if I am wrong—that we have received any answers to them. It is essential for the understanding of this Bill that those things are defined and set out because, as we discussed in Committee, there are many different aspects of diversity, from genetic variance within a population to the number and range of species, and indeed the range of their habitats.

I will comment briefly on Amendment 6. Like other noble Lords, I welcome it, in that one always has to welcome progress and acknowledge the huge amount of work done by campaigning NGOs and campaign groups to get us this far. There is, however, a thing called “shifting baseline syndrome”. In the brilliant State of Nature reports, which are issued regularly by our NGOs, the baseline is often the 1970s. To quote one figure, more than 40% of species have declined since the 1970s. However, based on the figure from 50 years earlier than that there has been a massive decline. If you go further back, it becomes evident that we live in an incredibly impoverished landscape. In the UK we have lost 133 species since the 1500s. These include obviously charismatic species like the lynx and wolf, but also the apple bumblebee, Mitten’s beardless moss and the common tree frog, which fails to live up to its name.

I was reading, in preparation for this debate, a book called An Environmental History of Wildlife in England, by Tom Williamson. It speaks of 17th century England teeming with wildlife. The polecat and pine marten were present in every county. The great bustard was still a common sight on open land. We should be aiming to restore those kinds of wild landscapes, at least in part, and stopping decline does absolutely nothing to get us to that destination. That is where the habitats amendment, Amendment 9, is really important.

I was once lucky enough to visit in France one of 234 sites that are called—I apologise for my French, which I am told I speak with a broad Australian accent— réserves biologiques intégrales. They started in 1953 and that are quite small pockets of land that have essentially just been left untouched. I was lucky enough to visit one of these sites, and what amazed me was a depth of lichen on the trunks of the trees that you could touch; you felt that your hand sank into it and it went on for ever. That is a depth of richness of wildlife that we are so far away from now but need to start to head back to.

I strongly commend Amendments 7 and 9 to the House, but particularly Amendment 7. This is where I am afraid I will disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in that I do not think that halting decline is an ambitious target. It is holding us in a state of extreme poverty of nature. We have to do better.

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I will make a couple of brief points in relation to Amendment 96 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. First, a system exists that I think would meet what the noble Lord is asking for: I refer, of course, to the guidelines developed by Lord May of Oxford when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. These guidelines have three core principles governing the use of evidence in policy-making, which is partly what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was talking about. They are: first, seek a wide range of expert opinion; secondly, recognise uncertainties in the evidence; and thirdly, openness and transparency in the use of evidence. These guidelines will be especially important for the OEP because many, if not most, of the environmental issues that it will deal with will be ones where the evidence is contested. People will have strongly held opposing views, or they will claim that the evidence is incomplete or that there is uncertainty.

The answer to the request from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is for the OEP to follow the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s guidelines. At the same time, the OEP may wish to follow the example of many other public bodies in conducting as much of its business as possible in public meetings so that the decision-making processes can be directly observed and the evidence, as it is being evaluated, can be studied by the public. Does the Minister agree that it would be valuable if the OEP operated under the guidelines set out by the Chief Scientific Adviser?

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. As always, his contribution has made a useful addition to the debate and he has put down a useful specific question.

I rise to speak in favour of the ideas and aims behind the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, although I come at this from a somewhat different direction. The noble Lord suggested that this was the way the Government, or the OEP, could lead the public; I suggest that we look at it from the other way around. On many environmental issues, whether you look at the climate strikers or last year’s people’s assembly on the climate, the public have in fact been leading and pushing companies and the Government to act. It is very helpful to the public to have available the information and published material, but rather than thinking about this as us leading the public, let us see it in other terms: as more of a partnership.

This amendment also takes us back to some of our debates on the Agriculture Bill, when we talked about the lack of agricultural extension and of independent advice to farmers. Indeed, a group of farmers I talked to last week were bemoaning the lack of independent advice available to farmers. A great deal of the information that might be collected and put together by the office for environmental protection would also be of great use to farmers. I think here of what the noble Lord, Lord Curry, said on the last group of amendments about regulatory capture. We want this to be available.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, a lot of research is behind paywalls. We are lucky enough in your Lordships’ House to have the wonderful Library; we can ask it to get anything we want, but that is not available to the public. It is a great pity that far too much publicly funded research is still hidden behind paywalls. The research that guides the OEP should be publicly available.

Finally, I turn to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about oat milk. I remind him that the practical reality of our economy is that a great many externalised costs are not paid by the producers or sellers of a product and are therefore not reflected in the price tag. Many farmers are barely being paid, or not being paid, the production costs of their milk, reflecting the economic power of the supermarkets. I also point out that you can of course make your own oat milk, which would cut out the middle person, save you a great deal of money and cut out a great deal of packaging as well.

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle
Committee stage & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 9th July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-III Third marshalled list for Committee - (9 Jul 2020)
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interest as recorded in the register. I shall speak to Amendment 57 in this group. What I will say follows on very much from the last few words of the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. In the past 60 years, there has been a trade-off between producing more food from agriculture and protecting the environment. In the UK, we have increased productivity, but at a cost: destroyed habitats, lost species, polluted and over-abstracted water, and an increased carbon footprint. This has been highlighted in many reports, including the one published on Monday by the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Select Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing.

It is also spelled out in the 2019 State of Nature report, which monitors trends in thousands of species in Britain. The report concludes, for instance, that the total number of breeding birds in Britain went down by 44 million between 1967 and 2009. It also concludes that the Government’s own assessment is that they will not meet most of the global 2020 targets that they are committed to through the convention on biodiversity. The report further concludes that agriculture is one of the most significant causes of these losses in biodiversity.

The Bill is our opportunity to change the way in which we farm, and Amendment 57 seeks to plug a gap in the Bill. As it stands, Clause 1(2) could be a get-out-of-jail clause. The Government could subsidise productivity gains at the expense of the public goods listed in Clause 1(1). Can the Minister reassure us that public goods will not be sacrificed on the altar of productivity?

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has so clearly articulated, new technologies provide the possibility of enhancing productivity with less damage to the environment. This is particularly important when you consider that agricultural productivity is usually measured as a ratio of output over input, which in itself has some very odd features. It means, for example, that if farm A produced 9 tonnes of wheat with 1 tonne of agrichemical from a certain piece of land, while farm B produced 90 tonnes of wheat with 10 tonnes of agrichemical from a piece of land the same size, both would have identical productivity—but the two would have very different implications for both food supply and environmental pollution. Farm B produces 10 times as much food as A, but with the potential for 10 times as much impact on the environment.

More importantly for Amendment 57, productivity does not include any reference to protecting the environment. If the Government are serious about rethinking the relationship between agriculture and the environment, is it also time to rethink how we measure agricultural productivity? For instance, should it be measured as kilogrammes of potatoes per skylark, or tonnes of wheat per pyramidal orchid? I look forward to the Minister’s reply on the Government’s plans for how they will measure productivity in future and how they intend to balance the increasing productivity that is referred to with protecting the environment.

Lastly, I add a footnote on Amendments 12 and 13, on education. We know that in this country there is a plan afoot to plant many trees. The climate change committee’s target is to plant 1.5 billion trees as soon as possible if we are to meet our 2050 net-zero target. How many forestry graduates are produced each year in this country, and are there enough to provide the expertise to manage this huge change in tree planting?

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I very much endorse his committee’s report and urge noble Lords who have not read it yet to catch up with it. I also endorse his comments about Amendment 57, which is vital. We have seen so much focus on productivity measured purely as calories or tonnes per acre, which I will come back to in later groups.

I will speak primarily to Amendments 43 and 54, which are interlinked. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, already introduced them so I will not repeat that, but I thank him, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for supporting them. I also thank the noble Baroness for setting out so clearly the huge importance of county farms in allowing opportunities for new farmers and young farmers to get into the industry. It is crucial that this network is protected and, indeed, significantly enhanced.

I also reflect what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about local food and its importance in all communities, particularly those often labelled as “left behind”. Strong local food networks and strong local food-growing systems up and down the country mean that the economic benefits are distributed round the country. What we have in our economy in so many different ways is far too much concentration of economic benefits in London and the south-east. However, I have a word of warning about what the noble Lord said about cheap food. I always want to put scare quotes around “cheap food” in supermarkets. We always have to remember that cheap food is costing us the earth and our health.

I come to Amendments 43 and 54 and pay tribute to work of the Landworkers’ Alliance, Sustain and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which all had input into them. They highlight how local food systems deliver benefits on a scale from the local to the global, but have suffered from decades of underinvestment. Many of the people involved in them—the producers, processors, retailers and caterers—are small and have limited management and financial capabilities for collaboration and sector development, although I note that other elements of the Bill seek to encourage that. It is something we want to see the Government support across the board.

The benefits of local food strategies and infrastructure are that they reduce our reliance on imported food. That means reducing exposure to volatile global markets and to the uncertainties of a world that now looks increasingly uncertain indeed. Local food systems have the capacity to meet up to 80% of the UK’s food demands through UK-based production, over 50% of which can be produced within 100 miles of where it is consumed. Think what a different system it would be if the majority of the food on your plate was local, with all the economic benefits circulating in the local economy.

This would also have the global impact of reducing “ghost acres”—the land in other countries which should be available to feed their own populations their own local food, but which is currently used for growing export crops. It would allow producers to gain a higher share of the retail pound through short supply chains, make farming enterprises more profitable and make a valuable contribution to those local economies. It should never be forgotten that farmers now get a lot less than 10% of the benefit of every pound spent on food.

On the broader economic benefits, there is evidence from Nourish Scotland that for every pound invested in local food, £6 to £8 is returned to local society and over 50% is retained in the local economy, while with non-local enterprises, such as supermarkets, only 15% to 30% of the money is returned. Local food means that public health priorities are catered to and local communities have fresher, more nutritious, more affordable food. There is also increased interaction with local vendors and the satisfaction, perhaps, of volunteering at local farms and of community-supported agriculture. It also means that we can have more diverse, sustainable, mixed farms that produce multiple products. That would enable more on-farm recycling, lower inputs, reduction of food waste and other environmental benefits.

A five-year mapping study from 2012, Mapping Local Food Webs, estimated that 103,000 jobs across England could already be attributed to the local food economy, with 61,000 flowing from local food sales. Spending in local food outlets supports an average of one job for every £46,000 of annual turnover, while in the three major national chains it is one job per £138,000 to £144,000. We are talking about a system that works for people and for the environment, so I commend Amendments 43 and 54 to your Lordships’ House.

I will also refer to Amendment 61 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, to which I attached my name. It refers to growing under glass. I not sure that “glass” is quite the right word, but I am sure everyone knows what we are talking about. It talks about using renewable energy and there are real possibilities, such as using waste heat, reducing carbon emissions and using energy and resources well. This is an area in which the UK has very much been left behind compared with countries such as the Netherlands. I express my concern here. I have already tabled a Written Question to the Government about the low-carbon heat consultation, which currently excludes the potential of large-scale heat pumps, which could be fed into this area.

I will also briefly refer to Amendments 12 and 13. My noble friend Lady Jones attached her name to Amendment 12 and has already referred to both of them. It is vital to understand where our food comes from. I refer noble Lords to a fascinating study from the British Nutrition Foundation that found that one-third of primary school pupils thought that cheese came from plants. We have a long way to go to ensure that we have a full understanding of where our food comes from, the importance of food security and how our entire economy is a subset of the natural world.