Debates between Lord Krebs and Baroness Boycott during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 23rd Jun 2021
Tue 22nd Sep 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage:Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thu 17th Sep 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

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

Environment Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Boycott
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I wish to speak in support of the amendment, Amendment 17, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. As he explained, it aims to ensure that the Government commission the relevant research so that they understand what they are doing when they aim to meet environmental targets.

If we take biodiversity targets as an example, it is one thing to set a target of halting the reduction in biodiversity but it is quite another to figure out how to achieve the target. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, entertained us a few minutes ago with stories of lapwings and curlews, and the research carried out by what used to be called the Game Conservancy Trust but, I believe, now operates under a different name. If noble Lords will forgive me for a short digression, I will complement the noble Earl’s story about lapwings and curlews with the narrative of the large blue butterfly.

That butterfly was extinct in this country by 1979, despite over 50 years of effort to halt its decline. Today it thrives in 33 different sites in south-west England. This is one of the classic cases of how restoring a species and increasing its abundance depended on detailed research. The secrets of success lay in the complex life history of this species, the caterpillars of which are taken into ants’ nests and tended and protected by a particular species of red ant, called Myrmica sabuleti. In return, the caterpillars secrete a nutritious liquid for the ants to feed on—an example of a mutualistic relationship. Professor Jeremy Thomas, then at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, discovered that the ant species is sensitive to temperature, which, in turn, depends on the length of the grass in the ants’ habitats. Changes in agricultural practice, combined with the decline in rabbit populations due to myxomatosis, had resulted in a small increase in grass length sufficient to cause the ants to disappear and, hence, the butterflies to die out. As a result of his research, slight changes in agricultural practice allowed us to maintain the grass at the right height and successfully restore butterfly populations.

Unfortunately, that conservation success story is the exception rather than the rule. As Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University has documented, many, if not most, government-led initiatives to enhance biodiversity and restore nature have failed because they were based on hunch rather than proper scientific evidence. This includes the CAP Pillar 2 environment schemes. I know that from my own experience. My research group at Oxford was funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, as it was in those days, for many years to work out how to alter arable farming practice to support winter populations of farmland bird species. Although we discovered simple and effective remedies, they were never implemented.

Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of evidence on which to base the targets. However, in closing, my question for the Minister is: who will commission and pay for the necessary research to underpin the ambitions of the Bill and ensure that we do not blunder blindly, as we have done all too often in the past? The major research funding body in this country is UK Research and Innovation, whose website I checked this morning. Although the environment is one of eight priority themes, if one looks within that theme, no mention is made of biodiversity, habitats or conservation. Furthermore, UKRI is facing a £539 million cut in its funding this coming year, which will mean that all its research programmes are likely to be reduced. If not UKRI, who is going to fund the research that we will need if the Bill is to achieve its high ambitions?

Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB)
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It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. I loved that story about the blue butterfly, because I have been to one of those sites, beside a railway line, outside Somerton, so I know about that brilliant ant. The noble Lord is absolutely right and I would also like to know the answer to the question he asks the Minister: who is going to fund this? After all, we all know that the Aichi targets have been more or less a total failure and nobody knows quite why. I also support the proposals on health from the noble Lord, Lord Addington; it could not be more important.

Primarily, I want to support the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and her Amendment 34. The Secretary of State has to seek advice from the OEP. Over the years, we have seen how advice can be handed in by cronies or the local person you know on the end of the telephone. Think of some of the really bad things that have happened: advice about how particulates in the air do not matter to health, advice that smoking is fine, or advice that fossil fuels will not cause damage. We have to make sure that when, say, you want to put an endless chicken farm on the bank of the River Wye, you get advice from someone who has been passed and guaranteed by a body such as the OEP. Of course the Minister does not have to take this advice but, if this amendment is passed, he will at least have to explain why he took the advice that he did and, if it is found wanting, he can be challenged.

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Boycott
Report stage & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 22nd September 2020

(3 years, 9 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 130-IV Provisional Fourth marshalled list for Report - (21 Sep 2020)
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and to support Amendments 89ZA and 93, both of which I have signed. Noble Lords have received repeated assurances from the Government that, to quote from the most recent Defra briefing note,

“in all future trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.

With this assurance, why is Amendment 93 needed? For me, there are unanswered questions and uncertainties about the Government’s statement. I will summarise some of them.

First, the wording of the Defra briefing notes that I have just quoted avoids saying that there will be no imported food of lower standards than UK-produced food. Perhaps this is because the Government consider that imposing certain domestic standards on imports may breach WTO rules as “technical barriers to trade”. This was just discussed in great detail by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. According to the interim report from Henry Dimbleby, we are already able to import certain commodities produced in ways that would not be allowed in the UK—for instance, using neonicotinoid pesticides. It is also unclear whether the pledge that the Government make applies only to novel foods, as it refers to the future, or to existing approved foods. My first question is: what is the Government’s position?

My second question is: what is meant by food standards? Standards is a vague term that can mean different things to different people. How do the Government define it? For instance, do they include food production standards in the definition?

Thirdly, it is not clear what role the Food Standards Agency and its sister organisation Food Standards Scotland will play alongside other bodies mentioned by Defra, namely the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and the Health and Safety Executive. This is pertinent, as the Food Standards Agency is an independent, non-ministerial department while the other bodies are not independent—they are executive agencies, or non-departmental public bodies, directly accountable to their parent departments. Will the Food Standards Agency advise on welfare and environmental standards as well as on food safety standards?

Fourthly, the Defra statement does not say who will police production standards of imported food as it crosses the border. The Food Standards Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency currently check food safety and phytosanitary standards, but not production standards.

Fifthly, the Food Standards Agency will have to carry out additional duties in future. Has it been given sufficient additional resources in its baseline to carry these out? If so, who has determined the amount of extra money required?

Sixthly, and finally, the briefing says that decisions on imported foods will be taken by Health Ministers informed by the advice of the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. What are the other factors that Ministers will take into consideration when making these decisions? The briefing implies that they will not simply follow the advice of the FSA or FSS but will take other factors into account.

It is only by supporting Amendments 89ZA and 93 that we can be sure that the Government are bound to their commitment not to import food of lower standards than our own domestic products. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to my questions but, as things stand, I will support these amendments if there is a vote and urge other noble Lords to do the same.

Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Krebs. I, too, thoroughly support the amendment. I apologise for my internet connection and hope that noble Lords can hear me.

Food is already in a mess, before we even contemplate lowering the standards that we have. For instance, we already know that chlorinated chicken is just the tip of the iceberg of bad food that comes into this country. I am greatly worried not just about the environmental impacts of cheap and bad food on the planet but also about its health implications. Bad food is the result of overconsumption and overproduction of processed, sugary foods, yet recently US negotiators have said that they were concerned that labelling food with high sugar content

“is not particularly useful in changing consumer behaviour”.

Anyone who has been involved in food politics knows that that is rubbish. It is like saying that labelling a packet of cigarettes as jolly good for your health is a way that will not help change consumer behaviour. This is completely contrary to over 20 years of UK policy to introduce clear, front-of-pack, traffic-light nutrition information to help shoppers easily identify which products are high in sugar, salt and fat. Reading any of the Government’s proposed new obesity strategies shows that this labelling is planned to be even clearer.

Across the world, labelling is already incredibly complicated. The industry likes it like that. It does not want things to be simple. However, there are people around the world trying to deal with this. For instance, the Health Minister in Chile recently decided that no cereal companies could use cartoons to sell their products, so Tony the Tiger disappeared, replaced by a black splodge. Children now tell their parents not to eat that cereal. If we do not set high standards, we will never be able to change things like this. We will not even be able to label sugar clearly.

I am also very worried about what will come into this country. Why on earth do we need more American biscuits? If you take a biscuit such as Tim Tams, a chocolate-covered cream biscuit, extremely like a Penguin, we will get this in spades and it will be cheaper than the Penguin, which already sells to 99.1% of households. Low-quality food is unhealthy food. It has usually meant deforestation in its production, terrible treatment of animals and, as I said the other day, there are over 60 billion of them; 80% of all living creatures on earth sit in cages waiting to be fed to us.

We have fought very hard for our high standards, and it seems quite extraordinary that at a moment of extreme crisis in health and the environment, we should even need to have this debate, let alone have the feeling that the Government might try to overrule it when this Bill goes back to the Commons. Even supermarkets are agreed that we cannot lower our standards. I listened the other day to Christiana Figueres say that we only have 10 years to get on top of the climate crisis, and that in 10 years we must cut our emissions by 50%. Food and agriculture contribute hugely to this, and if we do not have standards that look at the environmental impact, then quite frankly, we have not got a prayer. Next year, we are leading the COP. We should now be talking about achieving higher standards, not fighting to defend the ones that we already have.

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness Boycott
Report stage & Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 17th September 2020

(3 years, 9 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 130-III(Corrected) Third marshalled list for Report - (17 Sep 2020)
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister and his officials for spending time yesterday in discussion with all four of us who have signed this cross-party amendment. Amendment 58 seeks to put into the Bill something that the Government are already committed to doing. The Government have said that they are

“committed to ensuring our food system delivers safe, healthy, affordable food for everyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn, and which is built on a sustainable and resilient agriculture sector.”

This is precisely the purpose of the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke eloquently a few moments ago about the nature of our food system. He anticipated a number of points that I will make in my short introduction.

The amendment would ensure that the Government put in place policies that will, in combination, help to tackle the dreadful burden of ill-health in this country that is caused by poor diet, particularly among the poorest in society. The Covid-19 epidemic has brought the cost of obesity into stark relief. The Government have spoken of it as a wake-up call. The new obesity strategy, launched on 27 July, is a very welcome step and an acknowledgment of the crisis we are facing.

The amendment would also ensure that our food system is more environmentally sustainable, underpinned by the latest science, while supporting farmers by encouraging local food, where appropriate. The fact that this country is one of the most depleted in the world in its biodiversity shows how unsustainable we have been up to now. I anticipate that the Minister will say in his reply that the Government have commissioned Henry Dimbleby to prepare a report on the national food strategy and are committed to publishing a White Paper within six months of his final report, and that this amendment is therefore unnecessary. However, this process may well take us into mid-2022. Any actions that follow would not only be uncertain; they might not arise until some distant future.

Fixing the failures in our food system is too urgent for further delay. If the disagreement is about not whether but when, let us get on with it now. Neither the children whose lives will be blighted by ill-health from unhealthy foods nor the environment that is being damaged by food production can wait any longer. I will listen carefully to the debate and the Minister’s reply but if he is not able to give a commitment to act sooner rather than later, I will wish to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and it has been an enormous pleasure to serve on the committee of which he was the chair. I think that our report has been invaluable and is extremely thorough, and I know that, like him, we are a little disappointed by the Government’s reaction. However, also like him, I very much thank the Minister for the time he has spent with us.

It is roughly 12 years to the day since I began work as the chair of the London Food Board—appointed by our current Prime Minister, in fact. I have worked for many years in this area: I have loads that I could talk about and loads of things that I have done. However, despite all the effort of so many people working across the sector—charities, Governments, think tanks, consultancies, agencies, doctors and health departments—the situation has not got better. Actually, it has got worse.

Next week, the Food Foundation—of which I am a trustee—publishes the updated version of its annual publication, The Broken Plate. It makes for terrible reading. I will give the House just a few snapshots. Within food advertising budgets, out of a rough spend of around £300 million, 14% is spent on soft drinks, 17% is spent on confectionery, 17.7% is spent on snacks and just 2.9% is spent on fruit and veg. The poorest 10% of households would need to spend 76% of their disposable income to meet the Government’s recommended diet, the “eatwell plate”. Since last year, this has risen by over 2%.

If you are a baby born today, these are your life chances with the system we now have. At age five, 13% will be overweight and 9% will be obese. At age 21, 21% will be overweight and 25% will be obese. However, at 65, 22% will be overweight and a staggering 57% will be obese, and they will have a range of illnesses: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and osteoporosis, as well as really bad teeth.

Why on earth do we let this carry on? I have been asking myself this question repeatedly for 12 years. I have also been involved in many measures to fix it: little moves that perhaps make something a bit better; bits of Sellotape over this problem or that problem. But the thing is—and this is why this amendment is so important—it is not about fixing one little thing here or another thing there; this is a system that is largely outside the Government’s control. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said on the previous group of amendments, it is a system run by a few very giant companies that have become very rich at our expense.

If you apply simple capitalism to the food system, this is what you get: sell more products made from ever-cheaper ingredients. It is easy to see it when you talk about clothes or cars, but it is also what we do with food, and these are the results we see around us. We have foods that contain chemicals, that have necessitated cutting down rainforests and that have deprived orangutans of their homes. In short, we have created a system that is out of control. What we have is the politics of the market and not the politics of health.

If we want to make proper improvements, we have to support this amendment. It is only by having a proper food strategy—one that cuts across government, involves all the departments and is treated with the serious attitude that it deserves—that we will make the proper changes that we need. When noble Lords are thinking about voting on this, I ask them to please remember that food is also the major driver of our biodiversity. That is why it belongs here in this discussion about agriculture.

It is not just that we are getting ill from our food system: insects are dying, while animals all over the world are losing their habitats. Right now, roughly 65 billion animals are sitting in some sort of cage somewhere on our planet, eating food that, as was said, often requires deforestation to make, and waiting to be killed and processed on the journey to our plates. This is a really lousy way to run such an important system. It is a tragedy, because nature gives us healthy food—amazing and extraordinary stuff. I believe that we all have a right to it, wherever we live and whatever we own. I beg noble Lords to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.