I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reduced insect population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I am glad to see so many hon. Members present. I will give them plenty of time to intervene, but I hope that they will let me make a bit of progress first. I secured this important debate because the declining insect population is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the human effect on our environment. I wanted to call the debate “Insect Armageddon” or “Insectageddon”, but unfortunately I am little ahead of the House authorities on such matters. That is what we are experiencing, however, and we should be under no illusion about that. Insects are the canary in the coalmine of animal life on the planet: if insects go, all other species will follow.
If we are fighting a war against climate change—we should be under no illusion that we are experiencing a climate emergency—insects are on the frontline of the battlefield and humans are just another species in the war. We are the most intelligent soldiers fighting the war, however, and we cannot expect insects to know that their fields are being built on or that their farmer is using nitrates. We know that our actions are causing the disruption to their ecosystem.
I secured the debate due to the absolutely shocking evidence I heard in the Environmental Audit Committee evidence session on 12 February. I want to put on the record my thanks to Professor Georgina Mace, Dr Mark Mulligan, Professor Peter Cox and Matt Shardlow, who gave the evidence that inspired this debate. I also thank the National Trust, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Buglife, which have informed what I will say.
There is a massive depletion of insects, in relation to biomass and abundance. Some studies also show a loss of variety. Most people born by 1980 will perceive that, because 25 or 30 years ago, on a long summer car journey, the windscreen would be full of winged insects. That is now minimal. Why do we need abundance, biomass and a variety of insects to ensure a healthy planet? We need abundance and biomass to support the production of food and water, and to support nutrient cycles and oxygen production. We need variety because that ensures that if a single insect species becomes extinct, we will retain sufficient diversity. New varieties may be able to cope with climate change and other challenges that humans and the planet provide. Studies have most clearly documented the loss of abundance and biomass, which has mostly been caused by land use change for agriculture, the intensification of agriculture, and the application of pesticides, herbicides and novel chemicals in the environment.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured the debate. Does he agree that one way to encourage greater insect populations is to have living streets, such as the one that we are talking about in Whitefriargate in Hull? That whole street will be turned into a living street full of plants and, hopefully, insects.
Absolutely. Urbanisation is a big challenge. If we do not create green corridors in our cities, insect biomass, variety and abundance will surely perish.
This is such an important issue. My hon. Friend talked about agriculture, and the growth of the agrochemicals industry is obviously a main cause. Does he agree that integrated pest management and a more agro-ecological approach to farming is the way we need to go if we are to protect our pollinators and other insects?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is an expert on the subject in this place. She is absolutely right. We and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to do more work on that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this hugely important debate on one of the biggest issues we face. The Agriculture Bill, which is currently going through the House, provides an opportunity to take some action on the issue. Will he join me in urging all hon. Members to support new clauses 10 and 11, which would begin to address it by limiting the application of pesticides in agriculture and beyond?
That is a timely intervention, because later I will certainly be looking at, and potentially signing, those two new clauses, which stand in the hon. Gentleman’s name.
I echo other hon. Members in saying how important the debate is and in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on securing it. He has indicated that the crisis we face is not happening by accident; it is being caused by policies that we can change. Does he therefore share my concern that the UK missed its deadline for submitting its sixth national report for the convention on biological diversity conference, which suggests that it is not terribly serious about it? The UK is also on track to miss 14 of the 19 targets in the convention, which suggests that the Government have a lot to do.
It is great that so many colleagues from the Environmental Audit Committee are present. These are exactly the issues that the Committee takes up with Ministers, and it is good that they are getting an airing in the debate. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady.
I will move on to pollination. The biggest impact of the loss is that we will lose pollinators, and if we cannot sustain natural pollination, there will be a loss of crops. Our world is heading towards a population of 9 billion people. If that rising population is set against the impact of insect loss—let us not mince our words—it puts us on a road to cyclical starvation. We will lose the production of some crops, particularly those that are best for people’s health and wellbeing. Crops pollinated by insects are mainly fruit and vegetables; crops such as wheat and maize do not need insect pollinators, so they are not affected as much. It is fruit and vegetables—the fresh food that people need to be eating—that will be lost due to lack of pollination.
We will have to find a way to compensate for the loss of natural pollinators. We already have commercial honey bee colonies, which are produced especially to provide that pollination service, but even those could be affected.
The debate is incredibly timely. In Plymouth we have planted wildflower meadows and bee corridors across the city. They save money, because there is no need to cut back grass, and provide an essential habitat for pollinators, spiders and ground-based insects. Does my hon. Friend support that model being rolled out across the country?
Absolutely, and that is a brilliant segue into my next point about ecosystem services.
This is a crucial debate. Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of Professor Jane Hill, who has been mapping the northward progress of butterflies as the climate changes? They are such a sensitive indicator of the pace of climate change in our country.
I have seen Professor Hill’s work. She is a credit to this country. Our UK academic research community is brilliant, and the Government need to take more notice of its work.
On the point about pollinator corridors, I withdrew my private Member’s Bill on pollinators last year, because the Government agreed to fund Buglife and Matt Shardlow—the hon. Gentleman has mentioned them already—to complete their mapping of those corridors across the country, with a view to using the environment Bill to look at planning regulations to force local authorities to plan for them in new developments, which would be welcome. Does he agree that the charities already doing that work have a huge role to play, and that the Government should support them with funding to continue? There does not need to be a massive revolution in policy.
The hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to hear that I absolutely agree, and I would like that to be legislated for in the environment Bill, particularly as he lost his piece of legislation on that proviso.
I will move on to ecosystem services. On top of the loss of invertebrates, the loss of species generally means that we do not have a lot of other kinds of services, such as natural pest control, natural decomposition of pollutants and natural nutrient cycling. Without those, we will increasingly have to intervene in ecosystems to provide them. A good example is that trees draw carbon down from the atmosphere really well, and have done forever, but because we have lost the part of the ecosystem that does that, we are now talking about engineering artificial means of carbon drawdown.
I am of an age to remember the windshield being covered in insects, and the number plate, which was particularly hard to clean. Does the hon. Gentleman think that initiatives such as the healthy bees plan and the National Bee Unit should be extended to protect other species of insects—or, as we say in Scotland, beasties?
It is always good to have an intervention about beasties. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That harks back to my point about abundance and variety. We cannot protect only the bees, because they will not survive on their own without the abundance and variety of insects.
If we project existing trends downwards, we would end up solving problems caused by the loss of natural systems one by one, which would be a much less efficient way to solve the problems of ecosystems than treating the root cause of the problems. If we look at the trends over the past 30 years, we see that that means not solving the problems but exacerbating them. The most shocking piece of evidence that the Environmental Audit Committee heard came from Matt Shardlow, who said:
“In Germany, what they are looking at is nature reserves and a long-term decline, a 76% decline in the abundance of flying things on those nature reserves”.
Let that just sink in—a 76% decline in flying insects in nature reserves, not urban environments.
There is so much that English research does not yet know, but researchers looking at the swallowtail butterfly—again, this is the work of Professor Hill—found that as fenland habitats decreased in size, slowly the swallowtail became extinct, but before it became extinct it shrunk in size, because there was no point in it flying away from where it was as it would die anyway, because of urban encroachment. Our habitats are becoming fragile and we need to reverse that trend.
The UK does not have the sort of resilience that is needed to assist insects in weathering the storm of climate change. In a global assessment, the UK came 189th out of 218 countries for “biodiversity intactness”.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this absolutely essential debate. As a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, does he agree that the reduction of insect numbers is especially worrying for the economy, that the impact on the economy will lead to a lack of wild pollinators, and that there will be a knock-on effect from that?
If we need to intervene and if we have to replace the natural pollinators with artificial pollinators, there would be a huge cost to the economy.
I praise my hon. Friend to the rafters for securing this debate, because it is quite clear to many people that it would be entirely possible for this country and this planet to save ourselves from climate change, yet destroy ourselves in myriad other ways that breach the other eight planetary boundaries. Picking up on that, does he agree that it is the world’s poorest—both internationally and domestically—who will be disproportionately impacted by the systemic climate shocks that these breakdowns in biodiversity will have on our economies?
Absolutely. The majority of the world’s poor live towards the middle of the planet, and with climate change those populations will have to move north and south to get further away from the equator, which will mean huge shocks to countries if we do nothing or if we do not do enough. That will have the biggest impact on the world’s poor and will increase desertification of the planet.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. I declare an interest, as a farmer, landowner and member of the Ulster Farmers Union. I will make the very clear point that we, as farmers and landowners, have a critical role to play in this process, because on the land that we control, farm and look after as stewards we can improve the habitat, which we do, for example with more hedgerows. On my farm, for instance, I have seen an increase in the number of insects, including butterflies, and small birds, and that has happened because I have retained the habitat, including the hedgerows. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore feel that farmers, landowners and others who steward the land have a great responsibility, and that it is time for the Government to work alongside the Ulster Farmers Union, the National Farmers Union and landowners to make the land suitable for insects?
Absolutely. The majority of the UK’s land area is still rural, and farmers will have a huge role in this process. We need to see quite a radical change in farming; one that moves away from artificial pesticides and towards natural land management.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this really important debate. There is one thing that I want to raise with him. Does he accept that there is a balance—this is the real problem here—between feeding a growing global population and protecting and enhancing the environment and biodiversity, which is also so important? If so, does he agree that the way to bridge that gap will be through new technology?
Technology certainly has a place and we need more resilient crops, so we need to move away from the use of chemicals and actually breed that resilience into the crops, which is where technology and research come in. I think there would be a race to the bottom if we say that we can produce enough food only if we increase the chemicalisation of farming.
I will now move on to my recommendations for the Minister—I am sure that she is waiting with bated breath to hear my ideas on how to improve insect populations. I have to say that the Government have belatedly acknowledged the issue and taken some action. I commend the Minister for the following four actions—I am sure that she will be pleased to hear me say that. The Government are developing a national B-Lines pollinator network to reconnect wildlife and they have announced £60,000 of funding for England. They have also introduced a national pollinator monitoring scheme and are moving towards paying land managers for providing public goods, such as biodiversity and pollination services. They are also banning three bee-harming and water-polluting insecticides.
However, the forthcoming environment Bill and the remaining stages of the Agriculture Bill provide unparalleled opportunities to start taking action on preventing the insect Armageddon. Today, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) mentioned, the Minister could commit to accepting new clause 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), which would reduce pesticide use. The Agriculture Bill also provides an opportunity for farmers to be incentivised to deliver nature-friendly farming that will increase insect and wildlife populations, such as providing food for farmland birds and planting wildflower margins. These incentives should be delivered as part of the “public money for public goods” part of the Bill.
The Environmental Audit Committee is still undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft environment Bill, but it would be fair to say that the proposals for the new watchdog are weak. There must be a higher level of independence for the new watchdog and stronger powers, including the ability to impose heavy fines. We need to enshrine environmental principles in UK law, to make sure that when we make new laws we consider the impact they will have on nature. The Bill should set in stone ambitious and measurable targets for nature’s recovery, which are not just laid out in plans but enshrined in law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to stop this reduction in insect numbers and stop the loss of wild pollinators, which is so important, we need to make use of EU funding streams, and that a bad-deal or no-deal Brexit, which we are at risk of, could have a huge impact on this issue, affecting the future for insects?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no guarantee that the EU funding will be replaced, particularly as we have this current uncertainty, and the best deal with the EU is the one that we currently have, which is a point I know she agrees with.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. He referred earlier to natural habitats and trees, so does he agree that, with habitat fragmentation posing such a long-term threat to our wildlife, including our insect population, it has never been more essential that we support the work of organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the Community Forest Trust, particularly as they continue to plan and grow the new northern forest?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great supporter of the new northern forest. We need to commend the work of the Woodland Trust, and the work of wildlife trusts and other organisations that are protecting our natural ecosystems.
I will talk briefly about climate more generally. As well as an insect Armageddon, we have a climate emergency, although the Government have not yet acknowledged that. Government decisions on spending and taxation would be exempted from environmental principles, while Ministers are required only to “have regard” to them elsewhere. Legally binding, time-bound targets are also currently missing from the draft legislation. Our future is tied to the future of the planet and economic policies are not independent of the future survival of life on the planet. The environment Bill must acknowledge and enshrine that, and I hope to see that happen at Committee stage.
There is also more detailed work that the Government could lead to support insect life. The Government could: establish statutory nature recovery network maps with local authority sign-off, which will support the B-Lines network that they have already announced; introduce legally binding targets for biodiversity recovery, including, as separate measures, targets for pollinators and freshwater invertebrate life; design new agri-environment schemes that will deliver safe pollinator habitats and a national network of flower-rich habitats; legislate to reduce the pollution of water courses with insecticides, flea treatments and pharmaceuticals that are toxic for insects; improve the protection of rare and endangered species in the planning system; introduce measures to reduce light pollution levels; find ways of directing significant new funds, for instance through the environment Bill, to save biodiversity, such as reinstating the aggregates levy sustainability fund, or introducing payments for ecosystem services, which should be a central feature of thinking by the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; increase investment in the science and research that is needed to develop sustainable agriculture; reduce pesticide dependence; and halt and reverse the decline of species. I also believe that it is time to tweak the Natural Environment Research Council’s responsibilities, to ensure that research supports either the climate or biodiversity.
My hon. Friend is making an absolutely excellent speech on this important matter. Does he agree that restoring peat bogs is another way to ensure that ecosystem services work and to restore biodiversity?
Absolutely, and that is something else we could include in the environment Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of the environment; both the opportunities we have to get it right and the risks of getting it wrong. However, does he agree that the opportunity inherent in replacing the disastrous common agricultural policy—it effectively pays £1 billion to people simply for owning land, no matter what they do with it—with a system in which that money is conditional upon delivering public goods is even bigger? That is a massive part of the solution, because all the initiatives that the hon. Gentleman has described and some of those that other Members have described, would be rewarded through that new system of payments. Of all the things that have been discussed today, that is potentially the biggest boon for our biodiversity. Does he agree?
I have supported CAP reform ever since Michael Foster resigned from the Labour Government about 15 years ago, and I still support it. However, we need to be mindful of the fact that it is not just the UK that needs to reform those practices: reform is needed across Europe, and more broadly.
After today, the Government cannot say that they were not warned about the insect Armageddon, or did not have the legislative opportunity to help ensure that the UK is not on the back foot when it comes to avoiding this potential disaster for our country.
I have never seen such a dense swarm of interventions in such a short debate. I call the Minister.
Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on having secured this debate, in which we have heard a number of interventions from other hon. Members. One might muse that time is running out for insects, but I assure Members that the Government understand that insects are crucial to our prosperity and wellbeing. The Royal Entomological Society estimates that there are over 24,000 species of insects—classified as six-legged animals with segmented bodies—in Britain. We know that they are vital to the food chain; they support many of our mammals and birds; and they play a fundamental role in much pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control and decomposition. The value of insect pollination to UK agriculture is estimated at more than £500 million a year.
As many hon. Members have observed, recent scientific papers and media reports have highlighted declines in insect populations and projected extinctions across the globe. We acknowledge that there have been long-term declines in the UK and globally, and there is no dispute about the seriousness of the issue, nor the need to take action. That is why, in the 25-year environment plan, we committed to improving the status of insects. I was also struck by Professor Sir Bob Watson’s comments in the media last week. He made it clear that we need concerted global action, but that extinction of insects within decades is probably unlikely, so we sometimes need to be mindful of the language we use to describe the evidence.
The Government report annually on how well different groups of insect species are doing, in partnership with academics and volunteer recording societies. That includes the UK-wide Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership, which is partly funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government’s indicators of the abundance of UK butterflies show long-term decline since 1976, but no significant change since 2012, and our indicator of pollinating insects in the UK tells a similar story. Overall distribution has declined since 1980, but has stabilised overall in recent years, although some individual species continue to decline. We are keeping those trends under review as encouraging, but not yet definitive, signs of progress.
Will the Minister give way?
I have so little time to respond to all the questions that I have already been asked, so I will do my best to answer the points that were made.
Our academic partnerships are helping us to deliver the most appropriate approaches to key factors affecting insect populations, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, pests and disease, climate change and pesticide use; to understand the importance of other emerging potential threats, such as light or radiation; and to better define and predict the impact of climate change. I am conscious of hon. Members’ comments about how tackling climate change will also help biodiversity in insects.
We know that where we put habitat back, insects respond positively. For that reason, we are taking action to improve, extend and connect insect habitats. Over 1 million hectares of our best habitats for wildlife are protected as sites of special scientific interest, and we spend more than £50 million through agri-environment schemes to help bring more of those sites into favourable condition. Natural England reports that since 2011, over 130,000 hectares of land have been set aside to create new wildlife-rich habitats, largely through agri-environment schemes. In 2015, the Government introduced wildlife packages to those schemes, to make it easier for farmers to provide flowers to support pollinating insects and other insects on farms. There has been real progress for some species that landowners, NGOs and Government have collaborated to conserve, including supporting the re-introduction of lost species such as the short-haired bumblebee and chequered skipper butterfly. The environmental land management system that we are introducing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) referred, will build on that by rewarding farmers and land managers for delivering environmental outcomes, such as protection of insect habitats.
In 2014, the Government published the national pollinator strategy, following a scientific review of the status of pollinating insects. That 10-year strategy sets out how Government, conservation groups, farmers, beekeepers and researchers can work together to improve the status of our pollinating insect species. Last week, we published an update to that review of the evidence base, which will inform our planned refresh of the pollinator strategy and, in turn, much of our action for other insect species.
In our 25-year environment plan, we committed to producing a new strategy for nature. That will take forward any new post-2020 global agreements on biodiversity, and bring together our biodiversity and pollinator strategies. I am conscious of the report to which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred, but the Aichi 2020 targets are quite nebulous, and a lot comes down to judgment. I hope that when we come to the Conference of the Parties for the convention on biological diversity in Beijing next year, we will have more rigorous measures and indicators for targets for the global recovery of the environment, in particular biodiversity.
I know that there is concern about the impact of pesticides, including on insects. The Government carry out a thorough assessment of pesticide safety using the best scientific evidence before authorising their use, drawing advice from the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. Pesticides that carry unacceptable risks to pollinators are not authorised, as was the case with the science-led restrictions on neonicotinoids: outdoor use of three neonicotinoids was withdrawn from 19 December 2018.
We also need to take action against invasive species. Such action is largely focused on the Asian hornet: last year, the National Bee Unit located and destroyed four Asian hornet nests to tackle that threat to our native species, and surveillance continues. Our inspectors carry out about 6,000 apiary visits per year in England and Wales further to protect our honey bees. Advice and inspections help us to manage pests such as varroa, keep endemic diseases such as foulbrood at low levels, and keep other exotic pests such as the small hive beetle absent from the UK. The Bees’ Needs Week campaign, which happens every year in July, brings together expert partners to raise awareness of actions that all of us can take, whether we have gardens, window boxes, allotments or community gardens.
We have set out in the 25-year environment plan our step change in ambition for wildlife, in order to reverse declines. We have committed to improving protected sites and restoring new wildlife-rich habitats outside the protected site network. We are investing in peatland and woodland restoration as a contribution to climate change mitigation, which will also provide important habitats for insects and other wildlife; Members know about our investment in the northern forest. The nature recovery network will expand and connect our existing wildlife habitats by developing partnerships that can effect changes to land management at a catchment or landscape scale.
We are currently consulting on conservation covenants, which will be voluntary but legally binding agreements that would enable landowners to leave a permanent conservation legacy on their land. Such public commitments to taking positive actions to preserve and improve treasured features on their land, such as trees, woodland or flower-rich meadows, would be binding on future owners of that land and overseen by responsible bodies to ensure that land management obligations are delivered. I have already referred to the new environmental land management system, which will be the cornerstone of the country’s agricultural policy after we leave the EU. It is important that farmers are able to protect their crops, but also that people are protected from the risks that pesticides present, both to them and to the environment. It is therefore right to minimise the use of pesticides and to make the greatest possible use of other techniques, including non-chemical alternatives to protect crops.
I was surprised that the hon. Member for Leeds North West seemed to suggest that gene editing or GM could be used to modify crops. That is still a debate that matters, but it is important to highlight to hon. Members that we will continue to develop and refine our approach to pest control, with integrated pest management at its heart, minimising the need for pesticides. That approach combines different management strategies and practices to target and minimise the use of pesticides. The voluntary initiative scheme promotes and records IPM practices, and the uptake of that scheme is encouraging. It is important that we are able to protect crops, and such progress shows that the scheme works.
Regarding the introduction of a new environment Bill, I will give evidence to several hon. Members in about two hours’ time, so I am surprised that the hon. Member for Leeds North West has already declared what he thinks should happen with respect to scrutiny.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I will not. The Government are open to this, and believe that what we have put forward is important. The policy paper that we published alongside the plan is an important indication of what else we want to achieve in that Bill.
Insect decline is a global problem that needs a global solution, which is why we will continue to play a leading role in the development of an ambitious strategy as we proceed. It is critical that we act now on the improving evidence base, internationally and at home, to ensure that we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).