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Food Labelling (Environmental Sustainability)

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require food manufacturers to label products to indicate the environmental sustainability of their origins; and for connected purposes.

We face a biodiversity crisis both here in the United Kingdom and across the world. Around the world, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s most recent “Living Planet” report shows a massive decline in wildlife populations—down by about 68% since 1970. Here in our country, many much-loved species, such as the hedgehog, are facing a catastrophic decline in their numbers. There are numerous reasons for this huge loss of plant and animal species. They range from the continuous erosion of habitats to ill-judged practices in food growing and manufacturing. None of this is news, but as we enter 2021—a year when the future of our environment will be at the top of the global agenda both in China, at the special conference looking at biodiversity issues, and later in the year here, with the COP26 summit—surely the time has come for global action to halt this catastrophic decline.

We cannot change the world by ourselves, but we can set an example to everyone in seeking to do so, and when it comes to biodiversity, we must start now and act urgently. I very much welcome the steps being taken by the Government in the Environment and Agriculture Bills to enshrine in law greater protections for our own environment here. Measures such as incentivising farmers to increase the perimeters of fields to create more habitats for animals and wild flowers are really good examples of what can be done to make a difference. However, the most powerful influences of all are not to be found in Government or in this place; it is among consumers both here and around the world that a difference can be made. Someone once said:

“You can’t buck the market,”

and she was right. If the markets both here and internationally say, “Enough is enough,” then the world will have to change. That is the point of this proposed Bill.

Anyone who wants to understand the need for the Bill should just take a look at an island like Borneo. It is home to the critically endangered orangutan, one of our nearest relatives in the primate world. Where once those magnificent creatures roamed wide areas of rainforest, now huge sweeps of what was once their habitat are covered by plantations growing palm oil for international food markets such as ours. The orangutans are confined to less and less space, and their numbers continue to dwindle. We cannot instruct the Government of Borneo to stop allowing the development of palm oil plantations, but we can stop buying that palm oil ourselves and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true closer to home. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) has just launched an all-party group rightly to try to strengthen protections for chalk streams in this country. They are a really important part of our natural ecosystems and home to many native species. Too often over the years, ill-thought-out farming practices have allowed that biodiversity to be threatened and damaged. As consumers, we should not have to accept locally produced food without the confidence that it has been grown or reared with a firm eye on protecting local biodiversity.

At the moment, we do not know whether the food we eat comes from smart agriculture that protects and sustains nature, or from unsustainable sources. Of course, some producers market their products as coming from sustainable sources and they stress this quality as a result, but, as is often the case with a product such as palm oil, it is a question of scouring the small print on the back of a package to find the truth. The Bill seeks to empower consumers so they are much better able to say no when the issue is one of environmental damage.

I want us to move rapidly to a world where we can see very clearly, when we pick up a product in a supermarket or in a local shop, whether it comes from a source that is sustainable and that it has not caused environmental damage in its development. To give one example, it is perfectly possible to buy sustainable beef from South America when it comes from the plains of Argentina, yet at the same time to say no to beef from South America if comes from grassland secured by cutting down the Amazon rainforest. By saying no and not buying those products, we take away a market and we remove the financial incentive to cut down more trees. However, we need to be able to take such a decision quickly and easily when we go out shopping.

The Bill does not seek to provide all the answers in one piece of legislation; I do not think it could. A plan to introduce a proper kitemark system or similar to highlight whether a product was developed sustainably needs to be developed carefully and with extensive consultation with all interested parties. I do not want to hamstring producers in this country or elsewhere from growing or manufacturing the products that all our societies need to eat, so we will also need their involvement in developing the right approach. I do not want to place an unduly high burden of regulation on businesses, particularly at what is such a challenging time economically, but this is something that must happen.

The Bill would place on the Government a duty to bring forward within a year a plan to introduce clear labelling on food products, showing whether they come from environmentally sustainable sources. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), on the Front Bench—I thank her for turning up—and I would have great confidence in her taking this concept forward with commitment and determination. The Bill would require Ministers such as her to work with all the interested parties to find and introduce a system that empowers consumers to protect our natural environment.

When I buy a product with palm oil in it, I want to know that it comes from one of the many sustainable sources of that product and not another newly cut-down area of rainforest. I want to know that it is not taking away more habitat from the orangutans that so desperately need more habitat and not less. When I buy a British product, I want to know that it has been produced without any damaging impacts on native species or on ecosystems such as our chalk streams.

The crucial point is that the consumers—the people who buy products around the world—can achieve so much more than the politicians and the regulators because their decisions determine whether there is a market for products that come from unsustainable sources. When a product does come from an unsustainable source, I want every consumer to say, “No, I won’t accept that—I do not want it.” It is that power of those consumers that can change us all, and we need them to know how. That is what the Bill seeks to achieve. It sends a very clear signal every time someone buys a food product so that they know whether it damages the environment or whether it actually comes from a source where the producer has been smart enough to make sure that the natural ecosystems can continue to thrive alongside the manufacture of that product.

We have already seen from this dreadful pandemic what the price is of misusing nature. As a race and as a nation, we need to start changing, and we need to start changing right now. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Chris Grayling, Theo Clarke, Barry Gardiner, Andrew Rosindell, Andrew Selous, Chris Bryant, Tracey Crouch and Cherilyn Mackrory present the Bill.

Chris Grayling accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 205).