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Brexit: Non-chemical Farming Methods

Volume 785: debated on Monday 6 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect rural communities from pesticides; and whether they intend to adopt non-chemical farming methods post-Brexit.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Pesticides are highly regulated so that they do not harm people or the environment. This work is led by the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, which have a deserved reputation for rigour. After EU exit, we will continue to base our decision-making on pesticides on careful scientific assessment of the risks, just as we do now.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, has said that laboratory results from the testing of chemicals cannot be trusted when those chemicals are used on an industrial scale for farming. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government think a safe level of pesticide use is? How are the Government monitoring those levels in rural areas?

My Lords, the whole role of our committees and regulatory bodies is extremely strong. As I said, there is the Chemicals Regulations Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Food Standards Agency, all of which are tasked with ensuring that our food and environment are safe. That is what we are working on. Of course it is essential that those who work in agriculture are assured in using pesticides and have the right training to do so in a responsible and sustainable way.

My Lords, as one who lives in rural Bedfordshire and used to look after rural Northamptonshire, is it not a fact that there are very strict regulations on the use of spraying materials, when crops are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides? Given that Brexit is on the horizon, is this not entirely the wrong time to have an overall review of the role of pesticides? Can we not have complete faith in what our farmers and horticulturists are doing today and have done in the recent past?

My Lords, there is an important balance to this, which the industry is seized of. This is why the integrated pest management and agritech innovations will be so important for us, with much more precise use of pesticides. There is a fall in the total weight of pesticides being applied because of newer chemicals having lower doses and new and more efficient methods of application. There are advances in this area that we should all champion.

My Lords, the ongoing concerns about pesticides are around not only their impact on the health of those living in rural communities but the impact on bees and other pollinators. Does the Minister agree that we should adhere to the precautionary principle when we authorise the use of these chemicals in the future?

My Lords, I have just come back from Kew; I presented the Bees’ Needs awards to primary schools and many other organisations, including large landed estates. The National Pollinator Strategy and the national plan on pesticides are designed to include the sustainable use of pesticides. The most important message of all is on the sustainable use of pesticides. Pesticides used in the right way are very important for agricultural production and for many of the things we want to do in urban areas, too.

My Lords, I readily acknowledge the improvements that have been made in pesticide applications over recent years. However, does the Minister agree that pesticides are effective not only on the day that they are sprayed but continue to off-gas for quite some time, especially in hot summer weather? People living in the locality of fields that have been sprayed have not been consulted—there has been no bystander consultation. Is he aware that with Roundup, for example, there is no check on the soil or water effects?

Again, my Lords, the regulations are strong, as it is essential that there is no harm to people or the environment. One thing we are working on in our 25-year environment plan, which is all about enhancing the environment, is the importance of soil health and fertility. It is very important that pesticides are used sustainably and that, wherever possible, we can reduce their use.

My Lords, as a farmer, can I ask the Minister whether he agrees that 25% to 75% of crops, depending on the crop, might be lost if no pesticides were used? Presumably, the alternative is to go for 100% GM crops.

My Lords, on the issue of yields, the use of pesticides is precisely to protect crops and grassland. Obviously, we need to use them carefully and have them well regulated. Without pesticides, undoubtedly yields would be reduced. The most important thing is that there is active co-operation on this now: 4.4 million hectares of land are involved in the voluntary initiative and the integrated pest management situation. All of that is strong news.

My Lords, the comprehensive codes of practice issued by the department and Natural England include advice on how to deal with rights of way and other areas for public access in places that are treated with pesticides. Do the Government have any hard evidence on how effective those codes of guidance are in relation to recreational users of the countryside?

My Lords, as the noble Lord has raised that issue I will look into it. To repeat, there is strong regulation on pesticides; that is why it is so important. The truth is that we often need to use herbicides in order to ensure that rights of way are clear for people to enjoy the countryside.

My Lords, over a decade ago, when I was doing the noble Lord’s job, we had a programme of looking at non-chemical ways of doing what pesticides do and improving the method of application. Will the Minister update us? Do the Government still support that work? If so, by how much and when can we expect the results?

My Lords, it is continuing. I am sure that, with his experience, the noble Lord will know about the UK national action plan on pesticides and that it is an ongoing process. We will continue to develop and adapt as further knowledge becomes available. My whole point is that the national action plan and the pollinator strategy are designed to assist in enhancing the environment and to have pesticides used when necessary and with precision.