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Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021


Asked by

My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my farming interests as in the register. Our approach to pesticides regulation is underpinned by the precautionary principle. That is why, for example, we supported a ban on the use of certain neonicotinoids to treat crops in 2018. We are also committed to supporting alternative methods to pesticides, having analysed responses to our revised National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides consultation. This proposed plan supports the development of low-toxicity methods, integrated pest management and improved support for users.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I gave prior notice that this Question was inspired by a study published this month in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, which was a meta-analysis of nearly 400 studies looking at the impact of pesticides on soil fauna, including earth- worms, beetles and springtails with fungicide impacts being particularly marked. It is obvious that testing regimes have not adequately accounted for these impacts. The Minister referred to the precautionary principle but, given that the Government often acknowledge how important soils are, surely this principle would demand that they set a target of zero pesticide use to protect our soils as a matter of urgency.

I share the noble Baroness’s concern for soils; it is absolutely fundamental to our 25-year environment plan and other policies that we are introducing. I refer her to concerns raised since France attempted a 50% reduction on pesticides in 2008; by 2018, there was actually a 12% increase. We are always wary of targets, but we are looking at implementing them. The most important thing is to look at our proposals for integrated pest management, which sit very comfortably with the need to produce food but to do so safely.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that there needs to be a sensible and science-based balance with regard to pesticide use if British farming is to be expected to feed the nation? Is he further aware of the considerable advances which have been made over the past 30 years or so on minimising the use of sprays while improving their efficacy and safety?

My Lords, the UK is a world leader in developing greener farm practices and upholds the highest standards of environmental and health protection. We operate a strict science-based system of regulation to encourage safe and minimal use. The total weight of active substance applied has decreased significantly over the last two decades. In addition, a move to more active substances, which are effective at lower dose rates, is a further driver of decreases in the weight of active substance.

As the Minister knows, the survival of humans is totally dependent on the survival of bees, but the bee population is declining and precarious. Is it not therefore essential to ban all neonicotinoids in all circumstances? While the withdrawal of the use of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam in March is to be welcomed, should it not be permanently banned?

I share the noble and right reverend Lord’s concern for pollinators and particularly honeybees. I was pleased that the impact of the field scale studies on neonicotinoids resulted in the ban in 2018. Concern was raised by many at the temporary allowance of one to be used on the sugar beet crop, but it was never actually used because the threshold for use was so high. It is right to use science as the absolute arbiter in this, but also to be fleet of foot. Where we have to increase the number of sprays on the banned list, we will.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a number of chemicals used as pesticides, even if used in accordance with the instructions, can damage several species, including humans? Does the Minister recall that during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, this House passed an amendment which would have seriously limited pesticide use in the vicinity of residences and public spaces? It was rejected by the House of Commons, partly on the grounds that it would be more suitable for inclusion in the Environment Bill. Can we therefore look forward to the Minister supporting a similar amendment to the Environment Bill, or indeed, promoting one, and if not, why not?

I am sure there will be a great many amendments to the Environment Bill, and I look forward to debating them with your Lordships. The question of pesticide use close to population is a very important one. It is very clear in the regulations on pesticide use and the codes of practice that spray operators have to abide by that it is a criminal offence to breach those rules. We have a robust system and we need to be constantly looking to see whether it can be improved. There will be plenty of legislative opportunities for Members of this House to raise these issues, not just in the Environment Bill, but in other forthcoming legislation.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, scientific evidence moves on at pace, as does the use of pesticides. Those of us in rural areas are not always aware of when spraying is taking place and the smell of DDT no longer alerts us. There is, however, a crucial link between air quality and chemical pollution, which affects both human health and the environment. Does the Minister believe that now is the time to strengthen integrated pest management to protect both humans and pollinators?

When our national action plan is published later this summer, the noble Baroness will, I hope, be able to see that we are looking very carefully at making sure all these matters are considered. Integrated pest management is a way forward and she is right to raise the matter of technology. There are some really exciting new processes emanating from our own institutions in this country, which see sprays applied to one particular plant and not the one next to it by using incredible new research from our universities. I hope that everything is moving in the right direction; the reduction in recent years is welcome. Our rules are strict and further conditions will be applied as necessary.

The Minister has talked about new technologies, which we know can greatly reduce or sometimes even eliminate the need for pesticides. Will he outline what support and resources will be provided to farmers on this through the new environmental land management schemes? Does he have current and projected figures for the uptake of new technologies? If he does not have them at his fingertips, I would be very grateful if he would write to me.

I will start with that last point and promise to write to the noble Baroness on the uptake of new technologies. I certainly think that the advantage of the new ELM scheme is that it will allow us to embed integrated pest management as part of the three offers we are making. That allows us to finely hone our support for farmers, particularly where they are moving towards systems that are better for the environment and human health. I can assure her that the use of pesticide sprays and herbicides will certainly be part of our ELM schemes going forward.

My Lords, the use of DDT was most certainly harmful to wildlife and possibly to humans, but of course, it is now banned. I declare an interest as a farmer. Farmers now only use the targeted minimum of expensive pesticides. Can my noble friend tell me what role the use of pesticides has played in combating the spread of trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness and spread by tsetse fly, and the fight against malaria, which is spread my mosquitos and kills over 400,000 people each year, 2,000 of them children under the age of five and mostly in sub-Saharan Africa?

My noble friend is right about DDT. I am afraid that tsetse fly is not covered in my brief, but I agree with him that there are occasions where the use of pesticides is vital and has saved millions of lives. I am glad to say that we do not have tsetse fly in this country, and I hope that global warming will not bring it here.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Farmers are well aware of the dangers of the incorrect use of pesticides. Training, equipment testing, stewardship incentives and the development of integrated pest management plans are ongoing. Please could the Minister confirm that this, as well as the science, is the basis on which to build better pesticide controls, rather than outright bans which will adversely affect food production and increase imports with lower standards and larger carbon footprints?

My Lords, I can confirm that that is our approach. The key focus of the Government’s national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides is to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides to human health and the environment, while ensuring that pests and pesticide resistance are managed effectively. The national action plan supports the development and uptake of integrated pest management and ensures that those using pesticides do so safely and sustainably. The plan covers all UK pesticide users and is key to delivering our wider environmental goals. The Government’s consultation on the plan sets out the ambition to improve “indicators of pesticide usage”, their risks and their impacts.