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Food Security

Volume 822: debated on Monday 13 June 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects on food security of allowing corporations to purchase arable land to offset their carbon emissions; and what plans they have to limit the amount of arable land that can be used for this purpose.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has been unavoidably detained in his diocese and sends his apologies.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. This Government are committed to safeguarding food security, as highlighted by the food strategy published today. I am very conscious of the issue raised, and we already have several protections in place, such as requirements for public consultations on any large new woodland as part of environmental impact assessments. I am also working closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury and BEIS to develop robust standards for green finance investments, and will set out the next steps in the forthcoming months.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that industrial-scale tree planting by large investment companies which purchase arable land may create what are called ecological dead zones and generate more carbon emissions if insufficient attention is given to biodiversity, according to the John Muir Trust? If so, how will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that such companies are subject to proper biodiversity requirements so that they may prove to be responsible stewards of the land?

Yes, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the wrong kind of trees planted in the wrong place under the wrong management style will be a loss for both the environment and the social element we want in our countryside. That is why there are very clear rules under the woodland carbon code which corporates would have to abide by, and why the Forestry Commission, if applying through grant aid schemes, will require standards to be maintained. For example, planting will not be permitted on deep peat; it will be concentrated on poor land.

My Lords, it is a nonsense to allow private companies to acquire vast hectares of arable land, often removing generations of farming families, in order to offset their carbon emissions and carry on with business as usual. British farmers are essential to the country’s ability to produce food. Does the Minister agree that importing food which is not produced to the same high animal welfare standards as we enjoy in the UK, to replace that which we might have grown ourselves, is a backwards step?

I suggest that we look at this as the glass half full: there are plenty of examples where private sector finance can be a massive boost towards the environment by working with farmers and seeing tree planting on poor-quality land, for example. Some 57% of agricultural produce is produced on 33% of agricultural land. This shows that, if we favour the productive land to produce food—every single farm has corners of it that can be planted with trees or for other ecological benefits—this will benefit the farmer and is in accordance with the food production targets and ambitions of this Government. It can work; we want to root out the bad behaviour which the noble Baroness rightly points out.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The Minister has rightly referenced the importance of a good balance between vital food production, carbon capture and other environmental things. It is a very difficult issue, and I wonder whether he can confirm that the devolved Administrations and the UK Government are discussing these things at the new Inter Ministerial Group for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I absolutely assure the noble Earl that we are working closely with our devolved colleagues on this, because the environment clearly does not respect boundaries. We want to make sure that our policies are very closely aligned with them. The issue is perhaps more pertinent in Scotland and Wales, where we have seen some of the concerns which have led to this title of a “wild west” in how private sector finance is applied. We want the highest standards applied. There are good examples right across the United Kingdom and we want to make sure that the tweaks and the measures that we impose favour those who are showing virtue rather than those who are not.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I live quite close to Newmarket, where an exceptionally large solar farm is proposed on high-quality farmland. I wonder whether my noble friend will say, in light of the food strategy today and the desire for greater food security, what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the desirable use of solar farms and renewables is not prejudicial to our environment or indeed our food security?

I am well aware of this case in Suffolk and the concerns of local people about loss of good agricultural land. The food strategy published today sets out the ambition to maintain our high levels of food security and production. Those sorts of developments need to be seen in the context of that ambition, and very strict rules relate to both planning and the use of the best agricultural land. That may well apply in the case that my noble friend refers to.

With about 7 billion trees, I think, we are one of the least forested countries in Europe, and there is a case for more trees—the right trees in the right place. I cannot understand why there is not a complete ban on using food-producing land for solar farms, when all the flat roofs of the warehouses and factories in this country could be used for that. There would be more space available; it is a given that it does not take good agricultural food-producing land.

There are many grants that people can source, even at a household level, to acquire and install solar panels on roofs, and the noble Lord is entirely right to point that out. He is also right that we need more trees. We have very ambitious targets of planting 30,000 hectares of additional trees every year by the end of this Parliament. That can be achieved without impacting our food security, and there are many areas of renewable energy production that can be done in accordance with food production as well.

I am sure the Minister is aware of figures from 2019 showing that corporations already own 18% of England, together with oligarchs and City bankers owning 17% and the aristocracy and the gentry owning 30%, all of that adding up to less than 1% of the population owning more than half of the land. Does the Minister agree that for food security to allow new small farmers and food growers to enter and start small businesses, we need to democratise land ownership?

The most beneficial way to encourage people into farming at all levels is through a system of let land and tenure. It is very often those corporations and those individuals that the noble Baroness mentions that provide the only entry for people who do not have access to capital to purchase a farm. We want as broad activity as possible in agricultural production, and that means encouraging new and younger people to enter farming through the tenancy system.

My Lords, in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on a similar issue last Wednesday, the Minister said:

“we are taking action to make sure that private sector investment in our natural environment is done properly, with the proper social underpinning.”—[Official Report, 8/6/22; col. 1151.]

Can he explain how this “social underpinning” is going to work? Will local people have the right to veto a large-scale private sector land grab, an example of which we have already been hearing about?

Under the Forestry Commission’s rules, there is a local consultation process that proposed tree planters are required to go through. Also, the woodland carbon code is very clear, as is the UK peatland code. We also want to make sure that corporations that are investing in this kind of mitigation are publicly accessible through the UK Land Carbon Registry, so anybody can see what is being done in their neighbourhood. We want to make sure that, with these so-called environmental, social and governance measures, the middle word is used and is fundamental—w want to make sure that these schemes are socially acceptable, as well as environmentally acceptable.

The most pressing food security issue facing the United Kingdom at the moment is the inability of Ukraine to export its grain to the West. I ask my noble friend: what assessment have the Government made as to the challenge that this will present us and the West? Also, how do the Government intend to mitigate this problem?

It is having an enormous effect on the global cost of agricultural production. The Government are working internationally with organisations such as the World Bank, which has invested $180 billion in trying to make sure that the countries that are going to be deprived of grain as a result of the Ukraine war are supported. In this country, we are largely self-sufficient in grain, and what we do import comes from countries such as Canada. But my noble friend is entirely right to point this out to make sure that we are working with the international community: first of all, to get the grain out of Ukraine; and, secondly, to support the countries that are going to be affected, in a devastating way, by the shortages that arise from this crisis.