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Growth Plan 2022

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects on (1) food production, and (2) environmental protection, of the Growth Plan 2022.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. A strong environment and a strong economy go hand in hand. To deliver our plan for growth, the Government will be looking closely at the frameworks for regulation, innovation and spending relevant to farming and land management to ensure that our policies are best placed both to boost food production and to protect the environment.

My Lords, I apologise for my naivety in tabling this Question 28 days ago, as I thought that the growth plan would still be zinging along. I ask the Minister—who I hope will be promoted later today—if he could give us one example in terms of food production that would be beneficial to, and supportive of, the National Farmers’ Union, and one example that members of the National Trust could support on environmental protection? Just one of each will do.

On food protection, members of the National Farmers’ Union will be pleased that the Government are looking to make farming more productive. Members of the National Trust can also support this because it will be done sustainably. National Trust members are members because they want to support our natural and built heritage, and hardwired into our environmental land management schemes and other environmental benefits is the need to manage our land for future generations.

My Lords, I say to my noble friend the Minister that, while it is obviously very important that we should promote policies to protect the environment, it is also very important that we should do nothing to prejudice domestic food production. Of the two, I suggest that the latter is more important.

I firmly believe that the two are not mutually exclusive. I was talking to an organisation called the Nature Friendly Farming Network, which, on one farm, is producing more food on 11% less land. All of us who are farmers know about those corners of fields that are farmed only because of the dishonest form of area payment that we have been living under for decades. There are schemes enabling farmers to be more productive off the land that should be farmed, thereby allowing us to continue to feed our hungry world sustainably.

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt remember that the biggest crisis in living memory to hit the UK farming sector was caused by deregulation. The BSE crisis arose because the regulations governing the processing of meat and bone meal were relaxed. In light of that, can he reassure us that there will not be further examples of deregulation in future that will threaten not only food safety but the future of the farming industry?

The noble Lord is absolutely correct. Reputable businesses—whether they are in farming, food production or any other sector—like good regulation because it means that they are not undercut by bad producers who produce poor-quality food unsustainably. We absolutely want to ensure that our regulations not only protect the environment but allow competent and decent producers to produce food that is much needed in society.

My Lords, I just add that because of Brexit, largely, we have an imported food crisis. Of course, such food costs so much more than it used to before Brexit. To suggest, as the Government do, that we should import more food will only add to the difficult situation ordinary people are in. Can the Minister give me an assurance that enough affordable food will be available to all the people here in the United Kingdom?

The greatest crisis in the food industry, indeed in the economy, in recent years has been Covid. What we managed to prove through that was that the supply chain of food to people who need it has been resilient. We want that to continue, but we also want food producers to produce the quality that is needed not only in these islands, but that can be exported abroad, so trade is fundamental to the growth we want to see.

My Lords, I draw attention to my conservation interests as listed in the register. Can the Government reassure conservation bodies—I know he is a great conservationist himself—that we are not going to water down environmental protections but, if anything, increase them?

The Government have to be absolutely clear about this because it is hard-wired into legislation, whether it is our net-zero commitments under the Climate Change Act or our protections under the Environment Act—world-leading legislation that will put into law such things as biodiversity net gain and the ambitions in the 25-year environment plan. This leaves precious little room for any Government of any persuasion to be foolish enough to damage our environment, which would mean that we could not achieve those objectives, which are written in law.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the environmental land management schemes. The Secretary of State—or is he now the previous Secretary of State?—had to deny plans that the new schemes were going to be ditched, but of course, that was before the Conservative Party crashed the economy. So can the Minister guarantee not only that ELMS is here to stay and that incentives will remain at current levels, but that our farmers will be protected from any trade agreements that would undermine our high standards?

Environmental land management schemes are here to stay. They will continue to be rolled out as we taper out area payments, which saw 55% of the money going to just 10% of the largest farmers. That was very unfair for small farmers. We will be helping smaller farmers to get a fairer share of the cake and we will continue to make sure that our trade agreements, in accordance with what has already been said, will not see a diminution of our animal welfare or environmental standards.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers, but how will the investment zones in His Majesty’s Government’s growth plan dovetail with local and neighbourhood plans to protect their green spaces?

Investment zones will happen only where they are wanted by the local authority. The local authority might in some cases be a national park, and national parks do not want them. There are certain areas where they can be, but the Government are committed to green open spaces, the green belt and designated landscapes being maintained. We want to make sure that where there is a need for growth and jobs, which help the economy and help families and households keep a roof over their head and their pensions secured, this is not being done at a risk to the environment.

My Lords, recent data from the Food Foundation, of which I am proud to be a trustee, points out that, this September, 18% of households —over 10 million adults—had food insecurity. Some 58% of those households had cut down on buying fruit and 48% had cut down on buying vegetables, because they are too expensive. Where in the growth and future farming plans will we make vegetables and fruit more available to hungry people at reasonable prices?

First, we want to see more of our fruit and vegetables grown in this country and shorten the food miles to get them to the people who need them. We are supporting families as never before in a variety of ways, and food is a vital part of household expenditure, but it is far from the largest. The Government have to act holistically to make sure that, in these difficult times, we help families with energy and other household costs as well as food.

My Lords, if we are swift, we will have enough time for both noble Lords. We will hear from the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, and then the noble Lord, Lord Winston.

My Lords, I refer to my farming interests as listed in the register. Can my noble friend outline what this Government are doing to encourage more young people into the farming industry and to improve our food production?

My Lords, this is absolutely vital, as was brought home to me yesterday at the reception organised by TIAH and the noble Lord, Lord Curry. Teaching people the necessary skills is vital if we are to see the average age of farmers—which is my age, 62—come right down, and we can achieve that only if they have them.

My Lords, the Government say they want to protect families. Is the noble Lord fully aware of the epigenetic effects of a poor diet on literally thousands of children in hunger poverty? The Dutch winter disease, for example, showed very clearly that the long-term effects on cognitive ability and general health go right through to middle and old age. Can we be absolutely certain that the Government will do all they can to secure food, rather than worrying about some of the other aspects of the environment?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. There is ever-increasing evidence that poor diet makes individuals, particularly young people, susceptible to diseases not just while they are young but right through their lives. That is why our food strategy is not just a Defra strategy but must be across government; it relies on the expertise of people such as the noble Lord.