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Farming: Net Zero

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 20 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in assisting British farmers to meet net zero challenges.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Farmers are central to delivering the Government’s environmental and climate targets, alongside their core role as food producers. The net-zero growth plan, government food strategy and environmental improvement plan set out a range of specific improvements to support farmers on their journey to net zero. Environmental land management is the foundation of our new approach. Our schemes will pay for sustainable farming practices, which are an important step towards achieving our net-zero goals.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and I appreciate the progress being made, but years on from the passing of the Agriculture Act and the Environment Act, farm owners and landowners are constrained by the absence of many of the basic details on the new schemes. Despite many questions and consultations, we still have no decisions on the tax implications for income tax, VAT and inheritance tax. Current uncertainty over the taxation impacts of ELMS, biodiversity net gain and carbon farming in general is a major obstacle for farmers to take up these schemes. This is exacerbated by the need to commit to 30 years or more for BNG. In successful farming, timeliness is godliness. Will the Minister introduce this mantra to Defra and its dealings with the Treasury, and announce the policy?

I thank the noble Lord. We are doing a lot with farmers to encourage them to farm sustainably, in a way that locks up carbon and rewards them for doing so. I refer him to Nature Markets: A Framework for Scaling Up Private Investment in Nature Recovery and Sustainable Farming, which shows land managers precisely how they can access high-integrity carbon and biodiversity credits markets, which will provide income for them and do what we want; and to our environmental land management schemes, which will lock up carbon. The noble Lord asked a specific question on tax. We have resolved some of the issues and have ongoing discussions with the Treasury. It is vital that we incentivise farmers in every way to help them hit net zero and help us as a society.

My Lords, I pay tribute to Minette Batters, the current president of the National Farmers’ Union, who is in her last year in that post. The challenges of the farming industry have been enormous in recent years, not only in relation to net zero but much more widely. Can the Minister therefore say today that assistance will be given whenever necessary to encourage more people to enter the farming profession, and to help those farmers who meet these challenges day in, day out?

I second my noble friend’s kind words about Minette Batters; she has been an extraordinary leader of the farming sector. In a single act of great courage and determination, she committed English farming under her leadership to get to net zero by 2040. That is a challenge for the Government and for her members, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that the NFU’s ambition and the Government’s align.

The basic payment scheme is due to be wound down next year and, as I understand it, the cross-compliance rules, such as not maintaining hedgerows between 1 March and 31 August to enable nesting birds and other wildlife to thrive, may go. Can the Minister tell us which, if any, of these cross-compliance rules will be retained? Does he agree that there is little point in chasing carbon goals if our countryside is dead and silent?

The noble Baroness says something is so when it is not. There are so many rules to prevent farmers removing hedgerows. There are cross-compliance measures within ELMS, which will replace the basic payment scheme. I do not know where she got that information, and I wish other members of her party at the other end would stop saying this because it is not true.

I, too, pay tribute to Minette Batters. She has been an extraordinary leader, and these Benches support all the work she has done to bring farming towards net zero. We know that the use of smart technologies and more efficient equipment can help farmers reduce their environmental impact, whether that is through reduced emissions, improved yields or reducing damage to natural habitats. However, many farmers are struggling to make ends meet and the cost of borrowing has increased greatly in recent times, which makes new equipment out of reach financially for many farmers. What assessment have the Government made of the potential role for farming co-operatives in acquiring and sharing such equipment, and what role would the Minister see for his department in this area?

There has been a great increase in machinery rings, whereby farmers work together to share equipment. That has reduced their fixed costs and assisted with their working capital. Defra is assisting farmers through our £270 million Farm Innovation Fund, including £15 million to assist farmers in putting solar panels on their barns. However, there is much more we can do to help innovation. Earlier my noble friend made a point about encouraging younger people into farming, who understand the technologies that are available and embrace them. They need to feel that they are assisted by government and the agricultural education sector, and that there are grants available to help them work together to use innovations that reduce their carbon footprint but also help with their bottom line.

My Lords, I want to ask a specific question of detail on carbon. I am increasingly receiving messages of concern about the lack of a national standard in the calculation of carbon. Different farming systems and different models are producing different results. The industry is crying out for clarity. We need a national standard for the calculation of carbon on different livestock systems but also for the calculation of soil carbon. What is the department doing to try to resolve this dynamic?

The noble Lord has great experience in this field. He is right that there are a great many tools available for use by farmers and their advisers to support on-farm calculations and audits. The Government and I share his concern because a number of those tools differ widely in their complexity and underlying methodology. We are therefore working at pace to find the most credible and consistent on-farm tools to assist farmers to understand their baselines and thereby to prove additionality, so that they can actively seek carbon credits and biodiversity credits, which will help them to hit net zero and their income accounts.

My Lords, everyone, including farmers, has to be committed and involved in attempting to achieve net zero. This year the Government turned away farmers from their higher-tier countryside stewardship and landscape recovery schemes. Those farmers were ambitious to cut greenhouse gas emissions and restore nature to the land. In future, is Defra likely to encourage farmers, rather than discouraging them from playing their part in cutting GHG?

I do not know where these stats come from. We have doubled the number of farmers in countryside stewardship. When we increased the rates two years ago, the number of farmers entering countryside stewardship doubled. I do not know where the noble Baroness is getting these figures.

My Lords, farmers up and down the land, along with a lot of other people, will be breathing a sigh of relief because, apparently, later on today we are going to look again at the policies on net zero and, hopefully, will remove all those nonsenses from it and try to make some sense of it, which has not been done so far. When the Minister talks to farmers, could he please ask them to keep growing barley, not bulrushes, and remind them that, as well as keeping up conservation, as they must, their first job is to make sure that the nation is fed?

I agree. There is no dichotomy here at all. As the food strategy shows, on the poorest fifth of land we produce less than 1% of the calories we need. So there is plenty of room out there to do what is necessary to restore nature, which is depleted to historically low levels, which we want to see reversed by 2030. We want farmers to get to net zero, which is fundamentally important. We should all be proud that this country is a leader in promoting net zero by 2050 and passing a Climate Change Act. There are plenty of possibilities for farmers to continue to produce food off land that is productive, as well as to restore nature and to get to net zero using the land that is less productive.