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Regenerative Farming and Climate Change

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regenerative farming and tackling climate change, restoring nature and producing nutritious food.

I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting me the opportunity to debate this issue. I also declare my interest as a Conservative Environment Network regenerative agriculture champion, whatever that means.

Farming is at a crossroads in the UK. This is a seminal moment, perhaps the greatest in 70 years, and it offers opportunities, challenges and the chance to rethink and reform our agricultural way of life in a manner that is harmonious to producing healthy, high-standard food, reaching our climate goals and enhancing biodiversity, and tackling rural issues.

To start, the method through which we subsidise and support our farmers is undergoing a complete revamp. The basic payment scheme, which rewarded farmers based on their landholding, is to be phased out and replaced by an entirely new scheme. This new Government proposal—the environmental land management scheme, known as ELMS—promises to be a fairer, more tailored subsidy initiative to help British farmers produce food at the same time as asking them to work increasingly at a landscape scale, to improve biodiversity, reduce air and water pollution, protect our landscapes from environmental hazards and adapt our agricultural ways in response to climate change.

ELMS is undeniably ambitious and what is wrong with that? At its core, it seeks to provide public money for public good. A combination of climate change and decades of intensive farming have had an impact on UK agriculture, land and environment. More frequent flood events, topsoil loss from erosion, pesticides and antibiotic resistance, and plateauing yields, despite higher inputs, are increasingly making farmers’ jobs even more financially challenging, incurring lasting damage to our shared environment. Agriculture accounts for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and it is in our interests to address that.

British farming faces a new subsidy scheme, the need to address climate change, the requirement to upskill and retrain, the need for standards to measure carbon sequestration, as well as having to ensure stability around food security. Those crossroads—that challenge—might well be described as a spaghetti junction. The complexity of what we must do is huge.

Over the past two years, since I was elected, I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time with the farmers of Totnes and south Devon. In doing so, I have noted the manner, method and diverse ways in which many of them now farm. Some use the practices of the generations before them—a hyper-intensive farming regime, the “Dig for Britain” mentality, in which the land is worked and squeezed from every angle, for every nutrient, to produce food for a growing population through the use of chemicals and intensification, and where yields are a priority at all costs. Others have changed and adopted an organic farming model, where food is no longer produced at any cost, standards are raised, chemicals are reduced and, at the end, the product can display a label that denotes high quality, infallible welfare standards and, of course, a price to go with it—premium quality for those who can afford it.

It is perhaps worth remembering that there are 9.34 million hectares of agriculture landscape in the UK, of which only 489,000 are farmed organically. Then there are people who have long recognised and understood the need to return their land entirely to a more balanced and natural state of affairs—the rewilding brigade, whose efforts have been so neatly captured through the work of Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp. They have been returning land to its natural state and making space for nature to take over, which has captured the imagination of millions.

The wide spectrum of farming methods all have their own pros and cons, but the focus for the UK has now shifted towards working with nature. We must pluck what works from these methods and encourage their use through a new initiative. In recent years, a growing number of farmers have come to rethink their operations—quite literally from the ground up—by placing renewed emphasis on the few inches of earth beneath our feet, known as topsoil. In a healthy system, topsoil holds the nutrients, biodiversity and biological matter that allows life on Earth to thrive. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe our existence on this Earth to those few vital inches. For decades, however, we have been treating it like dirt.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. He is making a very knowledgeable speech, and I support what he is saying. Does he agree that there needs to be a big cultural change in order to move away from consuming high quantities of low-nutritious food and towards consuming lower quantities of food that is more nutritious?

It is almost as though the hon. Gentleman has read my speech, because I will come on to these points. Yes, the issue is about improving the quality of the food that we produce from the soil that we use. We can meet so many of our targets on food security and environmental challenges, but also on the health of the nation, through the food that we produce.

The farms that we are talking about are rethinking their operations according to a set of principles known as regenerative agriculture. Simply put, regenerative agriculture involves producing food while restoring the land. It consists of the following five principles. First, soil should not be disturbed. Secondly, soil surface should be covered. Thirdly, living roots should be kept in the soil. Fourthly, a diversity of crops should be grown, and there should be an end to monoculture crops. Fifthly, grazing animals should be brought back on to the land through mob-stocking processes. Although those five principles are well known within the regen community, they are not so widely recognised within the farming community.

Such a method of farming moves away from the agrochemical model that relies on environmentally damaging and expensive chemicals. It provides a solution to improve biodiversity, carbon sequestration of soil and food production, to reduce inputs in costs and to create a symbiotic model that is sustainable, effective and necessary. By freeing the farmer from their dependence on the chemicals salesman, they are able to reduce their costs and take control of their finances. That becomes all the more prescient as the cushion of the basic payment scheme is reduced.

At this point, one might wonder: if it is such a fantastic method, why are all farmers across the world not upending their ploughs and moving to regenerative agriculture? Unfortunately, like many beneficial steps, it takes time. Regenerative agriculture marries old techniques with new technology. Although it is proving successful where practised, farmers are still required to take a leap of faith, both financially and educationally.

We have so many fantastic farmers who are practising regenerative farming right across the UK, concentrating on improving soil health, biodiversity and water quality. I think of Jake Freestone, who was declared environmental champion farmer of the year at this year’s Farmers Weekly awards. I wonder whether we politicians could learn more from leaders such as Jake. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Jake?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I suspect that congratulations from the Minister might mean more, but I would like to congratulate Jake Freestone, because he is exactly the sort of person who we need to be co-operating with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and private organisations and helping people to learn and upskill—something that I will touch on in a second.

As I was saying, the enormous mind shift requires farmers to update and modernise their approach to farming, as well as including that financial risk. The challenge is great, but so too are the opportunities for DEFRA. The agriculture community and the private sector have a role to play. With a national initiative, they could have truly global results. For regenerative agriculture to make a difference, it needs to be supported and accepted by the Government, the private sector and the agricultural community. To achieve that, DEFRA has the opportunity to facilitate and enhance co-operation and understanding between farmers, to share practices, skills, machinery and understanding and, above all, to support farmers to do more for climate, nature and the environment. The sustainable farming incentive, part of the environmental land management scheme, which launches from 2022, will incentivise regenerative farmers to address the key points of soil and pest management. But the details at present remain somewhat opaque. Many in the agricultural community are still confused or in the dark about how the new ELM scheme will operate or practise.

Businesses that include farmers—of course, all farms are businesses—need certainty. The sooner we can be clearer about how public money for public good actually operates, the better. DEFRA through the ELM scheme is changing the method of support after 40 years. It is not about pitching farmers against one another, but instead bringing them together and using Government, private sector and farm bodies to provide the required support and action to adopt these regenerative farming principles. Perhaps a Jake Freestone policy could be adopted; we could use him as an example.

DEFRA, the Secretary of State and the farming Minister have constantly been clear about the need to listen to the agricultural community; now is our opportunity to do so. Agricultural initiatives are already underway that are leading the national debate, such as Groundswell, the Oxford Real Farming Conference and FarmED, but DEFRA needs to step up and lead to help translate those discussions into action and policy. We need a bottom-up approach that seeks to engage and co-operate and action that will ensure that regenerative agriculture leads to results that will benefit producers and consumers alike, including our environment.

My second point is about upskilling and training. Co-operation will play its part in delivering a new UK farming model fit for the 21st century. To get there, we must focus on how to change mindsets, update knowledge and offer training, retraining and upskilling courses. Much talk is made of the levelling-up agenda in this Parliament, and I can think of no better example of it landing and being effective than the Government being able to provide the necessary support for the agricultural community to update its practices. DEFRA funds have been and are available for agriculture charities that are focused on providing support to farmers.

I ask the Minister specifically about the steps that the Government are taking to encourage agricultural colleges and university courses to include soil health and regenerative practices. What opportunities are in place to help those already in farming to train, retrain or upskill? If we can go further, I encourage the Minister to do so, because within our educational bodies there is an enormous opportunity.

My third point is about the independent carbon assessment point. Healthier soils mean greater levels of carbon sequestration, meaning that the most effective carbon sink is not a man-made invention but the ground beneath our feet. However, measuring and verifying soil carbon is fantastically difficult and requires Government involvement. As a matter of urgency, DEFRA should be considering what the standards and requirements to measure soil carbon are. The technology might not have to come from Government, but the standards and the level that we wish to see can. We have committed 2.4% of GDP into research and development, and I suggest we stake our claim in this area before a myriad of straw men claiming to measure carbon sequestration are touted.

I understand that DEFRA’s natural environment investment readiness fund is proposing to develop and pilot a UK farm and soil carbon code to create a market for carbon offsetting. The technology to do so is being developed already by Agricarbon, as I understand it. With that in mind, how scalable is the technology to date? What steps is DEFRA taking to set a national carbon sequestration standard? What support are we providing for private and public sector bodies to help create the technology required?

I move on to my fourth and almost final point. Much has been written in recent weeks about food giants and commodity brokers dipping their toes into the regenerative field. Nestlé, Cargill, Walmart and Kellogg’s have been none too shy in promoting their regenerative agricultural efforts. As mentioned by the likes of Sustain’s Vicki Hird, we should be very wary of large private sector multinationals claiming great green credentials while other arms of their businesses continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I am not ruling out their efforts, but unless Government can set the standards and tools of measurement, we will likely be lobbied and led into a position that is not of our own making and is not as beneficial to our farmers, who we want it to be beneficial for.

We need to explore and consider how we can bring the private sector with us and how it can help and support our agricultural community. There are already some fantastic initiatives taken by water companies to encourage environmentally friendly farming practices. For instance, Anglian Water’s “Slug it Out” campaign saw the removal of the chemical metaldehyde from water courses. That showed the positive impact that co-operation between farmers and private enterprise can have, and led to a dramatic decline in water pollution. Water companies are an example of what we can do by co-operating and ensuring that private enterprises can work together. Of course, cash grants to support the purchase of machinery and move away from deep ploughing, skills and training funding, and incentives to utilise fewer chemicals are just a few suggestions.

Finally, I ask the Minister: how can we encourage water companies and other businesses to take that step, co-operate with farmers and provide that support? What consideration has been given to creating a fair and accurate verification system around offsetting?

I have taken up far too much time. Farming is hard; one need only watch an episode of “Clarkson’s Farm” to recognise that. It requires long hours; it is dangerous work. All that is combined with the devastating prospect of not even breaking even without a subsidy. We want our farmers to be successful. We want them to be recognised for the vital role that they play as the stewards of our land, for the service that they provide in ensuring that good, high-quality food is produced in the UK, and as part of the answer to climate change and nature restoration. I welcome the changes announced by the Government, but we now have the opportunity and duty to do more for our farmers, to provide clarity, to help retrain, to support and judge private sector involvement, and to create the harmonisation in the agricultural community to provide the results that we need.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing today’s debate. Indeed, it is good to see him on dry land. I have been following his exploits over recess on the trawler that left his constituency, and on which I am told he worked very hard. It is good that he survived that recent experience. I think that he learned a great deal from it, and I am looking forward to hearing all about that in due course.

I know from our many conversations that my hon. Friend is very passionate about regenerative farming as well as about his local fishing industry. He set out the challenges that are facing us at this crossroads of agricultural policy very thoughtfully—if rather quickly. It is true that there is a great deal to do. Part of the problem, which he identified, is that we have to do this at both a strategic level and a very practical and granular level, because that is what farming is all about.

We are introducing a new system that is tailored to the long-term interests of our farmers. As my hon. Friend said, this is the most significant change to farming and land management in 50 years. It is designed to move away from area-based payments or headage-based payments and to deliver a renewed agricultural sector. We are working with farmers at all stages of the design and development of this programme to ensure that it works for them in the future.

Very briefly, our programme is divided into three delivery systems at the moment. The sustainable farming incentive is being piloted actively at the moment, and those pilots are seeking to answer the specifics of many of the questions identified by my hon. Friend. Local nature recovery strategies are all about collaborative working across clusters or groups of farms, perhaps within a geographical area and perhaps to sustain a specific form of biodiversity or a geographical monument that we are trying to protect. We have learned a great deal about how co-working can help with nature recovery. Finally, there are the landscape recovery schemes, which my hon. Friend touched on.

Taken together, these schemes will provide our main delivery mechanism for projects that we hope will mitigate the impacts of climate change, support nature recovery and biodiversity, which is very important to our future plans, and, very importantly, support sustainable farming and the production of food, which is of course what our farmers do.

It is exciting and it is challenging; it is a seven-year transition during which we will work very hard with industry to make sure that we get it right. This is not a normal way of making policy; we are setting ourselves up to fail in some respects, and changing things as we go along—both of which give the civil servant in me pause for reflection. However, I think collaborative working with people such as Jake Freestone—who I am very pleased and proud to congratulate—is the right way to go. I always enjoy reading about the Farmer’s Weekly champions in all sectors, and he is a really great example of what is being done at the moment. We should not forget that a lot of farming is regenerative; I think my hon. Friend’s future relations are great proponents of regenerative farming, in a way that has been happening for many years in many parts of the country. It is important that we bank what is good and learn from it, as well as trying to encourage the great mass of us who farm into these regenerative techniques.

Is the Minister not slightly concerned with the policy we are seeing in trade negotiations with countries from around the world? We are doing deals with countries that have farming systems that seem to be the polar opposite of the vision set out by the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), and of what the Minister is arguing for now. Is it not a problem that, if we are pursuing a trade policy of that nature, it completely undermines what we are trying to achieve domestically?

I am very keen to promote the consumption of British food and drink wherever possible. I was delighted to go to Wales to look at the first geographical indication awarded under our new domestic system, which, I am proud to say, is in the Gower with salt marsh lamb. While it is right, as the hon. Gentleman states, that we have an ambitious trade policy, we need to do everything we can to make sure that truly sustainable food in the country is as local as possible, frankly.

It is worth briefly touching on the way in which our new schemes will support a series of regenerative techniques. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned topsoil regeneration. I am particularly excited by the use of winter cover crops: fast-growing plants such as buckwheat, fodder radish or rye, which are established very soon after the harvest and create a green, living cover for the soil. We know now that these techniques reduce soil erosion risks and prevent nutrients from being washed out of the soil. We know that they really improve the living roots within the soil and soil microbiology, which is very much promoted within our new schemes. Integrated pest management—for example, growing flower-rich areas alongside or within arable crops to attract predators for pests—is not pie in the sky; these are real techniques that are being used on real productive farms at the moment. We are doing everything we can to promote that.

We have very exciting examples of general mixed agriculture coming through, such as cultivating crops alongside rearing livestock to fertilise the soil. As a former oilseed rape grower, I am particularly excited by the new learning we have about the winter grazing of sheep, and what that does for pest management. My hon. Friend has heard me enthuse about herbal leys in the past. I feel that these are good, basic techniques that, while old fashioned in some cases, with new technology can really help the way our soil structures work in the future.

We know that we need to refocus to tackle the environmental challenges that are facing us, both on climate change and on biodiversity. We have the opportunity to show the world how this can work. Yes, it is frightening. Yes, it is an experiment. However, we will and can work with industry, slowly, until it works properly.

I like the phrase “spaghetti junction”; it took me straight to Clarkson’s farm, which I had the privilege of visiting just before the recess. Jeremy Clarkson showed me some extremely impressive durum wheat, used for making spaghetti, which he was growing on his farm.

I do think that that programme has been useful in explaining to the general public quite how complicated farming is. It has shown how we, as DEFRA, farmers and, indeed, the general public have to balance all the competing claims on a minute-by-minute basis as we make decisions about how we grow things and what we grow.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for his review of land-based colleges. He is reporting to the Department for Education, but has kept me closely involved. I also mention in passing the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture. We are about to launch it formally, and a great deal of work has been going on to get it all organised. Upskilling and training are very much part of this brave new farming world.

We will set out our policy on new entrants formally at some point this winter. We have talked about how we will encourage those who want to retire from the industry to retire. We need to ensure that new entrants can put regenerative practices at the heart of all they do.

I will close with a piece of breaking news. It may not sound exciting to the general public, but for those of us who are involved in regenerative agriculture it is right up there. We laid a written ministerial statement at 9.30 today on the soil health action plan. It will include details on the development of healthy soil indicators and a proper methodology for soil structure monitoring, as well as setting out the basics of a soil health monitoring scheme. Some of the future farming policy pilots have been working on the details of that, and I am pleased that we have got as far as the WMS today.

In summary, I am grateful for this useful debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for his interest in this area.

If I may, I will add a few concluding comments. I thank those who have taken part by intervening on me and the Minister. I also thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer to my rather long list of questions, for which I apologise. I think I did share some of the questions ahead of time. It is nice to be back on firm ground after my two days with the Brixham trawlers.

The Minister is absolutely right: when we can marry old techniques with new technology, we have the potential to turbocharge—as the Prime Minister might say—our farming methods and ensure that we continue to produce high-class agricultural produce in this country.

As I sit on the International Trade Committee, I would just say that we have the highest standards in the world. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to do a trade deal with any other country when our standards sit at the very top, but there is an expectation that British produce will be able to reach the shelves of our friends in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, because it is a sought after product. I hope to scrutinise those trade deals further in Parliament so that we can have more debates about food security and about how we are exporting, as well as how we are importing. I do not know whether that provides any reassurance to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), but I am trying.

It is fantastic to hear about the ministerial statement on soil health. As any good agronomist knows, good soil health is measured by the quantity of worms, so I look forward to going out with my shovel, along with the Minister, to count worms and see how this policy has had an impact.

There are big challenges and huge opportunities here. All I will say is that the Minister has a strong reputation for engaging with and listening to the different groups in Parliament and outside. I hope that she will continue to do so and hear us out.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.