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Agriculture: Sustainable Intensification and Metrics

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022

I remind hon. Members that there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sustainable intensification and metrics in agriculture.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. In bringing forward this debate, I declare my interest as an arable famer and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture.

The world needs to increase food production and availability by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with the food needs of a rapidly increasing and expanding global population in the face of climate change and the increasing pressures of the world’s finite natural resources. With its good soils, temperate climate, professional farming sector and world-leading research and development, Britain is uniquely placed not only to optimise its capacity for sustainable and efficient food production, but also to become a global hub for agriscience excellence and innovation, exporting technological solutions, attracting inward investment, and fostering international research co-operation. Outside the EU, Britain has a unique opportunity to lead in those fields and to put significant vigour and evidence at the heart of UK policy development.

I also declare an interest as a landowner and as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. My constituency of Strangford is able to yield three potato crops a year due to sustainable, innovative farming and premium land. Does the hon. Member not agree that a UK-wide survey of soil quality and climate may enable farmers to slightly change their methods and allow us all to reap the benefits of additional produce with minimal environmental impact?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Soils play a hugely important part in the wider metrics of agriculture. Knowing the Minister very well, I know that she shares a passion for soils, so she might touch on that in her response.

Early action by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make gene editing regulations more science-based and proportionate, which realigns our approach with that of other countries such as Australia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and the United States, is a positive and welcome first step. I am pleased to see that coming forward in a statutory instrument at the beginning of March, I believe—perhaps the Minister can clarify that.

Members of the APPG for science and technology in agriculture led calls for the Government to take action on that issue during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, and we are grateful to the Minister for listening and responding to those calls. Access to precision breeding tools will bring new opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, improved and more efficient resource use, more durable pest and disease resistance, better nutrition, and improved resilience against climate change.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech and I am in complete agreement with his points. I was brought up on a dairy farm, and in those days the Milk Marketing Board secured a price floor for milk. Today, I would suggest to the hon. Member that we have a problem in that the price farmers can secure could undercut everything to which the Member refers. Does he agree that one of the opportunities of Brexit is that it gives Government the power to examine the issue and consider support mechanisms, so that people do not leave farming altogether?

I completely agree with the hon. Member that we have to ensure that we protect our farming communities and that people do not leave farming. It is so important that we have expertise both on the land and within the sector to make sure that opportunities are there for future generations. The Government must make that clear in their future agricultural policy, and I will touch on that shortly, because I have concerns about its direction, which is, I think, what the hon. Member was referring to.

When we talk about gene editing, we must ensure that future farm policies embrace and support the use of all the new, innovative technologies. Like many others in the sector, I am concerned about the direction of travel of the Government’s future vision for agriculture. As I just said, I am concerned about where future policy is going. We cannot afford to be complacent with something as fundamental as food security. The global food supply and demand balance remains as precarious today as 11 years ago, when Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report urged Governments to pursue a policy of sustainable intensification in agriculture to meet future food needs in the context of population growth, climate change and the finite national resources of land, water and fossil fuels.

Last year’s “Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030” report by the OECD and the Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, with 8.5 billion mouths to feed by 2030, a business-as-usual approach will fall short of achieving sustainable development goal 2 on zero hunger by 2030. The report also highlighted the critical role of public and private sector research and development investment in enhancing productivity on existing farmland to alleviate pressures and bring more land into production. We have a responsibility to optimise our capacity for sustainable, efficient food production and to not offshore our food system’s impacts to regions of the world that are more vulnerable to the production-limiting effects of climate change.

Concerns are mounting that, without clear vision and a definition of what is meant by “sustainable agriculture”, the UK is at risk of sleepwalking into its own food crisis. Writing in Food Policy, Robert Paarlberg of the Harvard Kennedy School recently highlighted the transatlantic policy tensions between the EU’s farm to fork strategy, referring to the plans to expand organic farming, reduce synthetic chemical use and reject modern biotechnology and the United States’ approach, which is to emphasise agricultural innovations based on the latest science, articulated through its global coalition on sustainable productivity growth.

Last September, I wrote to the Prime Minister, urging the UK Government to sign up to that coalition, which was established by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to demonstrate that farmers can adapt to and adopt environmentally friendly and climate-smart farming practices without sacrificing productivity. I did not receive a reply from No. 10, so I ask the Minister: will the UK Government join other countries, such as Australia, Canada and Brazil, in signing up to the global coalition for sustainable productivity growth? Will the Minister explain where the UK sits in terms of the agricultural policy tension described by Robert Paarlberg?

Last year, the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture held a meeting on the subject “Whatever happened to sustainable intensification?” It included contributions from leading UK experts in the fields of crop science, agricultural economics, rural policy and conservation science. The meeting highlighted serious concerns that current farm policy development lacks scientific rigour, and that policy focus on sustainable intensification has diminished.

We were reminded that DEFRA responded to Professor Beddington’s foresight report by initiating the sustainable intensification research platform, or SIP. That is a £4.5 million, four-year, multi-partner research programme to investigate the challenges of securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental protection. However, while the concept of sustainable intensification and the scientific rationale that underpins it remains as relevant and urgent as ever, the outputs, recommendations and advice generated through the DEFRA SIP appear to have been quietly shelved and forgotten.

The weight of scientific evidence points to a need to optimise production on existing farmland. Professor Andrew Balmford, a conservation scientist at Cambridge University, told the all-party group that the most effective way to keep pace with increasing human demands for food while protecting habitats and preventing further biodiversity loss is through high-tech, high-yielding production on land that is already farmed, mirrored by explicit policy investments and regulations to make sure that other land is set aside for nature.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent speech that he is giving; I particularly agree with the point about land sparing and sharing. His vison for the future, and the idea of what we need to do around food security, is incredibly important. Does he agree that if there is one Department that should probably be based outside London, alongside the agricultural colleges and the experts in this country, it is DEFRA? On top of that, does he agree that DEFRA must provide clarity for farmers to be able to look at how they can incorporate productivity with sustainability and environmentalism to ensure that our level of farming and food security can be sustained?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I thought he was about to call for DEFRA to come to his constituency; I would argue that York would make a fantastic location too. The principle of DEFRA moving out of London and into the wider farming community, where our food production is based, makes perfect sense. I completely agree with him.

It turns out that sustainable intensification is also the most efficient way to meet climate change objectives, through the increased opportunities for carbon sequestration and storage. The Government must, as a matter of urgency, revisit the policy focus on sustainable intensification as the most effective way—perhaps the only way—to feed an increasingly hungry warming planet. If the term “sustainable intensification” has fallen out of fashion, as DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Gideon Henderson, suggested to us recently, then by all means call it something else. However, above all else we must be guided by the science—the science that DEFRA itself has funded.

I am genuinely concerned about a shift away from science and evidence-based policy making in the Department, towards an over-reliance on voluntary and campaigning non-governmental organisations to support the Government’s vision for sustainable agriculture. Nowhere is that more apparent than in DEFRA’s approach to the issue of sustainable metrics in agriculture. While Gideon Henderson suggested to us in January that the Government are a long way from having a mature policy on metrics, correspondence that I have received on this issue from DEFRA Ministers suggests that one particular model, the Sustainable Food Trust global farm metric, is firmly embedded in the Government’s thinking. Not only is the Sustainable Food Trust an activist pro-organic NGO that openly campaigns against technologies that the Government are seeking to enable, such as gene editing, but the model itself is designed to reward less productivity and more extensive farming systems by favouring a whole farm or area-based approach to measuring resource use and the ultimate environmental impact.

Again, Professor Balmford told the all-party group that making meaningful sustainability comparisons between different farming systems would require an assessment of resource use and external impacts per unit of food produced, rather than a per-area-farmed basis. Professor Paul Wilson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nottingham, who leads the Government’s farm business survey programme, agreed that an area-based approach for sustainability indicators such as carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions is flawed in principle, and that there needs to be a clear reference point in terms of the amount of food produced to have any relevance.

Professor Wilson also led the metrics component of DEFRA’s SIP, which again does not appear to be feeding into the Government’s thinking. This included a huge amount of work on sustainability metrics and indicators, including the prototype development of a farmer-friendly data and benchmarking dashboard allowing producers to access and compare their performance against those indicators and against a weighted averaging of their peers.

The all-party group has long advocated for the need to embed data science and sustainability metrics at the heart of a policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact. We believe that access to metrics capable of objectively and consistently monitoring that balance will be essential to set targets and measure progress for sustainable, efficient production, to develop coherent research and development programmes, to understand and advise on best practice throughout the industry, and to provide meaningful information to consumers about the sustainability impact of each unit of food produced, whether that is a litre of milk or a bag of potatoes.

In addition to my earlier questions about whether the UK will sign up to the global coalition for sustainable productivity growth and where the UK sits in terms of the agricultural policy tension described by Robert Paarlberg, I will conclude with two final questions to the Minister. To be fair to her, this is not quite her brief, but I know that she has great knowledge in this field, so I look forward to her response.

First, in view of the concerns I have raised, will the Minister agree to submit the global farm metric model to a process of independent scientific scrutiny and validation with leading academic experts in the field? Secondly, will she commit to facilitating a joint roundtable with our all-party group to take forward discussions on the development of robust and meaningful metrics for sustainable agriculture?

I am aware that the hon. Member is reaching his concluding remarks. I would be less than honest if I did not say that farmers in my constituency have raised an eyebrow at the concept of wilding, which is very fashionable at the moment. I wonder whether he has anything to say about that. Should that perhaps also be included in any roundtable discussion?

I thank the hon. Member for bringing that up. I could say a lot about wilding, if I am brutally honest; that could fill another debate on its own. I return to the point that I made early in the debate: current farmland needs to be used to produce food in the most effective and productive way possible, but also in the most environmentally friendly way, and unfarmed land needs to be used to protect and preserve the environment. I am fundamentally against the principle of wilding productive farmland because I think it would lead to a food security crisis. We have to very aware of that. There has to be a balance struck between producing food in an environmentally friendly way to feed a growing global population and enhancing our environment. We can achieve that, but a balance has to be struck between the two. From what we are hearing from DEFRA, I worry that that balance is out of kilter at the moment.

My hon. Friend makes the point about his opposition to rewilding and about the need for productivity. Does that mean that he is leaning further towards the idea of regenerative agriculture—producing food in a more sustainable manner?

Absolutely. We have to produce more food, but we have to do so in an environmentally friendly way. We have to protect the environment at the same time—there is a balance to be struck. The way we do that has to be led by technology and science; we must go forwards, not backwards. That is the fundamental point that I am trying to get across today. We have to use and be led by science and technology; Government advice and policy have to be led by the science. I hope that the Minister will take that fundamental point away.

I think that I got my request for a meeting with the Minister in before the intervention on wilding. I am more than happy for wilding to be on the table, and I look forward to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and all the hon. Members involved in this morning’s debate, joining that meeting. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing this subject forward. The Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), would have been responding to the debate, but she is at the National Farmers Union conference, so I am standing in. I am very happy to do so, because the debate touches on so much of what I deal with as the Environment Minister. I will make some points about that as I go along.

We have a great deal of synergy here; I do not really think that we are arguing, as such, about a lot of the points that have been raised. I want to be clear from the outset that everything that I do in DEFRA is science-led—I can absolutely assure hon. Members of that. I sometimes ask officials, “Have we got to do another bit of data gathering and assessment?” The answer is yes, we do, because our work has to be science-focused; we have to have evidence for what we do and how we make policy.

I also want to assure hon. Members that we are not going backwards. Looking after our soil in the way that we hope farmers will in the future is not going backwards; it is going forwards. We will go forwards—yes, with lots of the old ethos and ideas, but also with a great deal of innovation and technology behind us. I want to make that clear at the start.

Food production really matters in this country, and it is at the heart of our levelling-up agenda. The “United Kingdom Food Security Report” set out that we produce 60% of our food supply need, and 74% of foods we can produce for all or part of the year. We are almost 100% self-sufficient in certain things, including poultry, eggs and—weirdly—swedes. We have a very good track record. As we work to deliver our rightly ambitious and world-leading commitments to halt the decline of nature—something to which we are legally committed—and reach net zero, it is critical that we are mindful of food security. However, we need to look at our land and land use strategically; I think that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer pointed that out himself.

As the Environment Minister, I have a solid background in farming and food production, but also in the environment. For me, the two things have never been separated, and indeed they should never be separated. That means that supporting and enabling sustainable intensification, land sharing and land use change are all in the mix. We have to have sustainable food production, and I think my hon. Friend agrees. Of course, producing sustainable, healthy food is inextricably linked to having a healthy environment.

All of DEFRA’s policy programmes in the agricultural transition plan are informed and supported by evidence generated by and developed in partnership with our world-leading UK research institutes, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. Alongside our stakeholders—including, as he said, environmental non-governmental organisations, whose expertise, knowledge and passion we value—we also engage with academia, the science community and industry in developing programmes to ensure that our policies are supported by robust evidence; of course, that includes the chief scientific adviser.

DEFRA works in partnership with research councils, other Departments and agencies via the well-established UK Research and Innovation-led global food security programme, and sets the direction of the £90 million UKRI-led transforming food production challenge fund. More recently, we launched the farming innovation pathways competition under the wider farming innovation programme, through which we are funding projects including a fruit-scouting robot, the use of black fly as a feed alternative, and new approaches to tackling pests and pathogens on vegetables without the use of pesticides. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, moving away from reliance on chemical pesticides. A huge amount of data gathering, research and work is going into that.

Evidence plays a critical role in the development, monitoring and evaluation of our policy programmes. We rely on evaluation and monitoring to work out whether the tests, trials and pilots that we are constantly running are doing the right thing, and whether we should include those things in our policies. Evidence has been vital in underpinning the content of our sustainable farming incentive standards and the development of the net zero strategy in future farming and so forth.

Our thinking has evolved with the evidence, and it is clear that we need to pursue a sensitive approach to this matter. As such, we will invest in new research on land use and agricultural systems as a major strand of the £75 million allocated to research and development in DEFRA sectors announced in the net zero strategy. That investment will build on previous research—including the £4.5 million investment in the sustainable intensification research platform that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer referred to—and continue to address the pressures identified in Sir John Beddington’s 2011 foresight report. That really important document has informed so much of what we are doing now; people might think it has been forgotten, but it most certainly has not.

DEFRA directly funds innovative research on sustainable intensification and transformational approaches in agrifood protection via our core agrifood research programmes. Of course, intensification may not be appropriate for all settings, particularly in areas that are nature sensitive or of biodiversity value; in such areas, regenerative and agroecological approaches might be more suitable. As recognised by Henry Dimbleby in his independent review, we need to combine sustainable intensification and regenerative approaches to agriculture to meet the objectives of our 25-year environment plan while maintaining the secure and healthy food supplies that we need.

Although we have not touched on it in this debate, we must not forget water. We need a supply of water that is not only resilient and sustainable—agriculture needs that, of course—but clean and of good quality. All of this also impacts on agricultural management practices—what farmers do on the ground to produce the food we need. It is all related. As well as long-term food security, many of our schemes are looking at what I call the vital building blocks: healthy soil, water and a biodiverse ecosystem. If we do not get those right, we cannot produce any food at all. My hon. Friend knows my feelings about soil and the testing that will go with those soil standards.

I am running out of time, so let me mention briefly that we are doing a lot of data gathering. The natural capital and ecosystem assessment will inform an awful lot of what we do. We are also working closely with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

My hon. Friend asked about the US global initiative, which we are looking at. We have started a dialogue with Washington to identify the best way the UK can bring knowledge to the roundtable that he mentioned. I am sure that the Farming Minister would be happy to meet him—as would I, if that would be helpful. I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet, but we need to get that clear and we need to go forward working together.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.