Skip to main content

Food Security: Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on food security.

My Lords, in 2021 Defra published the United Kingdom Food Security Report, which examined the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. We have received the Climate Change Committee’s latest assessments of climate risks to the UK, which will inform the third national adaptation programme, due in 2023. Improving water security and soil health is crucial to food security and closely linked to the significant action we are taking to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

I thank the Minister very much for his Answer. While the immediate situation in Ukraine is, as we all know, putting incredible pressure on the world’s food security and this will undoubtedly get more acute, we must not be lulled into thinking that this is the only driving factor. As the Minister said, droughts, fires, floods, desertification and deforestation are the drivers and causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, and indeed of food insecurity. Will the Minister give us a clear assurance from the Dispatch Box that the Government will not use any legislation from this Session to reduce the high environmental standards that have already been set, in the pursuit of getting more cheap food into the system?

The noble Baroness has long experience in this area, and I assure her that the Government take this area of our responsibilities really seriously, not just domestically but internationally, where I believe we are a leader in trying to get the world community to come together to address global food security risks. The Pentagon, in a paper it published, called climate change the “risk escalator”, and it is. It will lead to further pressures on populations right across the world, and it is an absolute priority for this Government to help resolve it.

My Lords, given the escalation in food prices and the difficulty in world food supplies, does my noble friend agree that we should be very careful not to allow policies of rewilding or other environment-related schemes to diminish our ability to produce foodstuffs domestically?

It is our intention that farmers across these islands will continue to be incentivised to produce good-quality food. We have remained remarkably consistent in our food security over the last two decades, and we want to see that continue and improve. Through our farming reforms, we are incentivising farmers to continue to produce good-quality food.

My Lords, I was reassured that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, mentioned world food security; that is absolutely critical. Can I pursue with the Minister that the Government will not forget that many of the poorer countries in the world can produce only a very limited type of food, upon which their own societies depend?

It is precisely those people who will be the greatest victims of climate change. In the short term we are working with the World Bank to lever the largest ever financial commitment, $170 billion, to support countries faced with economic hardship, both in the short term as a result of insecurity and the war in Ukraine and in the long term, working with international bodies to address these very problems for the most vulnerable people in our society.

My Lords, we are a trading nation and always have been. It is essential to ensure that harmful practices are not offshored, as environmentally degrading practices are making the biodiversity crisis we face worse. In turn, this makes growing crops on much of the planet harder. Can the Minister assure the House that the new trade Bill will not allow the import of goods produced to lower standards than ours? In the long run it would be utterly pointless and self-defeating for us and our allies to do so.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We have to make sure that we are not, through our environmental policies, just pushing carbon emissions and biodiversity practices that we do not allow here to other countries. We are part of a global community. Our food supply chains are very complex and we want to manage them with our international relations and make sure that we are protecting our environment at home, continuing to produce good food and playing our part abroad as well.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to our farmers, not just for putting food on our plates but for creating and protecting biodiversity? Will he ensure that food security is embraced as a public good and that tenant farmers will continue to benefit from farm payments?

We want the entire spectrum of British agriculture to benefit from the changes. We recognise that this is a difficult time for farming; it would be even if we were not going through the changes we are with commodity price spikes and the like. We are working closely with them and the food sector to make sure that we are supporting our British farmers and that they continue to produce food at the highest welfare and environmental standards now and in the future.

Last year’s report from the Committee on Climate Change said:

“Defra still lacks a strategy to ensure the agricultural sector remains productive as the climate changes.”

It went on to say that the focus of the ELMS reforms was on flood risk rather than the broader climate impact. Does the Minister feel that those points have been fully addressed? If so, can he write to noble Lords and put a letter in the Library giving details of that? In particular, can he explain how the new strands of the ELMS programme are now addressing those broader climate change obligations?

I absolutely can commit to a letter that brings noble Lords up to date with our reforms. It is much more than just flood protection. It is about producing sustainable food. It is about soil systems. It is about making sure that farmers are incentivised to protect the environment and reverse the catastrophic decline in species. We are living through one of the riskiest times in terms of biodiversity loss. We want to reverse that but we are trying to do it in a way that supports farming systems. I am very happy to keep noble Lords informed of our progress.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned that Ukraine has wheat in storage but cannot get it out because its ports are being shelled and blockaded. I am told that the real reason is that no wheat-carrying ships can get into the Bosphorus or the Black Sea because they cannot get insured and therefore cannot carry out such wheat as would be available and is necessary to stop a major crisis and starvation, particularly in Egypt, Lebanon and places like that. Will the Minister consider states, including the United Kingdom, undertaking the insurance that private enterprise will not provide and without which there will be further great starvation because of the blockade?

My noble friend raises an important issue that I will look into and contact him about. While this country imports a very small amount of grain from Ukraine and Russia, we have more in terms of oils. That is one of the reasons we are working with the World Bank: to make sure that countries that depend on imports from Ukraine are supported. I will certainly get back to him on the other point.

My Lords, the insurance of shipping often depends on its protection. Does the Minister believe that the fact that we currently have 12 frigates and will soon have only nine does anything to help protect the global shipping that is so important for our country and many nations?

I am always amazed by and respectful of the noble Lord’s ability to get naval matters into almost any Question. He is right that this is a matter of global security and not just about what Britain does. It is about what we do with our allies to support the free movement of goods around the world. There has been huge investment in the Royal Navy, which I am sure he is really pleased about, but we want to see that continue.

Given that more than 50% of human calories come from just four crops, with a fast-changing global climate, does the Minister agree that increasing the diversity of crops is crucial? What are the Government doing to ensure that we grow a more diverse range of crops in the UK, particularly more vegetables and fruit?

There are enormous opportunities under our new schemes for farmers to operate in a more entrepreneurial way. They are really good at seeing new opportunities. With the new technologies which Defra and the Government are investing in for farmers, particularly in the fruit and vegetable sector, there are new possibilities with vertical farming and other means to make sure that we are disrupting the age-old food supply chains which have been found to be so vulnerable at this time.

My Lords, in view of the Minister’s reference to the international dimension, is his department involved in work towards the COP 15 conference due to be held in China on the convention of biological diversity and in particular discussion of the strategic plan and its implementation? What can the Minister tell the House about the constructive contribution that I hope the UK will make to that conference?

Building on the fact that nature was hard-wired into COP 26, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith is leading on this to make sure that these are embedded in the Kunming COP. We recognise that, as the Dasgupta review said, half the food we eat is totally dependent on biodiversity. Therefore, this COP could not come at a more important time and we have to make sure that we have success at the end of it, as we did with COP 26.