Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.21 am

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I begin with two sets of congratulations. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) on obtaining the debate. The issues he raises go far beyond party divisions or the commitments made in any of the party manifestos. They are the biggest challenge to our society and civilisation, and political parties have yet to face up to them.

On a smaller scale, I ought to pay tribute to the Government. At least they have met one of the obligations on funding for biodiversity. It is new and additional funding. However, we must put it in context and view it on its proper scale. It is like to trying to find enthusiasm about the receipt of a new pair of laces when someone has stolen one's shoes. It is the theft of shoes that I want to talk about.

The world that confronts us now is poorer than it was in 1992. There are more poor people in the world. The gap between rich and poor is wider. The rate of depletion

19 Mar 1997 : Column 807

of our fish resources and forests is accelerating faster. It is running away from us. All the small contributions that are being made are dwarfed by movements in the opposite direction. They are cynically dwarfed by the amounts of money that go into the arms trade, but no less cynically by our active part in the accelerating investment in exploitation.

There is no point in our saying in the House that we want a few more million or perhaps even a billion pounds to go into development aid, when we refuse to close the door on unsustainable trade. That is the heart of the contradiction that the industrial world has to face. It is enshrined in the absurdities of the general agreement on tariffs and trade. The recent treaty presented a new deity to the economic world. It suggested that the pursuit of unregulated free trade would be to the general benefit of humanity, whereas in fact it is the greatest threat to humanity.

Three main proposals have come out of discussions at European level to promote serious alternatives to a deregulated view of the world, which can only accelerate the depletion of our natural resources and pose real threats to the sustainability of not only our life but all life forms on the planet.

The first proposal is that we have failed to do anything to check accelerating consumption in the industrial world. The nature of that acceleration does not make sense. Almost 60 per cent. of the foodstuffs imported into the United Kingdom are products that we could produce ourselves. There is no costing of externalities in global trade. We import green beans 6,000 miles from Kenya. We import apples from South Africa.

We are a net importer of parsnips, which travel 11,500 miles from Australia. I have to confess that, when I was a child, there were times when we kids used to pray that my dad would not bring in any more bloody parsnips from the garden. There are only so many parsnips that one can know and love at any one time. For Britain to be a net importer of goods that we can produce ourselves seems the height of folly, and it is all for the sake of getting goods into the supermarkets a week or a month earlier, irrespective of the social and environmental cost.

I marvel at the fact that we subsidise the over-use of pesticides, fertilisers and growth hormones in agriculture, all of which make their way into the food chain and the water chain, make the land water-hungry, and add to the momentum of increasing water shortages. By 2025, two thirds of the world's population will face water shortages. We also subsidise non-production. Set-aside is Britain's second biggest agricultural industry. The one thing that we will not subsidise is traditional and organic farming--the sustainable methods of farming which have made societies stewards, not owners, of the planet, from one generation to another. We need to consider how to reverse that position.

Sustainability has to involve not simply aviation fuel taxation but measures to reduce food miles. A recent article explained that the average pot of yoghurt on a supermarket shelf would have travelled 1,000 km before it reached the hand of the purchaser. It seems crazy that so much unnecessary transportation is built into the way in which we over-consume. It would be extremely helpful if we tackled that problem.

We must re-localise production. That would also allow us to consider how we can deliver food guarantees. When staff in a supermarket are asked what has gone into the

19 Mar 1997 : Column 808

produce on the shelves, with the best will in the world they do not know. The more we break the link between urban communities and the rural, farming hinterlands, the more food accountability is impossible in our pattern of consumption. The same applies to goods.

Instead of continuing to go along with the assumptions behind GATT, we need to argue the case for reversing them. In parts of America, states are beginning to say, "Site here to sell here. If you want access to our markets, you must be part of the terms of production which generate jobs. You must have accountable forms of production which we find acceptable." We cannot leave it to the public to achieve this by running their own consumer boycotts. As nation states, and as coalitions of nation states, we should be imposing ethical constraints on the nature of our assumptions about production, distribution and exchange.

That would allow us to return to the concept of local labour agreements. We used to be able to build those, not only into our domestic economic policies, but into our international aid packages, which included good labour agreements. All that is being stripped away in a regime that is dominated by global giants, whose interest in other people's economies is simply the interest of the locust.

There has to be an international dimension to this issue, and I want to try to set out a potential framework. We must challenge another part of GATT--the issue of patents and licences, which is almost GATT's sole protectionist element. Global corporations are now even seeking to patent trees in India because of their potential medicinal and curative properties.

We must reverse that attitude; we need a new gift relationship. I grew up believing that the best example of a gift relationship in this country was the blood transfusion service: we gave blood not on the banking assumption that we would get our own investment back, but so that there would be enough in the common pot to see us right in the event of an unforeseen accident.

For the next century, we have to have a new gift relationship--a technology gifting relationship, which donates sustainable technologies to the developing countries, so that they are not forced down the path of production processes that deplete resources for themselves and everyone else. If we can address that, we will begin to make life sustainable, not only in other parts of the planet, but in our own countries, for our own people and as stewards of our own environment.

10.31 am

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) on having obtained this debate, and on the eloquent and reflective way in which he introduced it. It has been a valuable and wide-ranging debate--indeed, it has been one of the most interesting that I have heard for some time.

The environment will be a central issue for the incoming Government. That is why Labour has set up the green globe task force, which the hon. Gentleman applauded. It is a key issue, not only for the United Nations General Assembly special session in New York in June--the current Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), has made it clear that, if elected, he will attend it as

19 Mar 1997 : Column 809

Prime Minister--but for the Kyoto meeting on climate change in December and for the British presidency of the European Union in the first half of 1998.

The original Rio summit in 1992 was a mixed affair. It achieved two important legally binding conventions on climate change and biodiversity that were signed by more than 150 countries. It established a set of principles for the sustainable management of forests worldwide and it launched Agenda 21.

However, its weaknesses are equally obvious: no targets were set, so there is no measure of progress or backsliding. No one would disagree with the assertion that the action taken since Rio has not been nearly enough. Nevertheless, the key frameworks are in place: just as action on chlorofluorocarbons tightened progressively after the original signing of the Montreal convention in 1987, so it must tighten now on climate change and biodiversity.

Opinions divide sharply on what now needs to be done. For the wealthy nations in the north, sustainable development means conservation, energy efficiency, recycling and reversing global warming and ozone depletion; but for the poor countries in the south, it means equity, redistribution of wealth, transfer of technology and a fairer trading system. The fact is that both north and south need each other: the north needs the co-operation of the south to cut greenhouse gas emissions caused by mass industrialisation, but the south will not co-operate without a far more extensive programme of redistribution.

The north is right to be concerned about worsening degradation that seriously threatens the viability of the planet, even though the north is itself often the main perpetrator. Global warming, which will generate hurricanes, droughts, floods and severe crop losses across the world, is primarily driven by rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which are set to double within the next century compared to pre-industrial times. Therefore, halting and ultimately reversing those excessive CO 2 concentrations is a critical goal for global ecology.

On the key issue of climate change, Labour has set a target of a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon monoxide in the UK by 2010--[Hon. Members: "Carbon dioxide."] Sorry, I meant to say carbon dioxide.

Next Section

IndexHome Page