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Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question , as amended, to be agreed to.



Conservation of the European Eel

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),

Question agreed to.

Aviation Agreements

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.

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Plant Science and Climate Change

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Claire Ward.]

10.26 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to talk tonight about plant science and climate change because, in some ways, climate change has become the media story of the decade. Although there is a tendency to overblow some of the claims of what might happen, most of us accept that things will happen and that they are beginning to happen. I want to address that.

We see the effects of climate change all around us. In a funny way, I often think about Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, which could become three seasons. That would be quite a revolutionary change in classical music. We look at the papers and see reports of snow-less ski slopes and flowers blooming at all the wrong times throughout the winter. That is not something that just happens on the equator or elsewhere; it actually happens in this country as well.

When it comes to combating climate change, things are not as simple as they appear. Research recently and a great deal of column space has been devoted to talk about air travel, carbon emissions and carbon offset schemes. People argue scientifically that some of those schemes might not do what it appears that they would do. Recent research from the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in the United States and the Carnegie Institution at Stanford university in California suggests that planting trees to offset carbon emissions could contribute to global warming unless the trees are planted in the tropics. That is an interesting new aspect that we had not thought about. It is only research and more needs to be done, so I guess that what I am saying is that there are no quick fixes when it comes to climate change, but we have to adopt and develop the policy of planting trees, whether they are in the tropics or elsewhere.

The rule of no quick fixes also applies to the first generation of biofuels. Although the need for zero-carbon fuels is obviously real and present, the deforestation of developing countries taking place in the rush to make way for biofuel plantations is having a more severe effect on the planet than many of us imagined. It is argued that the carbon emitted by burning the trees and the peat to make way for biofuel crops far exceeds any savings that one could hope to make from burning renewable fuel instead of petrol. A further side effect is the destruction of many natural habitats and ecosystems as developing countries struggle to get into the new market, effectively throwing environmental concerns to the wind. Interesting questions in this area still need to be resolved, despite the fact that we acknowledge that climate change is taking place.

If we look at this complex issue closely, we find that our mission is to consider not only how to prevent global warming, but how to deal practically with its consequences in the United Kingdom. We must ensure that we enter the 21st century with secure energy and food supplies. If we are to find the solution, we must examine the science that is being developed with plants in this country. We cannot look abroad for the
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solutions to our energy problems. We should be implementing schemes that will enable us to be responsible for what happens in the UK by concentrating our efforts on a second generation of bioenergy crops that use biomass.

Biomass in itself is just a source of energy production along with other renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave, geothermal and sunlight. Miscanthus, switch grasses and willow and poplar trees can all be grown in the UK to contribute to the biomass initiative. Their growth requires less land than existing biofuel crops. They are renewable and carbon-neutral. They do not require the volume of chemicals and pesticides that have led to the criticism of crops such as rapeseed.

Short-rotation coppice willow is being grown at Rothamsted Research. The crops grow on marginal land of low quality and require little input. If such second-generation bioenergy crops were grown on 350,000 acres of UK land and processed to produce fuels such as diesel, some 7 per cent. of the UK’s petrochemical needs would be met without reducing food production and with very little input. While such plant development is important, we need more research. It is welcome that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has put £20 million into that research.

We face a situation in which before the research has been done, many countries and companies are planting vast areas of biofuels. I argue that that will damage the environment. If we are able to produce more bioenergy crops in the UK, we will be able to control the way in which they are farmed and regulate the carbon dioxide that is emitted. We could reduce the carbon dioxide emitted by the transportation of imports. In that way, we would guarantee our energy security, which is a real problem that relates to the sources of our energy production.

It is almost certain that there will be competition for farmland between biofuel companies and the food industry. Our main concerns will be reducing carbon emissions and ensuring that we have effective farming systems. Bioscience offers us the possible solutions that we need.

As the climate warms, it will be almost inevitable that we will witness further physical changes to the UK countryside. That will have a massive effect on farming in this country. Arable farmers will need crops that can grow and be harvested under variable temperatures and rainfall. For example, it is predicted that the average temperature in East Anglia will have risen by 3° C by 2050. It is no use George Bush telling us that we will reduce global warming by talking in terms not of Fahrenheit but of Celsius, even though the numbers are obviously reduced. There will also be greatly reduced rainfall and much more water evaporation and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The climate can affect the length of a harvest and soil structure, which vary massively even from year to year. Owing to global warming, farmers will face new infections and parasites. Wetter winters will make cereal crops more prone to fungal diseases such as Fusarium ear blight. We will simply not be able continue to grow the variety of crops that are traditionally grown in the UK.

There are a number of ways to approach the problem. The rising temperatures will lead to a lot of
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drought, and in East Anglia, yields of sugar beet are expected to decline by half in areas that are already experiencing those difficulties. We can increase rainwater catchments, and irrigation efficiency; those are practical starting points, but we must also look into the genetic make-up of plants that can survive in extreme climates. We are really gifted at such work in this country; we have centres such as Broom’s Barn, Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which are tackling the problems of developing drought-resistant sugar beet. We can now isolate the genes that allow plants to cope with extreme temperatures. Those genes can also be bred into commercial crop varieties.

We can protect cereal crops from fungal diseases by introducing genes with a natural resistance. Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have isolated several genes that decide whether a plant needs a cold period before it will flower. The traditional teaching is that there has to be a cold period before an explosion of flowers will appear. There is a cold trigger that can be bred in and out of plants to produce winter and spring varieties, and it varies; that occurs in plants in Spain, Sweden and in this country, and we are learning how that happens. That technology will become really important as temperature changes take place. Crop protection is another important subject to consider. All our farmers, including organic growers, rely on plant protection products of some kind. As biofuels and food compete for land, we will only meet the increasing demand for both if we ensure that more crops make it to the harvest stage, through the responsible use of pesticides and effective land management.

Plant science has a central role to play in all our futures, and in combating climate change, and we miss its importance at our peril. It is sad that job losses are occurring in places such as Rothamsted, which had a net reduction of 17 members of staff in 2005-06. The John Innes Centre is absolutely world-class—the best in Europe—and it produces research that everybody admires; I mentioned just some of it—the research about flowering and the genes involved in it. I am talking not just about genes that make better-looking plants, but about genes that are commercially important.

How long will we be at the forefront of plant science if we do not make the necessary investment and address the fact that people are not entering the profession? Many young people do not see that plant science is really quite an appetising profession. We have to link up that kind of science with innovation and public benefit. As you will know, Mr. Speaker, I am also actively interested in biomedical sciences and biomedical research, for which a plethora of research and development funding has been made available by the Government, charities and the pharmaceutical industry. We may bemoan the conditions that those sciences face, but they are nothing like as bad as the what is happening in the plant sciences. There is one research council involved in plant sciences, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and only one charity involved in plant science, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which was set up by the former Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville.

We have to acknowledge that the plant-breeding industry in this country has been affected by the
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genetically modified crops debacle and the “anti” attitude of the public. In the House, too, people were against GM crops and fought against them, and that has caused people in the industry to leave the UK and go elsewhere to develop their talents and the new sciences. We get £336 million in funding a year, but a glance at the title of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council—the body that gets that kind of money—shows that it has many other areas on which to spend that money, including biotechnology, another area that has a world-class dimension to it. Plant science always falls down the list of priorities.

It is important to establish the industry in this country. BP is setting up a $250 billion biofuels research centre in California, rather than in the UK. That is really strange to me, given the scientific expertise that we have. It was Schwarzenegger himself who agreed to match the investment, while the research council could offer only £20 million. It is sad that that has developed in the States, as it could have developed here.

While the UK has very good plant-breeding technology, our ability to use that knowledge is extremely vulnerable. It is regarded as underfunded and unsexy, in fact, by many young scientists, and I have attended many meetings at which young people have said they do not want to go into plant research, because there is no money or career structure. We need to develop plant varieties that are specific to the UK’s climatic and social needs. The multinational plant-breeding companies are willing to do so, and it will help us with our food and fuel security, but we must make them regard it as a priority to be developed in the UK with the backing of our proud and talented researchers.

The Government, too, must start to think about plant sciences and practical solutions to climate change that they can develop to provide energy, resistance to diseases and so on. Things are going to change, and we cannot wait 20 years. We must accept that it is going to happen. Malaria is likely to come to this country, but many plant diseases will come here, too, and we should research them now. We have to get the agricultural community behind us, and they are a conservative, resistant lot. We must not scare the pants off them, but we must make them acknowledge the fact that there is a serious problem.

Climate change is an extremely important issue for the Government, and a great deal has been said about that. We have introduced a draft Climate Change Bill, which we are very keen on, and which we want to develop. The leader of the Opposition wears organic trainers, whatever that means, but despite all that, plant sciences have had a bad deal. Although stem cell research is the front-runner, plant sciences have as much to offer in tackling climate change as anything else, so I am very pleased to present this debate.

10.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): It is always a pleasure to respond to a debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for
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Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), because he has an unparalleled knowledge of science in the House, having chaired the Select Committee on Science and Technology. His scientific background, too, stands him in tremendously good stead. This evening, he spoke about many things including, first, the need to plant trees, as well as biofuels and the danger of monoculture. I hope that he agrees that peat bog remediation is every bit as important as the need to plant trees. I was on the top of Blackmoor in the Peak district at the weekend looking at the depletion in the peat. The peat bogs in this country represent a greater sequestion of carbon than the entire forests of France and the UK combined. They are infinitely more powerful, and they store carbon for thousands of years, rather than just for hundreds of years, as standing forests do.

My hon. Friend spoke about the dangers of biofuels, particularly of monoculture. Bioethanol can be a very good biofuel if it is used instead of petrol, but it is not so good if, to produce it, we destroy virgin rainforest, and I absolutely agree with the point that he made. I wanted to pick up one more initial point in his contribution, and echo his praise both for the talented researchers in this country and for their work on plant science and in other scientific areas. That is certainly an industry that will come more and more to the fore as we face up to the problems of climate change.

Agriculture as a whole contributes 7 per cent. of all UK greenhouse gas emissions and 14 per cent. globally. About 36 per cent. of the UK’s total methane emissions and 67 per cent. of nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture—for example, from artificial fertiliser, manure and livestock. Although agriculture is only directly responsible for around 1 per cent. of UK carbon dioxide emissions, the sector can help to mitigate CO2 emissions from other sources through carbon sequestration in soils, as we have mentioned, and timber, and by producing energy crops to replace fossil fuels.

On 13 March this year we published the draft Climate Change Bill for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill would make the UK the first country to set a long-term legal framework for reducing emissions over the next 45 years and beyond. Although the draft Bill focuses on carbon dioxide, which is not the most significant greenhouse gas for agriculture, the independent committee on climate change, which the Bill establishes, will have a duty to advise the Government in relation to other greenhouse gases whenever the Government asks it to do so.

Agriculture is central to helping us meet our objectives on climate change, and is significant in the UK’s climate change programme. Farmers growing crops or rearing livestock on grassland will feel the impacts of our changing climate very directly, and they need to be ready to adapt to these impacts. All farmers have a major role to play—for example, by reducing their direct greenhouse gas emissions, managing the land in ways which help sequester carbon, and supplying bioenergy crops as an alternative to fossil fuels.

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