Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by EcoNexus (AB45)

Comments and suggestions regarding the Agriculture Bill from EcoNexus

Addressed to the Public Bill Committee

scrutiny@parliament.uk

EcoNexus, founded in February 2000, is a small public interest research organisation that investigates, reports, and acts upon threats to biodiversity, climate, ecosystems, local and agro-ecological farming systems, food security & sovereignty. We believe that this bill represents an opportunity to make much-needed changes to UK agriculture.

Summary

We consider that agro-ecological farming is the way to improve food quality in the interests of public health, reduce the use of chemicals and enhance biodiversity, as well as improving soil, which is an urgent issue in the UK. Genetic engineering, including the new genetic modification techniques, must be regulated according to the Precautionary Principle, which, along with the Polluter Pays Principle, need to be included in this bill. We need transparency, traceability and labelling in the food system to include imported food. We believe that payments to farmers need to be continued, particularly for new entrants and also note that farmers need to be paid fair prices. Finally we consider that food waste must be urgently tackled, including through increasing respect for food and improving direct links between food growers and food eaters.

Lack of emphasis on public health issues

Bill should include establishing agro-ecological farming as the principal farming system

1. Sustainable food production is the nexus between human and environmental health. A biodiverse agricultural system supports a diverse and healthy diet. The UK currently consumes some of the highest rates of ultra-processed foods, and inequality prevents access to healthy foods for a large part of the population. An urgently needed shift away from industrialised agriculture to agro-ecological farming would provide the opportunity to address these issues. As highlighted in the UN report "Agro-ecology and the right to food", submitted by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers, enhance soil productivity and support biodiversity, and most crucially, are essential to contribute to the realisation of the right to adequate food.

2. Industrialised agriculture also promotes widespread pesticide use, which is linked to a wide variety of serious illnesses including cancers and birth defects. A new study also emphasises the health benefits of organic food, linking its consumption to a reduced risk of developing certain cancers. Industrialised agriculture is also one of the main drivers of deforestation. We urgently need to halt and reverse soil degradation, reduce water and land pollution and increase crop and species biodiversity with a particular focus on pollinators. None of this can be achieved by the continued expansion of industrialised agriculture. Only agriculture within healthy and resilient ecosystems can provide us with the good food and ensure the ecosystem functions we rely on.

3. The bill currently fails to address the need to establish agro-ecological methods that include organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, agro-forestry, integrated pest management, pasture-based livestock and low input mixed farming; supporting socio-economic and, environmental and agronomic aspects. We believe that this should be rectified.

4. Because agroecological farming seeks to make each farm as much of a self contained system as possible, this could also mean more feed being grown by farmers on their own farms. We need to incentivise a big reduction in the amount of meat consumed and the amount of land used for animal feed, which means finding a better balance between animal and crop production, with animals being outdoors and grass-fed as much as possible. This could also help rebuild soils and increase on-farm biodiversity. All these elements are crucial if we are to be able to address the serious challenges we face of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

5. Agro-ecological farming is also likely to be more helpful than industrial approaches in addressing climate change. This is because it has an integrated, systems approach to vital issues such as soil quality, which has nearly reached crisis point in some parts of the UK, and also water use. The use of more mixed cropping and biodiverse crops together with intercropping and companion planting will also be important in the future in order to address climate extremes. Small farmers in other parts of the world may plant several varieties of the same crop in order to provide resilience; in the case of either drought or floods they will have some harvest. This year’s heat wave in the UK left some farmers with a very poor crop after the heat and dry spell and this kind of extreme weather is likely to increase. Agroecology can help us to address these challenges.

6. We note that the Secretary of State for agriculture will have the financial powers to support agroecology if he/she should wish. This would be a very positive outcome.

Bill should include genetically modified food regulation based on the precautionary principle

7. GMOs are an extreme aspect of industrialised farming and come with all the associated hazards. For example, GM crop cultivation has been shown to be linked to increased pesticide use. The United States has seen steep rises in overall pesticide use since their introduction, as has Brazil and Argentina. Conversely, there is little evidence that GM crops to date have improved yields, indeed the only study to compare yield increases between Europe and the US for staple crop production shows that Europe’s yield increases have overtaken the US, despite the wide adoption rates of GM staple crops in the US. GM crop production and other forms of industrialised agriculture is also one of the main drivers of deforestation.

8. The bill thus needs to incorporate a clear approval process including risk assessment and risk management procedures, based on the precautionary principle. We are aware that many interests in the UK wish to abandon the precautionary principle and replace it with a so-called innovation principle, which would prioritise the development of new technologies. We believe this is misguided. Measures need to be implemented to prevent GM contamination, as well as liability and redress in cases of contamination.

9. New genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR gene editing should also be subject to GM crop regulations. Current evidence suggests that such techniques have the potential to cause unintended effects that could have unanticipated agricultural, environmental or health implications. Exclusion of such engineered crops would also threaten agricultural exports to the EU which recently ruled plants engineered via such techniques to be GM crops. One technique that employs the CRISPR gene editing system are gene drive technologies, which present unprecedented risks to biodiversity, containment and national sovereignty, due to the fact that they are engineered to spread throughout populations at rates above natural rates of inheritance. As such, they have the potential to spread engineered traits throughout entire populations or species, which could cause serious and unforeseen adverse ecological effects with potentially wider socio-economic and health implications. There should be a clearly defined precautionary approach for both applied research and environmental releases included in the bill, including an explicit pause in applied research until the risk are better understood.

10. All devolved nations except for England have opted out of GM crop cultivation. Such positions need to be respected. Transboundary issues will also need to be taken into account.

Transparency in the supply chain

11. Labelling and traceability laws enshrined in EU law should also be maintained (including for imported foods) in order to satisfy a fair and transparent food system that supports consumer choice. Labelling laws should remain in force for GM food ingredients.

Maintain and improve standards

12. Food is not a commodity but a basic human right, and needs to be officially recognised as such in the bill. A commitment to exempt the sector from future free trade agreements should thus be incorporated.

13. International trade deals should also not undermine current regulations for human health, animal welfare or environmental standards. In fact, this is an opportunity to improve all of these. Any trade deal should incorporate provisions to safeguard such standards. International calls to lower standards to allow importation of low-cost, low quality food will not only undermine the livelihoods of the UK farming community, but also threatens to undermine the health of the population as a whole. As such, the UK should implement a ban on the imports of food produced to lower environmental, social and animal welfare standards than those of UK producers, including: genetically modified crops, (rBGH) hormone infected beef, chlorinated chicken and food produced with exploited labour.

14. We emphasise again the need to implement the precautionary principle for all food and farm policy decisions, including imported foods, to prevent adverse effects to human health.

15. For reasons of human and environmental health, pesticide and antibiotic use, and the application of chemicals in agriculture generally should be phased out. We therefore believe that the Polluter Pays principle should be incorporated, to deter the use of harmful inputs such as pesticides.

16. Finally access for all to good quality, fresh, diverse, seasonal fruit and vegetables must be a priority.

Payments to farmers

17. We note that the Agriculture Bill proposes ending direct payments to farmers. We believe that in order to stimulate the development of agro-ecological agriculture, payments should be made to those adopting such approaches.

18. We also support the view that new entrants to farming need grants, loans and training, especially since there are a number of would-be new entrants who have no family connection to agriculture. They also frequently have problems with accessing land and affording homes in rural areas. A number of organisations in the UK are already working on such issues, but they need extra support and this is a perfect opportunity for such changes to be made.

19. Farmers also need fair prices for their produce and should not be held to ransom by supermarkets. For example, some dairy farmers have been struggling or going out of business because the price they have been offered is below the cost of production. This is not sustainable farming and must not be allowed to continue.

20. We therefore support proposals to re-establish a body similar to the Milk Marketing Board but adapted to modern conditions, to guarantee a stable price for milk by requiring all milk processors and retailers to pay farmers a set price up to a certain volume of production.

Food needs to be respected and appreciated, not wasted

21. In the UK there are an increasing number of hungry and malnourished people. This is just one reason why food waste is not acceptable and needs to be tackled urgently. We believe that a less centralized food system, less dependent on supermarkets and imports would help here. We also need to change attitudes and bring farmers and eaters together so that each understands the needs of the other better. Community Supported Agriculture projects and Farmers Markets can all help with this. Projects to encourage community food-growing and cooking classes can contribute to creating a healthier relationship with food as well as encouraging people to eat a healthier, more diverse and more locally produced diet.

October 2018

 

Prepared 1st November 2018