Long stories short
- A UN assessment found that Earth’s ozone layer will be completely restored over most of the world in the next two decades.
- Pakistan’s government said global development banks and countries have offered over $8 billion to help rebuild after last year’s devastating floods.
- A committee of MPs called for the government to set an end date for licensing new oil and gas fields.
From cows that belch out methane to artificial fertiliser that produces nitrous oxide, agriculture and land use generates about 12 per cent of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.
Within a decade, though, that has to change drastically. The countryside needs to become a net sink instead of an emitter, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
The UK’s departure from the European Union was a critical opportunity for change. Instead of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – which is a disaster for wildlife – ministers planned a system that would pay farmers for creating “public goods” such as space for wildlife as well as restoring habitats such as peatlands to soak up carbon. This is known as the Environment Land Management Scheme (Elms), shaped by Michael Gove when he was Environment Secretary.
But as the Westminster Accounts reveal, a group of MPs has been pushing back against the rewilding of the countryside.
MPs and peers from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture promote “sustainable intensification” of agriculture, which they argue means producing higher yields from farming while managing environmental impacts.
Campaigners warn this is often a way to preserve industrial farming, with high inputs of fertilisers and pesticides.
Members argue that rewilding threatens food security:
- Julian Sturdy MP, chair of the APPG, said in parliament he is “fundamentally against the principle of wilding productive farmland” because he fears it would lead to a food security crisis. Mr Sturdy has also criticised EU attempts to restrict the use of the “irreplaceable” weedkiller glyphosate.
- Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP told the Commons last year: “As more and more land is taken out of food production for environmental schemes, we face the dangerous consequences of becoming reliant on importing larger and larger amounts of food.” He added that he didn’t think the public wanted the countryside “going to waste growing brambles and shrubs”.
A third member of the group, Sir Robert Goodwill, a Conservative MP, last year argued in favour of temporarily lifting a ban on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that is particularly harmful to bees, saying it was a “proportionate change” that was needed to help the sugar beet industry in the UK. The chemical approved for emergency use, Cruiser SB, is made by Syngenta, the pesticides maker.
The group hosted a meeting last November at which Jonathan Halstead, UK managing director of Syngenta, was a speaker. The Syngenta presentation covered precision usage of ‘crop protection’ products – pesticides and weed killers.
The government is now expected to drop “local nature recovery” – an ambitious part of Elms which would have seen large swaths of the landscape restored to nature – in favour of the existing “countryside stewardship” scheme. Campaigners warn this will accelerate the decline of wildlife while the loss of woodland will threaten the UK’s net zero targets.
Farmers have also been told by government officials that discrete payments for “integrated pest management” (IPM) – a scheme which encourages natural methods for managing pests and only employs chemicals as a last resort – may no longer feature in the government’s proposed reforms to farming.
As Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, notes, there are “serious questions as to whether we’ll see any better environmental outcomes now than the era of the much-derided Common Agricultural Policy which caused nature to crash in the first place.”
The Science and Technology in Agriculture APPG’s secretariat is run by a company called Front Foot Communications.
Front Foot’s paying members include:
- the National Farmers’ Union;
- the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which represents feed and fertiliser manufacturers;
- CropLife UK, a trading association whose member companies include the agrochemical companies BASF and Bayer, which makes Roundup, a glyphosate-based weedkiller; and
- the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an industry group that promotes GM technology and brings together companies including Syngenta and the agricultural chemicals maker Corteva.
Front Foot has paid £102,006 in benefits in kind to members of the APPG since 2016.
The environmentalist, peer and former MP Zac Goldsmith said there had been “pushback from vested interests” to reforms of land use subsidies, adding this was “not surprising as a select few have had it extremely good under the old system.”
CropLife UK and Front Foot said the APPG was a forum for parliamentarians and others to debate the contribution of agricultural innovation to addressing global challenges.
Mr Sturdy did not respond to a request for comment. Sir Geoffrey also declined to comment “as a very minor participating member of this APPG”.
Sir Robert said the decision to allow the use of Cruiser SB was to protect sugar beet crops from damaging viruses. Losing the UK sugar beet industry would have environmental consequences in other countries, including possible destruction of rainforest, he said.
Sir Robert added: “I really do not see any conflict of interest. It is important that politicians hear both sides of any debate.”
Hitting net zero targets and reversing the decline in British wildlife will need a transformation in how we use our countryside by the next decade. That change needs to begin now.
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The levee gonna break
Two weeks of battering wind and rain in California has killed at least 12 people, cut power lines and forced a rethink of the system the state uses to store water and keep it at bay. The relentless storms were “supercharged” by climate change and are the result of a large stream of dense moisture from the ocean combining with a low-pressure system known as a bomb cyclone. Policymakers are worried events of this type are becoming more frequent, and are urging an approach which gives rivers more room to overflow: moving levees back allows rainwater to seep into underground aquifers, from which it can be drawn during droughts. But that requires the government to buy riverside land – a tough task in a state where land values are high and public finances are tight.
Asking for it
Shell is set to pay tax in the UK for the first time since 2017. The oil major expects a $2 billion hit to its tax bill in the fourth quarter as a result of changes introduced in the UK and EU to capture windfall profits from oil and gas. For the last four years, Shell received rebates from the UK government under a system of tax relief. But since the invasion of Ukraine inflated energy prices and profits the effective tax rate for oil and gas companies operating in Britain has jumped from 40 to 65 per cent. Earlier this year Shell’s former CEO Ben van Beurden called on the industry to “embrace” higher levies to support households during the cost of living crisis. He’s now been replaced, but not before his invitation was answered.
Danone is facing legal action in France over its plastic use. ClientEarth and two other environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the yoghurt maker for failing a “duty of care” to prevent environmental harm in its supply chain. Danone said it was “surprised by the accusation which we firmly refute”. But is it that surprising? In 2021, the company’s packaging footprint increased to more than 750,000 tonnes of plastic, much of it from plastic bottles and yoghurt pots. It also topped the ranking of plastic polluters in Indonesia for the last three years. The NGOs are calling for Danone to map its plastic impact and put together a “deplastification” plan with quantified and dated objectives. Related news: single-use plates and cutlery have been banned in England, finally.
Do insect deaths lead to human ones? A study from the Harvard School of Public Health has found that the loss of pollinators is causing excess deaths, as fewer fruits, vegetables and nuts are produced and people’s diets get worse. Inadequate pollination by bees and other insects is responsible for a 3 to 5 per cent decline in yields, the study found. Lower consumption of those foods is in turn responsible for about 500,000 early deaths a year. A previous study by the same research group was also able to determine that rising carbon dioxide levels are making food less nutritious. The message is clear: human and planetary health go hand-in-hand.
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Egypt’s bad cop
The story of one man, fighting to his last breath, to reveal the darkness that lies behind this year’s UN Climate Change Conference.