The Guardian, Live Q&A with Nick Herbert

The Guardian, 14 January 2010


Hello and thanks for your questions


Given that meat production is such an extremely inefficient way to transfer the Sun's energy into human energy what will you be doing to persuade people to become vegetarian?


I think it should be for individuals to decide whether they want to eat meat or not. Of course this is a serious debate: livestock emissions account for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. But even if all of us in Britain gave up meat, livestock emissions would only fall by less than half a per cent. We can only graze livestock on our grass uplands - they can't be used to grow cereals. And I think that politicians trying to tell people to become vegetarian would be a sure-fire way of damaging public support for the changes we need to make to decarbonise our economy. We need to find ways to make the world's agriculture much more efficient in its emissions if we are to feed the planet's growing population. Finding ways to prevent rainforests being cut down for grazing and animal feed will be essential. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says that significant reductions are possible using existing technology, and initiatives like the NZ-led Global Alliance launched at Copenhagen are needed to stimulate scientific research into improving things further.


Why do you promote recycling cashback schemes such as Recyclebank, whcih effectively bribe people (with their own money!) for something that they should be doing anyway as a good citizen?

Furthermore, why reject pay-as-you-throw, with cheap political points about bin taxes, which not only has been shown to increase recycling but also reduces waste in the first place (which is where the really big environmental wins are).


In answer to your question on recycling, we must drive up recycling rates, and I think the best way to do this is by encouraging people to do the right thing. You say that people should be good citizens anyway - but what about those who are not? Sure, they could simply be taxed and fined - but these approaches risk alienating the public, leading to an increase in fly-tipping at the very time when we need to be getting more of the public to go green. Councils realise this as not a single one came forward last year to pilot the bin tax scheme.

But RecycleBank can help families to go green. By paying people to recycle, the scheme has been very successful in the US, increasing recycling rates by up to 200% in 500 cities and communities across America. Why be against such success?

You're right that we need to reduce waste in the first place. We send more waste to landfill than any other nation in Europe. We recycle or compost only one-third of our municipal waste, lower than the EU average. Austria manages nearly 60%. We've simply got to do better.


Though this is more an animal welfare question, it does impact on the environment. What is the Conservative party's stance on fox hunting? And if elected would it abolish the fox hunting ban?


In response to your question on hunting, the Conservative party's position is that we would give parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time. I appreciate that this is an issue which arouses strong feelings on both sides. However, in my judgment the Hunting Act has proved to be unworkable. In many cases, it is actually detrimental to animal welfare, especially when indiscriminate methods of control which aren't outlawed are used instead.

I make no secret of my own position - I've hunted all my life, I dislike illiberal laws and I would personally vote for repeal. But you don't need to be a supporter of hunting to think that the ban was a mistake. Jim Barrington, the former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: ‘Like a lot of people I was quite horrified by hunting and took the view that stopping it would improve animal welfare. But the Hunting Act has failed on every level, not least of all on animal welfare.'

I feel that there is a huge and important agenda to promote conservation of wildlife and habitats against a background of biodiversity decline and growing pressures from development and climate change. We must continue to enhance animal welfare and do far more to protect endangered species. I think we need to let the new House of Commons settle the hunting issue which is so divisive and has been a distraction from these frankly far more important natural environment issues.


Given that Britain hasn't been self-sufficient in food production since industrialisation what chance is there of changing that around, particularly with a vastly expanded population from the 1800s?


In answer to your question on food production, I don't think we will ever return to the days of full self-sufficiency and nor should that be a policy aim, as healthy trading relationships are important to our food security. But in recent years the pendulum has swung too far away from domestic production and we have become increasingly reliant on imports of food we could grow ourselves. This is a waste of potential, it can undermine our relatively high animal welfare standards and the rural economy, and it can be unnecessarily damaging to the environment. But as Professor Tim Lang, one of the foremost exports on the food system, has also identified, greater imports create unnecessary vulnerabilities when the global food system is required to meet increasing demand from depleting natural resources. We could and should do so much more to promote local food through measures like more sustainable procurement by the public sector and honest labeling. But we will continue both to export some food - such as lamb - and import others that we can't grow ourselves, or can't grow enough of.


Hi Nick

I am an organic blueberry farmer on Dartmoor. I am pleased to see you are promoting an Ombudsman as Supermarkets wield their power unfairly. We do not sell to supermarkets as they are unreliable, pay badly and are not ethical or honest - instead we use ethical companies like Riveford Organics who are a very successful alternative form of outlet.

I am not convinced an Ombudsman will work because the supermarkets will use their legal teams to ensure the responsibility for their evil deeds are past onto a third party e.g. their DISTRIBUTORS who they are in cahoots with.

Now for my question: Do you think there is some merit in the Conservative Government (you will be undoubtedly be on the front bench in under a year and probably in an Environmental post) in assisting and initially subsidizing an 'all English Farmers supermarket' chain - (at first these could be centered near the big cities so profitability would be guaranteed). Basically we would commercialize on a national scale the existing 'un-joined up' system of local farmers markets. I think the public would love this idea and flock to the shops - and the prices would be competitive too with high quality seasonal food. I say subsidizing -what I really mean is promoting the idea nationally, giving it some whoomp! And also giving the green light to farmers' organizations such as the NFU, Local Authorities for planning permissions, etc., as Farmers would need many specialists companies to set-up this type of venture; and this is where your invaluable help from the Government would come into link it all together. This would give farmers guaranteed sales with reasonable prices; each farmer being a member of this large co-operative. The Distribution would also be organized by the farmers' supermarket group. The Government could also see National food production increase and become more efficient with the economies of scale.


In answer to your question on supermarkets, I'm keen to promote the development of local food networks, which support local producers, provide good affordable food and help to reduce food miles. To be honest I don't think we need to contemplate a subsidised all English farmers supermarket chain, or that it would be realistic. But I do think that the existing supermarket businesses should behave fairly (which is why I back an ombudsman and think it will work!) and I'm a strong supporter of farmers' markets. I've also suggested to the big supermarket firms that they should consider stocking more truly local produce on their shelves. I've seen this in a recently revamped Budgens in Hassocks, a village in my constituency in West Sussex, where their own-brand produce sits side-by-side with things like meat from the local butcher. It's very popular.


Farming and wildlife
Some populations of farmland birds have nearly halved since 1970 - grey partridge numbers are down 86%, skylarks are down 54%. The worst hit counties in England have lost on average one native flower species every year throughout the 20th century and 36% of butterfly species have declined by over 50% in the last 25 years. This means that the UK will not meet the globally agreed target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010.

Could the Shadow Environment Minister tell us whether he would support a new, more robust target to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and to enhance the capacity of ecosystems to support biodiversity by 2020?


In answer to your question on biodiversity loss, I think we need a completely new approach to protecting and restoring biodiversity which doesn't just rely on crude targets. There's no point, as the government has done, in setting targets but then not doing enough to meet them, or as they admitted last year ? claiming they were never realistically achievable. We need to focus more on outcomes and on encouraging the right behaviour through incentives. It's important that we make the new Campaign for the Farmed Environment work. I've also set out plans to introduce innovative mechanisms such as conservation credits to invest in new habitats. Last year I launched where these ideas can be shared and debated.


Hi Nick, 
Would you mind sharing your view on GMO foods in regards to sustainability, self-sufficiency, biodiversity, and economic benefits (or lack thereof)?


I think we have to have a rational debate about GM and we need to be led by the science, which does mean having carefully controlled trials that aren't trashed. But there are important questions to be answered about GM. I don't think it's a silver bullet or that we should let the debate distract us from the other very important things that we need to do to boost the productivity of British agriculture. Deregulation, honest labeling, ensuring animal health, boosting other forms of research and applying technology - these are things that are all more immediately deliverable and less controversial.


Have you ever read James Lovelock's Gaia Theory? If so what do you think?


Yes, I've read James Lovelock's work. I think the Gaia theory offers an important way of thinking about the world as an interconnected ecosystem, rather than individual components. I want to make sure that in our approach to the natural environment we take into account these connections - and that means, for example, creating what's referred to as an ecologically coherent network to link together habitats. I don't share his recent scepticism about our ability to deal with man-made climate change. We've got to keep working hard to mitigate emissions and keep global temperature rises down, rather than seeing damaging rises as inevitable.


Hi Nick, 
What is the Conservative's policy on funding for the 15 National Parks in the UK? 
As 'beacons for sustainable development' we feel that we are testing grounds for showing how the environment, farming, tourism and communities can develop together, but can only do this with secure funding from Defra.



National parks protect our most precious landscapes. They're vitally important areas and we need to continue to give the parks our strong backing. I recently signed a Commons motion marking the 60th anniversary of the creation of national parks and pointing to the challenges and opportunities they face, including tackling and adapting to climate change, helping provide affordable housing for local people, and supporting a diverse and successful rural economy that sustains these landscapes. You probably won't be surprised to hear that in the current economic climate I can't make any pledges about funding in any Defra area, but I hope this makes our commitment to the parks clear.



You have made quite a bit of noise about cutting back environmental public bodies. But your first three big announcements seem to suggest that you would like to create more - one for hunting, one to regulate the supermarkets and one to nationalise government procurement. It doesn't seem to make sense. I worry this means you want to loosen environmental protection and play to the countryside lobby?


No, this isn't right. Robust independent regulation of hunting wouldn't necessarily require regulation or setting up a quango - it could be achieved by a non-statutory body. I've agreed with the Competition Commission about the need for a supermarket ombudsman but said this should be located in the existing Office of Fair Trading, so no new quango. And I don't know what you mean by 'nationalise government procurement' - I've simply said that government departments should be required to procure food sustainably - surely a good idea? - but that certainly doesn't require a quango. I want to strengthen protection of the environment, and I won't be beholden to any lobby. But we will cut back the number of quangos which have grown excessively, to make their functions properly accountable and reduce costs.


Thanks everyone for your questions. I've enjoyed the session. Sorry I couldn't reply to them all in the time we had. If you'd like to contact me directly in future, do please email

Michelle Taylor