The gap between promise and proof on standards is widening in the agriculture debate

intext-wheat-blogIn the House of Commons last Wednesday, Conservative MP Simon Hoare stood up and proudly described the Woodland Trust as a group of Leninists.

While such an ascription is unlikely to become the Trust’s Twitter bio, the Grantham-based organisation might nevertheless have been pleased to see what was in fact a fond (and genuinely funny) acknowledgement of collaboration. The Woodland Trust had joined MPs, farmers and other environmental groups behind a very reasonable aim: that future trade deals should not undercut high UK standards and imperil the livelihoods of farmers.

It should not necessarily come as a surprise that different sectors and MPs from across the House are united on issues related to food and farming. Since publishing its agricultural reforms, the government has seen a strong level of support for its objective to reward farmers for providing public goods, such as cleaner water and healthier habitats. Many recognise that the approach should enable farmers to restore nature and safeguard soils while producing the food we need.

The issue is trade
Agreement on much of the Agriculture Bill, however, doesn’t mean that the debate is entirely settled. At Commons report stage, some MPs flagged continuing discussions on how to require adequate product labelling. Many expressed concerns about the future level of support for farmers, who will only be able to provide food and support the government’s environmental aims with long term substantial funding. And, in what became the biggest point of contention, MPs from across the House stood up to discuss trade.

In advance of the debate, Greener UK coalition partners had endorsed an amendment from the Conservative MP Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which would prevent the government from signing trade deals that would facilitate the import of lower standard products. Pushed to a vote, the amendment was defeated, but around 20 Conservatives voted with Mr Parish and against the government.

Among them was Theresa Villiers, Defra secretary as recently as February. Ms Villiers’ speech was excellent, traversing the rolling hills and ancient woodlands of England to conclude that the bill held the key to a greener future. Yet, she also warned that accepting lower quality products via trade deals would simply offshore carbon emissions and animal cruelty; the government must live up to its manifesto and provide legal commitments to high standards, she said.

Supporting the government, backbench Conservative Robbie Moore claimed that the prime minister had assured him that morning by phone that food and environmental standards would not be compromised. At the despatch box, Defra minister Victoria Prentis argued strenuously that the government remained committed to high standards (even if she could not suppress a slight smile as she read the words ‘chlorinated chicken’ from her notes). Ms Prentis repeated that it would take a vote in the House to overturn ‘existing’ regulations, shortly before departing to see the government’s significant majority do its thing.

Assurances on standards aren’t enough
It is, of course, welcome to receive verbal assurances on trade, and to hear ministers confirm their commitment to high standards. But senior figures in the government have been offering assurances on standards for a long time and, as time elapses, the gap between the promise and the proof feels ever wider.

In addition to ministers running out of legislative vehicles, the reasons for not putting such commitments into law feel increasingly inconsistent. The morning before the debate, a ‘minister’ had apparently told the BBC’s Roger Harrabin that the trade bill was a more appropriate vehicle for such legal commitments on trade and standards. This significant suggestion didn’t appear to find its way into Ms Prentis’ notes, and was given short shrift by Neil Parish, who accused the government of leading MPs “down the garden path”.

Ms Prentis instead suggested that there was now insufficient time to implement such protections before December, and that the amendments could provoke retaliations from trading partners in live trade discussions and endanger current food exports. These arguments are certainly new to me, if not Liam Fox.

There is pressure to lower tariffs on US agriculture products
Such uncertainty could perhaps be explained by continuing debates within government: the Financial Times reported on Thursday that ministers in the Department for International Trade are keen to press on with lowering tariffs for American agricultural products, but that senior ministers in Defra are vehemently opposed.

What we know for certain is that the words ‘chlorinated chicken’, and the issues encapsulated by this feathery metonym, are not going away. The trade bill resumes this week on Wednesday. We will be watching for what the government says on food and environmental standards.

While coronavirus rightly remains the immediate priority for politicians and the public, we need to make sure that a sustainable food and farming system, built from the foundation of our current high standards, is a core tenet of the society that emerges in recovery.

Alongside farmers, consumers and MPs, we environmentalists, ‘Leninists’ and all, must continue to campaign to maintain those high standards.

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