In 2018 I carried out a series of interviews with family farms in the North York Moors. I was researching what impact the twin changes of leaving the EU and transitioning to a ‘public money for public goods’ subsidy system could have on their lives. Those I visited welcomed me with open arms and, although many had struggled in recent times, they were keen to make the new system work. And we need this system to work. A new RSPB report reveals a “lost decade” for British wildlife. Restorative land use takes time, so we really don’t have many more opportunities to get it right.
Trade can no longer be separated from the domestic agenda
The farmers I interviewed did raise one potential spanner in the works, however. They had heard rumours that, in addition to the trade barriers soon to be erected between the UK and EU, deals would be done to allow in cheaper, lower standard food from abroad that would be illegal to produce in the UK. As a nation comprised largely of a patchwork of high standard small and medium farms, being suddenly pitted against foreign megafarms would threaten livelihoods. A few of the families I spoke to were preparing to leave agriculture on this basis.
As well as threatening the future of domestic farming, deregulating food import standards would send shockwaves through our food system, impacting nature, our health and animal welfare. If the government chooses to endorse a low standard food system through the imports it allows, farmers will have no choice but to call for domestic deregulation, threatening the environmental reforms promised. Make no mistake, a major ingredient in any comprehensive trade deal with either the US or the EU is that we must meet their food standards.
As part of the Greener UK coalition, we have worked hand-in-hand with farmers, food experts and politicians to ensure that the Agriculture Bill required liberalised imports of food via trade deals to match UK domestic standards.
It’s extremely disheartening that the government has now stripped these provisions out of the bill. Reading between the lines, they are seeking to pass responsibility to individual consumers on whether to buy low quality food using labelling. The problem with labelling is it would not stop food that is illegal to produce domestically from entering UK markets. Restaurants, schools and hospitals would be financially compelled to serve this produce and, in turn, undermine domestic farmers. A comparison between this proposal and past comments from ministers on upholding standards shows just how far the government has shuffled away from its clear manifesto promise in recent months.
Deregulators are on the verge of ruling by decree
The government also says food standards are currently in law and so there’s no need to safeguard them. This claim requires closer inspection. While technically true, standards are contained in secondary legislation. Ministers have said that any future changes to food standards would be made via the ‘negative resolution’ procedure. This, in effect, means future changes to food standards can come into law automatically without a vote in parliament. Secondary legislation is easily changed, such as the recent deletion of hundreds of standards governing antibiotic use in farm animals, but is rarely rejected (the last time this happened was in 1979).
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and others will advise government on the risks of food imports but, according to the FSA’s chief executive, ministers “have the final say” on whether to drop standards via the relevant secondary legislation. Documents showing the FSA and other bodies squabbling to avoid ownership of authorising chlorine washed chicken and hormone treated beef should not fill us with confidence.
Altogether, the pathway from the megafarm lobby to our plates is emerging. For example, powerful US interests demanded their trade representatives ask the UK drop its food standards to allow their produce into UK markets. The UK government, in a weaker trading position and perhaps with other priorities, have little choice but to concede. The concluded trade deal will be ratified without politicians having a vote to reject or amend it. Without a safeguard in primary legislation, and with ministers able to override official advice, changes to the relevant standards will be made without parliament having a say and unsafe, environmentally damaging food will inevitably end up on our plates.
During this week’s Agriculture Bill debate Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said that “farming is not a religion; it is a business”. Maybe so, but she doesn’t understand that trade is not a religion either. Trade is not a universal good, there are winners and losers. How a country chooses to trade reflects its priorities and has a direct impact on its businesses . Dropping import standards would cement industrial farming at home and abroad and the government’s insistence on avoiding scrutiny over this decision should worry us all.
However, there is still a chance to avoid this future. Politicians can still choose to retain democratic power over our food system. They can push for safeguards on standards in primary legislation, to upgrade the Trade & Agriculture Commission, and give themselves a final say on new trade deals. These opportunities to build a trading architecture, one that is fit for an independent UK with a global reputation for high standards, will all come before Christmas. Parliament with a democratic mandate from the public, including farmers, should be in control, not far flung boardrooms.