Once more, Brexit and the pursuit of trade deals are proving blind spots for this government. It has repeatedly marched Conservative MPs into the lobbies to reject safeguards, first for fishermen, and now for the nation’s farmers.
The Agriculture Bill was meant to demonstrate ministers’ post-Brexit commitment to the farming sector. In practice, it is proving anything but. A series of Lords amendments designed to protect food standards in the event of a US, or any other, trade deal have been voted down.
Farmers fear the consequences. When it comes to food and farming, Britain and the EU are ahead in animal welfare and consumer safety standards. Any foreign competitor with less rigorous regulations will undercut them. If the barriers go up in other words, standards go down.
Or as Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), puts it: “The future of British food and farming is at stake. Without proper safeguards on future trade deals we risk seeing an increase in food imports that have been produced to standards that would be illegal here.”
Sussex embraces a wide range of farming sectors, from sheep rearing to wine growing. One thing is sure: it isn’t anything like the United States. David Exwood, who runs a mixed farm in Horsham, spoke to Sussex Bylines about his time in America:
“I’ve worked around the feedlots of the Midwest – lines of cattle stretch for a mile. When I compare that to the way I keep my cattle in Sussex, it’s just wrong.”
He sees the future of farming in levelling up, to coin a phrase, not down: “I think the government is going for short-term gain and missing the long-term benefits from sustainable food production in the UK. This isn’t pulling up the drawbridge, it isn’t protectionism – I also want to export my beef.
“The government should be showing leadership in trade deals in a way that will help solve the problems of climate change, biodiversity and sustainability.”
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Government says: trust us
Hopes are now pinned on an amendment likely to return to the Commons from the Lords. The cross-bench peer Lord Curry wants trade deals to be scrutinised by a newly set-up body, the Trade and Agriculture Board, which has consumer and farming representatives.
Exwood is lobbying his own MP, Jeremy Quin, who has so far backed the government’s position. Leaving aside the rhetoric, this boils down to ‘trust us, it’ll be fine … there’s no need for further safeguards’.
Opposition MPs argue this is not good enough. Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said: “Conservative MPs have a choice: they can show they are on the side of our farmers and quality produce, or they can continue to play political games.”
Not all Conservatives are following the party line: among 14 rebels was, somewhat surprisingly, former Secretary of State for the Environment Theresa Villiers. On her website she says: “I felt that voting in favour of the amendment [on food standards] and against the government was important if I was going to live up the promises I made when I was Secretary of State.
“I recognise the benefits of trade liberalisation, and our role as a global trading nation once again, but food security means care needs to be taken in relation to agriculture. That is why almost no country in the world treats food in the same way as other commodities when it comes to trade policy.
“The UK market for food and groceries is the third largest in the world. It is a massive prize for any country to be allowed greater access to it. We should not sell ourselves short.”
Frank Langrish, who farms sheep and cattle near Rye, is sceptical that even the modest Lord Curry proposal will be accepted. Speaking to Sussex Bylines, he said: “The politicians are desperate to find any way they can to warrant Brexit. But in reality one trade deal with Japan is not going to be much help from the beginning of January. The only way they are going to warrant Brexit will be to do a deal with the Americans.”
Langrish’s farms have done well during the pandemic, with many buyers returning to sourcing locally during lockdown – and continuing to do so.
“Our shipments have doubled,” he said. “But the ordinary farmer, who is completely reliant on selling into large abattoirs, the only way they can compete is on price.” And they would be badly hit, he says, by demand for cheaper meat from the big ready-meal processors and much of the catering trade.”
Food that makes you sick
A taste of the future was revealed by the recent Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into lower US hygiene standards and its much higher rates of food-borne illness. Dispatches also reported another interesting statistic: researchers estimate a US trade deal will eventually be worth just 0.16% to the UK economy.
You have to ask yourself: is it worth it?
Whether or not we end up eating chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef in the future will depend on where we live – and what we can afford. A US deal may result in a two-tier food system, with those who can pay more avoiding US meat, fruit and vegetables.
Exwood believes this is wrong: “Good, healthy, sustainably produced food should be available to everyone, not just those who shop in Waitrose.”
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