By Jamie O’Dell and George Thomas
On Monday October 12, amendments made to the Agriculture Bill by the House of Lords were rejected by MPs in the House of Commons. The Agriculture Bill is a critical piece of legislation in defining the UK’s post-Brexit agricultural strategy, with the most recent amendments aiming to make the government commit to high food and farming standards, as well as financial security for British businesses.
This is a move that has led to farmers expressing their ‘bitter disappointment’ with the outcome of the vote. Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, said: “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.”
This comes despite the 2019 Conservative election manifesto promising that ‘In all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards’.
For example, the commons rejected Amendment 16, which sought to ensure that food products imported from outside the UK, would meet or exceed domestic standards in a variety of capacities, including, but not at all limited to, animal welfare, environmental impact and even food safety and hygiene.
Beyond the clear and worrying impact this could have on the quality of consumer products in the UK, it also means British farmers could suffer in years to come, as they are held to stringent standards whilst also competing with cheap, under-regulated foreign imports.
Last winter we were told that a vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would mean a Brexit that restored sovereignty to the British people, freeing us to set new standards for our national wellbeing. Why, then, did Conservative MPs (including Stroud’s Siobhan Baillie) vote against this particular amendment? ”Because the Commons do not consider it appropriate to create new requirements for imports to meet particular standards.”
Instead, and according to comments Baillie made to the Stroud News and Journal, we will be sticking to existing European regulations: “The government has said time and time again that existing European Union rules banning imports of food such as ‘chlorine-washed’ chicken automatically becomes UK law once the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.”
It appears then, we will not be seeing any deviation from EU regulations and standards unless the government decides to let them slip as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. Baillie stated further that as a global trading nation we need to be ‘flexible’ in how we trade, but also that we need to maintain commitments to our farmers for ‘our own high standards’ in food and animal welfare.
However, as the legislation stands, it will be government ministers, namely Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) George Eustace, who will be the ones ‘taking back control’ of British food standards. This leaves ministers subject to a minimum of oversight, and with no commitment or guarantee that we will see the country’s food standards maintained, let alone improved in coming years.
Food standards are not the only issue the UK faces, however, and neither was Amendment 16 the only one rejected by the government’s majority. Amendment 9 called for, within 12 months, the government to lay before Parliament a ‘National Food Strategy’ that would increase sustainability of food production, support food production and consumption and improve dietary health and reduce obesity in the UK. The Commons’ reason for discarding this amendment was that ‘it is inappropriate to impose a duty to publish a National Food Strategy’.
This comes at a time when, due to Brexit, coronavirus, the climate emergency and a host of other complicating factors, we are at a critical juncture: not just for food and farming standards, but for the actual food security of our district, our country and the UK as a whole. At present, we are approaching this juncture in a position where we are not only incapable of providing for ourselves as a nation, but failing to provide everyone within the nation with the basic right to food.
In 2017, only 50% of the UK’s food was supplied from within the UK, with roughly 30% coming from the EU. Food, cheap and plentiful, is something that we are used to having on our shelves, but it is becoming increasingly clear, especially now we are being told to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, that we cannot continue to blindly assume that others will feed us.
This existential threat to UK food security comes at a time where we are failing to a shameful extent to provide access to a healthy diet for all. Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, the UK’s largest food bank network is warning that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty by Christmas. This comes after a decade of austerity which has already left an estimated 14.3 million people in the UK, as of 2019, in poverty and the UN rapporteur highlighting, back in 2017, the ‘shocking’ increase in food bank usage.
Therefore, we need a comprehensive UK food strategy, the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. One that tackles food poverty, addresses the inherent fragilities in our just-in-time and neo-colonial supply chains, tackles the climate emergency by fully harnessing the potential of regenerative agriculture and championing bio, not product, diversity. One that delivers a good deal for our farmers and the four million people, seasonal migrants included, who work within the UK’s food supply chain.
There are clear risks of the government replicating their stance on post-Brexit food standards by refusing to be drawn into a firm commitment to lay out how they will ensure the UK has sustainable and accessible food supplies in the future. They demonstrate just how significantly behind the curve we are when it comes to feeding the nation, and show how critical it is that we tackle the issue of our food security head on.
The impact of a national food strategy, addressing the issues referenced above, could be transformational for the Stroud District, as well as the county and the nation at large; this is something that Amplify Stroud will be examining in our upcoming ‘Right to Food’ series, featuring an interview with former shadow DEFRA minister David Drew. If you would like to contribute to or be involved in this series or have experience working in food production then we’d like to hear from you.