It might seem hard to believe it was just a matter of months ago that senior Treasury advisor Tim Leunig made headlines when he suggested in leaked emails that Britain doesn’t need farmers. The ‘food sector isn't critically important to the UK’, he wrote.
Then Covid-19 descended, and the British farming industry was deemed vital again. With supermarket shelves empty due to panic buyers, we were reminded how important it is that we are able produce at least a proportion of the food we need at home. The Prime Minister took to pointing out the strength of our ‘farm to fork’ supply chain that kept supermarkets stocked.
It’s strange, then, that as part of ‘getting Brexit done’, the current government are proposing a raft of ideas that will be far from helpful for British farmers. The Agriculture Bill has already caused its fair share of controversy. MP Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, proposed an amendment which would have prevented any trade agreement from being ratified if it allowed the importation of food products produced to a lower standard than is allowed in the UK. His amendment was defeated by 51 votes, after being supported by only 22 of his fellow Conservative MPs. This was despite support from the National Farmers’ Union, British Veterinary Association, RSPCA, Soil Association and other groups.
The crux of the matter here, of course, is a potential trade agreement with the US. Yes, chlorinated chicken has come back to haunt us. Because before anyone starts talking about the fact that chlorine-washed chicken isn’t dangerous, it isn’t the chlorine that’s the problem. The ability to clean chicken using bacteria-destroying chlorine allows US farmers to raise poultry in welfare conditions that wouldn’t be allowed in the UK. It isn’t just the chicken; US beef farmers use growth hormones banned in the UK, while pesticides and antibiotics banned here are allowed in the States.
So why didn’t more MPs support the amendment? As well as raising questions about how the government is going to support UK farmers and agriculture, the Agriculture Bill also questions how well parliament is working under the current restrictions. This was the first virtual vote for the Commons, and it didn’t all go smoothly. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, for example, ‘accidentally’ voted the wrong way, blaming teething problems with the system.
Now there are rumours that a ‘dual tariff’ is being considered. This would allow products that don’t meet UK standards to enter the UK – but they would be subject to high import tariffs. It’s being touted as a ‘win’ for Defra Secretary George Eustice over Liz Truss, who’s desperate to agree a trade deal with the US.
So what changed? ‘All food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements including a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses’, said Environment Minister Victoria Prentis in May. ‘Of course we are not going to have chlorinated chicken’, said then-party chairman James Cleverly, while Theresa Villiers said much the same.
Of course, we can hope that people choose to support British farmers; to read the labels, and choose higher quality produce. Some consumers will; a petition from the National Farmers Union to stop the import of produce with lower welfare and environmental standards has, at this moment, been signed by over half a million people. But not everyone can, or will buy British.
At the same time as potentially allowing in lower quality produce, the bill also addresses farm subsidies, which will be subjected to cuts from 2021, with the replacement subsidy not coming into force until 2024. Free marketeers might disagree with subsidising industries, but with agricultural subsidies a major part of farming income across the west, is it fair to ask British farmers to compete with products from other countries which are both subsidised and – if lower standards are allowed – cheaper to produce?
Perhaps the country will go back to ‘normal’ when coronavirus dies down. Or perhaps a ‘new normal’ will emerge. Surely, if anything comes out of the current crisis it will be the importance of being able to be independent when push comes to shove. The UK’s food security is vital. That’s not to say we can do everything ourselves – we can’t. But what we do need is a properly thought-out strategy for food security, farming and the environment. On Monday, the bill received its second reading in the House of Lords. It will certainly be worth following to see what they make of the government’s proposals.