Tim Lang

The missing ingredient: Brexit Britain’s food problems

The missing ingredient: Brexit Britain's food problems
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The announcement of the Brexit deal at the end of 2020 alleviated concerns over food supplies to the relief of many, not least the government. But while it is clear that food will continue to appear on shop shelves, what has been less clear, however, is how we want to feed ourselves now that we are no longer confined by European Union membership.

It has been three years since Michael Gove brought Henry Dimbleby into the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to work on food policy. His report in July 2020 urged action on food poverty. But it was sidelined until footballer Marcus Rashford said the same thing. The second report is due this Spring. I understand it is set to highlight that food too easily falls between different government ministries, so that no one addresses how food impacts our health, environment and the economy.

It is time that the government sat up and paid attention to food policy. Its importance cannot be overstated. Other countries have created national food councils that can conduct early warning assessments. But the UK has little except current industry-Defra meetings. Yet, as we see time and time again, tensions keep emerging, whether at our borders, in our supply chains, in food banks, or in the papers.

The lack of a centralised body is evidence that there’s little clarity on what the UK wants from its food system. Now we have left the EU, is this Global Britain, free to import food from anywhere as long as it’s cheap? Or Atlantic Britain, after Florida oranges not Spanish? Or come-back-Empire Commonwealth food, hail South African? Or outer-Europe, welcome Moroccan and Israeli citrus? 

All food products come with baggage. Do we measure ‘good’ food as cheap or for its environmental impact? Should we grow more here or be food dependent on others? With new trade deals on the horizon, these questions need answering.

We got an early indication of the direction of travel the government might take soon after the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signing. In January, Environment secretary George Eustice launched a consultation on gene-editing technology, mainly but not exclusively focussing on its application to crops and livestock. Then, the following day he approved the use of thiamethoxam, a controversial neonicotinoid beloved of rape-seed farmers but anathema to bee conservationists. It was banned by Michael Gove three years ago. 

Both these announcements were particularly troubling. The rationale for gene-editing, now possible outside of EU regulation, is that it enables benefits to consumers and farmers, giving precision to choosing particular characteristics, such as height, water use, shape, and the nutrients that plant breeders desire. GM proponents argue that gene-editing could be useful, and that the latest Crispr technology is more fine-tuned and precise than the early GM products, because it allows geneticists to turn on or off genes affecting particular features.

But it poses big questions: Who uses it? Who owns it? Who defines where the public interest lies? Does Defra’s consultation nudge the UK onto a slippery slope to what could become no-holds-barred GM? If so, this would signal that the UK is breaking away from the EU’s Precautionary Principle – giving the benefit of doubt to health and environment issues about new products.

GM is mostly used for large-scale intensive farming – soybean, maize, cotton and rapeseed – rather than for the nutritional benefit of mankind. It comes into the UK almost certainly in animal feeds but not direct to humans. This is problematic, for climate and health evidence is pretty clear that we should be reducing not increasing animal production. I believe that the best approach for the UK now is to return our main farm animals – cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry – to their rightful ecological niches, and not to be churning out factory-style.

There is also a pressing issue to be resolved when it comes to farm subsidies. In November, the Agriculture Act received royal assent, replacing £3.2 billion EU farm subsidies with a ‘public funds for public goods’ approach. The Act mistakenly does not deem food as a public good and the subsidies are to drop in a few years. It is expected that many farms will go under as a result. This does not bode well for the future of our food security.

Meanwhile, we await to see how Joe Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, will shape US farm trade. Vilsack did the same job under Obama, when he expressly stopped USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services from producing environmental advice on good eating for US consumers. Vilsack may think US environmental management is fine but US environmental scientists and NGOs are less sure.

Among Trump’s parting gifts was a massive set of appointments to all trade-related committees (the ATACs). All bar one of 67 appointees were from what the US calls ‘Big Food’. These giant agribusinesses are hard. They see UK food markets as easy pickings. They’ve long wanted the UK to help dent EU food power. George Eustice has done that by opening up gene-editing and approving a neonicotinoid. British farming, however, knows weakened food standards sends ‘come hither’ signals to US agribusiness.

The government ought not to be getting food matters wrong. The mix of food quality standards, children’s food, food welfare and celebrity champions troubled the Thatcher-Major years, lost them public support, and arguably helped derail the Thatcher version of the liberalisation project. In the 1990s, the wake-up calls were mad cow disease, children’s food safety, additives, safety and the perception that Tories didn’t ‘get’ health. Now it is school food, food banks, seafood trade hold-ups at ports and, waiting in the Biden wings, the threat of chlorinated chicken.

The problem with food is that it falls between – and across – many interests. Food is not just Eustice’s and Defra’s responsibility. Ask Therese Coffey at Work and Pensions. Or Gavin Williamson at Education. Rashford showed them last year that feeding children is costly but, when the chips are down, worth it. This has been forgotten again at the start of the year, requiring Rashford to speak out again last month. How can this be?

The truth is that the Government is ignoring history. It has retreated to a simplistic policy mix of ‘leave it to Tesco et al’ and just ‘let others feed us’. If only one could. Reality teaches other lessons. It is not just the duty of the state to ensure its people are well (not just adequately) fed. It also makes political sense. 

In 2010, the Coalition foolishly junked processes which Labour too had had to learn: make sure you integrate food policy thinking. If you don’t, events will. Under Blair and Brown, Labour thought the Thatcher-Major food problems were sorted by creating the Food Standards Agency; and then, when Foot and Mouth Disease taught them otherwise, that matters could be left to the supermarkets. It couldn’t and cannot.

How we feed ourselves is a vitally important question. But it is one today that remains deeply unclear. It’s about time that the government worked out what it really wants from our food system.

Tim Lang is Professor Emeritus of food policy at City, University of London. His book Feeding Britain (Pelican) is out now