Covid-19 and a prolonged lockdown have bought us few good things. There are some, though:-
- A cleaner, less polluted environment. It may be temporary but what joy there is in having clear quiet skies, bird song you can hear, cleaner air.
- The importance of local food, strong resilient supply chains and food security. Empty shelves and foodstuffs unobtainable, whether for love or money, have been an unwelcome surprise.
- The importance and value of treating animals, especially those we farm and eat, well and the risks to us of not doing so.
- The dangers of eating unhealthily and being fat.
We’ve known this stuff for years, of course. But Covid-19, the way it has arisen, its dangers to the unhealthy and the consequences of how we have responded have highlighted the issues of sustainable farming, healthy high quality food, a well-cared for environment and the benefits to us in a way that campaigners on these issues could never have imagined. So often they have been treated as separate issues but this virus has been a perfect storm showing the linkage between them. If we treat animals poorly, we put their health and ours at risk. If we don’t have a strong, well-supported, valued agricultural sector, we put our food security at risk. (When countries can shamelessly commandeer PPE for their hospitals, don’t imagine they wouldn’t do the same for food, no matter what contractual arrangements are in place.) If we don’t farm or live in a sustainable way, we harm the environment around us and it in turn will harm us. If we eat unhealthy food, we will find it harder to fight off disease or succumb more easily when it comes.
Britain currently produces about 60% of the food it eats. Not that long ago Professor Tim Leunig, an advisor to the Chancellor, suggested that the food sector was “not critically important” and that agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”. How naïve such views now seem. Contrast this with Norway which takes a much more protectionist approach to its farming sector or, in the language of today, has “onshored” it. Its farming sector produces about 80-90% of its beef and sheep meat. It has taken the decision that since it cannot be globally competitive in this sector it will not outsource the farming it can do to others. Britain is not Norway but it too faces similar issues. Can its agricultural sector be globally competitive? At what cost? What value should it now place on food security, on building more resilience into its food supply? If onshoring manufacturing is now the reason the government is apparently less bothered about reaching a trade deal with the EU, why not adopt the same approach to agriculture?
What about welfare and environmental standards? There is a strong moral case for both of these. Abusing our environment and the living creatures we share it with is wrong. But there is a strong element of self-interest too. Well-treated, well-fed animals taste better, do not need constant use of antibiotics, hormones or other treatments, do not develop or harbour strange diseases (remember CJD? Or salmonella?). A well-balanced, well-cared for environment preserves and enhances natural habitats, the landscape, rural communities and the activities, in addition to agriculture, they depend on for a living. It plays its part in reducing or mitigating climate change. These are public goods – externalities, if you will – which have to be paid for, if we want them as we claim we do, in the same way that those who offshore to China because it was cheaper should now be paying for the externalities this is costing us. If we want long-term sustainability in farming and the environment, then we have to look beyond short-term profit.
Government Ministers (Michael Gove, especially) have in the past talked a good talk on this: environmental and welfare standards would not be reduced after leaving the EU, indeed they could be higher. Pledges not to reduce food standards “in pursuit of trade deals” were made, not forgetting the promises that chlorine-washed chicken and growth-hormone treated beef would not be allowed in. The PM even indicated after leaving hospital that obesity would now be a priority. Well, feeding people poor quality processed food stuffed full of sugar and corn starch or meat products from badly treated animals is not the way to achieve that or a healthy diet.
Will the government stand by the promises it has made about environmental and welfare standards? The signs are not good. In the recent Agriculture Bill, Tory MPs voted against an amendment implementing the Environment Secretary’s own 2019 proposals to protect the UK’s existing animal welfare and food hygiene standards. The stage is set for the importation of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef, ractopamine-fed pork and much else besides from the US, if that is what is needed to get a US trade deal.
Agricultural exports are clearly set out as a key aim in the US’s negotiating objectives. The US wants comprehensive market access, the elimination of non-tariff barriers which discriminate against US agricultural products and the reduction of “unnecessary differences” in regulatory standards. It is undeniable that US agriculture permits the use of materials and practices banned in the U.K., EU and other parts of the world. If its products are imported here, then our standards will necessarily have been lowered. If products banned in the EU enter the U.K. food production chain, UK food processors will not be able to sell their products to the EU or other countries banning such products. If U.K. farmers have higher costs because they seek to maintain those standards, they risk being driven out of business or forced to adopt similar practices. What does the government think will happen to wildlife habitats and landscapes if every inch of land has to be intensively farmed to make a living? Of course US products may be cheap. How long will that last if domestic competitors are driven out or reduced to serving only a niche wealthy market? Organic cake for us; sugar-ridden snacks for you!
Ah but we have the choice. Don’t we? The poor don’t have much choice. The uninformed don’t have a choice. Will US products be clearly labelled as such? How they are labelled in the US doesn’t matter; it’s how they are labelled here that counts. Will we be told if the flour listed as an ingredient is genetically modified? Or whether the pig from which the pork meat in a sausage roll has been made was given ractopamine? Or the beef fed growth hormones? Will there be transparency about what is being imported and what this means for animal welfare and human health? Without transparency, choice is an illusion. An easy question to answer and yet US agriculture lobbyists become strangely shy when asked whether they would mind labelling their products accurately. It’s almost as if they fear that if people knew, they would turn away. Obfuscation rather than openness is preferred.
In its election manifesto, the government promised support, “levelling up” even, for rural communities, “public money for public goods” for farmers, the chance to “lead the world in the quality of our food, agriculture and land management”. Less than 6 months later, those newly elected Tory MPs voted against maintaining our existing standards. Perhaps they mean to raise them even higher? What are the chances of that, do you think?