Not if citizens have a say in the biggest reform of UK agriculture in over half a century
Jamie Oliver’s Facebook post on 3rd June informed an increasingly depreciated British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that he better wake up to some of the reasons he won his landslide into No 10 last December. That included building a resilient food and farming sector in Britain once cut loose from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and £3 billion in subsidies. One that didn’t open the door to cheap imports of foods that don’t meet the UK’s high environmental, plant health, animal welfare and food safety standards. That doesn’t hide the presence of genetically modified foods or hormone- and antibiotic-filled meats, or fruit and veg laden with banned pesticides that destroy the bees and other pollinators that have been returning thanks to bans on neonicotinoid pesticides.
The Parish amendment
We’re talking here about the Agriculture Bill that’s been working its way through the British legislature. At its third reading in the Commons on 13 May, key amendments proposed by senior Conservative MPs, Simon Hoare and Neil Parish, were voted down, despite very wide support from the farming and conservation sector.
Parish’s all-important amendment proposed that “any agricultural or food product imported into the UK under the agreement will have been produced or processed according to standards which are equivalent to, or which exceed, the relevant domestic standards and regulations in relation to animal health and welfare, plant health, and environmental protection.”
>>> Find out more about the UK’s Agriculture Bill 2019-21 via the House of Commons Library
Government backtracks and won’t commit to Green Brexit
On the lead up to December’s general election, Boris Johnson campaigned to ensure that there would be no dilution of the UK’s high agricultural, food, animal welfare and environmental standards during any trade deals with the US or elsewhere. Yet that went up in smoke on 13 May, so jeopardising a Green Brexit, when the majority of the governing Conservative party voted against Labour and minor parties losing by 51 votes. Check out the list of all 328 MPs who voted against maintaining high food and environmental standards during the covid pandemic. It was noteworthy that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, erroneously voted against his own Government.
The majority of Conservatives appeared to be placated by a notion, expressed by Defra farm minister Victoria Prentis, that, “...in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
Similarly, as the Bill moved to the Lords yesterday for its second reading, Lord Gardiner commented, “I can confirm that all food—I emphasise all food—coming into the country will continue to have to meet existing import requirements as the withdrawal Act transfers EU standards on to the UK statute book. This specifically means that the import of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, for example, is prohibited.”
If you mean it, make it legit
But why not cement that intention in law and give UK farmers and citizens confidence in this commitment at a time when it is more critical than ever that the environment is protected and the quality of the food supply maintained or improved upon? Presumably because the UK Government wants as open a hand as it can get in its negotiation of international and free trade agreements post-Brexit. But this means it may ultimately accept the importation of foods raised to lower animal welfare, environmental, plant health and safety standards – for short-term gain. Not good for the British people’s health, the environment or the farming community.
But it’s also a very slippery slope. Simon Hoare MP set out, during the Parliamentary debate on 13 May, a case for how cheap imports could wipe out British agriculture, as follows: “Food imports to this country would be cheap for no reason bar the fact that they were raised to lower standards. Anybody can look at a variety of websites and realise some of the pretty horrendous ways in which livestock is raised in a number of countries across the world. We should shun that and be a beacon for excellence and high standards.
Those cheap food imports would remain cheap only while there was a viable scale of domestic production to create some sort of viable competition. As soon as it was choked off or choked down—reduced to a scale no more than meeting the artisan market or a farmers’ market—those prices would start to rise, and we would have lost our agricultural sector.”
Call to action
The Agriculture Bill is now at Committee Stage in the Lords where it will go to third reading before going back to the Commons for consideration of final amendments and Royal Ascent.
The Conservative government’s and Team Boris’ credibility is crumbling rapidly, aided in no uncertain way by Cummings-gate. Just yesterday, another blow was delivered by a special advisor on social justice who threw in the towel and told all in the New Statesman. Tim Montgomerie talks of the “evaporation of the Prime Minister’s reputation for competence.” He wrote: “Throughout the Westminster village every Tory had quickly learned the score: do, say and tweet as you are told – or else. In February’s reshuffle we learned that earning the disfavour of key prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings was fatal, even if you were Chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone was dispensable. Except Dom.”
Johnson will undoubtedly find it very difficult to rebuild the public’s respect for him that was evident just 6 short months ago. One way of doing it would be stay true to the promises that gave him such a majority.
If citizens push hard with their MPs, along with the already 60 plus farming and environmental organisations, for maintaining high environmental, plant health and food standards, there’s a fighting chance badly needed amendments to the Agriculture Bill by Parish and Hoare will find their way back into the final text.
UK citizens – we urge you to write to your MP,MSP or AM – and tell him or her to get behind a Green Brexit, as promised by Boris Johnson, that prevents the import of genetically modified foods, plant foods sprayed with bee-killing pesticides, chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-treated beef and other animal products derived from production systems with poor animal welfare standards.