British farming, food and animal welfare standards hanging by a thread

Meme by the author

On 17 May reports began to emerge of a split in Cabinet. In one corner, Liz Truss and David Frost advocate throwing British farming under the big red bus of lies by signing a 0-per-cent tariff/quota deal with Australia. This is a deal that will only yield 0.01 to 0.02 per cent of our 2018 GDP over a period of 15 years – in other words, next to nothing, but a deal for which we Brits are expected to sacrifice our food, farming and animal welfare standards. If that sounds like too high a price to pay for Ms Truss to have her day, gloating that she has signed the UK’s first free trade deal for us as the independent state of Brexitannia, it is because it is too high a price to pay…

All is not lost… yet. Michael Gove and George Eustice, conscious they have already sacrificed the fishing industry to the Brexit beast and unwilling to chuck it more red meat (for the moment), are standing up for the interests of British farmers, and by extension British consumers. After all, the farming community traditionally votes Tory. Can the Conservatives afford to lose rural areas to Labour?

What of consumers?
The Conservatives would rather not bother about their interests — caveat emptor, and all that — but they are also voters. Polls show that those pesky consumers/voters overwhelmingly back high British food, farming and animal welfare standards. We wrote about the results in What possessed the Tories to defy ‘the Will of the People’ on food and farming standards?”. Perhaps the most striking statistic is that only 11 per cent of less affluent households favour food imports with lower standards. To summarise some of the other highlights:

  • 95 per cent of us want to keep our high British food standards;
  • 92 per cent of us want food and animal welfare standards protected in trade deals;
  • 86 per cent of us fear food banned here would find its way into institutional food (schools, hospitals, care homes, etc) due to trade deals with countries with lower standards;
  • 74 per cent of us oppose the import of food produced to lower animal welfare standards, and
  • 68 per cent of us want further legal requirements to ensure animal welfare is protected.

So much for the will of the people… Incidentally, that article was inspired by Tory MPs refusing to enshrine our food and farming standards in law via the Agriculture Bill last October, because they were “absolutely clear” that government being “committed” to high standards is enough to protect said standards from being undermined by trade deals. Tory MPs also told us not to worry, because parliament would have a say and prevent government from going back on its word — right before Tory MPs voted away the right of parliament to have a say on trade deals in the Trade Bill. Were they being naïve or simply lying?

The campaign to maintain food standards

Even the Daily Mail got behind an initiative to protect our standards last year, giving generous column-inches to celebrity cooks Pru Leith (mother of Wiltshire Tory MP Danny Kruger) and Jamie Oliver, and helping to promote a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) petition to protect our food standards.  When the petition attracted over a million signature, Minette Batters, president of the NFU, tweeted that she had “tears in her eyes”. As of today, it is still her pinned tweet.

 Sadly, she squandered all that energy, activism and goodwill by settling for the chocolate teapot of a statutory but toothless Trade and Agriculture Commission which will review trade deals and submit a report three weeks before they are signed — far too late to do anything about any given deal, no matter what concerns may be raised in the report. As news has broken of prime minister Boris Johnson’s potential wholesale betrayal of the agricultural sector, Ms Batters told Channel 4 news anchor Cathy Newman that he had given her his personal assurance he wouldn’t let the farmers down securing post-Brexit trade deals. Oh, Minette! Johnson has lied to every woman he has ever met. He even lied to the Queen. Why, oh why did you think he’d treat you any differently?

US trade: animal welfare standards

Focus last autumn was on a possible trade deal with the US and what appear to most British people to be horrific American food, farming and animal welfare standards. Dusty industrial-scale cattle ranches with cows tethered all day in row upon row of metal stalls. Unacceptably high use of growth hormones and antibiotics, threatening the efficacity of the latter to treat illness in human beings. Chlorine-washed chicken and far higher levels of food poisoning, even from vegetables.

What people do not realise is that antipodean standards are not much better. Australian-reared beef follows American, not British farming standards. Farmers there use growth hormones banned here to fatten the cattle more quickly. Their methods of de-horning cattle are frankly cruel. Currently Australian farms are experiencing an epic mice infestation, which makes you wonder about their hygiene standards. Some Australian states are even considering resorting to napalm.

For years there have been headlines in British newspapers warning that Australia would push for us to accept its hormone-laden beef. Oh, no, said a parade of government ministers, we would never do that. Liz Truss in particular promised not to lower food standards through trade deals. The Conservatives even put a pledge in their manifesto:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

They were elected on that promise. They have a duty to keep it, and no mandate to act contrary to it. Yet here we are.

The biggest risk is with institutional food. A clause in government buying guidelines allows public-sector bodies to use imported food that would be illegal to produce in the UK if they can justify doing so on cost grounds. MPs, including some Tories, have lobbied the government to close this loop-hole. The government responds that importing such food would currently be illegal, so there is no need to act, but this government has a track record of doing things it said it would never do — just ask the residents of Northern Ireland how they’re enjoying a border in the Irish Sea.

The Eustice and Gove corner is seconded by the unionist Scotland and Wales secretaries, Alistair Jack and Simon Hart respectively. They fear that sacrificing the Scottish beef and Welsh lamb sectors on the altar of Brexit ideology will further fuel separatist movements in their home nations. As it should. This is an appalling betrayal of promises made by the likes of George Eustice and Owen Paterson to Leave voters that farming would benefit from Brexit — indeed, that they would be better off.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis appears to be keeping his head down. Perhaps he is too busy trying not to drown in the Brexit Secretary David Frost’s lastest sewage spill. Frost told House of Lords European Affairs Committee that it is “a fundamental issue of principle [of this government] that we do not align with the EU on any areas.” Ideology taken to these absurd levels will rob Northern Ireland farmers of any relief from Brexit red tape. Ironically, both Australia and New Zealand are not nearly so stupid on this count, as both have sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) agreements with the EU.

Perhaps, like me, you are also wondering why we’ve gone through this harsh and painful Brexit, with all the emphasis on standing on our own two feet and being self-sufficient as a country, if we are now going to put the bulk of our food production in the hands of other countries. Food security, anyone?

COP26 and other factors:
Where is Alok Sharma in all this? Does it make sense to spurn a market on our doorstep with the farming, food and animal welfare standards we want, for those that do not meet our standards and are 9,000 miles away? Have we given up on environmentally-friendly farming standards and trying to reduce our carbon footprint? Agricultural shipments may well be small compared to other imports, but we are fast reaching the point of no return in the climate crisis, and we must make savings where we can. We will have precisely zero authority at the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow, if our government agrees this hypocritical trade deal.

Make no mistake: this is an elephant trap. Whatever concessions we give to Australia in this trade deal, we will surely have to give to America and Brazil further down the line, which is a powerful argument not to give very much at all. The claim Truss is making that we have to have deals with Australia and New Zealand to join CPTPP is bogus, as they have accepted less than full access with every country they have ever done a deal with, and could always push for more access in CPTPP accession talks.

The ultimate arbiter of this debate is Boris Johnson. Will he be swayed by Truss’s asinine assertion that giving Australia full and free access to our markets doesn’t matter “because they probably won’t use it anyway”? Or for once in his life will he look to do the right thing for British interests, the home nations besides England and British consumers by listening to Gove and Eustice? Even their tariff rate quota (TRQ) solution, whereby you allow 0-per-cent tariffs, but only on the first ‘x’ tonnes of the product each year, won’t keep Australia’s produce out of our country completely.

Farmers to be encouraged to give up farming?
It is not looking good. Rumours abound that government has instructed the civil service to look into setting up a massive multi-million-pound fund to encourage farmers to leave farming and maybe go into cyber, like Fatima, or else compensate those that stay on and go bankrupt. Let’s hope the fund will be better designed than the one for the fishing industry, which excluded fishermen from applying. Quite where all these millions of pounds are coming from to compensate industries, businesses and individuals smashed by Brexit is another matter. The fact that after five years the government is now in the process of hiring somebody to spot those elusive Brexit benefits suggests that Brexit is draining rather than creating wealth for this country.

The Times has already reported that Johnson will throw his lot in with Truss, whose concern in all this is not the country, our farmers or us, the consumers, but scoring a point before June’s G7 summit in Cornwall. This is the maturity of our leaders. Performative politics to “look good”, to get a PR buzz, a moment of tabloid glory, and too bad about the vandalism they inflict on our country. In this case, that damage will be the slow death of British Farming. That hurts us all, no matter how we voted in the Brexit referendum, because we all have to eat.

The Cabinet is having a pow-wow tomorrow on the Australia deal, the destruction of British farming and how to save the UK union. The majority of Conservative MPs may have voted away parliament’s right to have a say on this, on the instructions of a certain Dominic Cummings, but there are other means to put pressure on the government. Tory back-benchers could threaten to go on strike and not vote for government legislation, for example, if the manifesto pledge to the electorate not to allow low-animal welfare food into the country through the back door of trade deals is broken.

Let’s get behind our farmers, make some noise and write to both our MPs and Cabinet ministers to encourage them to come down on the side of sanity (for once). Stop this destructive free trade deal with Australia.