#SaveBritishFarming. That’s the Twitter hashtag for an important Save British Farming campaign this autumn to protect the livelihood of British farmers against a number of threats posed by Brexit. The biggest threat is the potential import of cheaper, lower standard food products, which would undercut the British farming industry.
British farmers have to meet high standards for food production, including food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection. These are EU rules, many written by the UK, which in some areas has even higher standards than the EU. The standards are there for our safety and because that’s what consumers and the general public want. The British Government has introduced legislation to maintain EU standards in UK law after Brexit. But there are worries this could be undermined.
The Government wants a trade deal with the US. The US has made clear it wants access to the UK market for its own lower standard farm products. This is a bipartisan policy in Washington and therefore unlikely to change much even if Biden wins the Presidential election in November. The media scream about the possibility of chlorinated chicken on our supermarket shelves. It’s a horror story which slightly misses the point because chlorinated chicken is not itself unsafe. The reason for chlorine washing is to make it safe: but that’s only necessary because the chickens have been reared in unsanitary conditions which don’t meet our animal welfare standards. On the other hand products like hormone-fed beef have been shown to be potentially carcinogenic. Grains, fruit and vegetables may have the residues of chemicals or pesticides that are banned in the UK for health reasons.
UK food has to be carefully labelled so people know where it’s from. The US wants the removal of country of origin from food labelling. That means people won’t be able to know what they are buying. Some UK supermarket chains have said they will not stock lower standard food, including in non-labelled processed meals. But how will we know what we are eating in restaurants: or what is being served in school meals?
If the UK agrees a trade deal with the EU, that would be likely to ensure the protection of our food standards. But with the prospects of any deal at all still far from assured, the threat of lower standard food imports flooding the UK remains.
The protection of food standards has been the top item for the National Farmers Union in lobbying Government and Parliament this summer. Phil Bennion, Staffordshire farmer and former West Midlands MEP, and Bill Quan, Herefordshire County Chairman for the NFU, both commented favourably at a Herefordshire for Europe webinar on farming issues on 16 July that this was an issue on which Minette Batters, NFU President, had been able to bring all relevant associations together in support for the first time.
An amendment to the Agriculture Bill in the House of Commons guaranteeing that imports would have to meet the UK’s high standards for environment, animal welfare and food safety was defeated by a majority of 51 on 13 May, 277 Ayes to 328 Noes, despite 22 Conservative MPs voting for it, including Rishi Sunak allegedly by mistake in the first ever electronic vote. Save British Farming organised a tractor protest in Westminster on 8 July. Herefordshire for Europe held No2NoDeal/Protect our food standards demonstrations outside the Leominster office of Bill Wiggin, MP for North Herefordshire, on 7 July and the Hereford office of Jesse Norman, MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, on 7 August. The Leominster protest was criticised by Bill Wiggin in the Hereford Times, saying we were trying to “sow fear and discord amongst the good people” of the area. On 18 July the Hereford Times published our response that “Bill Wiggin does his democratic credentials no service in suggesting that it is improper for people to continue to express publicly views that are different from those of the elected government.”
The House of Lords has now made amendments to the Agriculture Bill, which returns to the Commons in September. Save British Farming is stepping up its activity around the country, for example with protests on 5 September in Hexham in the North East and in Ludlow, outside the office of Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, which was jointly organised by Herefordshire for Europe and Shropshire for Europe supporters and joined by John Burt, who is campaigning to Save British Wool. Expect another tractor protest soon, somewhere in the West Midlands.
The NFU organises an annual Back British Farming Day, on 9 September this year. Save British Farming encouraged organisations to take the opportunity to protest outside MPs’ local offices, particularly in Conservative constituencies. Herefordshire for Europe took the photogenic option of protesting in Hereford High Town beside the lifesize bronze Herefordshire Bull.
It is encouraging to see how many different groups and organisations are pulling together to try to get the message across. On 2 September Anabel Hoult, Chief Executive of Which?, wrote to Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, and George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She recognised that the government had made commitments to honour its manifesto promise not to compromise on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. She noted that the government had said it had not included these commitments in the Trade or Agriculture Bills due to pre-existing legislation covering these issues. However, there remained public concern about how easily these laws could be changed using secondary legislation.
To provide reassurance and clarity on this issue, Anabel said she was calling on the government to confirm that it would uphold food standards by maintaining the bans on chicken treated with chlorine and beef injected with hormones and that it would not, at any stage, ask this Parliament to remove these bans from the statute books. She also asked for clarification regarding what is included in the scope of the government’s commitment to uphold food standards so people can have confidence that standards will not be undermined.
All of that is important and we need both farmers and consumers to press their local MPs to stop the government from taking any steps that might undermine our food standards: and to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Save British Farming says No deal will ensure a third of farms go bust within four to five years.
Since May one million people have signed the NFU petition on food standards, almost half a million have signed a similar petition on Change.org and 200,000 people have signed a petition by Which?, all demanding that our existing standards be enshrined in law. Tens of thousands of people have also written to their MPs. Save British Farming has a template letter, which you can personalise; you just need to put in your postcode.
Another threat to British farming if there is no deal with the EU is the removal of tariffs on agricultural imports, not just from the US but also Australia or New Zealand, which could also undercut British farm prices; and the imposition of tariffs on UK exports to the EU, for example lamb exports to France, which would put many of our local sheep farmers out of business. But that’s another story.