Farming on the British Isles began with the Neolithic people and for thousands of years it hardly changed. It was small scale and labour intensive, mixing crops and animals. In 1846, the repeal of the Corn Laws led to increased grain imports and many smaller farmers went bankrupt and many emigrated.
But it was the experience of two World Wars that built a support system for agriculture throughout Europe. The experience of food shortages and hunger in Europe formed a view that we wouldn’t let it happen again. It put home production and security of supply first. In 1957 the Treaty of Rome founding the European Economic Community (EEC) only contained limited objectives for agriculture. But by 1960 the European Commission had drafted the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which protected smaller farmers and create a single market for agricultural products. Throughout the next 70 years the CAP underwent many reforms.
Wikimedia states that CAP:
“… has evolved significantly since it was created by the Treaty of Rome (1957). Substantial reforms over the years have moved the CAP away from a production-oriented policy. The 2003 reform introduced the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) or as it is known as well the Single Farm Payment (SFP). The most recent reform was made in 2013 …”
A free market between the European nations spread the risk as bad weather doesn’t hit everyone at once. As the EU expanded, so the free market in agricultural products grew and for consumers the weather rarely threatened availability. CAP ensured ever increasing production, with food security paramount and thus certainty has been assured for food supplies.
Incentivised food production and a huge efficient market with friction free borders have disconnected consumers from the realities of how farming produces the food they consume. In recent decades food has always been available. It has become more varied and the cost of it has become an ever-decreasing proportion of incomes. The security of supply has also meant consumers could insist on better safety and animal welfare standards as well as stringent environmental standards.
However this UK Conservative Government is committed to abolishing production support and has made our access to the large European market, which has given us food certainty, a lot more difficult and costlier. And they are doing this at the worst possible time as we are dealing with a deadly virus which is also impacting on supplies.
The new trading arrangements of the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are already causing enormous difficulties for food imports but our British food exports are also largely crippled. Pictures of empty supermarket shelves are increasing, as are signs warning of shortages of certain foods, particularly in Northern Ireland. The fishermen are waking up to the reality that Brexit was not the promised land they dreamt of and their businesses are either closing down or relocating to Europe.
Meanwhile, our Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, is busily engaging with Australia which is tipped to be the next FTA for Britain. Australia has already made it clear that they will challenge Britain’s ban on hormone-infused beef, in order to allow for the free flow of its agricultural products. More trade deals are in the wings, including New Zealand and the South American Mercosur nations, These countries will want trade access to our agricultural markets in return for British exports like financial services, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and telecoms.
The British people are against lowering of food standards. Polls have shown time and time again an overwhelming harmony on this issue. If we allow lower standard food imports to flood in, this will ensure further food inequality and damage public health. Our food security will decrease and our food miles increase. Most alarmingly, this will enable further deforestation of the rainforests and our own British countryside will be changed irrevocably as farms will farm less food.
It is absolutely critical that those who are opposed to lower food standards make their voices heard again. They must engage with their MPs, sign petitions and encourage networks to do the same. Otherwise British food will suffer the same fate as British coal and become a rare commodity.