For the last couple of months I have been immersed in university final exams, preventing me from writing or paying much attention to current affairs. Despite this, I still saw how quickly the Australian Trade Deal went from being publicly debated to being signed off in June with total disregard for the interests of UK agriculture. It also became clear to me the extent to which trade being pursued by the current government is rooted in a “Tunnel-Vision” approach.
Public debates over the trade deal between the UK and Australia, unfortunately settled into the simplistic camps of ‘Free-trader’ versus ‘Environmental / Economic protectionist’. Such anachronistic portrayals of an important and complex debate was entirely unhelpful and irrelevant. It did, though, shine a light upon and draw out the clear disgust with which the UK food and farming industry is held within Conservative and Liberal circles. The sheer disrespect and lack of understanding was not shy of showing its disgraceful head. One Young Liberal tweeted mockingly that he would “import the world’s tiniest violin to play to British farmers”. It has since been deleted after I called it out.
Various columnists attacked farming, many mimicking Margaret Thatcher by equating farming to the coal, steel and car industries of the 1980s. Nothing could be further from the truth. Farming is not an industry of the past, it has modernised and adapted to be an extremely efficient industry with world class standards. It is also an essential pillar of national security
These debates reinforced the wider tunnel-vision approach that the government has taken towards trade. Priority has been given to ‘quick wins’ with attempts to make some gains, having thrown away the significant advantages of EU trade deals. These slight gains are no improvement on the EU trade deals. They are railroaded through with a lack of democratic oversight, and limited consideration of the environmental, social and long-term impact. Repeatedly Conservative columnists and politicians spoke of the net-benefits for consumers from the trade-deal, especially in relation to food, yet few spoke of the impact on the next generation of ‘consumers’. The Telegraph’s claim that “… the Australia trade deal is better than anything we had in the EU” does not hold water.
While the trade deal itself is unlikely to change much immediately, including prices or the economic well-being of farming, it reflects the government’s policy of food colonialism. (see my article for the Young Fabians in August 2020). It has the expectation that the wider world will feed us, while our farmers make the countryside and environment look pretty thereby offshoring the environmental impact of our food production. Australia farming itself is not inherently ‘bad’. To according to Miles King, a UK based environmental commentator, around 7% of its farmland is converted or converting to organic production, while nearly a third of beef farmers are involved in some way with the organic beef sector.
Our own UK farming has a poor record with the production of beef, for though much of it is grass-fed, it is largely done so on rye-grass monoculture and often inefficiently, with few farmers practicing mob-grazing (see West England Bylines recent interview with a mob grazing farmer in Gloucestershire). Nevertheless, this has to change and the need to couple environmental actions with food production is crucial, particularly in the form of agroecology. We need more resilient and long-term sustainable food systems, so the next generations have enough food and an environment that they can survive within. Food and farming is not like any other industry, you cannot just offshore it and when it suddenly has a shock restart it. Crops and animals take time to raise and need land that is nurtured. Local food systems are more important than ever. They offer a means to manage the local land and environment carefully and a means of combining food production with the wider benefits of environmentally-friendly farming such as flood prevention, sustainable local economies and healthy diets.
The climate crisis poses a major threat to food production and our currently overseas-based food system. We cannot end trade altogether, but we need to manage it within a whole-food system approach. There needs to be a ‘Social and Environmental Charter’ that governs the aims of trade-deals on behalf of nature, the public, and future generations. Such a charter would set out a certification system, allowing products from other nations that meet a minimum standard to be traded. This sort of certification system has already been recommended by the first report of the National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby. Dimbleby accepts, as I do, that, in the face of the current economic system, free-trade is necessary and tariffs and blanket bans on products are of little use in protecting society, since this would not permit any deals being obtained at all. Through a minimum certification standard, food can be traded, but at the same time there would be a means of preventing the import of food that does not meet certain standards. For example, this could include food that contains the residues of the 33 different organophosphate pesticides allowed in Australia, compared to the four in the UK (see paragraph 11 of evidence submitted to the House of Lords International Agreements Sub-Committee on UK-Australia Trade Negotiations).
At this time free-trade is inevitable. It is not inevitable at this time that such trade is undertaken with tunnel-vision. Instead, there must be an expectation for rounded, thoughtful considerations for all within each trade deal. It is time there was a charter that made trade consider nature, communities AND future generations.
We cannot afford to sell the future because of a lack of vision.