To protect the quality of our food, the Lords have voted for a crucial amendment to the Agriculture Bill to enshrine in law the principle that food imports should meet domestic standards. This is strongly supported by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and by the British Veterinary Association (BVA). See Food Manufacture 24 September 2020.
The government would prefer us to simply accept reassurances, which have no legal force. If we don’t achieve a trade deal with the EU, we’ll inevitably be doing more trade with nations with lower agricultural standards.
Why does this matter?
One likely trading partner is the USA. If we are no longer part of a big trading block, we’ll be in a weak negotiating position, especially in view of the tensions caused by the government’s willingness to flout international law. So our negotiators will be going cap in hand, desperate to show us they can produce a trade deal of sorts, however poor.
Apart from hormone-fattened beef and chicken washed in chlorine, how do US standards differ from ours?
Animal welfare standards are lower. Cattle tend to be kept on vast feed lots, fed on imported grain and soy, rather than pastured. Nutrition labelling is considered a barrier to business. Seventy-two pesticides not approved in the EU are in use, including known carcinogens. US apples can have 400 times our permitted pesticide levels. Five times more antibiotics are used per animal in the US, increasing the problem of antibiotic resistance. For more details see Which from July 2020.
Our bodies have not evolved to cope with this cocktail of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. We risk our markets being flooded with cheaper food, an apparent godsend to struggling families, but at what cost to health and to the environment? Cheap beef would clearly encourage greater consumption, but its production has a huge carbon footprint. With the changing climate already causing so much death, destruction and misery around the globe, this is emphatically not the direction we should take.
What can we do?
It may seem that as individuals we can’t do much, but emailing our MP is a powerful act. If we want a deal with the EU as promised last year, and want to endorse the Lords’ amendment to the Agriculture Bill, it’s up to us to leave our MPs in no doubt about our wishes.
And we have power as consumers. If those of us who are able to can make the effort to seek out the least damaging foods, that will send a clear message to retail and agriculture – and ultimately government. And our bodies and the planet will reap the rewards.
Whatever trade deals we strike, there is still the overriding question of conserving our planet. Agriculture of its essence profoundly affects the environment. Pesticides reduce biodiversity. They are thought to be a major factor in the steep decline in insects – which pollinate many of our crops, and provide food for our birds. Ploughing contributes to climate change by releasing CO2 from the soil, and allows precious topsoil to be washed or blown away, much of which ends up in the oceans. Rearing cattle and sheep releases CO2 and methane – both greenhouse gases. The ongoing felling of rainforest to grow cattle feed destroys habitat and biodiversity, causes immense suffering to the people whose home it is, and the carbon previously locked up in the trees is released, accelerating dangerous climate change.
So the agricultural practice of our trading partners is important not only for our immediate health but for the long term health of the planet.