In the run up to the EU Referendum one topic that should have taken centre stage but seemed to be relegated to the understudy role was food and farming. A fact noticed by others including Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University who said it had Cinderella status in a recent blog
As an ecological as well as an economic system, it deserves a special status in policy circles. For all these reasons, we need an urgent public debate about the future of food and farming in the UK because this sector – a sector that is critical to future employment, public health, ecological integrity and social justice – is currently suffering from a Cinderella status in Brexit negotiations.
Not only is the UK food and drink sector worth £100 billion, which is the UK’s largest remaining manufacturing sector, but 70% of land use in Britain is for agriculture. If there is clear strategy of how we plan to feed the nation after Brexit I can’t find it.
What is starting to emerge as we disentangle the UK from EU laws is we could see some seize this as an opportunity to weaken regulations around food and farming, which is bad news for food safety, animal welfare and keeping dairy farmers in business. According to The Telegraph farmers receive 55% of their income from Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). We’re already seeing food prices rising due to a weak pound, alongside stagnant wages. Will cheap milk and milk price wars be used once again to make up the shortfall for many consumers in their shopping basket? Dairy farmers went out of business with CAP in existence, what happens if there is no support offered by UK government after Brexit?
Large dairy farms are being paid a volume bonus, already creating an unfair advantage against smaller pasture based dairy farmers. Renewed pressure to deliver cheap milk could see even more traditional dairy farms going out of business leaving only the large intensive farms geared towards the mass production of commodity milk in business.
As we go into the General Election its worth remembering only last year The Conservatives wanted to cancel existing Animal Welfare Standards starting with poultry and put in new codes and regulations instead, to be controlled by the poultry industry. Talk about letting the fox run the hen house! Luckily due to pressure and an outcry from opposition parties and animal welfare charities DEFRA did a U-turn and scrapped the idea. But it demonstrates their thinking on animal welfare and food safety and they could be ready to instigate deregulation again with a hard Brexit if that’s what’s needed to make it easier to negotiate trade deals.
For example, a proposed trade deal between the UK and USA which has lower environment and food safety standards could be used as an excuse to ‘relax’ certain standards. Many farming practices in America are banned in the EU including beef from cattle implanted with growth hormones, chlorine-washed chicken, and unlabelled genetically modified (GM) foods. But if we’re not part of the single market and no one wants to trade with us, we might not have choice. A further list of USA practices can be found here
Just like the consequences of leaving the EU for food and farming was left off the agenda when people were asked to vote, once again food and farming isn’t playing any major part in the discussions around the Election. Theresa May wants an Election win so she can have a mandate to push through a hard Brexit. But we have no clarity on what that could mean for farmers and consumers. We need to know what DEFRA and the government plans to do to ensure we can sustainably feed ourselves in a way that doesn’t put consumers, farmers, animals, and the environment at risk.
We should be asking our local candidates what’s their thinking on food and farming and also take action and support the Sustain campaign