The agriculture bill, passed by the Commons last week, shows the government’s intention to lower standards across the board. The bill was an opportunity to improve food and animal welfare standards while tackling the climate crisis – but the government wasted that opportunity.
In my own constituency of Edmonton, the dairy sector is a key employer. Arla, a dairy cooperative owned by over 9,900 farmers, employs hundreds of my constituents at their Oakthorpe site and they work tirelessly to improve and protect our environment. My constituents who work in food produce, and those who rely on the sector, have expressed deep regret at the passing of the legislation. They are clear: the bill will weaken food standards in the future.
In recent months, it has become apparent that this government is desperate to strike a trade deal with the US at any cost. However, we must not allow any trade deal to undercut our existing food and animal welfare standards. Our farmers cannot survive if they are undercut – and if that were to happen, it would be the consumers who suffer as a result. There is significant uneasiness coming from the National Farmers Union and other experts in the field who warn of a huge risk to UK farming standards from imported food produced at a lower standard.
The government should have used the agriculture bill as an opportunity to protect farmers from being undercut, ensuring that all imported produce meets UK standards in law. But the government did not take that opportunity, because doing so would put a trade deal with the US at risk. We clearly face a much greater fight as and when the details of any such deal become public.
We also need to pay proper recognition to the fact that the UK imports 50% of its food from overseas. Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of the UK food supply line. We must never again go back to the scenes in February of empty shelves in our supermarkets, and the public must be reassured that we have put empty shelves behind us.
Moving forward, we should take a leading role on the global stage to promote sustainability and resilience of the overseas supply chain. The welfare of UK farmers and the pursuit of an international approach to UK food security is interconnected and must be driven by the values of fairness and sustainability. As the climate crisis grows, the importance of global cooperation on this issue will only increase.
The bill should have ushered in modernisation of our agricultural sector for the better. But the legislation will be remembered as failing on the environment, on animal welfare and on food standards. It is our job to meet the challenges we face now, so that our children’s children will not face the same challenges in the future. Instead, we saw the mask slip and the government’s vision for a post-Brexit Britain in greater clarity: lower regulations; lower standards; workers and employers at the mercy of the global ‘free market’. A race to the bottom with the only winners being big business. I do not share that vision of this country, and we must fight it every step of the way.