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Is Covid going to be the moment the world strengthens the institutions of a healthier model of economic growth and a more resilient model of globalisation, to deepen the trade ties that bind us?
Or is this the moment the protectionist tendencies triumph as the USA, China and Europe turn in on themselves in a new world order of economic nationalism by trading bloc?
On climate change will Covid be the moment we abandon decarbonisation as a luxury we can’t afford as we fire up the global economy one (dirty) engine at a time? Or the moment we embrace healthier growth, cleaner air and cities, fewer cheap flights and redouble our commitment to green growth?
On trade, are we going to seek to remain in the European trade zone, or orientate our economy towards the USA, or towards the fastest emerging markets in Asia and Africa?
The answer to these questions will shape our nation for the next few decades as surely as membership of the common market did from the 1970s to now.
Nowhere will the answer be more felt than in UK food, farming and countryside.
Will we decide to make leaving the EU a moment to open the doors to cheap imports of food - American and Asian factory-farmed poultry, pork and beef and midwest grain - against which UK farming with its world- leading animal welfare and environmental standards cannot possibly compete?
Or will we stand by our UK food and farming sector?
The agriculture and trade bills currently being scrutinised in parliament, and the ongoing trade negotiations with the United States, will decide.
In the Conservative manifesto we promised we would not water down any of the existing food safety, farm animal welfare and environmental standards. Ministers repeat that assurance. But we know that the Americans put “liberalisation” of agriculture and food top of their list of negotiating red lines.
UK ministers must make clear we will not accept lowering our food standards.
Trade ministers are currently saying:
- The adoption of EU standards into UK law on Brexit day fulfils the manifesto commitment
- We cannot bind the hands of negotiators.
- WTO rules do not allow the imposition of any welfare standards.
- There’s nothing wrong with allowing in cheap food produced below our standards, as we already do.
- Don’t forget that a US trade deal will not just allow cheap American food into the UK it will also allow premium UK food into the US.
Given that ministers are also seeking Henry VIII powers to allow them to change trade rules and food standards by statutory instrument (a mechanism for processing minor technical regulatory details which avoids a vote of the whole House), and resisting calls for scrutiny and accountability of the trade negotiations to parliament, we are in danger of giving the green light to exactly what the US department of trade - and ultra-free market Brexiteers - have long wanted: an abandonment of EU “red tape” (farm welfare and food standards) and an open-door for cheap imports.
If that is allowed to happen it would mean the equivalent to UK farming of the closure of our shipbuilding and steel industry in the 1980s. Without huge EU like subsidies which we are rightly getting away from, all but the biggest and most exclusive premium farm and food operations would go bust. I don’t share the National Farmers Union’s warnings of tumbleweed prairies. Farms in the countryside would be snapped up by the global jet-set looking for safe-haven investment and private rural playgrounds.
But another great UK industry would be thrown away. World leading UK expertise and commercial muscle in agronomy, food standards, sustainable food production, Agritech, nutraceuticals and plant and animal breeding would be thrown away. For the short term “kick” of cheap food.
Just as the world market for agricultural innovation, technology and low input high productivity “smart farming” is set to be worth billions, are we seriously going to throw it away to give Donald Trump the prize for which American trade negotiators have always yearned?
Just when we should be embracing Covid as a moment for a more resilient and sustainable model of growth we would be doing the opposite.
That’s why I’m working with a group of fellow Conservative backbench MPs to help ministers ensure we protect our food and farm welfare standards. We are urging the PM to recognise the strength of feeling (one million people have now signed the food standards petition) and do the right thing:
- Make absolutely clear that we will not negotiate away any existing UK animal welfare and food standards in trade negotiations.
- Agree to the proposed commission on food and farm standards to provide transparency and scrutiny.
- Agree to either clear red lines in the US trade negotiations (why not put them in law so the US can see it’s for real) or basic parliamentary scrutiny and accountability in the negotiation of our trade deals.
- Introduce a single clear food labelling system for consumers which ensures all produce has to show country of origin and an indicator of conformity to UK production standards.
It’s not just food standards on the line.
This debate goes back to what sort of country we want to be in the new post-Brexit, post-Covid world? Our vision, values and ambition.
Does ‘global Britain’ mean maintaining our high standards and leadership on the environment, animal welfare, food standards, resilience and sustainability? Or does global Britain mean cheap Britain - cutting corners, lowering standards and abandoning our own farming industry by importing the cheapest food from around the world? From Wisconsin to Wuhan.
It doesn’t have to be a choice between trade or standards. We have a golden opportunity to turn this round and use our trade leverage to drive better trade. Fair trade instead of free trade. If we insist on higher standards for US imports - what about putting tariffs on low-welfare goods? - we could help drive up standards in the US. By dropping 40% EU tariffs on exports from developing countries we could help them switch from aid to trade.
This isn’t a Remainer plot to frustrate Brexit. Brexit was sold as a moment to “take back control” and embrace a great new age of global Britain trading with the fastest growing economies beyond the EU. Yes I voted Remain because I was worried about precisely this food issue and the impact on my constituents.
Mid Norfolk is the number one constituency for poultry and number three for pigs. Food processing is our largest employer and prosperity generator. The majority of the 62% of my pro-Brexit constituents are 100% opposed to selling out UK farming on the altar of cheap foreign food imports. Cheap food isn’t a solace if you’ve lost your job.
I backed Boris Johnson and Michael Gove because they made very clear we would defy the accusation of a ‘cheap Brexit’ and instead make this a moment to redouble our leadership in green growth, international development, workers rights, food standards and clean green UK agritech. They were right.
So let’s not pander to the grizzled US cheap food lobby with its hormone beef, chlorinated chicken and “finger-lick’n” cheap food culture, and the implications for the health of our food and our population. We need to be promoting healthy eating of fresh UK produce. Not global junk food.
Let’s fly the flag for British standards - from Scotch salmon to Belfast bacon, Welsh cheese, Cornish pasties, Norfolk crab - all showcased in the global culinary melting pot of our burgeoning London and metropolitan food culture.
To those like Dominic Lawson (who also opposes action on climate change) who claim that defending UK farm animal welfare and food standards is “protectionist” by artificially supporting weak and uncompetitive producers, I say that protecting consumers and animal welfare standards isn’t weak. Markets are about values. Market economies work in a framework of regulation. Good regulation drives good markets and innovation. The “protectionists” here are the US industrial farm lobby protecting their profits over our standards.
The post-Covid recovery is no time to abandon our domestic food and farming sector. As we look to repair the damage from exposure to Wuhan’s wet markets and establish greater resilience in our national supply chains, we need our farmers and fresh food supply more than ever.
George Freeman MP is former life sciences minister, No.10 policy board chair, UK trade envoy and founded of The Big Tent Ideas Festival.