The invisible hand of the market won’t protect our food or fields | Sue Pritchard
In a world of polarised debates, there is a broad, non-partisan consensus on the issue of trade and standards. So it was disappointing – even if predictable – that the government whipped against amendments to protect UK food standards in the agriculture bill, which returned to the House of Commons this week. The key amendment was defeated last night by 332 votes to 279. Curiously, many Tory shire MPs voted against the expressed concerns of their farming constituencies, while Ed Davey and Keir Starmer donned their wellies and backed British farming. Farming minister Victoria Prentis argued that the amendments were not needed, since the government had already promised to uphold UK standards in future trade deals.
Although they lost the Commons vote, credit should go to the combined efforts of the campaigning organisations – from the National Farmers’ Union, CLA and Tenant Farmers Association, to Green Alliance, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Which?, Sustain, WWF and many more – that have shifted farming standards and trade debates to the front pages of the tabloids. Leavers and remainers have come together, with Prue Leith supporting Jamie Oliver’s spirited #saveourstandards campaign, connecting children’s health and the future of small farmers. Campaigners have focused on chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-fed beef or ractopamine-dosed pigs, all features of US industrial production systems that we know are bad for people and planet. But it goes much further than this.
Let’s be clear: trade is a good thing. It gives us choices and flexibility. It builds reciprocal relationships between countries, for a more stable and secure world. We can import what we don’t produce at home; countries can specialise in those things that grow better in their climate or conditions; and we can offset risk, if our own production fails – a point relevant for UK wheat markets, after floods and droughts over the last 12 months affected our own production. But it also has downsides. The kind of buccaneering free trade anticipated by the likes of Liz Truss is about handing over more power to the markets to drive down costs, producing cheaper goods and a greater range of options. This might be great for certain businesses and those that invest in them. But when the cost of production falls too low, someone, somewhere, pays.
Some of the most talked-about television programmes in the last few years have been those that reveal to us the true cost of the way our global economy works. When David Attenborough shows us the heart-wrenching images of fields of plastic waste suffocating turtle breeding grounds, orangutans fending off bulldozers as their rainforest homes are destroyed for palm oil production, live pigs bulldozed into burial pits because disease has swept through their intensive housing, and people with chronic diet-related health conditions dying because of coronavirus, we see the results of markets that have prioritised profit over the health of people and the planet – and the trading environment that enables this to happen.
Declining to write UK standards into legislation assumes that we can always rely on markets to do the right thing. And the evidence suggests that this is too big a risk to take. When MPs argued last night that upholding standards is likely to damage the interests of developing countries, just whose interests are they protecting? The global farmers movement La Via Campesina is clear that it is not the interests of small farmers, who see their land and their livelihoods taken over by global businesses, exploiting cheaper labour and lax protections.
When government policies enable intensive, industrialised agricultural systems, it has serious impacts on UK farmers, driving them in a direction of travel that puts ever greater pressure on the environment and the land they farm. The agriculture bill should be about creating the conditions to deliver a compelling vision for the future of British farming – farming for the climate, nature and health. Farmers want to be a force for change, but without the right legislative levers to help them make the transition, and to prioritise sustainable farming systems, they have to take their chances in the marketplace – or leave farming to big global agri-businesses.
Most businesses want a level playing field of globally agreed, simple and rising standards that helps them play their part in tackling the climate and nature crisis. What do British citizens want? The Climate Assembly report published last month demonstrated that – with the right information and evidence – citizens want a fair, transparent and sustainable food system. The public consistently say they do not want to compromise on food standards – they are outraged that poor and vulnerable people are most at risk of diet-related illnesses, and the most unhealthy and ultra-processed foods, made from cheap commodities, are promoted most aggressively. Proposals to improve labelling alone will not do. Governments must put legislation in place to uphold safe and secure standards, to act on the climate and nature crisis and improve public health and wellbeing.
Upholding and raising standards in the UK helps raise standards around the world. Enshrining food and welfare standards in law would be a powerful way to position the UK globally, but we need to go further. Decisions we make about trade help us define who we are as a nation and strengthen our mandate for global leadership on climate, nature, and a sustainable future for all. We are in a strong position, as we head towards COP26, to push for bolder international commitments for climate and nature. Establishing our commitments in our trade agreements would be a powerful act of leadership on the world stage.
o Sue Pritchard is chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission