Last night the Lords’ agriculture bill amendment was defeated. The govt denies a food future of chlorinated chickens – but can we be sure? Landworker editor Amanda Campbell investigates
What is more important than the safety of the food we put into our mouths each day? UK farming is renowned for its stringent standards, but now, with yesterday’s (October 12) passing of the Agriculture Bill, how sure can we of the quality of the food we eat?
The bill – designed to prepare the industry for when the UK is no longer subject to EU laws – returned to the Commons yesterday (October 12) following amendments by the House of Lords.
But sadly the UK has taken, what many groups including Unite believe to be, a backward step with the MPs rejecting campaigners’ attempts to require imported food meets domestic legal standards from January 1.
Farmers and campaigners staged an eleventh hour attempt to get food safety and animal welfare standards enshrined in UK law after Brexit – as the agriculture bill returned this week for debate and a series of votes in both houses of parliament.
Yesterday, armed with placards and tractors, the campaigners from Save British Farming set off from New Covent Garden, headed up to Defra (department for environment, food and rural affairs) and then on to Parliament Square – determined to change the government’s adamant opposition to legislating for a continuation of the high standards required under EU law.
Thousands of people had signed online petitions and wrote to their MPs over the weekend, as green campaigners and farmers’ groups raised awareness of the issue. The National Farmers’ Union gathered over 1m signatures including that of chef Jamie Oliver.
Farmers fear that allowing food to be imported that does not meet the UK’s current safety and animal welfare standards will open the country up to inhumane and unsafe imports, and undermine domestic production.
They remain unconvinced by assurances that ministers will uphold standards post-Brexit without a legally binding commitment.
In the Lords peers had made a number of changes to the Bill, including one which would give MPs a veto over sections in trade deals relating to food imports, which would be required to comply with “relevant domestic standards.”
And in the Commons debate Labour called on ministers to put a “guarantee in law” that food standards will not be lowered as a result of trade deals being sought with countries such as the US and Australia.
Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said that it would be “absurd” if the Tory government voted against its own manifesto pledge to protect food standards.
“There’s still a serious threat that they will drop that promise to get the trade deals they’re so desperate to secure with Donald Trump and others,” Pollard warned.
But the voice of reason held little sway in the House last night. Despite the campaign and the significant minority against lowering of standards, MPs voted by 332 votes to 279 – a majority of 53 – to back government plans to reject the amendment that would force trade deals to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules.
Should we be worried?
Should we be worried? Not according to farming minister Victoria Prentis who said the government was “absolutely committed to high standards”.
She said that existing laws would safeguard us, adding that these were “of more use than warm words” in maintaining animal welfare, food standards and environmental protections. EU rules banning imports of chlorine-washed chicken and other products will be automatically written into UK law once the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The government argued these changes were necessary to make it impossible for the US or other countries to export so-called chlorinated chicken or beef fattened with hormones.
Yet campaigners still remain unconvinced and fear the UK could be forced to accept lower standards to secure a future US trade deal. The Future British Standards Coalition published a report yesterday (October 12) showing that trade bills were possible even if the UK was to mandate higher standards in domestic law. The FBSC is concerned that current provisions in the agriculture bill have loopholes that would allow standards to be weakened without consultation.
A government spokesperson said, “This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, and claims to the contrary are unhelpful scaremongering. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.
“Chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition period. The government is focused on getting trade deals that protect and advance the interests of our farmers and consumers. If a deal isn’t the right one, we will walk away.”
But according to the Guardian the government believes that enshrining a commitment to EU or equivalent standards in the agriculture bill would tie the hands of negotiators seeking a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, which wants its agricultural producers to have full access to the UK market.
‘We absolutely will not agree’
Sonny Perdue, the US agriculture secretary, said last week, “We absolutely will not agree to policies that restrict our methods of production to any other standards outside of this country [the US].
“While we will absolutely accede to international standards of health and safety which we believe to very measurable and objective, we do not intend to abide by any types of methods of production based on perception or anything else that’s not scientific.”
Unite national officer for agriculture Bev Clarkson said Unite agricultural and rural workers would be deeply disappointed by the Bill’s passing and the threat to food standards, safety and treatment of animals.
“This is a terrible, retrograde step for British farming,” said Clarkson.
“The UK’s high standards have long been held up as the benchmark for global food and animal welfare standards. Now we’ve seen that our suspicions were correct – the government would indeed be prepared to sacrifice these standards, built up over many decades, to achieve post-Brexit trade deals at any price.
“Our members find this outcome deeply disappointing. Now we are insistent that the government must enshrine in law these standards to ensure no watering down; and stand up to the lobby that advocates chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef entering the UK market from the US.
“Maintaining these standards would protect British farming in the future, those that work in agriculture, as well as all our produce consumers,” she concluded.
So is it ‘scaremongering’ to say no to chlorinated chicken and hormone-pumped beef? Stumbling into a post-Brexit world without guarantees enshrined in law leaves us all open to question the safety of our food. Only time will tell.
Pics by Mark Thomas
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite