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Farming Matters - Tim Lang: 'Food matters have been left hanging in the balance'

As we watch the Conservative Party choose our next Prime Minister, food matters hang in the balance, writes Tim Lang.

First is the Agriculture Bill, which is currently stuck somewhere in Parliamentary processes. MPs tell me they have never known a Parliament which does less.

 

MPs work hard and long hours, but now everything is frozen by Brexit and all ground to a halt when Theresa May failed to get her deal approved.

 

Now she has gone, but Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s Agriculture Bill is held up too. This is an ambitious Bill intending to turn farming, but not food policy, upside down.

 

Since the 1947 Agriculture Act, British farmers have been asked and were subsidised to produce more food.

 

Joining the EU changed the mechanisms, but not the policy goal.

 

Now, if Mr Gove’s Bill goes through, the productionist era of subsidies for food is over.

 

EU Common Agricultural Policy payments for land (Pillar 1) will be replaced by what Mr Gove and Prof Dieter Helm, the architect, call ‘public payment for public goods’.

 

Environmental land management is to be the new ‘good’, not food. So far, I have not heard anyone in the Conservative leadership stakes talk much about food. This is risky.

 

I have spent my working life encouraging us to see food and farming as an environmental concern, but to abandon food seems dangerous. We already see President Trump’s willingness to use trade to bludgeon supposed allies.

 

Why would he not do the same to the UK?


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Secondly, food security matters deserve more attention. Food is the coming crisis.

 

To his credit, Mr Gove recognised his environmental focus was shortsighted when criticised in 2018.

 

He asked Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of organic fast food chain Leon, to step into the policy breach, as he had done for Mr Gove when at the Department for Education over school food.

 

Challenge

 

On that, Mr Dimbleby did a decent job, and he has begun to think strategically and sensibly about the enormity of Britain’s food challenge.

 

Insiders tell me that a few months ago, if Mr Gove were to leave Defra, the Dimbleby English Food Strategy process would have died too.

 

Now, it is said to be more hardwired in Defra, but a new Secretary of State might put it on ice. Mr Dimbleby, to his credit, told our City Food Symposium in April that whether official or not, the process of food strategy review would have to continue.

 

He is right in theory, but would it have leverage if outside Whitehall? Thirdly, there is the issue of whom the UK sees as its food allies. Some in the Tory Party leadership (Labour’s too) talk of Europe as the enemy.

 

They re-run World War Two as though the EU was not a peace project born, and supported by Churchill no less, to prevent future European conflict.

 

Once the rhetoric of Little Britain is let loose, it is hard to rein back. Globally, most food which is traded is between near neighbours.

 

But when you sever ties, you lose goodwill. Where is the goodwill now?

 

Fourthly, there is the issue of public food standards. Switching from EU-derived food and food standards to global sourcing may sound good to people stuck in EU hatred mode, but consumers are waking up to chlorinated chicken as a symbol of quality control.

 

Who wants worse meat, even if it is cheap?

 

Recently, the National Audit Office reported a drastic cut in English local authority and Food Standards Agency hygiene staffing. The public now realises cheap US or Brazilian chicken might not be ‘taking back control’.

 

We should think food when we choose a Prime Minister.

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