The food standards debate has shown this Government must be closely watched if we are to protect our farming industry, says Leicestershire arable and beef farmer Joe Stanley.
So, in the end, Government blinked.
It wasn’t a very big blink, it must be said. Blink, indeed, and you might have missed it.
But, nevertheless, at the eleventh hour (plus fifty-nine minutes and fifty nine seconds), Ministers finally conceded – mere days before the final Commons vote on the Agriculture Bill – to placing the Trade and Agriculture Committee (TAC) on a statutory footing, giving it a formal role in advising Parliament on every future trade deal and its repercussions for British food and farming.
This positive development is as welcome as it is overdue, but falls far short of ensuring that our world-leading standards of food production will not be undercut by food it would be illegal to produce here.
After years of bruising campaigning by industry – beginning with coy suggestions passed round on folded pieces of paper at the back of class, progressing through passive-aggressive notes left on the shared house fridge and ending in a manifesto written IN CAPS being nailed onto Defra’s front door – we have secured an important victory, yes – but only in one battle of what will surely be a long and hard fought campaign stretching years into the future.
The whole food standards imbroglio has at least demonstrated two things.
Firstly, that this Conservative government must in future be watched with the steely concentration of a farmer awaiting the opening of the free bacon bap stand at Cereals.
After the last few months and years, there is frankly no trust in the intentions of those in Whitehall towards our industry after the unedifying spectacle of seeing them dragged kicking and screaming to this modest compromise, while Government MPs in the shires (with a few notable exceptions) lifted not a finger in our hour of greatest need.
Secondly – and more upliftingly – the people are on our side.
In recent months the NFU mobilised an unprecedented coalition of farming groups, environmental NGOs, animal welfare charities, consumer groups and media outlets (from the Guardian to the Mail on Sunday) who, galvanised by celebrity endorsements, roused the British public from their peri-Brexit somnolence to demand that their food dignity was not degraded by a political class so consumed by its own careerism that it thought it could inflict the dregs of the global food system on its own people and experience no pushback.
More than one million people signed the NFU’s food standards petition. Tens of thousands of emails were sent by ordinary people to their MPs.
‘Hormone beef’ and ‘chlorinated chicken’ have become popularly unpopular in the same vein as ‘Covid-19’ or ‘Prince Andrew’.
Food is the most intimate of commodities; we all eat three meals a day, and nobody wants to feel that they aren’t worth the best.
And the best is British farmers’ stock in trade; our bog standard is the global gold standard.
We have an amazing product. We work against an incredible backdrop.
We are an industry bursting with passion and ideas and solutions to the great challenges of our time – climate change and sustainably feeding 9bn by 2050.
Agriculture is the biggest job on earth.
That’s the sort of PR money can’t buy, and in a political landscape of false hope and false promises, at least one genuine ‘Brexit dividend’ – accentuated by Covid – is that people are engaged like never before in the provenance and the quality of their food.
Indeed, as reported by Farmers Guardian in recent weeks, 63 per cent of shoppers are buying more British food than in 2019, with a quarter now frequenting local and farm shops.
It’s our responsibility to ourselves and to future generations of farmers to capitalise on this moment and to continue to tell the story of why people should back British farming; to become our own best advocates and strive to engage with our customers.
We need to continue to demonstrate why we are indispensable to the wellbeing of the nation, and make sure that through the voting public our politicians are unable to forget it.
Finally, special mention must go to NFU president Minette Batters.
Although it was the work of many hands to finally bring Government to the table, her personal leadership and interventions with Ministers – most recently the Prime Minister himself – undoubtedly tipped the balance.
They say we get the leaders we deserve.
At least British farmers are currently in luck, if not the country at large.
Joe can be found tweeting at @JoeWStanley