Refusing to extend the deadline for EU trade talks will weaken the UK’s position and play straight into the hands of the US and others, says Dr Nick Fenwick, FUW head of policy.
In late February, a leaked email written by UK Treasury adviser Dr Tim Leunig claiming the UK could follow the example of Singapore ’which is rich without having its own agricultural sector’ caused outrage in the media and farming circles.
Within a few weeks, UK consumers had their first real experience of food shortages and empty shelves since World War II.
By the beginning of April, Singapore had announced new measures to accelerate local food production as disruption of global food supply chains started to hit home – including plans to grow food on the rooftops of public housing estates, with officials telling the press that ‘the current Covid-19 situation underscores the importance of local food production, as part of Singapore’s strategies to ensure food security’.
It was therefore no surprise to hear the importance of food security referred to repeatedly during the third reading of the Agriculture Bill in Parliament on Wednesday May 13 – the first such reading to be carried out under Parliament’s new ‘hybrid’ proceedings and electronic voting process.
The Bill is, of course, a direct outcome of the Brexit process and our transition out of the Common Agricultural Policy – something Farming Minister Victoria Prentis made clear during the reading, while also criticising the CAP for holding back our agricultural productivity.
No clarification was given as to why agricultural productivity had grown in France and Germany by more than double the rate in the UK since 1990, or why figures for other countries operating under the same CAP framework also left us well behind.
Given the huge range of options in the CAP toolbox not utilised in the UK, particularly under rural development legislation, if this is a case of poor craftsmen blaming their tools then the key role of the Agriculture Bill in opening the door to payments based solely on ‘public goods’ hardly bodes well, as it implies the further decoupling of support from food production, active farming and the family farms that have been shown to be central to our country’s food security in recent weeks.
A clear way in which to avoid this, as hinted at by some during the reading, is to expand the current two-dimensional, academic definition of public goods into a third dimension which includes what is considered to be good for the public and our nations’ wellbeing.
With food security now more in the limelight than ever, it was not surprising to hear Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard describing the Bill as an ‘odd beast’ given it ‘nearly entirely omits food, and therefore doesn’t even begin to solve all the problems that the virus has both caused, and revealed’.
With food safety and standards also central to our wellbeing, the issue which attracted most attention from MPs was the Bill’s failure to protect UK consumers and farmers from post-EU withdrawal trade deals which allow food to be imported from countries with animal welfare, environmental and other production standards that would not be legal in the UK.
An amendment correcting this position received cross-party support, with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chair Neil Parish MP passionately making the case while claiming arguments against its inclusion were an attempt to lead MPs ‘down the garden path’.
The UK is set to complete its exit from the EU in a little over seven months, by which time it’s predicted that the pandemic will have caused the biggest recession seen since at least the Second World War.
With every credible analysis – including the Government’s own – predicting harder forms of Brexit will cause significant additional damage to the economy, and the loss of continental markets caused by lockdowns having brought a modest taste of what a hard Brexit might entail for farmers, the UK Government’s rhetoric around sticking to the December 2020 withdrawal date and being prepared to walk away without an EU trade deal is extremely alarming, not only for agriculture but also a host of other UK industries – many of which are already holding on by the skin of their teeth.
Meanwhile, trade negotiations with the US have just started, with more with other nations and trading blocs in the pipeline, and playing hardball in negotiations with the EU and refusing to consider an emergency extension will weaken our hand and play straight into the hands of the US and others.
With a majority of MPs having ultimately voted on Wednesday to oppose amendments that would have protected farmers and consumers from trade deals allowing foreign sub-standard products onto our markets, our agriculture sector and food security are now open to additional post-Brexit dangers at a time when the population has just woken up to the dangers of food shortages.