Brussels provided more protection for UK farmers in a world of bullying super-powers than Conservative MPs realised, says Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner.
Get it done. Oven ready. Winning slogans, but when it comes to actually getting it done, working out what the post-Brexit world is going to look like is proving much more difficult – even the chicken is proving far from oven-ready.
The Agriculture Bill is the first major piece of post-Brexit legislation, and MPs have spent two full days this week quizzing witnesses from UK farming organisations, from conservation and environmental groups, from trade unions and health and consumer experts.
And there is remarkable unanimity.
Not only that this is far from ‘oven-ready’ – even the Government is proposing a seven-year transition – but far more seriously, without explicit protections, the future for UK farmers looks bleak.
Jonnie Hall from NFU Scotland told the committee: “If we expose Scottish agriculture to cheaper imports of substandard production methods and so on, we will blow large sections of Scottish agriculture out of the water.”
And bleak not just for farmers: bleak for consumers too.
The science on the safety of different food systems is unclear and figures disputed, but Professor Bill Keevil of Southampton University explained how new research shows the traditional defence of American chlorine-washing of chicken may no longer wash – which could explain why the US reports ten times more people suffer food-borne illnesses there than in the UK.
Without guarantees against such imports, consumers will be left with potentially less-safe chicken in our shops.
And whatever the health risks, few dispute that behind the chlorine, stocking densities in America are higher and welfare standards lower, which is why imported American chicken will be cheaper and knock UK producers for six.
Government Ministers repeatedly claim they will not allow this to happen, and have said the law already provides the protection.
Step forward the lawyers.
The complex relationship between the EU Withdrawal Act and many of the pieces of legislation it brings into UK law make the situation far from clear.
Detailed advice from the House of Commons Library sought by Labour tells us it is at best opaque, and certainly open to challenge.
The simple solution is to specify it clearly in the Agriculture Bill – which is what Labour has been demanding, and the Government is so far refusing.
The new Secretary of State, George Eustice, knows all this – but Number 10 want the room to manoeuvre when it comes to trade negotiations.
For farmers, consumers and those worried about the resources being available to protect and restore our natural environment, this means months if not years of uncertainty.
For Tory backbenchers, it is all very puzzling.
This new world was all supposed to be so simple and straightforward – cast off the yoke of Brussels oppression and all would be well.
Turns out the cloak of Brussels protection may well have provided more comfort against a world of bullying super-powers than they realised.
Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner