Ahead of the Commons debate on Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill this week, Ben Lake, Ceredigion MP and Plaid Cymru’s agriculture spokesman in Westminster, warns protecting food standards today is about building a better rural economy for tomorrow.
Today Westminster has a second chance to put in place a vision for post-EU UK agriculture that is underpinned by value rather than convenience.
Protecting food standards and ensuring equal representation for all four nations at the negotiating table are vital steps in securing the political, public, and industry confidence necessary to build a stronger UK agricultural sector and rural economy tomorrow.
While devolved, Welsh agriculture’s future is very much being decided by Westminster’s politicians as they consider amendments to the Agriculture Bill.
These include introducing welcome oversight into trade negotiations by establishing the permanency of the Trade and Agricultural Commission, maintaining a level playing field between domestic producers and imports, as well as a greater role for the devolved nations in deciding common agricultural frameworks.
Agriculture was always going to be a political flashpoint, intersecting the tensions within the union over devolution and issues including environmental sustainability, financial support and priority within trade negotiations.
Yet the deliberations in Westminster have not only done a disservice to food producers, but have also distracted from the long overdue public debate about the future of our agriculture.
Firstly, it seems that we have barely learnt from the warning signs of empty shelves in the early months of Covid-19.
Provisions in the Bill surrounding food security frankly fail to address the scale of the challenge of fixing decades of UK government outsourcing food security to supermarkets.
This has left a legacy of depressed incomes for our primary producers, which in turn has impacted on domestic productivity, and the resilience of our food system.
Equally, our exit from the EU has given a rude awakening to Conservative politicians over their responsibilities to UK farmers.
We now have the responsibility of protecting our food standards, producers, and consumers when negotiating trade agreements with other nations, as well as providing significant support to UK food producers, including financial support where necessary, securing market access and a ready supply of labour.
It is not an easy balance to strike, but it is nevertheless crucial to do so.
The Agriculture Bill is therefore a significant opportunity for all four nations to decide common frameworks and move forward together.
This would not only best utilise devolved government’s experience and reflect their economic interests, but also reflect the regionalised nature of UK agriculture.
Sadly, it seems that opportunity is being missed, as we see politics trumping good governance.
The growing libertarian influence on the UK’s pursuit of trade deals should concern MPs from all political parties, not least for the way in which it risks trivialising farmers’ interests.
The real danger inherent in the current UK approach to trade deals has often been overlooked.
The Government is correct to state that domestic standards of food production will not be lowered deliberately by the Agriculture Bill, but it has not explained how it will approach the sensitive matter of agricultural standards in trade negotiations, and in particular how it will reconcile different production standards.
Against such a confused backdrop, the Agriculture Bill’s failure to require agricultural imports to meet equivalent domestic standards is a serious failure: it fails to ensure a level playing field between domestic production and imports, which in turn could undermine the viability of so many of our producers.
It is disappointing to see critics from certain quarters reducing food producers’ concerns over food standards to one of proto protectionism.
Our hard-working farmers are standard bearers for high quality and sustainable production, and accusations of protectionism fail to recognise the vital role high standards play in underpinning the relationship between UK consumers and food producers.
The strength of that argument is clearly demonstrated in the way in which Wales has long managed to punch above its weight in the international market due to its emphasis on quality and value, and boasts 16 different products enjoying European Protected Food Name status.
This has helped Wales export £539 million of food and drink in 2018 alone, while the wider food and drinks industry generated £7.4 billion in turnover.
The focus on standards is both a reflection of the skill of Welsh food producers but is also existential.
Our family farms simply cannot compete with large industrial farms such as those found in the United States.
This is why we need to reset the narrative about food standards as not only good for consumers but as essential for our farmers to preserve their status as producers of high-quality value.
These standards are vital to securing future growth and earnings for our producers, better food for our tables, and a more sustainable countryside for all.
There are undoubtedly wider reforms that must be undertaken to support our farmers, especially after the 2021 Senedd elections.
In the meantime, Plaid Cymru has and will continue to put forward a positive vision for our food producers based on a greater say for our devolved governments and the protection of food standards.
This is not because we not only believe them necessary now, but because they are fundamental to our collective tomorrow.
Ben can be found tweeting at @BenMLake