Our food and farmers are the best in the world. We must keep it that way.

Quality food should be kept on the dinner table...and off the negotiating table

Antoinette Sandbach argues that quality food should be kept on the dinner table and off the negotiating table.

Some of the key workers who have been vital during the COVID lockdown have been our farmers.  When supermarket shelves were cleared the importance of British food and local supply chains was clear to all of us as we went into lockdown. 

Many of those farmers who supply food to the hospitality and wholesale sector have been badly hit by lockdown but have pulled together with retailers to ensure that local communities have access to the food they need. 

Despite this huge effort, British farms are under threat both from future trade deals and a potential no deal scenario with the EU.

And this will not only affect farmers.  Our high food and animal welfare standards will also be undermined.

Consumer organisation “Which”, celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson and over a million members of the public have united, together with the NFU*, to support calls to protect high welfare and food safety standards practised by UK farmers. 

But, why does this issue matter so much to the public?  Dr Nick Palmer Head of Compassion in World Farming highlighted the importance of protecting our welfare and food safety standards. Writing recently for the Country Landowners Association he said:

Many countries simply have very little farm animal welfare legislation at all.  The United States has no federal legislation for their welfare whatsoever and slaughter practices which are legal in many countries are regarded as inhumane or even illegal in Britain… Britain has some of the highest animal welfare standards, making it impossible to compete on price with imports of food produced to lower standards.  British farming will always lose in a race to the bottom.  We cannot compete with the lowest standards in the world.” 

Farmers know this is true.  A few days ago, the Daily Mail reported on an Iowa food producer steaming pigs to death involving unimaginable suffering for those animals. **

Some people say “we don’t have to buy it”.  But this ignores the fact that much British produce is used in processed food.  It isn’t easily identified in the chicken and mushroom pie you might buy for lunch from a retailer.  When you buy a pizza from a takeaway the box doesn’t tell you whether the cheese used in the topping was made in the UK or elsewhere. 

A parent doing the shopping with children rarely has time to read the label in detail and will often make a decision on price.  That is why it is so important to legislate to make sure our high standards cannot be undercut by other countries not operating to our high standards.

Future trade deals or a “no deal” with the EU not only risk our welfare and food standards.  They mean tariffs on areas not covered by a trade deal, customs checks and countless other new issues facing a farming industry for which the EU represents 60% of its exports. 

I live in rural area that produces huge amounts of milk that we not only drink, but which goes into some of our award-winning British cheeses and yoghurt.  Under WTO rules, the average EU tariff on dairy products is over 30%.  Tariffs could be as high as 87% for frozen beef.  We also could face a tariff of 46% for cheese or 21% for tomatoes. 

These are not isolated cases, but the prevailing reality of trying to export food to the rest of the world under WTO rules or an Australian-style trade deal.

The agricultural sector is worth £112bn to the economy and employs over 3.8 million people.  If tariffs are imposed it will cost consumers billions of pounds and decimate employment in the sector.

Because trade in food is not an issue that will only hit farmers.  Those tariffs on our food going to the continent will also be levied on goods entering the UK from the EU.  As the UK only produces 60% of the food we eat, that means higher prices for all of us. 

If the Government reduces those WTO tariffs, they have to be reduced for all countries not just the EU.  Then the low welfare food will come into the UK at a level UK farmers can’t compete with.

I’ll be frank. Many farmers are really worried. Scared for their businesses, for their employees and their livelihoods, but also scared for the country.  Farmers take pride in being the producers of Britain, providing much of the food has sustained us during the Covid pandemic.

Government MPs who represent rural constituencies, and whose constituents livelihoods are rooted in farming, still walked through the lobbies in obedience to the whips, who tell party MPs how to vote, rather than legislating to ensure our standards are protected. 

If our standards are not guaranteed by putting in legal protections to ban our trade negotiators from negotiating them away, they can negotiate them away.

The way Trade deals are approved by Parliament means Parliament can only reject the whole deal and does not have the powers to amend the treaty signed by Government and a foreign state.  The only way of guaranteeing those standards is to pass a protection in law to prevent this Government, and any future Government, from agreeing to a treaty which undermines them. 

During the passage of the trade bill in the 2017-19, I was one of the MPs seeking to protect those standards.  We were told by the Conservative Government that amendments protecting our welfare standards were not allowed to the Trade Bill – and should instead be introduced in the Agriculture Bill.  Now the Conservative Government says those protections should be in the Trade Bill and claims they shouldn’t be in the Agriculture Bill. 

No wonder people are losing trust in Government. 

We were promised that as the UK Parliament took back control, we could make our own legislation.  But MPs now claim protecting our standards in laws we pass would be “unenforceable”, which is very strange as the EU is able to enforce its animal welfare and food safety standards!

Ministers talk much about the opportunities for a new approach to farming but are not open about the risks to a great British farming sector and our standards.  The UK Government had an opportunity to legislate to ensure our negotiators cannot negotiate away our standards and to put their manifesto promises into binding legal commitments.  They ducked it – and refused to.  We need to hold them to their promise.

If we cannot agree a future trade deal on agriculture with the EU, WTO rules do not provide the protections on standards.  Generations of work will go up in flames for farmers across the UK.  All of us, who buy food, will be the poorer for it. 

This is a call to action for all of us who care about our high welfare standards please, get involved and back British farming welfare standards.

Put pressure on your MP to stand up and vote, in our agriculture and trade bills, for legal protections for our food and welfare standards that will prevent any future agreements undermining those standards. 

Join this campaign – write to your MP. We have now taken control of our own legislation and MPs need to show they will care more about protecting British standards and producers than sacrificing them to foreign producers.   

Antoinette Sandbach, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary spokesman for Eddisbury, comes from a farming background and is a former Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs in Wales and the MP for Eddisbury from 2015-2019.

* NFU petition on food standards can be found here https://www.campaigns.nfuonline.com/page/56262/petition/1?locale=en-GB