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Is the government intent on selling UK agriculture down the proverbial creek without a paddle?
The Agriculture Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons earlier this month and now passes, unamended, to the Lords for its second reading on 10 June.
An amendment to get cast iron assurances written into the Bill that would prohibit imports of food produced to lower animal health and welfare standards than in the UK failed to win sufficient support (see p 552).
So despite continual assurances from Defra that the government will not sell out UK farming in any future trade deal, there is increasing disquiet about the reluctance to put that assurance in writing. As a result, many in the vet and farming communities are pinning their hopes on the Lords rejecting the Bill in its current form.
Among them is Jonathan Hobbs, a practising vet in Devon, who writes in this week’s letters section of his fears that, as it stands, the Bill paves the way for our supermarkets to be flooded with cheaper and inferior food products from overseas. This will undercut and wound British farming – especially the beef and sheep sectors, he says, and, it ‘whiffs somewhat of a “deal at any price”’ (see p 572).
Hobbs is in good company. The British Cattle Veterinary Association, Sheep Veterinary Society and Goat Veterinary Society have written an open letter to the Lords, urging them to reject the Bill in its current form so as to maintain the high standards of production and welfare seen in the UK.
The BVA lobbied to get the safeguard written into the Bill and supported the amendment proposed by Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. BVA president Daniella dos Santos described the defeat as a ‘bitter blow’ but the association has lined up more briefings and meetings with parliamentarians, researchers and the Department for International Trade.
Lord Trees, cross-bench peer and chief veterinary adviser to this journal, will also be making the case to persuade his fellow peers that the Bill needs amending.
The issue goes way beyond chlorinated chicken, he says. It goes to the heart of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. The major danger, he said, is that the Bill could destroy our indigenous production of red meat in favour of cheaper imported products, and the irony is that this will only lead to more environmental and welfare harms.
The worrying thing is that the Bill is making its way through parliament at the same time as there are trade negotiations, which have an agenda for widespread free trade. It is no secret that the USA would like agriculture to be part of any US-UK trade deal.
Will the UK end up paying too high a price for a trade deal?
So will the UK end up paying too high a price for a deal? This will come down to the question of who controls the destiny of our food, farming and environment. The Department for International Trade or Defra? In terms of financial clout, you can make your own assessment of that.
There is, of course, another factor that further complicates the picture – Covid-19 and its impact here on trade talks and food security. The government will be desperate to get the economy moving and employment up, and it’s possible to see how a flourishing trade deal might help that agenda hugely.
But the Covid-19 crisis has also alerted us to the fragility of some supply chains and how dependency on other nations or outside suppliers to an excessive degree may be unwise.
All things considered, the government should not expect to get an easy ride on this when the Bill returns to the Commons. Although Parish’s amendment failed, there was a significant rebellion among Tory MPs – the first since the election. MPs can expect more opposition from constituents just like Hobbs. And rightly so.
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