"They'll appease their own conscience by saying, 'well it's allowed, so it must be okay'"

The Staff Canteen

The Agriculture Bill – what does it entail, and what can be done to guarantee the interests of British farmers, suppliers and end-users?

We discussed the topic with Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processing Association; Daniel Metheringham, head of agriculture at McCain Foods; private chef. Peter Pickering; and chef owner of The Shore restaurant in Penzance, Bruce Rennie. 

What is The Agriculture Bill? 

As we set out to renegotiate all trade after leaving the European Union, Britain will, for the first time since the 1970s, be 'free' to choose its own farming practices. But the proposed bill also sets out the possibility of foreign trade deals, which could force the UK to accept the import of produce which doesn't meet the current British farming standards.

The bill attempts to reform inefficient farming practices and change how subsidies are handed out, as well as laying out a seven year revision of sustainable practices.

But for Nick, whose members at BMPA handle 90% of the pork, 80% of the beef, and 65% of the lamb in the country, the bill fell short of expectations, in that it "barely mentions" food production.

He said: "For goodness' sake, if anything we've learned during this crisis is that food sustainability is important – and I still don't think there's enough in there.

"This is the first opportunity we've had to write our own agricultural bill for forty years. And our chance to show the world that it is possible to have a sustainable, productive, competitive system.

"To my mind, that bill falls way short."

The biggest headline grabber is the fact that the Agriculture Bill would allow the import of foreign produce – namely from the US – which doesn't meet current standards.

What would the implications of a trade deal with the United States be?

1 ) No inspections

Suggested amendments to the bill, including a clause which would ban the import of substandard produce, have been ruled out by the government.

Having held discussions with parliamentarians after the bill was debated, it emerged that restrictions were curtailed by the government to avoid having to inspect practices abroad.

"I found that really worrying," Nick said. "Of course, you're going to bloody go and inspect, if you want to go and import from America."

He added: "Clearly their thinking is that they don't intend to police too much and not put too much resource into policing what comes in here."

2) No transparency

For Peter, who wrote a petition calling for food to be clearly labelled if it doesn't meet EU standards after Brexit, consumers “should have a choice to buy or not to buy these foods.”

He explained that in the US, “the average use of antibiotics per cow is ten times what it is in the UK,” in a bid to “counteract the diseases caused by growth hormones and poor hygiene.”

Since the World Health Organisation identifies antimicrobial resistance as one of the biggest threats we face, importing meat from the US could hinder efforts to reduce antibiotic use.

3) No 'level playing field' for British farmers

Last month, the government said it was considering a dual-tariff deal with the USA – which would allow the import of substandard produce, but would subject it to high import tariffs, thus protecting British farmers. But without such a deal, the market would be flooded with cheap produce, which end-users would likely buy.

"People are too willing to buy cheap produce and overlook these welfare issues – even though they know it," Bruce said.

4) Lower procurement standards

This underlies another issue – that of procurement. Without labelling, the quality of food served in schools, hospitals and prisons could deteriorate further.

Bruce said: "Everybody knows what Jamie Oliver said about school meals. When they put the meals out for tender, what they get is appalling."

Daniel agreed, and said: "Governments, schools, they do have a choice. And what choice are they going to make? Support British agriculture, or are they going to support cheap food at lower standards?"

"It's not just nefarious thinking that leads people down this route," Bruce added. "People want to make money and to do that they need to save money in other areas.

"They'll appease their own conscience by saying, 'well it's allowed, so it must be okay.’"

Do we have to accept substandard imports?

Nick Allen explained that it was almost certain that the Agriculture Bill would get through – and that a trade deal with the US would not, as it did when we were part of the EU, allow us to stop sub-standard meat from entering the country.

Because it bans the import of meat from outside of the EU, the bloc pays out compensation for lost trade. Once we're outside of the EU and offering no compensation to the US, we will be in a weaker position.

"Just saying we are going to follow the same regulations as Europe – they've then got to defend it. I don't think they fully understand what they're getting involved in," he said.

He added that this “doesn't mean that our trading standards are going to go out of the windo'.

"It just means we've got to carry over the fight somewhere else."

how to ensure that British Agriculture can thrive?

1) Back British - with labels

Especially during the pandemic, Daniel said that the British public has shown a willingness to support British agriculture – and this could be developed into a national campaign.

"It's as simple as getting behind one message, and that is 'Back British,’" he said.

As an advocate for the improvement of farming practices, he added: "we should be promoting that," and to achieve this, produce should be appropriately marked.

"I don't want to underplay that price piece – we have got to be competitive. There are points around clear labelling, understanding which companies are absolutely behind British [brand].

"That has got to be the key fundamental, and ultimately we've got to keep lobbying government in and along those lines," he said.

2) Industry-led policy

Peter, like the National Farmer's Union, believes that an independent body, consisting of experts up and down the supply chain, should be set up to deliberate on domestic farming practices and advise the government – as well as to create something to replace the Food Safety Authority, which we are leaving when we leave the EU.

"We can't have ministers deciding what our food standards should be, that needs to be taken out of their power," he said.

2) Vote with your credit card

Should they want to do their part, customers and chefs could, like Bruce, stay as close to producers as possible.

"What we need is public awareness of their own responsibilities, as people, as citizens of this great country we're trying to promote – regardless of how we voted on Brexit – the point is, we want to make our country great," he said.

"We want to make it strong, we want to have stable livelihoods and a decent quality of life."

Nick added: "In an ideal world, what we want is the British consumer, prepared and wanting to pay more for British produce."

An item to which supermarkets will play a key role: "They can be the most demanding of the lot when it comes to welfare standards if that pressure is there.

"Will they, I don't know, but we have to aspire to the British consumer appreciating the quality of British food and being prepared to pay for it."

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st July 2020

"They'll appease their own conscience by saying, 'well it's allowed, so it must be okay'"