Failing farming

Photo Robert Male

Covid-19 and Brexit have one thing in common. They can fully consume our minds and displace everything else. Worse, we are defining ourselves and our fellow citizens by how we view Covid-19 and Brexit. Consensus on the contrasting views seems impossible.

But one thing the opposing groups will agree on is the importance of food and health. We saw with Covid-19 what happened when there were food shortages. People panicked. And when people panic, governments panic, which leads to wasting billions of pounds, taking action for action’s sake and making hasty, inappropriate and sometimes dodgy decisions.

A secure supply of healthy food is essential to avoid panic and there are signs that a new panic is brewing. What will happen to our food after the current transition period ends? Most people, whether they voted leave or remain agree that existing food standards must be kept after Brexit.

To get food on the table the country must have two well performing functions: farming and distribution. There is a plethora of studies, warnings and media reports to show, whether it’s deal or no deal, Brexit will adversely influence our supply chains and the food we eat, with the likelihood of new tariffs and greater imports of foodstuffs of lower quality and higher price.

The UK produces only 55 per cent of the food we consume. Next year’s harvest is planted, without significant volume increase. Therefore, we will need to import 45 per cent of our food next year, after we leave the EU. What food we import and how we import it is of paramount importance now.

The government is preparing an Agricultural Bill and the National Farmers Union worries about trade and standards in the bill. The press is warning that those amendments to the bill which aimed to protect the UK public from lower-quality food imports, failed. The result? We could easily have chlorinated chicken, hormone laden beef and antibiotic resistance spreading through the food chain, coupled with price hikes, shortages and environmental degradation.

To find out what farmers and the public think George Šmid put ten questions to Lisa Brewin, a Lincolnshire activist for Save British Farming (SBF) and Andrew Brown, a  farmer from Rutland.

Lisa Brewin grew up in Bedfordshire during the 1980s. At the time, practices such as stubble burning and over fertilisation of fields blocked ditches and polluted streams. Environmental legislation and the hard work of local people cleared the waters and the kingfishers have returned. Lisa is worried the bill will lead to intensive farming with hedges ripped out to make super-sized fields and chemicals spread without regard for biodiversity or human health.

Andrew Brown’s family has been farming on the same farm in Rutland for 300 years. He shares Lisa’s concern that farming will become cruel in the name of ‘efficiency’. Andrew’s main worry is that we might end up with one or two big integrated producer-distributors dictating what we eat and how much we pay. Instead of paying less for food, we’ll pay more for poorer quality food. Our countryside will be spoiled by industrial farms with monocultures on hundreds of thousands of acres.

Q1: Can you describe Save British Farming, its aims and how it originated?

Lisa: In May 2020, the Agriculture Bill passed through the House of Commons without amendment. This bill, as it stands, is disastrous; it threatens the safety of our food and diminishes our food security, as well as ditching UK animal welfare and environmental standards for imported food. This went completely against the government’s manifesto pledge to uphold our high British food and animal welfare standards. 

SBF aims to protect and promote this country’s high standards by campaigning against sub-standard imports.

Andrew: SBF was set up to make the government listen and to present genuine concerns for food and farming industries. SBF is pointing out that if farming is left to market forces only, it will lead to the creation of ‘super estates’ with small and medium farmers forced out. New super-big farmers might be US farming conglomerates, or supermarkets aiming for production and distribution monopoly. Social capital including communities, local knowledge and businesses, as well as the sense of belonging will be lost.

Q2: Why and how did you get involved?

Lisa: As a voter, I was very interested to see whether this Conservative government would keep manifesto pledges, including the pledge to uphold our high British food, environmental and animal welfare standards in any trade deals coming into force after Brexit. Unfortunately, the government chose not to protect these standards. I felt this needed to be brought to the attention of voters, so I joined the campaign.

Farmers are key to managing our environment, as well as producing food for us all. They need the legal protection from cheap imports in order to maintain these high standards.

Andrew: I want to keep farming as a prosperous enterprise in a prosperous countryside. Canada, the US and Brazil have enormous excesses of chicken, wheat and beans – with corresponding massive ecological decline. Brazilian chickens are squashed to rectangular shape, frozen and shipped on pallets. US cattle are injected with fast-growth hormones and antibiotics. We must not allow these practices in the name of Global Britain.

Q3: SBF had a highly visible Tractor cavalcade in London on 8 July 2020. It attracted a fair amount of attention. Are you planning anything local in the East Midlands?

Lisa: The London demo in July was a fantastic launch to the campaign, bringing together farmers from several parts of the country, along with animal welfare and environmental campaigners.

In September there were action days in Brighton, Exeter, Hereford and other places. Readers interested in local rallies can contact SBF through www.savebritishfarming.org

Andrew: We are planning a local rally in East Midlands after harvest has ended. We will have local action days in Stamford and Oakham. I will let you know so Bylines can advertise local rallies in addition to announcements on SBF website. Our next national action is Westminster Tractor Demo next Monday (28 September 2020) starting at 4pm at Parliament Square in London. Detailed information is on https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/westminster-tractor-demo-tickets-121350030207.

Q4: The government claims that the new bill balances the environment and production. Can UK farms compete with foreign production and, at the same time, maintain high environmental standards for the countryside?

Lisa:  We import 45 per cent of our foodstuff, mainly from the EU. Post Brexit, we are not prepared if the UK imports more of its food from further away; there are not enough ships, not enough trucks, not enough storage facilities to import and store high-carbon-miles food.

Andrew: No, we cannot compete. The public gets excited about ‘chlorinated chickens’. Chlorine per se is not a problem. The UK uses chlorine, for example for washing salad. But if you have to use the same chlorine wash on chicken that illustrates the unhygienic conditions under which the chickens are reared and treated. Animal welfare in the US is awful.

For crops the situation is similar. UK crops are chemically treated but the question is how you do it. For example, we can’t use certain products on crops (allowed in other countries, which makes them cheaper to grow but will undercut our costs of production), on the grounds they are too dangerous.

Once we allow that, standards will suffer. It is already happening. Oil seed rape is imported even though it was treated by neonicotinoid. A practice outlawed in the UK!

Q5: How can the public help?

Lisa: The public can help by writing to their local MPs. A letter template is available on our website www.savebritishfarming.org to help with this. Also, our Board of Broken Promises campaign is offering boards to display in gardens and banners to display in fields and on farm gates. These are also available on our website.

Andrew: It is simple: shop local, buy local. When in the supermarket, look for the Red Tractor logo. Be aware of processed food. 50 per cent of food is sold as readymade meals like pre-packaged pizza or through McDonalds, KFC and other food outlets. If you want quality across the board you have to support standards across the board. Nobody can check the ingredients that go into processed food or where they are from.

Q6: What would you say to people who claim, ‘Farmers voted for Brexit so now they can stuff it’?

Lisa: Vote Leave used farming as a platform for their campaign, which gave the impression that all farmers voted for Brexit. In 2016, the agriculture minister promised a rosy future for farmers after Brexit, and some believed it. SBF looked into the various polls and concluded that around 53 per cent of farmers voted for Brexit – about the same as the general population. The NFU campaigned to remain in 2016. Farmers are subsidised in all OECD countries. Our farmers are just asking for a level playing field.

Andrew: Over half of farmers voted Leave. But that is a battle gone. Now we are talking about what sort of Brexit we will have. It is logical that an import from a country with poorer environmental protection and animal welfare will be priced lower. But the cost will be higher. Each year 1 in 6 Americans get sick as a result of foodborne diseases. That would be over 10 million people in the UK!  That is the cost society will have to pay if we allow ‘cheap’ imports. Currently, the UK has one million cases of food poisoning per year (so 1 in 66).

Another example is the environment: I put 23 hectares out of production to protect wildlife and bio-diversity. If an equivalent 23 hectares are chopped down in the Amazonian rainforest, we are exporting environmental damage to import cheap sugar cane.

Q7: Have you received support from the National Farmers Union (NFU)?

Lisa: Our organisation is not part of the NFU but we are in regular contact with them. We support their ‘Back British Farming’ campaign. 

Andrew: NFU is an organisation responsible to its members and a majority voted Leave. In such a situation NFU cannot legitimately come out in support of one side or another. However, the NFU’s role is to lobby on behalf of farmers. This is now extremely difficult as the government has such a big majority ministers feel they do not need to listen. UK policies are the results of back room deals rather than hearing the voices of MP’s constituents. NFU is aware that under current policies 40 thousand farmers will go out of business. The prime minister and the cabinet know that too. But there is no will in the government to do anything about it.

Q9: What is wrong with trading under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules?  

Lisa: The government does admit that under WTO low standard farming produce will be imported. Their proposal is to leave the choice to customers and to introduce an extra tariff on substandard food. That is a nonsense. It would be a logistical, legal and administrative nightmare. Nobody will be able to police it.

Andrew: Initially, WTO rules would lead to food shortages. As you build the capacity for the imports to grow, the farms will go bust because they won’t be able to compete. And if we end up trading on WTO terms, we will be left defenceless; the WTO will not allow the UK to stop products entering local markets on the basis of methods of production. So, beef from multi-storey cattle sheds will be allowed in, and food from genetically modified (GM) crops will get in, substandard processed food will be on supermarket shelves. And of course chlorinated chicken will become ubiquitous. So will food poisoning!

Q10: If you were a British prime minister, what would you do?

Lisa: I would be honest with farmers and the British public about the likely consequences of Brexit and the choices that are available to us. In June 2016, 52 per cent of voters advised the government to explore the possibility of leaving the European Union. It is only now that the practicalities of that situation are becoming clear. The Conservative manifesto promised that, ‘’In all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.  I would keep that promise and legislate for it without delay.

Andrew: I would resign in shame.