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Last night, MPs in the House of Commons voted against an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would require imported food products to meet or exceed Britain’s own standards.
The amendment was previously passed in the House of Lords to #SaveOurStandards and protect the post-Brexit food industry, not only by preventing imports of ‘chlorinated chicken’, ‘hormone-treated beef’ and other dangerous foodstuffs, but by stopping future imports of sub-standard food from undercutting high-quality British produce. In order to compete with cheaper imported goods, British farmers may be forced to lower their own standards, using chemicals that can damage the British countryside and put consumers at risk.
Worries for the future increase
Ministers have promised to maintain UK food standards and that there is no need for the bill, but critics fear that without a legally binding commitment, there is nothing stopping a quick and detrimental Brexit deal.
“We are very disappointed the House of Commons has rejected key amendments on import standards, climate change and pesticides in the Agriculture Bill that had been proposed by the House of Lords,” says Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association. “Putting these protections into law is vital to protect us against trade deals that could lower food production standards, threaten our environmental and climate change commitments, and undercut British farmers.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trust likewise worries for the environment after such a rejection: “The Agriculture Bill should be at the heart of ensuring that nature can recover in this country. We live in one of the most nature-depleted places on the planet and it’s vital that British farmers be encouraged to adopt nature-friendly farming across agricultural land, which covers nearly three-quarters of the UK. It is not too late for the Government to enshrine their manifesto commitment to uphold high environmental standards in law.”
The rejection goes against public opinion
Just recently, we discovered that the public support for British farmers had risen to record high, with OnePoll’s recent Farmer Favourability Survey finding that 75% of people had a positive view of UK farming and that 77% believe we should support our farmers financially during COVID-19’s troubles. Therefore, this decision to not assist British farmers is all the more striking.
“It’s unbelievable and a huge mistake by the government,” says Lord Curry of Kirkharle. “I can’t think of an issue in recent times which has so much public support. For the government not to recognise that, by not allowing my amendment, is really disappointing.”
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF corroborates the point: “Our recent YouGov survey showed that 92% of people in the UK think we should protect British standards on food and farm animal welfare in future trade deals. Making law is often about compromise, and we hope that the government will reconsider their opposition in a bid to fix our broken food system, support British farmers, and protect nature for generations to come.”
Disappointment in the Conservative party rises
Although several prominent backbench Tory MPs rebelled against the government to vote for amendments, the rejection passed with a majority of 53. “The Conservatives have continually promised to back British farmers throughout the Brexit process,” says Tim Farron, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, “but their failure tonight to uphold our high food standards reveals just how hollow those promises were.”
“Do we want to be a nation that shines as a beacon across the world standing up for our farmers, standing up for the welfare of our animals and standing up for the environment?” wondered Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary for the Labour party. “Or do we want to throw that all away just for the vague promise of a trade deal, where poor quality food is served to our children, where standards are undercut and where carbon and animal welfare responsibilities are exported?”
Deidre Brock, environment spokesperson for the Scottish National Party agrees with the sentiment: “By refusing to enshrine into legislation the high standards that currently protect us, Boris Johnson’s government has fired the starting gun for a post-Brexit race to the bottom, which threatens our superb food and agriculture sectors and risks flooding our stores with low-quality produce.”
The Agriculture Bill will continue to be discussed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords over the next week.