The forthcoming UK Agriculture Bill needs to sow the seeds for a better deal for farmers and level the playing field to ensure those at home aren’t left competing with cheaper and lower standard food imports in post-Brexit Britain.
Food experts in the North of England are also eager for the Bill to give more thought to the implications of farming methods on the UK’s food industry and public health.
The calls are being made by those behind the sustainable food project IKnowFood as the Bill this week entered the Committee Stage in the House of Commons, following its second reading on October 10.
Professor Bob Doherty from the University of York, Principal Investigator for IKnowFood, a YESI supported project and one of N8 AgriFood’s Chairs, was invited by Parliament to sit on a round-table group in Westminster and help draft amendments to the Bill.
Prof Doherty describes the development of a new post-Brexit UK agriculture policy as a seminal moment for the future of our food system, but believes the Bill has far more to say about land management and agriculture than it does food.
He has raised concerns over the lack of a strong and explicit commitment in the Agriculture Bill to ensure that sustainable agriculture and food is not undercut by the need to secure trade agreements in the post-EU exit environment.
Asking for Environment Secretary Michael Gove to take a more joined up approach with both the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department of International Trade, Professor Doherty said:
The Bill has little to say about food and diet-related health outcomes, the balance between promoting the production of healthy and sustainable food and reliance on imports.
There is nothing in the bill, for instance, to address our chronic dependence on foreign imports (principally from the EU) for our fruit and vegetables. This is surprising considering the UK’s unenviable reputation as the home to among the most unhealthy and overweight populations in the UK.
Indeed, it appears the Agricultural Bill has been drafted without proper consultation or alignment with the Department of Health and Social Care, given the potential for enshrining diet and nutrition targets into the UK post- CAP food regime.
A similar gap exists between DEFRA and the Department for International Trade. Here it is noticeable that while Michael Gove speaks in terms sustainable farming and animal welfare, the Trade Secretary, Liam Fox is highly critical of the EU’s ‘precautionary’ principle and over-regulated agrifood sector.
We also know that the Trump Administration has identified persuading the UK to lower its regulatory barriers in agrifood as a key negotiating objective in any future free trade deal with the UK.
Professor Doherty, and IKnowFood Co-Investigator Professor Tony Heron, of the University of York, believe the Bill also needs to be made “Brexit-proof”, given the UK’s dependence on the EU both as a source of food and migrant labour.
The EU single market and Customs Union is crucial to the food and drinks industry – the UK’ largest remaining manufacturing sector and bigger than the car and aerospace industries combined. It is very noticeable that the countries that the UK government has singled out future traders, including the United States, Canada and Australia, are all highly competitive agriculture exporters. This raises the prospect the UK’s need to secure free trade deals with these countries will undermine its commitment to sustainable farming and a thriving domestic food sector.
As well as a lack of mention to education and training to tackle an ageing farming population, the Professors feel the Bill is short on specific targets and duties with regard to climate change, soils, pollinators and pesticides, polluted waters and atmospheric pollution.
IKnowFood calls for a more integrated approach, a wider Food Strategy that avoids a lack of joined-up policy including; sustainable food production that promotes healthy outcomes for everyone, specific targets for environmental outcomes, and a better deal for UK farmers including a level playing field regarding standards for UK farmers faced with cheaper lower standard food imports post-Brexit. These measures will help build a more resilient UK Food System.