Maggie Jones on feeding the nation post-Brexit
There are some responsibilities of government where even the most incompetent cannot afford to fail. Providing enough food at an affordable price, along with pure water and clean air, come pretty near the top of the list. Which is why the House of Lords Brexit reports on agriculture and animal welfare make such stark reading.
Without overstating matters, a healthy UK farming sector is fundamental to our economy, environment, individual prosperity and consumer confidence in food safety.
Yet this is the sector most reliant on existing EU rules for its operation and the one facing the greatest upheaval when we leave. So, not surprisingly, farmers and food manufacturers are increasingly nervous at the lack of progress in the talks and ministerial emphasis on a ‘no deal’ option.
A future tariff-free trade deal which replicates the benefits of the Single Market is vital. In the interim, the government needs to get serious about a transition based on current terms. We are completely reliant on trade with the rest of the EU, as evidenced by 80% of our agricultural exports and 70% of food imports.
The UK is only 61% self-sufficient in food and the figure is falling. At the weekend, one Cabinet Minister, Chris Grayling suggested that British farmers can simply grow more in the event of no deal. While it would be great to produce more of our own food, there are no quick fixes and if we end up in such a scenario it’s close to impossible to imagine how we would begin to feed the nation.
At the same time, concern is growing amongst producers and manufacturers about access to seasonal and full time migrant labour – without which UK food production would drop further. Ministers deny there’s a problem but ample evidence exists of our reliance on overseas workers. The British Poultry Council estimate 60% of its workers are from elsewhere in the EU, as are 56% of the workers on dairy farms. These are jobs that UK citizens cannot – or will not – do. So a sector specific migration policy is crucial.
There are also, understandably, concerns about animal welfare standards and food safety. Without robust new rules to replace those of the EU we are in danger of being flooded by cheap imported adulterated food - including chlorinated chicken, which undercut the quality products which both farmers and consumers value. There is as yet no agreement amongst ministers that our high standards will be protected, and a real fear that new import deals will take priority in the race to find new markets.
Much of UK farming would not be sustainable without a degree of subsidy. There is a widespread agreement that the Common Agricultural Policy needs reform with a future focus on payments for those in real need, those protecting the environment and those contributing to food security. But we are a long way for agreeing a new payment scheme and concerns are increasing about the battle with other powerful lobby groups over a declining pot of money. A pot which has already been promised several times over.
The current Environment Secretary, Michael Gove has played great emphasis on the future of UK farming being based on science and agri-technology. But all of this knowledge and expertise is being developed in the Europe-wide institutions in which we collaborate and reciprocate. Unless we reach agreements on participation we will be forced to replicate this research in separate UK institutions. This is simply not cost effective and our knowledge base risks falling behind.
Sustainable production is so fundamental to our future well-being that the government can’t afford to get this wrong. The farming and food sector needs certainty and reassurance. Planning and investment is already being delayed and will have longer term consequences. Ultimately, Mr Gove needs to demonstrate that he has a seat at the top table when crucial trade and investment decisions are made to ensure that future food security is recognised as a priority.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 16th October 2017