The Agriculture Bill must categorically rule out imports of food produced to lower standards
The Agriculture Bill cannot go forward without safeguards in place to protect British standards, preventing hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken from coming in and undercutting British farmers, writes Daniel Zeichner MP.
On Friday night the bells rang out as some celebrated the brave new world outside the European Union, but on Monday the Government looks likely to chicken out when it presents its first piece of post-Brexit legislation.
Labour will challenge the Government to ‘put into law’ promises to make sure that there will be no hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken coming into the UK to undercut British farmers.
The much-delayed Agriculture Bill is the first of a trilogy of related environmental measures, followed by Fisheries and a wider Environment Bill. In this new world, worthy promises collide inconveniently with the harsh reality of a brutal international trade system where the previous rules-based system is being replaced by Donald Trump’s America-first, might-is-right approach.
Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a system where public money pays for environmental improvement is one of the policy areas where leavers and remainers can find some agreement, but that requires the Government to set a clear line for future trade negotiations, and all the signs are that they are not prepared to do that.
It’s not just Labour that’s concerned - an extraordinary alliance of farmers’ organisations, environmental, animal welfare and public health groups as well as politicians have come together to make a very clear demand that the Agriculture Bill categorically rules out imports of food produced to lower standards. In a joint letter to the Prime Minister last week, the NFU, the National Trust, RSPB and Greenpeace joined 60 other organisations to warn that promised environmental gains risk being lost if cheaper food, produced to lower animal welfare, environmental or health standards drives British farmers out of business.
They said: “It is vital that we have more than just verbal assurances to ensure our standards are properly safeguarded. In light of this, we urge you to take some specific actions we believe will enable you to ensure that the UK government can achieve its commitment to safeguard the standards of UK production, now and in the future. The government should enshrine its manifesto commitment in law. The Agriculture Bill provides a good opportunity to do so for some key standards.”
Many Conservative back-benchers are worried too. The Agriculture Bill was discussed at length in 2018, but was parked by the Government for 14 months, fearful that they could not command support. They know that this reduction in standards could mean rat-hair in our paprika, maggots in our orange juice and chlorine-washed chicken. This chicken is washed in chlorine because the chickens themselves are kept in such bad conditions that the risk they will cause salmonella is much higher.
Labour agrees that financial support for farmers should be shifted to ensuring environmental gain, but we are clear that the Bill cannot go forward without the safeguards needed: as the 60 plus organisations say, verbal assurances from the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State just aren’t enough. However it is phrased, the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is, not chicken out, and put it into law.
Daniel Zeichner is the Labour Member of Parliament for Cambridge and Shadow Farming and Rural Affairs Minister.