Farmers facing one of their toughest years in recent memory have received little comfort this week from a usually reliable ally: the Conservative party.
Their pleas to the government to enshrine in law a commitment to the UK’s high standards of food safety and animal welfare were ignored. In a long and impassioned debate in the House of Commons on Monday, amendments to the agriculture bill that had almost universal backing from farming leaders were defeated, steamrollered under the government’s 80-strong majority.
The stakes could scarcely be higher: British farmers are worried that post-Brexit trade bills with the US and other countries will allow the import of food and agricultural products that are currently banned under EU regulations. Produced to a lower standard than the UK mandates, these foods would undercut British produce – yet if the UK were to lower its own standards, the export route for British food to its biggest market, Europe, would be blocked.
They have been arguing, alongside food and environmental campaigners, for legal status to be given to UK standards, which would prevent any future deals that undercut them. The threat that the government will be bombarded with demands by other countries to allow the import of lower standard food is real: Greenpeace uncovered documents earlier this week showing the Food Standards Agency was readying itself for a flood of applications. In the absence of legal status for UK standards, those applications will be decided behind closed doors.
“We have seen absolute fury over [the agriculture bill],” said Vicki Hird, head of farming policy at the NGO coalition Sustain. “People are telling us it makes them sick to their stomach to find out what is being done by the government. There will be unbridled fury if this continues.”
Polls have consistently found broad support for upholding UK food and animal welfare standards. A recent YouGov survey found nine out of 10 people thought British standards should be protected in future trade deals, and more than a million signed an NFU petition on the issue.
A spokesperson for the government said: “This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, and claims to the contrary are unhelpful scaremongering.
“We are a world leader in these areas, and that will not change. Chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition period.”
Ministers have made repeated assurances about chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, but these are only two products. “There is much more behind this: focusing on these iconic issues is hiding the many other ways in which standards can be lowered,” said Hird.
For ministers, the refusal to legislate on UK farming and food standards is consistent with a position on Brexit that wants to leave as much leeway for negotiators of trade bills as possible. The same was on show in the fisheries bill, debated on Tuesday night in the Commons. Amendments there would have required the government to make good on its promises to limit fishing catches in line with scientific advice, and stop supertrawlers from fishing in marine protected areas, but both were defeated by large government majorities.
But while the government is showing consistency in its Brexit and environmental policies, ministers risk alienating some of their staunchest supporters. Rural constituencies across England are overwhelmingly Tory-held, and some feel that ministers are taking this traditional backing for granted.
There are signs, from MPs’ bulging post sacks to irate tweets, that normally loyal backers are growing impatient. Farmers have already had the worst wheat harvest in 30 years, poor harvests for other staples such as potatoes, the supply chain disruption of lockdown, when many lost their prime markets, and they are now facing the potential disaster of a no-deal Brexit. Any retreat from UK standards in future trade deals would leave small farmers across the country facing ruin.
Mark Bridgeman, president of the CLA, which represents 30,000 landowners and rural businesses, warned: “Farmers across the country will be watching the government’s every move very closely from here on in.”
Boris Johnson moved personally to soothe this key constituency by holding a private meeting at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday with Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union.
Batters said: “We are at a juncture that will have ramifications for both farming and the wider public for decades to come. I made clear that the nation cares deeply about British food and the high standards it is produced to. They do not want to see it undermined by imported food that could be produced to standards that are illegal here.”
Labour senses amid the outcry a rare opportunity to force rural, predominantly pro-Brexit voters to question whether the Tory government is acting in their interests. The party knows that “there is no route [to electoral victory] that does not go through rural areas”, said Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, pointing out that Labour won 170 rural constituencies in 1997 but held only 17 of them in 2019. “There’s a high level of unease among the public – you can sense people are worried,” he said. “It’s time for the Tories to look closely at what they’re working for and what they risk destroying.”
The agriculture bill will return to the Commons in a few weeks, with an amendment to strengthen the trade and agriculture commission, which the government has pledged can scrutinise trade agreements to ensure they are in line with UK standards. There may be some compromise on that, but it will fall short of the full legal status for UK farming and environmental standards that campaigners demanded.
But the real test of whether ministers are prepared to uphold farming and environmental standards will come when trade deals are to be signed, according to Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank. “I suspect the government is very conflicted on this,” he said. “I don’t think the government is trying to weaken standards, but it is sensible to be worried about it, because they will be under huge pressure, especially if we turn our back on the EU.”
When those tests come, ministers should be aware that these are deeply and widely held concerns, and voters have shown willingness in recent years to change their party allegiances. Green campaigners point to the high public awareness of their battles to show that food and the environment cannot be dismissed as fringe issues.
Spiers warned: “No government can afford to take on Middle England.”