Political Mis-Steps

COVID has so dominated the news agenda over the last few weeks that some significant stories have slipped under our collective radar. I've been surprised that we haven't been made more aware of a couple of really important developments for the natural world in the UK this week. We've seen two important votes in parliament, which both have a significant impact.

The first was on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill proposed by the Lords to force trade deals to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules. The government has repeatedly refused to include this in any legislation - including the much vaunted but much delayed (disappeared?) Environment Bill. The argument seems to be that the UK is committed to the highest food standards in the world etc etc and that there's no need to enshrine this in law. Some also argue that it amounts to protectionism, and others that worries over dodgy food imports are just alarmist. 

The truth is more likely that agriculture has already been sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, to facilitate a trade deal with the U.S. The Americans have made it abundantly clear that exporting food to the UK on their terms was a non-negotiable requirement of any trade deal.

The amendment was defeated, although the list of Conservatives voting for it was interesting, including Theresa Villiers, former DEFRA minister. Several notable others abstained including Phillip Dunne, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

I heard Ms Villiers repeatedly assuring farmers at the Oxford Farming Conference in January that they had nothing to fear from sub-standard food imports; they were never going to be allowed. The audience laughed at her. Before then I heard Michael Gove promise the same thing; not once, not twice, but on all three occasions I heard him speak as DEFRA minister.

Why is this week's vote important? Not so much because of what it might tell us about this government, or the pressure on politicians to produce trade deals, or even their view on the importance of the environment. No, it really matters because at a stroke it completely undermines the whole principal of how we're proposing to support farming after Brexit.

Michael Gove's proposals - to use public money to pay for public good - won widespread approval. Instead of the flawed Common Agricultural Policy we were to have a system where the taxpayer paid farmers to manage their land and stock in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way, to benefit the common interest. To restore damaged ecosystems. Public money for public good. Acknowledging that farming wasn't just about the cheapest way to produce food.

Instead of paying hill farmers to scrape a living herding sheep across denuded upland river catchments, pay them to manage those areas to help prevent expensive and damaging flooding downstream. Instead of encouraging lowland farmers to plant maize, with its associated polluting and damaging soil runoff, pay them to switch back to permanent pasture. Pasture managed differently, with fewer silage cuts. Or even none, just a hay cut, and more outdoor grazing... which means less livestock. Planting more hedges, managing them more sympathetically. The rewilders got very excited too, as you can imagine; we could even pay farmers to give up farming on poor land altogether.

Yes, there are obvious issues about all this which need to be addressed, not least implementation and food security, but the direction of travel was clear.

This seemed like a revolution in so many ways, and offered huge dividends for the public purse and responsible stewardship of the countryside. The approach won widespread support, from conservation NGOs to the NFU.

All these kind of actions come at a significant cost, of course, partly born by the taxpayer but also, inevitably, by the consumer. There's no comparison at all between the animal welfare standards we currently have here and those in the U.S., for example, and this comes at a price. How does it possibly make sense for us to support or enhance these standards through our taxes, while at the same time we're able to go out and buy cheap sub-standard alternatives? 

It's going to be impossible to ask voters to help support farmers to produce food in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way, while allowing their products to be systematically undercut on the shelves. Ergo, we don't support them like this. Food production just becomes a race to the bottom. 

I've been pretty peeved by this whole episode. Judging by my social media feed, so have farmers and a whole range of environmental organisations.  

To compound my ill humour, hard on the heels of this vote we had the Fisheries Bill fiasco. The fishing industry has become something of a Brexit cause celebre, so I can well understand why the government has been so keen to ram this legislation through.  However, I don't understand why more Lords amendments, to keep quotas within sustainable levels and prevent "supertrawlers" fishing in marine protection zones, were both so unacceptable. Both were heavily defeated in the Commons.

Is the right to trash our own environment part of the "Brexit dividend"? I guess it is.