Government plans for UK’s food and farming industry don’t seem to include food and farming…

The panel

This article was originally submitted as a letter to the editor.

I went to a remote session at the Tolpuddle festival on All Change for Food Production. What shocked me was that it appears that the government’s agricultural policy, post Brexit,  is to import more food to meet demand while making it more difficult to make a living from farming on a small scale. A policy which disadvantages the small farmer, driving them out of business, will allow former agricultural land to be bought up to plant forests so that the finance industry can make profits from lucrative carbon offset trading. [Ed: this is a fast-growing and as yet largely unregulated market]

Some of the points made during the session are listed below, but what really horrified me was that this policy on food production seemed to mirror the policy behind the Health Bill to outsource the potentially profitable parts of the NHS to huge, largely American-owned corporations leading to a reduction in standards of and access to care. This will happen because profit will trump the fundamental guiding principles of the NHS that a good standard of health care should be available to all in the UK at the point of need, regardless of status or income.

In the case of agriculture, the government apparently wants to move food production outside the UK, undercutting our farmers and thereby reducing the number of farms,  off-shoring carbon emissions, and lowering welfare standards and workers’ conditions.

In both cases the constituency the government appears be aiming to please is that of the large corporations with policies that boost their profits and those of the UK’s financial services industry. 

Government policy appears to have nothing to do with ensuring that British citizens are able to access timely, high standard healthcare or enabling us to tackle climate change more effectively by strengthening the viability and sustainability of family farms and their ability to make a reasonable income while producing good, nutritious food.

It does nothing to reduce poverty or inequality. It makes a mockery of levelling up because this is not really the prime aim.

This covert policy would explain why the government has cut the Environment Agency’s budget by two thirds so that they don’t have the resources to stop constant ‘spills’ by sewage farms or farm run-off, which is too great to be taken up by plants and which kills fish as a consequence of the growth of algae blooms.

It would explain why Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed that UK emissions had fallen by 40 per cent whilst the economy had still grown, but had to be challenged that a significant chunk of this reduction was because we had exported the emissions elsewhere in the world.

 Of course, the soundbite will be the 40 per cent reduction in UK emissions, rather than the full picture. It would appear to indicate why the government is seeking, without publicising
it, to cut the protection for rare plants and animals as well as not being concerned to ensure that imported food has been produced to the same animal welfare standards as currently exist in the UK.

“Young trees” by exquisitur is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Key points from the session

  • Consensus on food policy forged in WW2 is now gone
  • During the war there was an act of Parliament on food and the levels of food production were discussed regularly in Parliament. At the time there was a consensus between the parties on the big picture and that food should be produced in this country and should be affordable. With Brexit this consensus has gone.
  • This year our food has done more travelling  than we have.
  • The government talks about beautifying the landscape but this is really about the prosperity of the financial sector in the UK: they want to reduce traditional farms so that they can plant forests to be used for carbon offset.
  • Since Thatcher there has been a complete change in food policy and now the policy harks back to the repeal of the Corn Laws in the early 19th century.
  • The repeal of the Corn Laws resulted in a massive reduction in farms and increase in food imports from all over the empire. By WW1 we only produced a quarter of the food we were eating.
  • Thatcher wanted the market to rule, get rid of free school meals; she stopped three quarters of research into food.
  • In the 1980s we produced 70 per cent of our food; now it is down to 50 per cent.
  • The Soil Association tried to get a government subsidy to stop soil being washed into the sea (2million tonnes a year wash into the North Sea alone) but DEFRA refused because land is owned privately.
  • Ditto they turned down a proposal for research into natural ways to defend against floods.
  • A quarter of a million tonnes of sugar cane is being allowed into the UK without any tax because it will increase the profits of Tate and Lyle (major Conservative party donor and Brexit-backer).

Food poverty and more:

  • 40 per cent of people who work in the food industry (and continued to work through the pandemic to put food on the plates) say they ate less food during the pandemic as they couldn’t afford food
  • 19 per cent had times when they were completely out of food
  • 35 per cent didn’t eat so that they could feed others in their household.
  • Food poverty is not about a shortage of food. It is a consequence of poverty. That is why it is important that healthy nutritious food is cheap for consumers but also that farmers and food producers get a proper return for their work.
  • Elsewhere in the world farmers and workers are suffering from neoliberal policies which lead to large corporations dominating and taking over the market, encouraging monocultures. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic – e.g. Kenyan farmers markets have been closed so small producers couldn’t sell their products.
  • We may ban certain pesticides in the UK but we manufacture them here and export them to other countries.
  • Family farms in the world produce 80 per cent of the food with 25 per cent of the land.
  • Food sovereignty is having the right to food; rights for producers and workers; localised food production and distribution; shorter supply chains; local control over natural resources; the right to individuals to own land, not corporations.
  • There should be a right to food just as there is a right to clean air.