North Devon farmers urge MPs to think again on food standards or see their local farms fail

Torridge Councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin is from a farming family

The Agriculture Bill comes back to the House of Commons on 4 November amidst growing concern from rural communities up and down the UK over the government and Conservative MPs’ stubborn refusal to enshrine food and animal welfare standards in law. Peers have voted again to beef up protection for farmers and consumers. Farmers are looking to their MPs to take this further opportunity to back amendments which would prevent a flood of cheap imported food produced to lower standards.

Councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin is a councillor on Torridge District Council. She takes up the story…

Last evening I put forward a notice of motion to Torridge District Council regarding the Agriculture Bill and food standards in an attempt to raise awareness and try and put some pressure on our local MPs to put their heads above the parapet and vote for the Lords’ amendments when it goes back to the Commons on Nov 4th. The motion won by 20 votes to 5 with 10 abstentions. There were two fantastic letters of support in the public contributions from Rev Dr Susanna Metz and Sebastian (Baz) Meeson.

The meeting was recorded and can be viewed on Torridge District Council’s YouTube channel (the public contributions are at the beginning- item 2, and the notice of motion is at the very end- item 7b)

My notice of motion was strongly seconded by independent Cllr Hackett and there were also strong words of support from the independent leader of the council Cllr James, independent Cllr Ford, and Green councillor and Mayor of Bideford Cllr Christie.All of the conservative councillors abstained from the vote apart from Cllr Inch who voted against, along with independent councillors Cllr Bushby, Cllr Hicks, Cllr Leather and Cllr Wiseman who all voted against. This was the argument that I put forward:

“In reaction to the devastating decision by central government to vote against protecting food standards, I have put forward the following notice of motion:

“I propose that Torridge District Council expresses its anger and disappointment on the government’s decision to vote against protecting food standards in the Agriculture Bill. This is a devastating blow to farmers and consumers, impacting upon animal welfare, the environment and public health. We urge the government to reconsider its stance when the Bill returns from the House of Lords in November.I propose this council writes a letter to central government as well as our own MP for Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox, along with the MPs from surrounding constituencies who all voted against the amendment to protect food standards- Selaine Saxby for North Devon, Mel Stride for Central Devon, and Scott Mann for North Cornwall, to ask them to put their heads above the parapet and do what is right for our communities and Save British Farming.“I declare a personal interest in that I come from a farming family; we have been farmers for generations and I hope to take on the farm in the future, and would like to think that one of my children might be interested in doing the same. But this isn’t just about farmers, this is about everyone who eats food, and that is us all.Our government promised us that “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.

The government now has the opportunity to take this promise, and enshrine it in law through the Agriculture Bill, as recommended by the House of Lords, yet they are failing to do so. When contacting our representatives on the matter we are given the equivalent of a pat on the head and told not to worry. We are urged to believe that they can still be trusted to keep that promise. But if they had no plans to break it, surely they would have nothing to fear from these protections being put into law.The Agriculture Bill has been “ping-ponging” between the House of Lords and the House of Commons and will go back to the Commons on November 4th when MPs will be asked for a third time to stand up for British Farmers by voting for amendments to support our high standards. At the last vote, 16 conservative MPs put their heads above the parapet and rebelled, including MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, a former dairy farmer and chairman of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, MP for North Dorset, Simon Hoare, and vet and MP for Penrith and The Border, Dr Neil Hudson. But we need more MPs to put their communities first and do the same this time, including our own MP for Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox who has always claimed in the past to champion the farming community who he represents.The fear of cheap imported food undermining our standards of production has united all key stakeholders from the entire farming community, from the National Farmers Union, The Country Land and Business Association, to vets, chefs, environmental bodies including Greener UK and Sustain, and to the general public.

Over a million people signed an NFU petition on the issue, and polls have consistently shown support for upholding UK food and animal welfare standards. A recent YouGov survey found 9 out of 10 people thought British standards should be protected in future trade deals. All of them are deeply concerned, and yet the government continues to resist. Most recently, Prue Leith, judge on The Great British Bake Off, and mother to MP Danny Kruger, has quit the Conservative Party in protest at the government’s stance over food standards, and said of the vote “Everybody who cares about British high food standards should back our farmers. After all, we are what we eat.”

The current Bill leaves the door open to our domestic standards being undercut in new trade deals. It risks letting in cheaper agricultural imports, undercutting the high-welfare, healthy food our farmers produce, as well as a their competitiveness. This is not just about hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken, but also matters such as stocking densities, battery cages, antibiotic use, pesticides, fungicides and more. At present we risk being sold out, and there’s the possibility we could let in lower-quality food to clinch a trade deal, which is why it must be ruled out and the amendment to the Agriculture Bill must be agreed.Family farms are the lifeblood of the Southwest. 72% of Devon’s land is farmed, with the constituency of Torridge and West Devon having the highest proportion of employment in agriculture across all of the UK constituencies.

In fact, Devon’s GDP from farming is double that of the rest of the country. As farmers here in Devon, we have pride in our produce. Farming is not a job, but a way of life, where practices and livestock have often been passed down through generations. Farming is a vulnerable industry that faces huge pressures at the best of times, from issues such as crop failure and disease, and now the added pressures of Brexit, coronavirus and climate change. The combined pressures and continual drive for cheap food and fears over unfair competition from imports post-Brexit are sadly having an inevitable impact on the mental health of an already-isolated workforce.The result of the vote on Nov 4th will have ramifications for both farming and the wider public for decades to come.

As well as the direct impact on the farming community which I have focused on, we also risk bringing long-term health problems and pressures on the NHS as a result of eating sub-standard food. I’ve heard many people say that we just need to buy quality and buy British. This is all well and good if you can afford to do this, but many people won’t have that luxury and will be forced to buy whatever is cheapest to feed their family. We cannot blame the consumer; these are difficult times and people will buy whatever they can afford. The blame lies with the politicians who are failing us. We do not want to see British food undermined by imported food that could be produced to standards that are illegal here.Please vote for the notice of motion; let us send a strong message to central government and our local parliamentary representatives, and as a council show our support to our farming and wider community.”

Clearly there was overwhelming support in the room for Cheryl’s cause, but will MPs listen and respond appropriately or just slavishly do as Number 10 bids them? We shall see.

Photo courtesy of Save British Farming

For more information, go to the Save British Farming website. You could always organise a tractor protest ahead of the next crucial vote. Whatever your views on farmers and Brexit, becoming dependent on imports for our food runs wholly counter to any notion of ‘taking back control’.