As most days, I wake to the cut and thrust of Farming Today, a programme from which I learn more about the true state of the nation than from any other medium. Among items on the cost of straw bedding for livestock (more consequential than you might think), crofting and a note on the AGM of the National Farmers Union, there was one that caught my notice. It seems that a ‘private, not-for-profit, non-partisan, research foundation’ called the Institute for Free Trade will be hosting two rounds of shadow trade negotiations ‘to hash out an “ideal” US-UK free trade agreement based on a page drawn up by the CATO Institute. IFT was set up by the pro-Brexit MP, Daniel Hammond, with a star-studded International Advisory Board and Executive Board and there will be one participant from The Institute of Economic Affairs, the Legatum Institute, the Adam Smith Institute and Civitas at these ‘negotiations which tells you all you need to know about the general tenor of the discussions. It seems slightly odd to me that organisations medicated to the promotion of free trade should engage in talks with a country whose president clearly does not.
However, back to the matter in hand. It seems IFT has gone a step or two further, and has suggested that mutual recognition of standards between the USA and the UK post-Brexit would be a good idea.
So it might be, in some areas, but not, I think, when it comes to food. As anyone who has read the books of Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Parke Wilde and others, the standards of food production and labelling in the USA are, for the most part, dire. More is better, is the general princile, whatever the cost in terms of animal welfare, land management, environmental damage or nutritional value. As Doug Parr of Greenpeace pointed out in an interview on Farming Today, when it comes to food, this would mean accepting various foods that hitherto we have found unacceptable, such as chlorine-washed chickens, GM ingredients and beef containing growth hormones. The EU, reflecting public opinion, has long resisted these and other pernicious products that are staples of the US diet.
And, as we all know too bloody well, wherever there is a Conservative cabinet minister, there is a different set of priorities when it comes to post-Brexit, For example, Trade Secretary Liam Fox sees nothing wrong with chlorine-washed chicken while his fellow Brexiteer and Minister of Environment, Food and Farming, Michael Gove, does.
I have nothing against anyone one planning for a post-Brexit world, much though I deplore the exiting itself. What concerns me is that the people leading the negotiations into the new free trade Eden don’t share my values when it comes to the food we eat, and, as Doug Parr pointed out, the likes of IFT have strong connections within the Tory Party. Both Boris Johnson and Liam Fox joined the throng when the ‘foundation’ was launched, and so have the potential to influence government policy in the future, or going forward as it has become fashionable to say (although, in many cases, it means going backwards).
Farmers in this country routinely complain that the welfare and environmental standards they are forced to observe put them at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing their produce both within the UK or outside it, even though all farmers in the EU, in theory, abide by the same set of standards. In the free trade Utopia described by the likes of the IFT, the situation will be far, far worse.
Whatever happens, the pressures on food production will increase in the foreseeable future. QED the food prices will rise. For years our supermarkets, who have used their cartel-like power to maintain the mantra of ‘cheap food’ that we have all subscribed to. However, even their iron grip is being tested now, and, as food prices ineluctably move upwards, we, the public, do what we have always done, trade down through the food chain. So Aldi and Lidl. those spiritual heirs to ‘Jolly’ Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, and his commercial philosophy of pile it high, sell it cheap, flourish, while the now middle-ground Tescos, Sainsburys, Morrisons and even upper crust Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, suffer.
In order to keep some semblance of control over food costs, the pressure on agriculture to increasingly industrialise its production methods will only grow. It is easy to foresee a time when our farmers will either have to lower their standards or go out of business. Signing up to FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with the US will mean recognising American standards. In all probability the trade is likely to be largely one way, because US agriculture is geared to the US market and neither our agriculture nor our land are structured to the massive intensification and industrialisation that marks American agriculture. And that will also mean that we won’t be sell much produce to the EU, where £9.37 billion or roughly 50% of our agricultural exports went in 2015. Any UK-US FTA is likely to be disastrous for our agriculture and the standards of our food.
I’m not saying that this will happen. I’m merely pointing out that it might happen, and to keep a keen eye on the ‘foundations’,’institutes’, and ‘think tanks’, and their political connections. Obviously, Greenpeace has it’s own axe to grind in this particular area as well, but at least we know what Greenpeace is on about. It’s not much given to hiding its light under a bushel. I hope that IFT and its like will be equally – what’s the word – ah, yes, transparent.