The UK Agriculture Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords last week, with growing concerns raised about the lack of amendments to protect UK farmers and producers from lower quality imports in post-Brexit Britain.
The Bill will replace the EU subsidy system where an average of £2.88 billion was paid out annually to British farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy. While much of this new legislation will be relevant only to England, key measures including those on food security and fair dealing in the supply chain will apply here in Scotland.
The new Bill matters to everyone as it will shape the future of farming and food production across the UK and determine the quality standards available to consumers.
The volume of home-produced food consumed in the UK has fallen significantly in recent years, from 67 per cent in 1988 to around 53 per cent, increasing our reliance on imports. While such imports have been governed by high EU food standards, the Agriculture Bill currently contains no provision to safeguard future food safety, environmental, or animal welfare standards once the UK leaves the single market.
Opposition politicians and campaign groups such as Sustain, say this omission could force down the quality of food that is allowed to be sold in the UK as new trade deals are made with other countries, including the US, which do not share the same standards. Nearly 1 million people have signed a petition supported by the NFUS which calls on the Westminster Government to amend the Bill to ensure imported foods will meet the same standards as those produced in the UK.
We are all aware of the much-publicised concerns about American chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, but these could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg if a suitable food standards structure is not put into place for the UK following Brexit.
At a time when UK farmers are feeling the impact of Covid-19 and facing the growing prospect of a No Deal Brexit, the Scottish and UK Governments need to step up to support the industry and ensure consumers are protected.
Innovative measures to help farmers and food producers could include incentives to encourage shorter food chains, which would also support a green recovery. This will promote a higher level of buying and sourcing from local producers. With the Covid-19 pandemic exposing significant vulnerabilities to food supply chains, this will also help protect the high provenance level of Scotland’s food and drink offering.
Meanwhile the Scottish Government could review procurement regulation for public sector food contracts for schools and hospitals. This could allow a wide range of smaller suppliers, who lack the resources of some of their bigger competitors, to secure a foothold or greater share of this market while also ensuring high food quality standards.
Any gap in standards between UK produced foods and imports provides an additional opportunity for governments to support farmers by continued funding of a high profile ‘Buy Local’ campaign highlighting the high quality of home-grown produce. The NFUS proposed country of origin labelling programme, particularly within the catering and food processing industries, would also be a positive measure to reassure consumers.
The Agriculture Bill now goes to committee stage for more detailed examination and further discussion. Let’s hope suitable amendments will be taken on board that will improve the resilience of the UK’s food system and prioritise consumer safety.