On behalf of the Food Ethics Council, Dan Crossley gives his initial response to Defra’s consultation on ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’, published on 27th February 2018:
“The consultation document rightly says that the occasion of Brexit is – despite all the furore over Brexit - an ‘opportunity for fundamental reform’. There is much to welcome in this document, but there are also some gaps and areas that are cause for concern.
‘Health and harmony’ – the title of the publication - is a welcome aspiration, but I suspect the reality is that the road ahead won’t be all sweetness and light.
We welcome the promotion of ‘farming excellence’. We also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the proposed shift from direct payments towards ‘public money for public goods’ – a move that has been long argued for and is widely welcomed.
We welcome the fact that the document has a broad remit – e.g. that it mentions the need for high standards of farm animal welfare, that it touches on fairness in supply chains and references the importance of farmer-to-farmer learning and knowledge sharing.
There is a notable lack of detail in some areas, including the key issue of labour. There is brief mention of apprenticeships and a long-term aspiration to encourage more domestic workers to enter the farming profession. However, the paper says nothing of substance on how it will avoid the impending ‘cliff edge’ for businesses that rely heavily on migrant workers from the rest of the EU.
The one line in the document that perhaps causes me most concern is: “We will adopt a trade approach which promotes …. lower prices for consumers”. Despite the largely positive rhetoric in the rest of the document, this one sentence is particularly worrying. It opens the door for the UK Government to negotiate trade deals that risk the called-for ‘excellence’ of UK food and farming being undercut by cheap imports (sometimes low quality and low standards). We must have a race-to-the-top, not a race-to-the-bottom.
My expectations were raised by the title of the consultation paper, which implies that ‘Health’ will be at the heart of the Agriculture Bill. Such hopes were dashed on first reading as there is very little mention of health, beyond (important) references to animal health. This is surely a missed opportunity to promote farming for nutrition and to reframe what we mean by productivity, beyond the narrow definition of ‘producing more’.
At risk of sounding like a broken record, we (still) need a long-term food and farming strategy that joins up food, farming, environment, animal welfare and public health.
Overall, it reads like Defra is trying to complete a jigsaw when it hasn't got all the pieces of the puzzle, and when it doesn’t have a view of the final picture. In our view, the final picture should be based on the principles of fairness, wellbeing and freedom.
It’s vital that as many people as possible respond to the consultation. Many of the questions in the consultation are aimed at farmers, who obviously have a lot to gain or to lose from what happens next. However, as citizens we all have a vested interest in the long-term health and wellbeing of food and farming. The Agriculture Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a landmark piece of legislation. Let’s make it something our grandchildren will be proud of.