Our Executive Director, Dan Crossley, watched the Agriculture Bill debate unfold – or some would say the future of UK agriculture unfold – last night…

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson famously likes a bit of ping-pong (or ‘whiff-whaff’ as he preferred to call it). The Agriculture Bill is now into what’s known as the Parliamentary ‘ping-pong’ stage where, if the House of Commons and House of Lords disagree on the wording of the Bill, they send it back and forth, responding to each other’s changes.

Last night’s result saw key amendments proposed by the House of Lords being rejected by a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. These included an Amendment to limit pesticide use in order to protect human health, one requiring agricultural and food imports to meet domestic standards, one on the contribution of agriculture and associated land use to climate change targets, and one about strengthening the power of the Trade and Agriculture Commission (the latter rejected because “it would involve a charge on public funds”). Some would say that the result stinks – or at least leaves a bit of a Pong.

There were some excellent contributions to the discussion from both sides of the house – aside from a few moments of disrespect shown by a small number of MPs. Interestingly, there seemed to be a broad consensus on the need for high food standards. However, if the destination was shared, there were disagreements about how to get there.

Those arguing passionately for legally enshrining standards on animal welfare and environmental protection were mostly on the Opposition Bench, but also included some key Conservative MPs. Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Committee, said “Why are we not the great beacon of animal welfare and environment in our trade deals….? It’s in our manifesto” while Julian Sturdy MP, Chair of the APPG on Science, Technology in Agriculture, stated “The issue of fair terms of trade for high standards in British agriculture simply cannot be separated from farming and environment legislation”. If you want a reminder of key manifesto food promises, see our review here.

On the other side of the House, Luke Pollard, Shadow Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Secretary used the powerful phrase “It’s a moral compass that this Agriculture Bill desperately needs”. Others cited examples to contradict some of the arguments put forward by the Government. Hilary Benn MP for example asked “Could the government please explain why it appears that California will be able to ban food products produced by what we regard as cruel means in other states of the USA, but somehow we’d have difficulty in doing the same in deciding our new rules”.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP argued that “It will strengthen our standing and reputation if we write into the face of this Bill our determination to ensure that we evolve animal welfare and environmental standards”. His parting shot was “If you want to back British farmers, don’t just wear a wheat badge one time a year, vote for the Amendments tonight”.

In the end, key Lords Amendments including the one to force trade deals to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules were rejected. MPs such as Caroline Lucas MP argued vehemently that what was needed was more than vague commitments that don’t have a timetable against them. However, in the end, Victoria Prentis, Defra Minister, simply repeated the commitment that “In all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards” and concluded by saying “This Bill is great. The future of agriculture in this country is great”. Not everyone will agree with that.

We need less top spin – or rhetoric – from Government. The ping pong game is not over yet though. Protecting and further strengthening our food standards is of course not a game. The stakes are incredibly high. Together we must hold the government to account on its manifesto commitment “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”