Farmers have been defeated in their efforts to enshrine Britain’s exemplar food production and animal welfare standards in law after MPs rejected an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have banned low-standard imports.
Athwenna Irons www.devonlive.com
Despite protests from campaigners and 14 Conservatives who rebelled to support the protections, the House of Lords clause fell by 332 votes to 279 when coming before the House of Commons on Monday (October 12) evening.
Tabled by Lord Grantchester, it sought a “requirement for agricultural food and imports to meet domestic standards” from January 1, 2021.
Defending the Government’s refusal to back the amendment, Environment Secretary and Cornish MP, George Eustice, said the legal protection “wasn’t necessary” and assurances had already been given to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) that it would “protect and uphold our standards”.
Speaking on BBC Good Morning Scotland on Tuesday (October 13), he explained: “We have already got legislative processes that protect those standards and so this clause wasn’t necessary to protect those standards.
“We already have a prohibition of the sale of things like chlorine-washed chicken or hormones in beef and that’s not going to change.”
Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, was one of the 14 Tories who voted against the Government to support the amendment, alongside North Dorset MP Simon Hoare.
In an impassioned plea during the debate, Mr Parish said the legislation was heading in the right direction but the UK should be a “great beacon” on animal welfare and the environment when negotiating future trade deals.
“When we’ve tried to amend the Trade Bill, we get told it’s not the place to put it, but it’s not the place to put it in the Agriculture Bill either, so where is the place to put it?
“The place to put it is in this Parliament and I will very much support this and [Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire] does and many on our side do because we want to negotiate very good trade deals – not only with Australia, New Zealand and America but later on, this is not about today or tomorrow, this is about several years down the road.”
Mr Parish criticised Brazilian farming techniques which “destroy the land”, adding: “We, the British, believe in animal welfare, we believe in the environment… so does this Government, but for goodness sake get the backing of Parliament.”
Labour’s Luke Pollard, Shadow Environment Secretary and MP for Sutton and Devonport in Plymouth, also commented: “The Conservatives have again broken their promise to British farmers and the public. No one wants lower quality food on our plates, but there is an increasing risk that this could happen because the prime minister is refusing to show leadership. Labour will always back British farmers and it is a disgrace that the Tories won’t do the same.”
Farmers and industry campaigners in the Westcountry have repeatedly warned of the dangers of opening the UK’s borders to imports of inferior quality, produced to standards not permitted by law in the UK. They say this would undermine and undercut the high standards adhered to by farmers in the South West and across Britain, putting many traditional family farms – the bedrock of the region’s rural economy – at a serious competitive disadvantage.
Reacting to the vote, Devon farmer Jilly Greed, co-founder of Ladies in Beef and the Suckler Beef Producers Association, said South West farmers have worked “incredibly hard” to achieve environmental good practice and high animal welfare standards over many years – which the public “overwhelmingly support”.
Mrs Greed, who farms near Exeter, commented: “To find our commitment and long term investment, so blithely and shamefully voted away by Conservative MPs last evening, is an utter betrayal, including those MPs who chose to abstain.
“It’s Brexit trade deal desperation, at any cost. Do not doubt for any moment substandard crops and beef, illegal to produce here, will be slipped in through the back door.
“The farming community, led by the NFU and president Minette Batters, asked MPs to morally stand up to be counted alongside Neil Parish, Simon Hoare and many others – and do the right thing.
“I doubt the farming community will be quite so trusting of a Brexit-driven Prime Minister when it comes to the next general election and the rural vote.”
Tim Mead, owner of Yeo Valley Organic based in Somerset, described the Government’s refusal to back the House of Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill as “extremely concerning”, as these aimed to “ensure the standards of food imports, climate change and pesticides and protect the livelihoods of British farmers”.
He continued: “This ruling works against our commitments for mitigating climate change and the green recovery. We need to produce healthy food as nature intended, with increased diversity and bio abundance (for example by not using chemical fertilisers and sprays such as on an organic farm) and the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon into the soil.
“If biodiversity and other sustainability metrics continue to be excluded from the list of conditions for receiving public money it will have dire effects. Putting soil front and centre of Government policy is imperative for the future of our wildlife, the world and its people.”
For Richard Vines, founder and owner of Dartmoor-based Wild Beef, parliamentarians now need to focus their debates on the “integrity of labelling”.
Mr Vines, who sells his ‘beyond organic’, wholly grass-fed and finished beef direct to shoppers at London’s Borough Market and Broadway Market in Hackney, said: “We live in a big world and we already import beef from South Africa and South America, rice and farmed prawns from the Far East and lamb from New Zealand, which would not be reared to the same standards as ourselves. They’re intensively reared and they get on with it, hell or high water.
“What is important is consumer choice. Everybody always talks about consumer choice, but you can’t have consumer choice if you haven’t got honest and highly visible labelling.
“At the moment we do not have that and, to my mind, it’s not acceptable for the country of processing to pose as the country of origin, and to be labelled primarily as that. That is the issue that Parliament should be debating – the integrity of labelling. Currently people do not have choice because they don’t know what they’re buying.
“Furthermore, I feel that we talk endlessly about ethical and sustainable farming, but really the debate should move on to processing. For far too long there’s been a glass ceiling above production. You can produce all the clean, healthy food in the world, but as soon as the processors get hold of it they change it, so that’s another debate that should be had.”
Mr Vines, a former soldier and brewery executive, stressed that farmers need to re-think how they sell their products to the British people. He added: “Rather than banging on about imports from around the world, we ought to be using our energy to sell to ourselves.”
Debbie Kingsley, who rears rare and native breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry at South Yeo Farm West near Okehampton, wrote on Twitter: “This is not just terrible for farmers as seems to be the response so far. It is a disaster for anyone that eats.”
Meanwhile, the House of Lords amendment proposed by Lord Curry of Kirkhale, which aims to strengthen the powers of the recently-established Trade and Agriculture Commission and give MPs greater scrutiny of its findings and recommendations in relation to future trade deals, was not put to a vote by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
This was dispute over the terms of the ‘Money Resolution’ of the Agriculture Bill, which allows for the expenditure of public money on new laws.
The Agriculture Bill, with its defeated amendments, will now return to the House of Lords and there will be further chances this week for debate.
A Correspondent has pointed out that Labour supported all the Lords amendments:
- Total number of votes on the amendments:
Lords Amendment 11, which sought to limit the use of pesticides to protect the public, was voted down by 347 votes to 212.
Lords Amendment 16, which aimed to maintain British food standards in trade deals, was voted down by 332 votes to 279.
Lords Amendment 17, which sought to improve environmental protections, was voted down by 344 votes to 206.
- Neil Parish’s voting record – he voted against keeping the climate amendment 17, and the pesticides amendment 11
What about “Jumping Jupp Flash” the MP chosen to keep Bojo at a “safe distance” at the “unencumbered” visit to Exeter when Bojo failed to make any promise of funding for the region? How did he vote?