Tories are squandering our greener future

“Many farms will disappear, and the fields and hedgerows will be untended, as our basic foodstuffs will be shipped or flown in more cheaply from abroad, from countries that care less about food standards.”

Alice Thomson 

During the pandemic the British have rekindled their love of the countryside. Farmers’ approval ratings soared as they kept food on the supermarket shelves and milk on the breakfast table, and “cottagecore” — celebrating such pursuits as foraging, baking and pottering — became the hashtag for the new good life. Boris Johnson, in his conference speech last week, set out his vision of Britain in 2030, where people would wander among millions of newly planted trees and picnic in new “wild belts” across the countryside.

Many now feel that those rural dreams have been crushed. This week the government overturned amendments to the new Agriculture Bill that would have ensured imported food meets domestic legal standards after Brexit. By rejecting these calls it has alienated an astonishing cross-section of farmers, chefs, environmentalists and consumers, and united the Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks with Sir James Dyson, Britain’s richest man.

The former environment secretary Theresa Villiers voted against the government, as did Neil Parish, Conservative chairman of the environment select committee, and a dozen other Tory MPs in rural constituencies, along with Labour and the Lib Dems. Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith are incandescent, Prue Leith from The Great British Bake Off has spoken out, as has Joe Wicks, the fitness guru. Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA animal welfare charity, says the government has reneged on its manifesto promise to safeguard standards.

In just a few weeks a million people have added their names to a National Farmers’ Union petition begging the government to reconsider but the prime minister still hasn’t met Minette Batters, the NFU president. All they are asking for is proper scrutiny of potential trade deals that can run into tens of thousands of pages, and for countries that want to export to the UK to adhere to similar animal welfare standards so there is a level playing field.

But the government has refused. Liz Truss, the trade secretary, may say she loves British cheddar but she appears to be encouraging ultra-processed imports. “I don’t want to stop developing countries exporting their goods to us,” she insists. The government’s concern is that countries such as the US and Australia will not sign up to a trade deal if they are expected to conform to higher standards.

The Americans have made it clear that they believe their chlorinated chicken and hormone beef is safe to eat but the conditions in which many of their animals are raised would concern both meat eaters and vegans in this country, as would the Australians’ use of antibiotics in livestock farming, and insecticides currently banned under EU rules.

Detractors insist that only the rich can afford to be concerned about higher food standards but polling for the consumer rights group Which? shows it’s the least affluent 10 per cent who are most concerned about being fed substandard burgers, pork sausages and BLT sandwiches. They also care most about animal cruelty and count on the government to maintain quality in supermarkets, fast food outlets, school cafeterias, care homes and hospitals. Henry Dimbleby, who leads the National Food Strategy, explains that the well-off can afford to be less concerned because they can buy their way out by favouring expensive luxury brands and organic food, creating a two-tier food system.

In the past few months farmers have come to be seen as some of the most trusted and valued workers in the country, while politicians’ reputations have sunk further. But farmers won’t be able to compete if they are rearing their products to higher ethical standards than their foreign counterparts. Many of the country’s 140,000 farms will go out of business and more food will have to be imported, just when the British have embraced the idea of supporting local producers and shopping at farmers’ markets. This is what Dyson, who is trying to make Britain self-sufficient by pioneering new farming methods, most fears. “Why import when we have some of the best soil in the world and can grow most food here?” he told me. “The demise of manufacturing in the UK has been a tragedy. I don’t want farming to go the same way.”

There was a moment when Britain, the third biggest food market globally, could have decided in the wake of Brexit to lead the world in food standards and environmentally friendly farming. “We will be throwing away the opportunity of encouraging a great industry to lead the world,” says Villiers, now free to speak her mind on the backbenches. “We should be projecting our values through our new trade policies.”

Instead it is now clear that the government has a very different vision of the countryside after Covid-19 and Brexit. It dreams of a land that is 30 per cent rewilded, with beavers and otters, bison and boar roaming the lakes and the dales, while the rest is open to being tarmacked over and covered with new housing estates.

Many farms will disappear, and the fields and hedgerows will be untended, as our basic foodstuffs will be shipped or flown in more cheaply from abroad, from countries that care less about food standards.

Mr Johnson, brought up in wellies on one of the most beautiful hill farms on Exmoor, must know what he is doing, and he should at least be honest about the reality of his plans for a new Jerusalem.