“This government will respond to the needs and wants of the British people; that is how a democracy should work, that is what Brexit is all about.”
So responded James Cleverly MP to NFU president Minette Batters’ expert questioning on the issue of future trade standards on BBC’s Question Time last month.
Mr Cleverly, in line with his government, refused to be drawn on this issue and committed only to not diluting our domestic production standards.
The trade standards commission promised by former Defra secretary Michael Gove last year (under extreme pressure from Mrs Batters) has sunk without trace.
This leaves farmers in the invidious position of producing food to ever higher standards, with declining support and the post-Brexit spectre of unrestricted competition from produce it would be illegal to produce here – whether on the grounds of food hygiene, environmental sustainability, animal welfare or quality.
As Mrs Batters retorted, this issue affects every man, woman and child in the country. But it goes wider than food standards alone.
This speaks to an issue of social justice in Brexit Britain, where we risk the imposition of a two-tier food system whereby the wealthy will be able to afford high-quality British produce, while the poorer in society will become second-class food citizens, able only to afford cheaper, lower-quality imports.
People voted for Brexit in order to improve their lot; not to be fobbed off with the environmentally destructive dregs of our global food system
The government is relying on the received wisdom that us Brits value “cheap” above “quality” when it comes to food – but I believe this is misguided. Little value is attached to the safety of our food because that safety is taken for granted.
When issues do arise – such as with the imported horsemeat scandal of 2013 – concerns about food quality shoot straight to the top of the consumer agenda.
Indeed, the public doesn’t know much about its food supply, but it knows it doesn’t want chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef.
As farmers, we know these products are the tip of a very large iceberg of equally unpalatable products ready to force their way onto our shelves.
People will stand and fight for what they believe in, given the courage of good leadership.
British agriculture, in the vanguard of this issue, is perfectly placed to serve our nation in providing that leadership to our country in this litmus test of post-Brexit trade policy; to act as the moral compass of a morally vacuous government.
People voted for Brexit in order to improve their lot; not to be fobbed off with the environmentally destructive dregs of our global food system.
If we can inform our consumers of the reality of that system and harness the critical mass of their political gravity, we can create a financially and environmentally sustainable British food and farming sector fit for the coming century.
There is already broad consensus on this issue, as demonstrated by the remarkable alliance of 60 signatories – from farming groups to environmentalists – to the NFU’s recent open letter to the government.
The NFU-organised food standards rally, due to be held in Westminster on 25 March, will be a terrific opportunity to highlight the positive contribution British farmers make to the life of our nation, and to act as a rallying call that the people of Britain demand better of their government than food produced to bottom dollar at the cost of our global environment.