Having followed the NFU joint events throughout the party conference season, it’s encouraging to see that so many fundamental topics – the environment, agriculture and trade – have been discussed, particularly the development of the Agriculture Bill, writes Tobias Read.
A personal highlight being the NFU Deputy President, Stuart Roberts’ discussion with Shadow DEFRA Secretary, Luke Pollard MP.
The current state of rural representation in Westminster seems to be a depressing topic for those of us in the rural and agriculture community. The much anticipated Agriculture Bill is set to encompass a wide array of issues and remain a pivotal piece of legislation in the years to come – yet it may well be marred in parts with the misdirection of powers and the relaxing of standards.
Britain – a country renowned for her high standards – has unapologetically become accustomed to the idolisation of our scrupulous standards of food production, and rightly so. We have built global stature for such quality and control, so much so, that for the first time in 20 years Welsh meat will be available in America, a place that is increasingly becoming an isolationist part of the world. An NFU report published on ‘Back British Farming Day’ noted the traceability of British meat via notable insignias, such as the Red Tractor Label. A whopping 86% of those surveyed, believe Britain should be producing as much of her own food as possible, providing food security to the nation. Indeed, the belief in the importance of British produce is a public backed ethos and one that sets a strong argument against the import of food from potentially substandard producers.
The recent creation of the Trade and Agriculture Commission was aimed at protecting against rogue import allowances on substandard produce within the UK Governments new trade deals, but it would already appear defunct as the Agriculture Bill aims to remove scrutiny from this same very commission. I like others however remain emboldened by the actions of the red benched chamber. In the Lords, a number of amendments including one by Lord Curry have been voted through aiming to reassert the power and scrutiny of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and to protect food standards. Yet in discussion with NFU President Minette Batters at Conservative Party Conference, DEFRA Minister, George Eustice MP, stated that the government was not likely to take stock of amendments to its agricultural bill.
What does this mean for the average consumer and the hard-working producer? Well, for the consumer it means there is an increased risk of them purchasing substandard produce, particularly within the foodservice industry where tracing labels aren’t as clear on menus – an argument raised by both Stuart Roberts MP and Luke Pollard MP.
For producers, the risk is even greater. We risk forcing upon our farmers a perilous situation whereby they face being undercut on the price of their produce by foreign competitors. Indeed, this would force upon the consumer an unwanted dilemma whereby they have to choose between the locally-sourced, more expensive British product vs. the ethically inferior produce that is sourced from overseas. Ultimately farmers and processors lose out, that is if they are to maintain the practices they currently adopt, which of course has an even greater impact when we consider the production of food for many holds cultural and social significance also, particularly when many farms are family-run.
We have discussed standards, we have discussed scrutiny, now our attention must turn to scruples. The truth of the matter is, that when we analyse the vote share of rural communities, we see a deepening divide in the way in which votes are cast. In 2017, 48% of voters living outside larger towns and cities cast their ballot in favour of the Conservative Party, however, this rural preference for the Conservative Party is not one we can take for granted. Given the issues that have been raised as a result of the Agriculture Bill, it should confound Tory MPs to seek the best deal for the people that voted them in – that’s the scruples, acting in Parliament to procure scrutiny that will protect the standards that keep British farmers farming.
The Agriculture Bill also presents many opportunities, with the focus being given to increasing the sustainability of farming, via the UK Government’s land management schemes and incentivising the creation of environmentally friendly farming practices in return for subsidy. In a recent NFU poll, the group found that 77% of those polled agreed that farmers should still receive financial support post-Brexit – the Agriculture Bill makes capacity for this. The impact of environmental land management schemes has a much far-reaching purpose than the standalone government subsidiary. This among other provisions within the Bill will undoubtedly help and benefit the rural and agriculture sector, however, this is only worthwhile if the UK Government and MPs listen to our communities and bodies such as the NFU, to receive the broader picture.
A confusing message is being sent to our farmers, on one hand, the UK Government pursues an agenda that sees British farming standards upheld, whilst also inviting the introduction of subpar produce through the signing of trade deals. Indeed, at the start of this piece, I suggested the standard of rural representation we have in Westminster is bleak, but as I have detailed, the problem doesn’t lie in the lack of rural communities fielding sufficient and cooperative MPs, instead, it’s simply down to a lack of listening.
The point of this article is not to make a noise about chlorinated chicken or the ethics of beef production in Brazil. But rather to encourage the public to support the adoption of an Agricultural policy that will take into consideration the same standards that make our produce world-renowned. And finally a word for Wales – I would highlight that the transitional period of farm support is set to continue until 2024, and this presents an incredibly exciting opportunity for Wales. The fall of next years Senedd Election means that the sixth Senedd to be elected in 2021 will have control of designing an agriculture policy that works for Wales. This offers the Welsh Conservatives a unique opportunity to work with our agriculture sector in order to build policies that would transform the sector into a fighting force in both trade and sustainability.
Tobias Read is a young farmer and the Political Secretary for Cardiff University Conservative Association.