The UK cannot continue lagging behind in the formation and implementation of meaningful policy change on the environment.
With the announcement of DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan in January of this year, Michael Gove is pushing for a ‘Green Brexit’. This is good, but of course Brexit should be green. While there are welcomed mentions of steps towards soil health, integrated pest management, increased biodiversity and less pesticides, there are no significant statements on farming, food or agriculture in the report, which is staggering as all these factors are intimately connected. Could this separation of issues result in fragmented and contradictory environmental policy after Brexit?
In February, Defra released a consultation document entitled ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’. The National Union of Farmers (NFU) says it “presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance and promote British farming”, and Helen Browning, Soil Association Chief Executive, said “there is much to welcome in this paper’s ambition for high standards of food quality and farm animal welfare, for improving soil health and tackling climate change”, but cited a lack of analysis on the vital role that organic farming can play in achieving the objectives.
There is a remarkable lack of detail in some areas of the report, including how we will manage a sustainable food system. Food prices got a mention; “We will adopt a trade approach which promotes …. lower prices for consumers” (p. 10). However, a focus on price and not health, is worrying if we are subject to a hard Brexit with no access to the single market. This situation may result in us having to look elsewhere for trading partners, opening the door for the UK government to negotiate trade deals that risk the desired ‘excellence’ of UK food and farming being undercut by cheap and likely low-quality imports. Our trade desperation could result in a race to the bottom of food standards.
Even though ‘health’ features arrogantly in the title of the consultation paper, little is said about how our human health and wellbeing will be affected by Brexit. This is surely a missed opportunity. The Soil Association has stated that “farmers are stewards of our health as well as of our environment” and they are calling for the Health Secretary to be brought in on the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. An agricultural bill that skirts around demanding healthy and nutritious food but maintains focus on price and productivity is a bill that plays into the hands of free trade and industry, not consumer wellbeing.
With farmland covering 69% of Britain, a vision that recognises agriculture’s dependence on the natural world is key: caring for the environment must be at the centre of farming in the future. However, without clear leadership from the government, accompanied by holistic environmental policy, industry is provided the chance to fill the vacuum of inconsistency. The state must seize this opportunity to forge a better and more inclusive environment for everyone. This is not the time for silo policy discussions but for a truly interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the links between food, agriculture and other environmental factors.
What these documents show so far is that there are good intentions here. But the lack of clarity, consistency and intersectional analysis cloud the goodwill. Amidst this uncertainty, we have an opportunity to promote farming for inclusivity and wellbeing, to reframe what is meant by ‘productivity’ and to broaden our notions of what ‘the environment’ is and what ‘farming’ entails. Dan Crossley, from the Food Ethics Council, calls for a long-term food and farming strategy that join the dots of food, farming, environment, animal welfare and public health.
Professor Terry Marsden from Cardiff University suggests the setting up of a new multi-stakeholder National Commission for Food and Agriculture (involving stakeholders from across the industry and devolved authorities) which can provide oversight and collective leadership and review. The explicit objective of such a body would be to hold ministers to account and to be sufficiently inclusive of the major private, public, consumer and civic stakeholders such that is can creatively build non-competitive national consensus about the overall priorities and principles to be adopted as the country proceeds through Brexit.
Though many of the questions in the consultation paper are aimed at farmers, who obviously play a major role in the future farming vision, it’s vital that we - as citizens have our say on what food we want to eat and the kind of environment we want to exist in. The formation of The Agriculture Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to influence major policy direction so have your say at https://consult.defra.gov.uk/farming/future-of-farming/ .
Image source: Institute for European Environmental Policy