By the Uncivil Servant, our new anonymous columnist with an insider’s view of government.
The bouncers of Birmingham’s Broad Street have a name for the evening of February 25: Farmageddon. It’s the night that over 1,000 farmers pile out of the NFU’s conference dinner and into the second city’s thronging strip of bars. Not this year though.
Due to a last minute cabinet meeting, our newly crowned Secretary of State, George Eustice, was forced to reschedule his appearance at the NFU’s Conference to the second day, at 8am. At the close of day one every farmer in the hall was instructed by its President, Minette Batters to ‘Be here tomorrow morning, whatever state you’re in.’
And so it was, Eustice delivered his vanilla address to a packed room of withering delegates. The speech itself was no justification for the curtailed frivolities. The one-on-one interrogation that followed, however, was. Minette had Eustice squirming in his chair in a way than Andrew Marr had failed to do the previous Sunday. It was a Brexit Battleground, with trade standards the weapon of choice.
Now, I’m aware my next question is as unfashionable as admitting to finding Greta Thunberg massively annoying. Is it realistic to expect Government to legislate on food standards?
It’s abundantly clear the US will have unfettered access to our markets. The trade war with China hit a lot of farmers hard, and Trump needs to give something back to his voting heartland. US Secretary of state, Mike Pompeo made clear in an interview with LBC that chlorinated chicken must be on the menu: “We need to make sure we don’t use food safety as a ruse to try and protect a particular industry.” He’s calling it out.
There’s an element of irony too. We already import humongous quantities of food produced to standards illegal on British farms. Government knows it too. Eustice held the line under scrutiny and made no commitments to write anything into law on trade.
Outside the Agriculture Bill, there are other (admittedly weaker) safeguards. The Food Standards Agency is set to retain its independence in risk assessment and management after we leave the EU. Retailers remain the gateway to the market, and consumers will still make the choice. And, there’s an opportunity for the Red Tractor, love it or loathe it, to mature into a brand for British food (farmers shouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill for that though).
Unfair competition is already a reality. The desire for fairness and a degree of market protection as we enter a ruthless global trade arena is completely understandable. Yet, the biting reality is that not all farmers will be able to compete in it.