THE AGRICULTURE BILL WAS A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD RESILIENCE IN A TIME OF CRISIS

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by Yali Banton-Heath

The Covid-19 crisis has rusted the already weak links holding the UK’s food supply chain together. From just-in-time logistic strategies to a desperate reliance on imported goods and labour, supermarkets have struggled to keep up with panic buying, farmers have feared that their vegetables will rot in fields, and farm to table supply chains have been hugely disrupted.

It is exposing our food system’s incapacity to respond to emergencies in the short-term, whilst also beckoning reform in terms of its sustainability in the longer-term. 

Alas, earlier this month the UK government missed a golden opportunity to bolster resilience in our food system. On May 13th the House of Commons voted on the Agriculture Bill, tabled by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee chair Neil Parrish. The bill contained two significant policy reforms: to support the transition to agroecology in UK farming, and to raise import standards to the same level as domestic production standards. 

MPs voted it down, and it has now be passed to the House of Lords for further consideration next month.

This is immensely frustrating. In a time of post-Brexit legal uncertainty and economic downturn in the aftermath of Covid-19 (not to mention global heating and mass extinction), the progressive potential of this bill in transforming the UK’s food and farming system should have been obvious. In its response to both of these crises our government needs to place the issue of food security firmly on the agenda.  

 

the UK imports 48% of the foodstuff it consumes

 

Right now, the UK relies heavily on imports and is consequently far from self-sufficient in terms of domestic food production. According to Global Food Security statistics the UK imports 48% of the foodstuff it consumes, and this figure is said to be rising. But reliance on global food supply chains in a time of crisis is proving far too precarious a strategy as border controls tighten, movement and trade is restricted, and global supply chains become severely limited. 

Some continue to argue that the key to boosting resilience in the UK’s food system lies in strengthening international trade relationships. Lobbying for a favourable trade deal with the EU during this post-Brexit transition period which would allow for imports from EU countries to take place with minimal friction has been a top priority for large supermarkets and food supply chain industry bodies. 

The prospect of new UK/US trade agreement in particular has sparked major concerns over the likelihood that it will dismantle UK food and farming standards. The Soil Association has listed 10 main risks to agriculture and public health in forming a trade deal with the US: not limited to fears over infamous chlorinated chicken, these risks include the use of hormone treatment in beef production, lax regulations on pesticide use and an increased likelihood of GM crops making an appearance on shelves.

Worryingly, it also points to the US’s excessive use of antibiotics in animal farming, which increases chances of antimicrobial resistance and can subsequently pose a grave threat to human health through the potential spread of disease.

Making new trade deals and having to compromise production standards not only threatens public health, but campaign groups and farming associations have also highlighted the grave financial losses which would face UK farmers if low import standards continue to undercut domestic prices. 

It’s not just reliance on imported goods which makes our food system vulnerable, but also our reliance on imported labour. 99% of seasonal workers on UK farms are EU nationals, but with travel restrictions ongoing due to the pandemic there are concerns within the farming community that finding sufficient labour requirements will prove challenging in the coming months. In response to this, campaigns such as ‘Home Grown’ and the government’s ‘Pick for Britain’ scheme have set up recruitment platforms to source labour from within UK borders in a collective summoning for a Land Army’ to “muck in” and “feed the nation”.

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The Land Army is a jobs platform linking workers and farms, it is due to launch in the coming month (credit: thelandarmy.jobs Instagram page)

 

The much anticipated EU Farm 2 Fork strategy – which aimed to shorten supply chains and localise food production – has had to be placed on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis. Ironically, however, the current situation has spurred the agricultural sector to implement its strategies nonetheless. In France for example, local governments have accelerated programmes and web platforms which link consumers directly to producers, and a lack of exotics produce in shops has lead to people reevaluating their consumer choices and re-familiarising themselves with local produce.

 

an essentially different paradigm for how we think about farming is urgently needed

 

With the likelihood of a global food crisis looming, the FAO has also stressed the need for shorter supply chains, as well as diversified food systems and community self-sufficiency. Furthermore, in acknowledgement of expert warnings that the the spread of Covid-19 is directly linked to biodiversity loss and degradation of habitats, they have also emphasized that: “an essentially different paradigm for how we think about farming is urgently needed, and agroecological approaches are an important part of this response.” – approaches which take into consideration environmental impact, biodiversity conservation and preservation of natural habitats and ecological systems. 

All over the world, people are having to respond to the economic implications of the Covid-19 crisis, and food security has become a central concern in many regions.

In Bhutan – a country which has historically relied heavily on food imported from India – since borders closed in response to the pandemic, politicians have been forced to catalyse the nation’s push for food self-sufficiency by subsidising domestic agriculture, and creating schemes to promote local food consumption such as supplying local food to schools. 

In Singapore, the municipal government has converted 9 multi-storey car parks into urban farms in a state-led effort to increase domestic food production in light of disruptions in the global food supply chain.

In Rojava, the autonomous region in Northern and Eastern Syria, due the embargo on Syria and the fall of the Syrian pound, food imports into the self-governing region have all but stopped. Its predominantly Kurdish inhabitants are now having to wholly rely on their cooperative-based economy by collectively planting cereals and vegetables in a bid to increase self-sufficiency during this crisis and beyond. 

 

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Planting seeds in the Internationalist Commune of Rojava (credit: Make Rojava Green Again Facebook page)

In a similar vein to the above example, writing for food security campaign group Feedback, Phile Holtam has proposed several ways in which the UK can start to build a better food system. The list includes, but is not limited to; subsidising domestic production, setting a minimum on crop prices, regeneration of urban spaces into market gardens, and the promotion of a seasonal diet. 

So it seems that all arrows point towards shortened supply chains, maintaining good food production standards, supporting domestic farmers in order to increase self-sufficiency, and investing in agroecological environmentally-sensitive approaches to farming. This is precisely what the Agriculture Bill was motioned for. 

Covid-19 is shaking everything up, and now is the time to take radical steps in the right direction. The remedies to our failing food system lie in localised, environmentally sensitive policies, but if the government isn’t willing to take these steps, we must instead. Get involved in local growing projects. Buy British, buy seasonal, and buy local. Offer our labour power and sign up to the Land Army if we are able to. Or even just plant some radish seeds in our window boxes. It’s time to revitalise our relationship with food production, on a both a national and personal level. 

 

Here are some useful links:

Home Grown Land Army: https://homegrown.earth/land-army/

The Landworkers Alliance: https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/

Pick for Britain: https://pickforbritain.org.uk/

Norwich Farmshare: https://www.norwichfarmshare.co.uk/

Featured image credit: Norwich Farmshare


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