Battles over chlorinated chicken, hormone-treated beef, and genetically modified produce have been raging since the Brexit referendum. With the Agriculture Bill in parliamentary ping pong debating the enshrinement of UK standards into law Cobi Akinrele and Lynne Davis explore why this debate is important not only for farmers but for social justice in our food systems.

The Agricultural Bill is about much more than protecting the interest of British farmers. The Bill itself exposes the social and economic inequalities, at home and abroad, promoted by our current food systems. As such, the amendments to this very Bill proposed by the House of Lords in October could have been the beginning of a long-overdue overhaul of our food and farming sectors. Unless we actively seek to reform our current food system, for producers and for eaters, we will maintain the status quo. In the long run, a policy of ‘let’s just protect our own’ does not favour farmers and shoppers in Britain or elsewhere.

On 12th October 2020 the House of Commons rejected the following amendment of the Agriculture Bill:

“any agricultural or food product imported into the United Kingdom under the agreement will have been produced or processed according to standards which, on the date of their importation, are equivalent to, or exceed, the relevant domestic standards and regulations” (Lords Amendment to the Agricultural Bill, October 2020).

This amendment was introduced after fierce campaigning (such as Sustain’s campaign to #saveourstandards) not only by sector groups, but also a range of celebrities, with the intention of enshrining into law that food imports into the UK should not be allowed if the production standards of this food do not meet British standards and regulations.

There are theoretically a number of ways to ensure that our food standards are maintained into the future. However, without enshrinement in British law the protections must fall into specific trade agreements – agreements that currently require no transparency or even parliamentary scrutiny. The Agriculture Bill is currently the most likely place in which protection of our standards can be enshrined in law, yet our MPs are voting against this. What is their rationale?

A tale of two food systems

The impact of the inclusion or exclusion of this clause will not be immediately felt by farmers or shoppers, but that does not mean they won’t be substantial. There are two main motivations for excluding this amendment. Firstly that we can expect to see food as a key bargaining piece within our trade agreements, and as a food-importing nation, food-exporting nations like the US will enjoy the political popularity of preferential access to our markets. The US produces food more cheaply than anywhere in the world, and as trade flows expand and become more cost-effective this cheaper food will find its way to our markets. This is the second and more common argument for open trade – reducing prices to shoppers. It is like we are at a fork in the road. As a society do we prioritise cheap food? Or do we value animal welfare, the environment and other food standards enough to forgo the potential of slightly cheaper food?

Why do we ban chlorinated chicken now?

In 1997, implementing an EU Directive, the United Kingdom banned the importation of chlorinated chicken. This was not due to fears over whether traces of chlorine in food were toxic in humans, as it is largely believed that it is not. Instead, the need to treat poultry with chlorine is an indication of the use of poultry management processes deemed unfit in the EU. A preventative approach to animal welfare is an essential part of domestic food standards in Europe, chlorine-treated chicken appears to be at loggerheads with a food system that strives to effectively implement a sustainable food beneficial to all.

International trade in itself need not work against domestic animal welfare or environmental goals for example. To suggest otherwise reaffirms the idea that there is little to be done to change international trade. As argued by Hatti Owens at Client Earth, “WTO rules are not static. They must adapt to changing circumstances”. One way to push these changes could be through the promotion of domestic trade laws. Domestic laws in the UK have global implications. As Britain leaves the EU, many want a share of the UK market. By imposing new laws on food and farming standards of their imports, Britain could avoid the intensification of harmful food management and farming practices with their prospective trading partners. One might assume this should be the role of trade law as opposed to a domestic Agricultural Bill, however, the negotiation of trade deals if often left to the Department of International Trade with little public scrutiny. For this reason, the protection of British farmers as a primary reason to amend the Agricultural Bill is only on side of the story.

Defending social justice through food

Beyond the impact on animal welfare and ecology, there is an important social angle to this. With a UK food system served by a higher proportion of imported foods, including highly processed food with lower production standards, some in society will choose the higher-priced, higher-quality British food. Others will opt to save the money on food to enable the paying of other bills. By reducing the cost of living we are increasing the opportunities to exploit people and workers. Reducing the cost of food does not reduce the prevalence of poverty in our society, it simply hides it so that it pops up in other places like long term health implications and poorer school performance.

British farmers cannot produce everything the British public eats. Not affordably anyway. While we cannot do away with international trade, as shoppers, food hubs, retailers, and policymakers we can ensure that our trade does not undermine our wider social or environmental goals. As global trade has increased, so too has the marginalisation of poorer farmers of some of our much-loved produce. To shift the responsibility of the supply chain to British farmers is not only impractical, but it also risks moving the systems of oppressive trade practices to the UK,  further entrenching domestic social and economic inequalities.

Protecting social and ecological standards is a grey area in which existing agreements and institutions are not currently well equipped to adjudicate. Given the scale of global social and ecological crises, a new level of leadership is required on a global scale. Enshrining our standards in law is the progressive kind of leadership in global trade that can help ensure the health of people in the UK and the health of the planet.

Cobi Akinrele and Lynne Davis