Photograph by Angus D. Birditt
The days are counting down to the moment when the UK could open it’s floodgates to a new level of standards in the food industry, one that will indeed see a number of our British food producers and businesses struggle with the enormous pressures created from exports supplying cheaper and less sustainable goods. Read the following article by Angus D. Birditt, which follows the thoughts from farmers, producers and experts alike that are reacting to these new impending threats of lower food standards, and why it’s important for us all – irrespective of the upcoming decision – to take responsibility for our actions as consumers.
If you were one of those included in the million (plus) that voted through online petitions, took part in the impressive agricultural processions outside parliament or implemented various campaigning efforts prohibiting food imports to lower standards than current UK production, then the recent rejection of the proposed amendments in lieu of 16B and 18B to the Agriculture Bill is still a perplexing one – seeing that over 300 voted against. Yet, as novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry once said, “The impeded stream is the one that sings,” that is; when faced with adversity, we must change our course, for opportunity lies beyond. So, ‘remember, remember the 4th of November’, the day on which the amendments to the Agriculture Bill will be taken to the House of Commons.
If these amendments to the Agriculture Bill were to be rejected, all industries in our food system will be affected in one way or another, especially those small-scale farmers and producers, who work tirelessly to produce quality over quantity. One industry, for example, that could be affected by the lowering of food standards is the farmhouse and artisan cheese industry, where many are both farmers and artisan makers. Mary Quicke, a farmer and cheesemaker at Quicke’s Cheese, describes her view on the last rejection of the proposed amendments, “It is concerning. The intensive methods of farming in other countries mean that they could meet many of the ‘banner headline‘ standards while still operating below our standards and characteristics for environment, welfare and farm structure. We need to farm better for long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability.” Tim Williams, a regenerative farmer from Cornwall, says, “The decision seems to revolve around money. By placing 'Balance of Trade' ahead of the health and wellbeing of the population is both very short-sighted and irresponsible.” Ruth Hancock, a grower and coordinator at The Landworkers Alliance, agrees, “This is a serious misstep on the part of the government. As a farmer, who has spent years producing food, not just with profit, but with ecology and community in mind as well, I think it is vital that we protect our food systems, and our farmers against lower production standard imports coming into this country.” Andy Swinscoe, head cheesemonger at The Courtyard Dairy, thinks the decision is “a real shame.” He believes, “We have an opportunity with the rise and success of more intelligent regenerative farming in the UK to produce real quality produce, unique to our Isles. Instead this encourages base, bland production that can be repeated anywhere. It will be a race to the bottom; the end consumer and the environment will suffer as we become reliant on large agri-business.”
"It’s imperative that the new Agriculture Bill helps secure a future for small scale farmers and prioritises a system that encourages sustainable farming practices, animal welfare and healthy food.”
Furthermore, Abi Aspen Glenross, a farmer at Duchess Farms, believes that the decision is “appalling and hypocritical” to what the government have previously said about their environmental concerns. The insightful article What’s the future for England’s farmers? written by Richard Young, a farmer and policy director at The Sustainable Food Trust, notes, “One of the objectives of the Bill is to help address climate change, yet on average the carbon footprint of beef produced in other countries is more than double that of beef produced in the UK.” James Robinson is an organic farmer from South Cumbria, who farms a herd of Shorthorn cows on his 300-acre grassland farm. He believes the decision is “very worrying for the future of farming,” however, he objectively sees the rejection as one “to be expected, as the government need to keep their options open in a world of growing uncertainty.” He continues, “For us small-scale farmers, if our products are undercut, we will see our profits – which are small anyway – disappear very quickly.”
Photograph (top) by Liz Seabrook of Mary Quicke
Patrick Holden, a farmer and the founder of The Sustainable Food Trust, notes, “The main factor [for the government rejecting the amendments] is because they want to keep their negotiation options as open as possible in relation to trade offs, such as, ‘if you take our machinery exports, then we allow your food imports’, etc.” He continues, “the way the government sees things at the moment not least because they suspect, I believe wrongly, that the public are more interested in the cheapness of food than they are in its compatibility with addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.” A recent survey by Which? backs this up, “Around three-quarters (74%) [of British consumers] said they were opposed to importing food produced using these methods – chlorine-washed chicken, meat from animals treated with growth hormones or antibiotics and many pesticides commonly used in US food production – a response that was consistent across all socio-economic groups.” Much has been said – quite rightly – about chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-induced beef coming into the country, but as Richard Young highlights in his article, there are many more, equally unethical inclusions that will “dilute standards in the UK.” Peter Greig from Pipers Farms adds, “It’s an increasingly worrying time for small food producers, many of whom have shown incredible courage and resilience keeping the country fed through the outbreak of Covid-19. It’s imperative that the new Agriculture Bill helps secure a future for small scale farmers and prioritises a system that encourages sustainable farming practices, animal welfare and healthy food.”
It is evident to hear that millions of people in Britain are apprehensive about the next few months and years ahead if this last ditch for amendments gets rejected once more. Yet, as we have seen throughout the history of agriculture, when challenges lay ahead, many will search for light within the looming darkness; finding opportunities where and when they arise. One opportunity, for example, which farmers and producers are making the most of, is the momentous shift over the last year in people talking about food sustainability and provenance, plus the millions discussing matters surrounding the new Bill. Mary Quicke says, “At least now, we have the attention of many consumers and that provides opportunities.” Tim Williams talks about this exposure, “As producers, who place a strong emphasis on health, wellbeing and the environment, we have been able to engage with a wider audience, who, perhaps in the past, may not have even begun to think about how their food is produced.” Ruth Hancock also sees the benefits of raising the awareness of our food production, “It has alerted far more people to the currently fragile state of our food and farming systems in the UK.” Patrick Holden agrees, “On the positive side, Covid has precipitated a much greater public interest in the provenance of food and this has found expression in the dramatic increase in the percentage of online sales.”
Photograph (bottom) by Doug McMaster of Abi Aspen Glenross
“At least now, we have the attention of many consumers and that provides opportunities.”
The recent decision also highlights the opportunity for each and every one of us to revaluate our role and choices as consumers, taking responsibility for our actions to change and improve what food we buy and from where. Patrick Holden notes that we must “make a commitment as consumers and electors” to find produce that has been grown in this country from truly sustainable producers. He suggests, “If you are a supermarket shopper, set yourself new purchasing criteria - insist on knowing the story behind any food you buy in a supermarket, specifically the location and identity of the producer, and the sustainability of their production system.”
Sustainably or organically grown produce is often seen as a luxury, but if we buy less and buy better, we will be helping not only our own nutrition, but also the wider – most often unseen – ethical and environmental impacts. For it was Wendell Berry, again, who fittingly said, “Eating is an agricultural act” – he has plenty of wonderful phrases. Abi Aspen Glenross suggests, “Try and buy as good as you can afford. Pop to a local farmers market for your cabbage instead of a fancy supermarket, or buy those eggs at the side of the road. Do your research a little, and if you can find out who grew it, you're a step closer to knowing how it was grown.” Andy Swinscoe suggests, “Buy from a good retailer who has a link to where their produce comes from; seek them out and support them. We need to celebrate all that is unique about our land rather than maximizing faceless produce.” It is known that buying more locally sourced food is the answer to responsible consumption, which is true in many cases, but in a world of growing ecommerce and lockdown restrictions, it seems that buying ‘directly’ from the source – well, as close you can possibly get to the source – is the best course of action to understand your food’s provenance. An example of buying ‘less but better’ produce is particularly patent is the dairy industry. James Robinson notices plenty of benefits from people buying his organic milk, “By buying our premium organic milk, it is not only healthier for the consumer, but that extra money allows us as farmers time to care for our animals and our land. It enables us to sustain our high levels of animal welfare and perform vital environmental conservation; maintain local becks and watercourses, rebuild dry stonewalls and laying hedges for pasture and boundaries. These practices in turn result in happier livestock, healthier milk, and an increase in biodiversity, whilst keeping rural traditions alive. We have around 12-acres covered by hedge canopy now, but what you lose in land loss, you gain in natural shelter, pasture for the livestock, more carbon captured, plus an amazing amount of wildlife.”
Photograph by Matt Austin for Pipers Farm
“As long as we are farming as we are, sustainably and organically, it will eventually make us stand out..."
Perhaps the most important opportunity to take away from this decision then is to distinguish and support our exceptional farmers, growers, fishers, makers and producers, who work to high ethical and agroecological standards, by buying their produce and encourage others to do the same. Across the breadth of the British Isles, there are thousands of these food producers alike, who pride themselves on high animal welfare, regenerating biodiversity, soil biosphere and champion seasonality. These sustainable and regenerative food producers are stewards of the land, who will need renewed and sustained support as they come under enormous pressure and competition from exports supplying cheaper and less sustainable goods. As James Robinson believes, “As long as we are farming as we are, sustainably and organically, it will eventually make us stand out; more emphasis will be placed on those who are ‘pasture-fed’ and ‘GM free.’”
What is clear, irrespective of the impending agreements on the Agriculture Bill, is that we will see a change in our food system in one way or another. The outcome on the 4th November 2020 will be talked about for decades to come; a part of agricultural history, and presently (for the next few days at least), one that we can change for the better. A recent survey by the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission’s 'YouGov' showed that “only 9% of Britons want everything to go back to the way it was before lockdown.” A simple message that whatever it is, a nation wants change to happen. Let’s not forget that the lowering of food standards will also change the face of our rural landscape with potential removal of hedges for ploughing land and fields to build new infrastructure, such as, chicken sheds and barns for year-round indoor grazing; the pastoral ideal that has been so famed for centuries would be lost. If this new hidden cocktail of chemicals does pour into our food system in the coming weeks and months and years thereafter, it is vital, now more than ever, to support those who uphold high levels of food standards, and as consumers, to make informed choices based on where our food comes from, how it was produced, and where our money is going. As Peter Greig rightly notes, it is these small-scale farmers and producers who need our backing, those who “nurture our countryside and produce food in balance with nature.” Let’s just hope that these actions of support and consumption habits will fight this imminent tide of toxins from damaging both our health and the health of our planet.
Agriculture Bill: Our Food Future
Words & Photographs by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles
Photographs where credited Liz Seabrook, Doug McMaster and Matt Austin for Pipers Farm