Rumble in the Ribble
Today while checkin’ (no 'g') out my booze at Booth’s, I recognised the person behind me as my MP for rural Ribble Valley, Lancashire, Nigel Evans. He is often on the TV saying BJ’s Brexit is great. It took a minute for me to sum up courage to say:
‘Nigel Evans’ isn’t it?’
NE ‘Yes..busy day today’ (first day of election)
CC ‘I wanted to talk to you about your enthusiasm for free trade deals’
NE ‘Oh yes, which one in particular?’
CC ‘The US one, as it is going to wreck farming in this constituency'
NE ‘Boris will get good deal - we are already selling them 2000 tonnes of cheese'*
CC ‘But we will get swamped with their food – it will wreck rural constituencies like this one.'
NE 'No - my heart is in farming', beating the appropriate place on his chest.
CC 'We cannot compete with their cheap food because they subsidise their farmers more than we do'.
NE ‘No, there will be no dumping. Our environmental standards will protect us'.
CC ‘But we won’t have any standards - once we come out of the Single Market’
NE – He looked quizzical....
At which point the shop assistant reminded us – nicely - they ‘don’t do politics’ in their shop. So I said they ought to do 'food politics', as this particular retail company recognises value of local farming.
While most of the political debate about any deal with USA is focused on NHS, the matter of food & farming is nearly lost - just surfacing as ‘chlorinated chicken’. Although we do now hear about hormone beef, ractomine pigs, white blood cells in milk, and somebody must have heard my rant some months ago – about rat hair in peanut butter. Most of us want these standards and all the politicians now seem to go with that. Boris et al promise to keep the animal and environmental standards - although BJ made a career taking the mickey out of these standards. Remember all those stories about straight bananas, outlawing soft cheeses, & banning brandy butter.
But ! How are standards maintained? Not by legal regulations and enforcement, but by auditing systems. Producers fork out the necessary expense because it is worth doing so as it gains preferential entrance to a protected market. Take that away, and many will not bother. 'Red tape' will make sure there are no new bands of inspectors going round with pokey sticks. Standards will fall. And some places will operate with two standards - one for export, one for internal consumption.
Our farmers will be at a severe disadvantage compared with their US counterparts, as the latter get much more support with their subsidies. The EU forks out about E65B of CAP subsidies of which £3+B comes to UK, that is now the subject of much Brexit debate. Virtually all our CAP subsidies goes to landowners who may spend some in the local economy, but can do what they like with the money. They can get a bit more if they do some greening. That proportion is set to increase according to the proposed 'Brexit' Ag Bill. Gove’s scheme – called ELMS and seducing many, is said to reward farmers for looking after 'public goods - like the environment. Yet DEFRA have already said that the soil is not a public good - but a 'natural asset, from which public goods flow'. A recent report says ELMS will hit farmers rather than reward them. Gove – along with my MP - is also an avid ‘free-marketeer. But they don’t talk about possible impacts on our farms of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) like that with US, Argentina (my MP’s favourite from previous correspondence with him) and New Zealand. All those countries want to ‘dump’ food on us. Curiously NZ did away with farm subsidies, so they have a big interest in selling more lamb to us, but so too do US – who have massive subsidies as they too have lots to get rid of.
(Please note – if you believe that the problem of food production is that we do not produce enough to feed the world, I’m afraid the problem is exactly the opposite. We have too much as many poor people cannot afford to buy the food. If they could, they would become ‘a market’!)
The big worry is that the US will want to dump a lot of their farm surplus on us. We’ve picked a bad moment as the US farms are trying to find somewhere to get rid of the food stuffs that used to go to China – who have stopped importing US farm stuffs in retaliation of Trump’s tariff war. That means they have loads of soya, sorghum and corn - and its related sugar - fructose. So I predict a rise in our obesity. We have history of getting fat - based on US Dietary guidelines..
In the US, the subsidies are around $85B/yr (Congressional Research Sep 2019). Most goes to Nutrition 76%, Crop Insurance, Farm Commodity Support, and Conservation (7%). Nutrition goes mostly for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP = ‘food stamps’). Extra subsidies have come in since Trump’s tariff war with China, where - despite saying he wants to lower subsidies, he has given around an extra $14B/yr to mid west farmers to keep them on side. So that is just about $100B/yr in subsidies - so much for 'free trade'. Trump & Trade Deal
Their subsidies go to a variety of players in the system – making food stamps more accessible for poorer people to buy local food, local farm markets and training youngsters for the next generation. It is all about their infrastructure linking producers and consumers. There are particular programmes for Stress Assistance Network, Farm Revenue Protection, USDA to create new Local Food Policy, State protections for animals, the environment food safety and worker health & safety with improvements to programs in the farm safety net that particularly includes small dairy farmers. There is further support for development of local and regional food systems, market diversification opportunities, $50m for sustainable agricultural research and healthy food access initiatives ‘that seize on potential of food to bolster local economies, create jobs and deepen connections between farmers and eaters’. The Local Agriculture Market Program provides these programmes with permanent funding, making significant policy improvements. There will be an Undersecretary for Rural Development and an Office for Urban Farming. There are improvements for organic growers, It makes important policy around public, locally- and regionally-adapted seed varieties that can help farmers. And - the one I like most - for soil health: “increased payments for cover crops, crop rotations, advanced grazing management and comprehensive conservation planning and sets out new research priorities around soil health”. More
Our food & farming future
We are crying out for that sort of stuff! While we do some of this, the parts are not co-ordinated in any Plan, let alone funded permanently. We do not even have a National Food Policy, let alone funding local ones. We are just starting to talk about some of these matters - stress among farmers, alternatives to food banks, local farm-food networks, community building through food - and soil health !
How will UK farming face up to an onslaught of US foodstuffs? The US is more connected to the land and their farmers are still a political force. Whereas in UK our farm sector has less political clout than a few years ago, and we seem ever more disconnected from land - unless we’re one of the gentry. From H J Massingham 'Prophecy of Famine' in 1953:
"Our whole society, its education, livelihood and behaviour, its system, ideas and conventions, have conditioned us to accept the exchange of home-manufactures for foreign food supplies as being as natural to us as the city air we breathe.".
So, we have a massive task to turn round our food attitudes and farming. Finance services have replaced manufacturing now as top of the political agenda. We have no farm/food strategy – that is being developed now by Henry Dimbleby. We do not have the connections nor communities to link producers in our fields with consumers in our towns and cities.
If any sector is likely to be colonised by the US, post Brexit..this is it.