The Agriculture Bill — what next for food standards?
From milk, meat and vegetable deliveries to the creation of local food hubs, the shop local message seems to have taken on a renewed resonance during lockdown.
New data from food policy organisations, for example, show sales of vegetable boxes increased 111% in the six weeks between the end of February and mid-April, with the highest rates of growth seen by smaller box schemes supplying up to 300 a week: sales grew by as much as 134%.
This rise in demand is a challenge farmers have, seemingly, risen to as they’ve sought to support a growing customer base.
That said, the vast majority of farmers are not in a position, by nature of their location or type of farming, to stand alone and supply direct to the consumer in any volume; supply chains, on the whole, remain long and costly to the producer.
The global pandemic has however highlighted the problem with these long and complex supply chains. That, together with longer-term concerns that the sector will find it hard to compete with potentially cheaper imports, subject to post-Brexit varying food and welfare standards, it may be troubling for many to see the latest parliamentary developments.
The Agriculture Bill
The UK Agriculture Bill, passed through the House of Commons for its third reading recently and whilst decisions on agricultural support are devolved to Scottish Government, the bill is very important in that it deals on a UK-wide basis with the regulations around producer organisations, supply chain contracts (including for the dairy sector), compliance with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and red meat levy repatriation on a UK wide basis.
This reading included an amendment designed to prevent future trade deals from allowing food into the UK that isn’t produced to the domestic standards required of farmers and processors.
Victoria Prentis, the parliamentary under-secretary of state and environment, food and rural affairs said that including this provision within the Agriculture Bill could jeopardise wider future trade deals, in turn affecting the wider agricultural production supply chain, citing that difficulty agreeing continuity trade agreements could put certain UK exports such as whisky and potatoes at risk.
While there was support for the principles of high animal welfare and environmental standards on imports, this amendment was ultimately rejected.
With Scottish agriculture at the forefront of production of seed potatoes and malting barley for whisky and also the export of high quality meat and dairy produce, this is a salutary reminder that not all produce from Scottish farming is reliant on the domestic market and the trade deals struck will be extremely important to the future of the industry.
The stakeholder bodies are working hard to lobby the government on protecting food standards but the trade deals being negotiated will ultimately encompass all products.
Of course, the bill does not regulate domestic Scottish agriculture, and support payments and farming methods remain devolved powers.
NFUS’ director of policy, Jonathan Hall, said recently it was vital the approach being taken for English farmers with the Agriculture Bill is complementary to the policy proposals from the Scottish Government and that interests north of the border are represented and consulted on — specifically that the consent of the devolved administrations is given on matters concerning these UK-wide frameworks.
For now, the bill goes to the House of Lords for scrutiny with many farmers hoping the upper house can provide some level of correction before it returns to the Commons.
Meanwhile, and importantly, it seems consumers hold real power.
Continued support from the Scottish public to ‘vote with its feet’ and carry on shopping locally and, where possible, direct from farmers, may well prove pivotal when it comes to keeping momentum going to ensure local food security, regardless of what new trade deals are ultimately negotiated.