I hope you’re well and your family is safe.
I write this letter because I believe you’re about to seriously undermine public health and unpick the delicate patchwork quilt of farmers and food producers that are the backbone of this country. While we’ve all been focussed on the fallout of this dreadful pandemic, most people reading this probably won’t know that you’ve whipped your MPs to vote down the Agriculture Bill amendments that would have maintained our British food and animal welfare standards for future trade deals and imports.
We could be about to open the floodgates to a whole raft of low-quality food that would normally be illegal in the UK. Chlorinated chicken is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re talking about genetically modified food, stuffing animals full of hormones and antibiotics, banned pesticides that kill our bees, and an avalanche of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. What’s more, we’ll be threatening the future of our farmers and food producers, who – despite extraordinary challenges – have worked so hard to keep us fed throughout the COVID crisis.
Boris, it’s in your power to map out an intelligent structure where we maintain our high standards but also retain the ability to strike trade deals that are good for the economy. In my opinion, some of the biggest emerging economies right now are hungry for a trusted and safe food supply, and this is where Britain can flourish. Brand Britain and its wealth of food producers are already perfectly placed to over deliver, but if food standards are weakened, a race to the bottom will ensue, and I believe that’s a race we will lose. Public health will be compromised, and our ability to export quality, trusted product will diminish.
We shouldn’t need reminding that COVID-19 most likely originated in the food chain. This crisis has definitely made us all stop and think a bit more about what we eat, where our food comes from and how it affects our bodies. The association between high standards, food safety, animal welfare, ethics, traceability and sustainability has never been more important. These matters affect us all, every day.
Boris, I know you need to lead in a way that allows your teams to do their job when it comes to trade deals. I presume that you voted down the amendment to give you a blank sheet of paper in order to get deals done quickly. Of course we want trade, but not at any cost. Having standards – in law – will actually strengthen your hand in negotiations as we move forward. I believe that you have it in you to find the right balance. What looks like a simple piece of legislation will mark you in history either as a guardian to the land and its prosperity – or as someone that opened Pandora’s box to the quick erosion of the UK food and farming industries.
This is a pivotal moment, and an opportunity for us to rebuild a stronger and better food system. If it turns out that producers from other countries can make and sell us high-quality food to British standards at a cheaper price than we can produce it ourselves, then fair play to them. Of course we need to be flexible and we need to be open to trading with both old friends and new. But ultimately we should be striving to push trade partners’ standards up, not negotiating our own down. As those critical trade negotiations heat up, we must ensure that we’ve learned our lesson from this pandemic.
The COVID crisis has highlighted the need for us to simplify our food system so we can get to a place where we are less reliant on imports. The UK is blessed with some of the best food producers in the world, something we should value and protect. Yet we currently produce only 53% of our own veg and 16% of our own fresh fruit. Our climate is perfectly suited to growing produce, so we could easily grow more on our doorstep, not only for ourselves, but for export, too. And producing more fruit and veg here would of course be better for the planet too.
Boris – I urge you to take a fresh approach to the Agriculture Bill. Only you have the power to set us on the right path. Only you have the power to get all those MPs to vote for the amendment (and please press the right voting button this time, Rishi).
This Bill should be about championing the UK’s high standards in food safety and traceability, animal welfare and care for our environment. It should ensure that British farmers and food producers can continue to evolve and to deliver sustainable, healthy food without having to worry about being unfairly undercut.
I know you have Britain’s best interests at heart, Prime Minister, but true democracy cannot rely on one man or woman’s word – it requires the assurance of a lasting legal framework that interrogates and scrutinises the decisions that affect British businesses and public health.
We only have a few days to get this right ahead of the next critical debate in the House of Lords on the 10th of June. Hopefully the public will already be writing letters to their local MPs to voice their concerns.
This is a unique opportunity for you, as Prime Minister, to demonstrate real leadership and reshape our food system for the better. It’s an opportunity to support all those key workers who’ve ensured we were able to put a meal on our tables throughout this crisis. An opportunity to allow the UK to set the standard for sustainable food production, and – crucially – to put public and child health at the true heart of government.
Good-quality food should be accessible to everyone, but having campaigned about child health for the best part of 20 years now, I am incredibly concerned about the impact that bad trade deals could have on our children. Our kids will be the most vulnerable if our markets are flooded with unhealthy foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
We need to put our children’s health first. Right now, more than ever, we need our kids to grow up strong and healthy, ready to face whatever life throws at them. We’ve just seen, for example, that having obesity or being overweight has made people more vulnerable to COVID-19. We absolutely must give our kids the best possible chance of making healthy choices.
Boris, as you’ve rightly said yourself, we owe it to our future generations to build back better. One in eight jobs in the UK is in food supply. This Agriculture Bill is a critical first opportunity to help the British economy bounce back and to support thousands of small family businesses, while also protecting our health and our countryside. Prime Minister, please take that opportunity and reassure us that food standards won’t be compromised.
Printed in the Daily Mail, 31 May 2020