Given the gravity of coronavirus, the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, it is no surprise that the Agriculture Bill (currently passing through parliament) has not attracted much attention.
But this legislation will shape farming, wildlife, scenery, water management, and the food we eat post-Brexit. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to divert £3 billion of taxpayers’ money from landowners’ pockets, to fight climate catastrophe, deliver a better environment and safer food, while providing a fair income for working farmers.
The much-quoted underlying idea of ‘public money for public goods’ sounds great – but the detail of how those goods will be quantified, delivered, rewarded and protected is almost completely lacking. My reading of the Bill is, essentially, ‘trust us’. But trust must be earned; those who demand it get only contempt.
Agriculture represents 0.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, with fishing just 0.1 per cent; we no longer rule the waves, and are desperate to access the global markets that we were told would welcome us with open arms, but now seem contemptuous of our floundering bluster.
An amendment, intended to guarantee that UK farmers will not be undercut by lower-standard imports, was voted down under the Conservative whip last month. Former Defra minister Theresa Villiers said in January: “We will not be importing chlorinated chicken”, while Michael Gove stated in 2017 that “under no circumstances” would it be allowed; this week, Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt tells us we should “trust the consumer” to decide, and “put our faith in government”.
In most cases, the consumer will not know what they are eating, and for many, trust in our government – who count a pair of gloves as two when reporting on PPE provision – is plummeting.
We will have chlorinated chicken, hormone-injected beef and probably GM crops, and we will not regain much of our fishing. Mercifully, George Eustice seems less drawn to soundbites than his predecessors as Environment Secretary. Perhaps he will prove more trustworthy, but he will have a hard fight; 0.8 per cent of GDP will barely muster a whisper in trade talks.
It will take public outcry to prevent what now seems inevitable: the desecration of hard-won food and environmental standards, in a desperate scrabble to sell financial services.
I think I had better go and pick some artichokes to calm down.