Chlorinated chicken for starters: Assessing the impact of the Agriculture Bill and US trade deal

Aerial photograph of farmland (Fisk, 2018)

In an era of post-truth politics, placing trust in the assertions of government is a hazardous game. A game in which you are all too likely to end up disappointed. Although we have become accustomed to the Conservative government backtracking on their commitments and announcing drastic ‘U-turns’ at the eleventh hour, their inability to embed consistency continues to surprise us. It has created a political sphere where they can get away with almost anything, with no measurement of truth to hold them to account. One current example, which may prove to be one of the most damaging, is the retraction of their promises regarding future trade agreements and food standards.

In their election manifesto, they made it clear that post-Brexit trading arrangements and domestic policies would “not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. That promise, like so many others, appears to be slipping away. In May of 2020, the government decided to vote against an amendment on the forthcoming Agricultural Bill that would have legislatively ensured that imports would be required to meet current standards, tearing up previous commitments. This decision was inextricably tied to the UK’s potential trade deal with the US, as well as with other countries including Australia, which, just like the Agriculture Bill, will have huge ramifications in the coming years on the quality of food that is on our shelves, the financial uncertainty that faces farmers and the conservation of our environment.

This comes in a time of a global pandemic, of course, which has immeasurably impacted the realm of farming and food production in the UK and has raised questions around increasing food security and embedding greater sustainability into supply chains. The outcome of the US trade deal and the scope of the Agriculture Bill will go a long way to defining the pathway that the UK follows. In turn, these decisions will have implications well beyond agriculture, impacting jobs, rights, public health, the national economy and the management of our environment. This article expands upon these fears and contextualizes the significance of decisions made in the coming months.

The Agriculture Bill will set out the agenda for farming reform and governance in a post-Brexit UK. It will create new regulations regarding farming practice and food production, and promises to ensure a “smooth and gradual transition” away from current EU requirements. The UK’s new Bill intends to radically overhaul the “restrictions” imposed by the EU and, in their place, implement “a system where farming efficiently and improving the environment can go hand in hand”. The Bill sets out to ensure that farmers are rewarded in accordance with their environmental contribution, whilst also helping to boost their productivity and maximizing the potential of their land to produce high quality food.

Despite these lofty ambitions, the Bill has faced widespread criticism from environmental groups and farmers alike. As with most of the promises made by this government, there remains an underlying assumption that they won’t be maintained. Specifically, the lack of a safeguarding system within the Bill that can legislatively protect animal welfare, farming and food standards has led to growing fears that we will soon see a market dominated by imported food that is well below current standards. Remarkedly, there have also been suggestions that the Bill could force supermarkets to remove labels that detail the country of origin and quality of produce that they sell, removing an important level of transparency between consumers and retailers, and ripping up the very standards that the government pledged to secure.

Whatever way it is finalized, if the Bill fails to comprehensively protect farming and food standards, UK producers will be at risk of being undercut by products of inferior health and environmental credentials. Inevitably, this will force domestic farms to diverge from current norms and practices just to be able to compete. This potential deregulation and radical reform will have huge consequences upon food production that are felt for generations to come. It doesn’t end there, with fears that a weak Agriculture Bill will negatively impact many aspects of societal life. We know from Brexit planning that unequal food distribution and disruption in supply chains have a disproportionate effect on low income groups, however the bill is silent on such issues and calls to tackle food insecurity are ignored.

The UK’s food supply is fragile at the best of times. The country imports 47% of its food, including 84% of its fresh fruit, and depends critically on a just-in-time supply chain, with little capacity to withstand shocks. Leaving the EU will drastically change the manner in which the UK imports food and the availability of produce from EU countries could drop significantly. To replace this, the government is proposing to introduce a range of new products to the market, with the US being a key source of food importation. When the trade deal is agreed with the US government, whether that be led by Donald Trump or Joe Biden, we are likely to see a range of foods hit the shelves that are currently unimaginable. This will include chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from animals injected with a drug (ractopamine) that makes their meat leaner, and scores of other pesticide-infused foods produced by way of dangerous, unhealthy and exceedingly unsustainably means.

The use of pesticide in American farming is significantly higher than that currently permitted in the UK (Flynn, 2019)

As mentioned above, this will either result in domestic farmers and food processors being outcompeted, or will bring down UK domestic production standards to match. Either outcome is a worrying scenario. Also, it will effectively guarantee a ‘no deal’ Brexit, as the US standards that the UK will accept are simply incompatible with that of the EU. The proposed deal with the US, it is important to acknowledge, will likewise have impacts well beyond the realm of food. The deal is likely to impose a host of deregulations on goods and services that could never have been obtained by means of public consent, with predictions suggesting that health and protection rights will also be hampered. If the promised food and farming standards proved to be a lie, how long will it be before we discover that the pledge of the NHS “not being on the table” was also worthless?

For almost half a century, the UK’s food system has been shaped by EU policies on agriculture and trade, and the post-Brexit Bills propose a wide-ranging redesign of farming and food production. This does not appear to be a truly sustainable redesign, however. The failure to uphold current UK standards in future trade deals is akin to building on foundations of sand. This being said, it is not too late. Both Bills and international trade agreements are yet to be officially signed and implemented. There is still a chance that agricultural and environmental standards can be upheld and the promised ‘new green deal’ can be enacted. Whilst it is difficult to see how this will happen, parliamentary decisions are yet to be made and there are a range of environmental NGOs and activist groups campaigning night and day in an attempt to sway the government. Boris’ administration appears to be set on pursuing their agenda regardless of the pandemic, regardless of public protest and regardless of the economic and political harm that it might bring. So, as George Monbiot aptly put it, “this is their game, and we must use every democratic means to stop it”.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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