The end of June marked the moment when the British government moved Britain’s farmers even closer to the cliff edge that is Brexit. By rejecting to ask the EU for an extension of the transition period, leaving the EU without any trade agreement has become far more likely – and that spells disaster for the livelihood of many British farmers, for British agriculture in general and for the food safety and security of all of us.

For the past few months I’ve been wondering whether government ministers live in realities that are different from that of ordinary people, and I am not talking about lockdown rules that apply to some and not to others…

I can still recall the day in early January of 2017, when the then Defra minister, Michael Gove, told the Real Oxford Farming Conference that Britain would create ‘a new gold-standard metric for food and farming quality’. In 2019 he pledged that British food standards will not be lowered ‘in pursuit of trade deals’, and earlier this year the former Defra minister Theresa Villiers reiterated that ‘we will not be importing chlorinated chicken’.

In the meantime, and apparently on a different planet located in Westminster, the government is working hard on a trade deal with the US. The second negotiation round has been completed, if all goes to plan, an agreement could be signed before the US presidential elections. Unfortunately, every hurdle that is removed from the path to a trade deal with the US automatically pops up as a barrier to a trade deal with the EU.

By refusing to ask for an extension of the transition period to allow more time for EU trade talks, the British government has made clear that a deal with the US is the only show in town. If you need further proof of their intentions, look at the bills that are passing through parliament right now.

There’s the Agricultural Bill which sets the rules for British farmers and food production from 2021. In future, farmers will receive public money for delivering ‘public goods’. Interestingly, producing food is not considered to be a public good. And the amendment tabled by two Conservative MPs that would have enshrined the promise of Britain not lowering the environmental and animal welfare standards set by the EU, was voted down. It made no difference that a petition by the National Farmers Union, NFU, to keep these standards, had gained over a million signatures. Farmers and consumers alike are starting to fear, that Michael Gove’s statement, that British food standards will not be lowered ‘in pursuit of trade deals’, is nothing but an empty promise.

The Agriculture Bill was just not the place to enshrine this promise into law – critics were told, this was a matter for the Trade Bill. Did we really believe British parliamentarians would vote for a trade deal that went against the wishes of British consumers and allowed the import of chlorinated chicken, hormone treated beef and dairy and antibiotic laced pork? Well, no, we don’t  – because (as things stand), the Trade Bill does not give parliamentarians the right to vote on any future trade deal!

With the hurdles of ‘gold standards’ for food production dumped on the side lines, the Lords took it upon themselves to deal with another bothersome issue: One of the reasons why trade talks between the EU and the US have failed, is the dispute over GMOs and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR Cas. Over 90 percent of all maize and soy grown in the US comes from GM seeds, and more is in the pipeline. The US argue that it is perfectly safe, consumers there have been eating the stuff for decades. By contrast, the EU adheres to the ‘precautionary principle’: just because there is no proven harm (yet) doesn’t mean it’s safe – and hence the EU does not allow imports of GM food (GM feed is allowed) and bans growing GM crops within the EU. For Britain to sign a trade deal with the US, the precautionary principle would have to be dropped – and an amendment to the Agriculture Bill proposed by the House of Lords does just that.

If, as is almost certain, both the Agriculture and the Trade Bills are to be passed in their current form, this would smooth the way for a US trade deal – and simultaneously make a trade agreement with the EU impossible.

Where will that leave farmers and us, the consumers?

Farmers will be in a race to the bottom, competing with American farmers and ranchers over who can produce the cheapest food. Growth hormones, chlorine to cover up low animal welfare and health and safety standards in slaughter units, more pesticide use, the use of pesticides that have been banned in the EU, GE crops… British farmer will have to do what it takes – or go out of business. Which wouldn’t be a problem for hard-line Brexiteers who believe Britain doesn’t need farmers, as we can always import food from where it is produced most cheaply. Existing British food standards would be thrown under the Red Tractor.

As for consumers – we can try to forge links to the few remaining organic farmers and buy directly, otherwise anything deserving to be called ‘good food’ will be hard to come by – unless you go for EU imports which won’t be cheap.

But there’s hope in that. The EU’s Green New Deal which combines a ‘farm to fork’ strategy with a strategy on biodiversity has set an ambitious goal: by 2030, a quarter of all agricultural land should be farmed organically. And experts at this week’s (virtual) IFOAM EU (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) conference agreed that this goal is achievable. Coping with the alternate realities of British politicians has made me into a bit of a cynic – maybe for Britain to rely on food imports isn’t so bad after all….

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images (C) and used and with kind consent @M.Kunz

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