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Ambridge Bridgehead to China
09 Sep, 2020

Jo Pye has been musing on the Future of UK farming, standards and exports after 31 December 2020.

Whilst tidying my overgrown, untidy, rockery one Sunday afternoon, conscious that I was destroying various creatures’ natural habitat, I had an epiphany that I would like to share with you and elicit your musings, too, to start a debate we might include in our campaigning. It doesn’t appear to a trending theme, but I’d argue, it should be!

That morning, I had read Will Hutton’s article, We are what we eat, so we’re right not to trust what goes into American food(The Guardian, 28 June 2020).  In it, Hutton discusses the strength of the US’s Mid-Western farming lobby. It is a chilling fact that Midwestern states are over-represented in the US Senate.  He reckons their senators will not pass a UK trade bill that does not open up the greatest prize ever – “a bridgehead into Europe, a market hitherto denied.”  It was that reference to “bridgehead” that startled me. We already know that a US trade deal (and, luckily, there are some impressive obstacles*) would inevitably come with imports of food to a lower standard etc, but what could this “bridgehead” mean? Could my following argument contain an answer?

As a longstanding member of the UK Insomnia Society, I’ve become an unwitting devotee of Radio 4’s early morning “Farming Today” programme. And what sorry listening it is turning into, with arable farmers who don’t know what to sow from now on as they don’t know what or where their markets will be and with livestock farmers who are facing slaughtering the herds they’ve built up over generations as their export and internal markets become increasingly uncertain. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and The Farm Safety Foundation are, not surprisingly, very concerned about the mental health of our farmers, who account for the nation’s highest suicide rates along with doctors, nurses, vets and soldiers. Just Google “UK national suicide rates farming” and you’ll get a clear picture. While you’re at it, why not add your signature to the over 1.3 million others on the NFU’s Food Standards Petition?

So, just what will happen to “the land” when farmers leave it in droves as is predicted?” The marginal bulk will return to nature or go for development. I suspect that the best bits will be cheaply bought up by large farm businesses. And will those large farm businesses be British? And what will they grow?

That got me thinking back to changes in agricultural practices in my lifetime and, in particular, my early professional life in the mid ‘70s, working in the Agricultural Estates Department of The Crown Estate. In those pre-Climate Change – Natural Habitat days, we were busy issuing statutory licences to farmers to “grub-up” centuries-old hedgerows to allow larger, more efficient, more profitable, field structures. Few predicted then that, by the mid ‘80s, East Anglia would become the tornado capital of England. With the sensible onset of good stewardship over the last decade, many farmers, assisted by useful (EU?) grants, have started to replant the hedgerows as windbreaks and crucial habitat. If the UK could radically change its farming practices twice in 40 years, how many times might it change its mind over the next 40, in the name of efficient, profitable farming in a Global Britain?

That led me back to who might buy up our vacated green and pleasant land? The Russians? The Chinese? The Europeans?  No, and here’s the epiphany, it’ll be Powerful American Farms buying up the available best bits, at which point they will do with the land what suits Powerful American Farming.

For all its claims of “public money for (agricultural) public good” and maintaining food and welfare standards, it’s a good bet that our Government would fall over itself to facilitate said purchases and we, The People, wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.

How long would it take to reduce (all) indigenous standards if US-owned Farming became big in our UK Farming Lobby? More importantly, what they would grow? I suspect removal of hedgerows would soon reappear - incidentally saving the Government grants currently given to farmers to replant - followed swiftly by vast swathes of soya or other crops destined for lucrative markets in China and other emerging nations that aren’t fussy about quality and standards or can’t afford to be.

Outside the EU, the UK becomes the perfect springboard for US firms to export from the UK (not the US) to these places which they can’t do from the US because of Trump’s tariff wars with China and others. That would suit the US lobby and Trump perfectly. All the UK would get would be tornados, degraded soil, monoculture and profits repatriated to “Make America Great Again”. It would, also, suit our “Great Leaders” as they would be able to pass it off as great exporting opportunities in our post-Brexit Global Britain.

But we would know better, wouldn’t we? Not that we could probably do anything about it for the next 4 years of this Government, especially as Parliament won’t be allowed to scrutinise any deals or, related, Political Declarations. So, at the first real hint of a US trade deal or No Deal, let’s make sure we add it to our arguments and call it out at every conceivable opportunity. Project Fear? They’d better believe it!

Jo Pye

*Impressive obstacles –

  1. Trump may not re-elected (lagging 14% behind Biden in recent polls);
  2. Even if re-elected Trump does not have the power to railroad a deal through Congress, e.g. Congress is unlikely to pass any deal which leaves uncertainty surrounding the Irish border. Let’s hope!!

* Yesterday, Wednesday 9 September, was the NFU’s Back British Farming Day. Please amplify the Save British Farming (SBF) message today by retweeting and sharing relevant Twitter and Facebook posts, using the hashtags #SaveBritishFarming and #SaveBritishFood, and combine it with the NFU’s #BackBritishFarming, so the two campaigns get cross pollination.

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