Yesterday – 12th October 2020 – MPs in the UK voted to approve the new Agriculture Bill. This law will set out the framework for a wide range of matters related to British agriculture as the UK leaves the European Union at the end of the year. However, the bill has been really controversial, and the House of Lords actually sent it back to the Commons to be reconsidered before this crucial vote. So what’s the fuss about?

Well, first of all, let’s make it clear that this is a massive piece of legislation – and not all of it is controversial. For example, the plans for replacing the Common Agricultural Policy would allow subsidising farmers for environmental stewardship, and have received cautious approval. However, there is a great deal of concern over the food standards element of the bill. 

Why are food standards important?

We are what we eat! The laws governing food standards set out in black and white what it is legal to sell as food in the UK, and what isn’t. Until Brexit, the UK’s food standards were fully aligned with those of the EU, and were largely built on the “precautionary principle” – i.e. that if in doubt, we shouldn’t be eating it. However, the new bill makes it possible for the government to be much more flexible in what they would accept in the future.

Why were they watered down?

Probably because, to make free-trade deals, it might be necessary to interpret food standards laws a little bit differently. The government argues that free trade deals are an important part of the UK becoming “global Britain”. Opponents, however, are really worried that it’s a way of dropping standards.

So does that mean imported food won’t be safe?

Actually, probably not. This is where it gets complicated! The major concerns are over US chlorinated chicken and hormone supplemented beef. However, these products are eaten daily by millions of people around the world, and solid evidence that they’re harmful is really hard to find.

So why does it matter?

Because of the impact on animal welfare. Chlorine-washed chicken is no more harmful to human health. However it means that producers can “get away with” lower hygiene and welfare standards elsewhere in the food chain; knowing that the meat will be “cleaned up” by the chlorine bath. Likewise, use of growth hormone encourages cattle to grow faster – faster than they would otherwise do naturally. And the use of welfare-unfriendly practices like crating of pigs is allowed in many countries, but not here.

Opening up the UK market to these practices would mean that UK farmers (who have to abide by higher welfare standards) would have to compete with cheaper food from countries, where animals probably suffer more. Overall, this is really bad for animal welfare. Firstly, it would encourage UK farmers to drop their standards to compete; but secondly, it provides an incentive for farmers who use these unpleasant practices to increase their stocking numbers (as they enter the UK market), thus increasing the number of animals who suffer overall.

RSPCA Chief Executive Chris Sherwood says that the Bill as it stands is “betraying the UK public’s strongly voiced wishes to maintain our hard-won high animal welfare standards and … threatening UK farmers’ livelihoods. The RSPCA cannot stand by if our animal welfare standards are trashed by the Government for the sake of a quick deal with the USA or Australia.”

The BVA have also put out a strong statement calling the vote “a severe blow for animal welfare and a betrayal of the Government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve on health and welfare standards”. The government, however, maintains that additional safeguards will be implemented and that any free trade agreements would need to be agreed by Parliament anyway.

So what happens next? Watch this space as the Bill goes back to the House of Lords!