The politics of land and nature, food and farming
Even for a government not noted for honesty or compassion, the Conservative’s ‘25 year Plan for the Natural Environment’ has to be the most duplicitous ever. Bereft of binding legal duties or transformative undertakings, it is a mixture of cosmetic gestures and public deception.
The issues their Plan touches on are real enough, but none offer the luxury of a 25 year delivery dream. Theresa May sounded more like a feudal cleric offering solace to the poor: “The rich may be pillaging the earth but I promise you, the Hereafter will be so much better’. A 25 year Plan, with no up-front upheavals, may as well be for the Hereafter.
Polling before principles
The list of big picture opportunities the government spurned is depressingly long. There is no withdrawal of support for the fossil fuel industry. The Plan fails to commit Britain to dealing with all our own waste. It sets no binding annual carbon budgets. There is no mention of aviation or any shift into clean transport systems. The government will not restore the zero-carbon homes standard nor give local authorities powers to purchase empty properties (in preference to green field development). Localities cannot put Eco-system repair ahead of speculative ventures. And the Plan doesn’t even mention the need for measures that would offer the UK protection from the next (looming) food crisis.
May’s Plan is built on cynicism. Internal polling has told the Tories they have no chance of winning support from younger voters unless they come up with more convincing green/environmental policies.
This presented the Prime Minister with a problem. She and her hard Right don’t give a stuff about the environment, food standards, animal welfare or environmental protection. They want a post-Brexit world that looks more like the Wild West. As a cover story, May needed a serious amount of window dressing, and a big bag of trinkets. And that’s what you’ve got.
May’s Plan is supposed to demonstrate the ‘Greening of the Nasty Party’. Its add-ons will include a retreat from any re-licensing of fox hunting (though no action against its illegal continuation), a restriction on the use of live animals in circuses, along with an extended the plastic bags tax, a tax on take-away coffee cups, and some international action against accumulated plastic waste in the seas.
One look at their latest poster campaign tells you all you need to know. A baby turtle makes its way across an empty beach, safe beneath the caption … ‘We’ve banned microbeads’… Crisis averted. Planet saved. Thank goodness for those compassionate Conservatives.
The turtle gets it anyway
The real tragedy is that within the government’s free-trade obsessions, the turtle is as good as done for.
In any trade agreement Britain negotiates with Trump, or the TPP, environmental and Eco-system protection will be told to ‘go swing’. Theresa May knows this. She just needed cover. Enter the unlikely figure of Michael Gove.
Gove may not be everyone’s image of Rudolph Valentino, but the Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is clearly out on a wooing spree. His pledges to protect animal welfare and biodiversity offer seductive (undeliverable) assurances to both environmental and farming communities. And he’s been going down well. At recent food and farming conferences, delegates gave him a warm welcome, not because they were convinced, but because they were desperate for reassurance.
All they wanted to know was that they figured somewhere – anywhere – on someone’s political agenda. Labour has to take some responsibility for this sense of abandonment, if only by allowing the issues to slip out of any exchanges that hold Theresa May to account.
Jeremy Corbyn’s personal manifesto (and the Labour one) offered radical commitments on sustainability policies. Corbyn himself – in his lifestyle, diet, environmental affiliations and even on his allotment – stands in stark contrast to the superficiality of May’s approach to a one-Planet politics.
We now know that Theresa May had previously insisted that Ministers dumb down all climate and environment issues. How else do you block public opposition to fracking, or the case for zero-carbon homes, or the refusal to meet legal air quality standards? How else do you explain the government’s year-after-year failure to meet its own annual tree planting targets? When push came to shove, the environment always got the shove.
Beyond the trinkets in May’s 25-year Plan, nothing has changed. Behind the scenes, only exploitative will become legally binding. Negotiations shaping the Tories real agenda are already heading elsewhere.
US Commerce Secretary (Wilbur Ross) has stated that any US-UK deal would depend upon the UK accepting (lower) US standards of food and animal welfare. This means chlorinated chicken, growth hormones in livestock, unlabelled GMOs in food (and fields), and widespread use of PRTs (Pathogen Reduction Treatments) to reduce the soaring levels of contamination in US food and feed,
In the event of a ‘no deal’/hard Brexit, any retreat into WTO (Codex Alimentarius) standards would force the UK to adopt even lower standards than current US ones, and
Many on the Tory Right advocate lower standards still. In 2016, Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Treasury Select Committee that standards that were “good enough for India could be good enough for the UK”.
Whatever warm words the ’25 year Plan’ contains, it comes with the coldest, and most calculating, of hearts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the absent issue of food security.
Food, food, FOOD
The 25-year Plan doesn’t offer any perspective on UK food security; an issue that ought to worry far more than just the farming community. Gove threw out a limited lifeline (of continued subsidies) without being clear about what sort of farming Britain intends to support. Let’s put the issues in a nutshell.
Britain currently imports 40% of its food needs. Some 75% of this comes from the EU.
The UK ‘food trade gap’ in 2016 was £22.5bn, a massive cash drain on the economy.
Our real import dependency is far greater, with over 50% of UK food and feed coming as imports.
We are increasingly reliant on using other people’s lands: 70% of the cropland, and 64% of associated greenhouse gas emissions, used in supplying UK food needs are located abroad.
This international reliance has led Britain to massively reduce its domestic food stocks. The UK now has minimal buffer stocks, sufficient only for a 3-5 day supply.
No thought has been given to Britain’s management of food shocks, arising from increasingly turbulent global weather patterns.
None of this figures in May’s Plan, even though major food suppliers have told her (to her face) that Britain could easily tip into food crisis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cock-up negotiations over Brexit.
In short, a hard Brexit would be a disaster for UK food and farming.
As things stand, food products coming into the UK get an average 2 minute inspection at the port of entry. Food suppliers have told the government that if Brexit imposed more inspection duties, just doubling this (to 4 minutes) would create a 27 mile tailback from Dover back up the M2 motorway…within 24 hours.
If tariffs come in, along with new inspection duties, there will be a huge rise in food commodity prices, from cheese (46%) to tomatoes (21%). Brexiteers who argue we can replace these with cheaper goods from elsewhere make no connections whatever with the ecology of ‘sustainable’ global food supply, or with the crash they will engender in UK food and farming.
The food industry is currently Britain’s biggest employer, accounting for 3.83m jobs, but is treated as a mere pawn in the pursuit of free-trade agreements. If Gove’s extension of the £3.7bn agricultural subsidies turns out to be the end of supported agriculture, up to 50% of UK farms will go bankrupt. Forget the prospects of a shift into low carbon farming. Forget the development of more localised (and accountable) food markets. Forget the interlinking of sustainable food, drainage, soil and energy systems.
Pre the CAP, Britain’s ‘agricultural support system’ was a form of deficit funding; a safety net for farm incomes which also allowed surpluses to become lower food prices for consumers. The government could have used its 25 year Plan to open a conversation about something closer to sustainable food, farming and land management policies. But no, this would have been a ‘market intervention’ step too far.
Instead, Britain gets offered a Plan full of empty promises. There is no commitment to turn the coming Agriculture Bill into a Sustainable Food and Farming Bill, no plan to avoid the disruption of UK food supplies (or strengthen our own resilience), no binding commitment to higher environmental standards, no strengthening of the UK supply line of food (and jobs).
The challenge for Labour is to come up with a real alternative to May’s vacuous Plan. Hers is a scam, credible only because the issues slipped off the Leadership agenda. What Labour needs is to put environment, climate, food and sustainability back at the centre of tomorrow’s politics. It is where Corbyn’s heart lies, and where the next election will be won.
This is what the turtle is counting on.