As the UK Government tees up new deals, relaxing food standards in return for market access at a time of planetary breakdown smacks of the worst kind of short-termism. By Nick Hughes.
Of all the insights gleaned during lockdown, the fact that chicken is a national obsession is among the most conclusive. As post-lockdown queues began forming outside KFCs, and the chancellor tweeted his assertion that the reopening of Nando’s was “the good news we’ve all been waiting for” (narrowly beating a Covid-19 vaccine into second place), it quickly became apparent that the national bird of the UK is not in fact a robin but a broiler.
Chicken is also in the UK’s collective conscious as a symbol of tensions over future trade deals and food standards. More than a million people have now called fowl (sorry) over government plans to allow controversial foods such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef into the UK under a future US trade deal.
Initiated by the National Farmers Union, the petition to ensure all food imports are produced to current UK standards was propelled on social media by an unlikely alliance of farming groups, food businesses, NGOs and rebel Conservative MPs. This has stoked an already feverish debate being played out in Westminster and through the media about the extent to which the UK should permit lower-standard imports from the US and other countries under future trade deals.
There are several reasons why chlorine-washed chicken has emerged as the focal point for the campaign to protect domestic standards. Its popularity among Brits is perhaps the most obvious, but campaigners also know that narrowing the field of play to a single contentious issue is key to gaining public and political support. Had Marcus Rashford demanded an end to child poverty it’s unlikely he’d be celebrating a u-turn on free school meals during the summer holidays.
Yet there is a danger that in framing the debate over the acceptability, or otherwise, of specific foods, those defending UK standards fail to make their opponents answer bigger philosophical questions about the type of food system we want in the UK post-Brexit.
A recent report in The Telegraph suggested ministers are already gearing up to offer minor concessions, such as imposing higher tariffs on chlorinated chicken: this may not appease campaigners but it could be enough to shift the tone of the public debate being played out through the mainstream media.
The focus on the food safety aspect of chlorinated chicken also plays into the hands of trade deal proponents who are able to cherry-pick evidence to show the dangers are overstated, thereby obscuring the fact that washing chicken in chemical disinfectants (of which chlorine is just one) is just one symptom of a far greater sustainability malaise.
As the debate moves forward, the threat to future food system resilience of importing a low price, high volume, high-intensity model of food production that externalises environmental costs needs to be far more central to the debate.
A free trade deal with the US that lowers the bar for imported food would show the world that the UK government is not heeding advice to take a long view on critical issues like the climate crisis, antibiotic resistance and biodiversity loss.
On a number of key environmental indicators US food production performs badly in comparison with the UK. To compensate for less stringent hygiene measures, large quantities of antibiotic drugs are administered to US livestock to treat or even prevent dangerous infections. Between 2009 and 2017, sales of antibiotics to US livestock farmers rose by 27% compared with a 28% decline in the UK. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming, often to compensate for lower welfare standards, is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that pose a threat to future public health.
US standards are also weaker in relation to pesticide use. A recent report by the NGOs Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) and Sustain found many pesticides routinely used in US food production are banned from use in the UK due to evidence of their toxicity to bees and other pollinators, as well as their threat to aquatic life through water contamination.
Such divergence is not a uniquely US issue. The same report reveals how environmental standards in countries such as India and Australia, which are also being lined up for free trade deals by UK government ministers, are weaker than those required of UK producers.
Brexit presents an opportunity for the UK to reflect on the impact our food consumption already has overseas. UK carbon budgets and net zero targets might look ambitious on paper but they only account for food produced domestically, despite the greenhouse gas impacts of UK food supply increasingly being located beyond our borders.
Between 63% and 89% of the UK’s land footprint overseas for cocoa, palm oil, rubber and soy, meanwhile, is located in countries considered to have “high” and “very high” risk of deforestation, according to WWF and the RSPB’s Riskier Business report.
The two charities are calling for the government to set a time-bound, legally binding target to reduce the UK’s overall environmental footprint by 2030, including a sub-target to halt deforestation and conversion embedded within commodity supply chains to be set by the end of 2020.
Ministers, however, appear more concerned with “turbo charging” trade in food and drink than scrutinising the social and environmental impact of our activity around the world. This week the government announced a new package of trade measures for the food and drink industry as part of a “bounce back” plan to support businesses that have been impacted by coronavirus.
Responsible UK businesses will quite rightly need support to access new markets in the face of a global economic downturn. Furthermore, balancing domestic production with global trade is not inherently a bad idea: with climate change posing major risks to future harvests, a diversity in supply will be critical to future UK food security.
But trading away standards (and ethics) in return for market access at a time of planetary breakdown smacks of the worst kind of short-termism. And it will seem even more egregious as we emerge from a public health crisis that has already been linked to a paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost.
Four eminent professors in the field of biodiversity and ecosystems recently wrote of Covid-19 that “rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people”.
This is the real field on which the merits of future free trade deals should be debated. But unless arguments for food system resilience begin to cut through, the risk remains that politicians will find a way to sacrifice human and planetary health at the altar of cheap chicken.