Unconvincing Villiers leaves more questions than answers
When she took to the stage at this month’s annual Oxford Farming Conference Theresa Villiers had the opportunity to set out a grand vision for a UK food and farming sector untethered to the post of EU policy.
In the event, the DEFRA secretary of state delivered the kind of vague, platitudinous speech that has characterised the tenures of so many of her predecessors as she made it her mission to keep farmers onside while deflecting the key questions on which they desperately seek clarity.
But unlike predecessors such as Andrea Leadsom, Liz Truss and Owen Paterson, Villiers cannot fall back on the excuse that her hands are tied by EU lawmakers who in recent decades have largely set the agenda for how food arrives on the plate of UK consumers. The convincing majority won by the Conservatives in December has sealed Brexit and given Boris Johnson’s government the freedom to set the nation on an ambitious new course.
However, ambition was nowhere to be seen in Oxford as Villiers – whose job is under threat according to a recent Sunday Telegraph story – deferred responsibility for delivering the keynote address to NFU president Minette Batters. Perhaps Villiers feels the reformist agenda was fleshed out by her immediate predecessor, Michael Gove, and that her task is simply to deliver on those priorities. Gove used the same conference in 2018 to set out a vision I described at the time as representing “the greatest shift in food and farming policy since Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973”. Yet despite winning plaudits from campaigners he left the role with little having made it into the statute book and detail on policies such as a long-awaited Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) still thin on the ground.
Where Gove broke the mould for recent environment secretaries was in his engagement in food as a system that impacts on human health, the environment and society rather than a process of production that ends at the farm gate or the manufacturing plant. Villiers, by contrast, mentioned health just three times in her speech, and on each occasion in the context of animals or soils.
The question that loomed largest during the conference was that of standards and whether the government will uphold UK standards of food production in future trade deals. Villiers did everything she could to reassure those present that standards would be maintained or enhanced in future without doing the one thing that would provide people with genuine assurance, namely to enshrine the promise in the government’s Agriculture Bill that was introduced to parliament this week.
In the end, nobody was convinced – quite literally. When the chair asked for anyone whose mind had been put at rest by Villiers to raise their hand nobody accepted the invitation to do so.
Villiers later went on to suggest that rather than legislate for non-regression of standards, or establish the NFU’s favoured trade and food standards commission, the government would use import tariffs to ensure that food produced to lower standards overseas would be excluded from the UK market.
The preference for a market rather than regulatory mechanism for maintaining standards is instructive as to the government’s post-Brexit approach to trade and food policy. There is a view held by a number of senior cabinet ministers on the right of the Conservative party – trade secretary Truss being one – that the consumer, not the government, should be the ultimate arbiter of what we eat in this country and how we eat it.
This school of thought can easily be applied to food produced overseas to lower standards – if the consumer doesn’t want chlorine-washed chicken from the US they will simply vote with their wallets.
The flaw in this argument is that under current rules the consumer will often have no idea they are eating chicken produced in a system whose low standards of husbandry require it to be disinfected before consumption. There is no obligation on businesses to label the origin of poultry meat unless it is pre-packaged, and even then meat used as an ingredient in processed foods such as ready meals and pies is currently excluded (although new EU rules due to come into force in April will require labelling of primary ingredients in processed products). High-street food brands are likely to make voluntary commitments not to source US meat for fear of a public backlash, however there is nothing to stop it going unlabelled into low-quality foodservice meals via wholesale channels.
The government could legislate to introduce more stringent labelling requirements for the out-of-home sector, although most seasoned policy observers won’t be holding their breaths. With Johnson determined to diverge from EU laws, and trade secretary Truss a strong proponent of cutting so-called ‘red tape’, all manner of current food standards – from nutritional labelling and health claims to GM crops and chemicals’ approvals – could be up for review.
A wholesale revision of UK food and environmental law could certainly create commercial opportunities. If done thoughtfully it could even deliver positive social outcomes in areas such as nutritional labelling where the EU-27 has occasionally frustrated UK progress. But it would also come at a cost. The prime minister and his advisers are well aware that every deviation from the status quo will make it harder to maintain frictionless trade with the EU, an outcome that is high up the list of priorities for many in the food sector, but one that is anathema to many of the voters that have propelled Johnson into a position of such power.
Villiers meanwhile, in her refusal to guarantee legal protection for UK food standards, hinted at a future where businesses are free to purchase potentially cheaper (even when tariffs are applied), lower-quality food if they so choose while simultaneously pledging not to “imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality, and grounded in our shared national values”.
It is these and other paradoxes that the government will need to solve as the Brexit clock resets for 31 December 2020 – the point at which we really will be cut adrift.
*A version of this blog was first published by Footprint magazine