By Olivia Oldham
The Agriculture Bill
Earlier this month, the UK’s new Agriculture Bill, an important piece of legislation that sets out post-Brexit law for the food system, passed its 3rd reading in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, despite advocacy from sustainable farming organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Soil Association, an amendment requiring imported food to meet the same standards as British producers was dropped.
So what does this mean? For British farmers, it means they will be more easily undercut by imported products, which have not had to adhere to the same standards of production, and which will therefore be less expensive. For those who want to farm in ways that exceed the minimum legal requirements--who want to actively contribute to the regeneration of the land and the wellbeing of animals and consumers, this effect will be even more stark.
The Bill, if passed, will also likely contribute to nutritional inequality amongst eaters here in the UK. As mentioned in a previous blog, a 2019 Parliamentary Select Committee report found that between 1.97 and 3 million people in the UK are undernourished. Unsurprisingly, poverty is described as a major cause of malnutrition and food insecurity. What is not mentioned by the report, though, is the relationship between race and socioeconomic deprivation--according to government statistics, Black people and Asian people are the most likely to live in the most socioeconomically deprived areas of the country, while White people are the least likely to do so. In the United States, the situation of food injustice is so severe that it is referred to as ‘food apartheid’.
In this context, it is predominantly wealthy and, correlatedly, white, people who are able to afford to support farmers and producers trying to do the right thing by nature and by their workers, and whose produce is often more expensive due to the increased costs of producing food this way. With the passage of the Bill, these producers may be forced to put their prices up to survive, thanks to competition from lower quality exports. The result? Fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to buy food produced in this way, and more and more eaters will be driven to consume cheaper, lower quality imports in a vicious cycle which segregates society into two nutritional classes: those fortunate few able to buy sourdough from their local bakery and fresh vegetables from their farmers market, and everyone else.
Thirdly, for non-British farmers, this Bill effectively signals the outsourcing of ecological destruction. It allows Britain to stand up on the international stage and announce its adherence to the strong environmental and welfare standards in farming, while at the same time permitting and encouraging damaging and harmful practices to continue abroad. In this way, the UK benefits from improved soil quality and higher animal welfare at home, while continuing to allow and perpetuate their degradation abroad.
The Wuhan wild animal ban
Meanwhile, soon after the third reading of the Agriculture Bill, the local administration in Wuhan announced a ban on eating and hunting wild animals within its sphere of influence. Breeders of wild animals are being offered a pay-out as an incentive to cease their activities. But while this ban recognises and attempts to address the likely direct source of the virus (that is, a wild animal such as a bat or pangolin sold at a wet market), it completely fails to address the more remote factors that led to the growth of wild animal farming in the first place. According to Spinney, the increase in industrial food production in China in the 1990s as part of the country’s rapid transition to a market economy pushed small-scale farmers out, both economically and geographically. For many, the alternative that enabled them to survive was to begin farming wild animals. Their farms were located closer and closer to forested areas inhabited by bats, increasing the likelihood that viruses might be transmitted from these wild populations to the newly farmed ‘wild’ animals.
There are those who contest that the virus even originated at the infamous wet market, including the authors of a paper published in Nature Medicine in March. They claim it is possible that the virus evolved in an animal host living in circumstances of high population density, such as pangolins or civets, but also sheep, goats and pigs, among others. Hubei Province is one of the five largest producers of pigs in China; and as described above, small scale farms have been replaced in recent years by large-scale industrial operations containing thousands of genetically uniform pigs, confined in high-density, enclosed environments--perfect conditions for the rapid mutation and evolution of a zoonotic virus (that is, that jumps from a non-human to a human) such as Covid-19.
What this means is that it is possible that the source of Covid is not the much-vilified wet markets or the survival strategies of smallholders, but rather the expansion of industrial agriculture. And this expansion has been driven not only by internal changes to the Chinese economy, but by foreign investment; for example, after the great recession in the late 2000s, Goldman Sachs invested heavily in Chinese poultry farms.
What does any of this have to do with the UK’s failure to maintain high import standards in its Agriculture Bill? In a nutshell, they are two examples of how the global North is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the environmental and welfare standards of agriculture. Increasingly, Western consumers push for regulatory protections of the environment in agriculture, such as through laws enshrining high welfare standards for livestock, or promoting on-farm biodiversity through measures such as the banning of glyphosate (the main chemical in the common herbicide Round-Up). But at the same time, we fail to address and indeed encourage the perpetuation of these self-same problems in the majority world through measures such as uneven import standards (as in the Agriculture Bill) or investment (as with the investment in Chinese pig farms), or both. The end result is both domestic and global food and environmental inequality and injustice.
What, then, shall we do?
Alternatives do exist, though. The UK Agriculture Bill still needs to go through the House of Lords before it can become law. There is still the chance, then, to achieve a positive end-result. This is critically important: we need, where we are able, to engage as food citizens--that is, as people who have the interdependent power to shape and participate in the food system as more than just passive consumers in a “linear supply chain”.
Beyond lobbying Parliament, those of us who are fortunate enough to have the means can also support local producers who are trying to make food in ways that are good for the environment, socially just and nutritionally sound. Numerous initiatives have sprung up in response to Covid-19 and the weaknesses it has exposed in the industrial food model and the supermarket supply chains that support it. For example, Farms to Feed Us is a project that has created a database of regenerative producers who have started (and many who already were) selling food directly to their communities during this crisis. Where we can, we should support these initiatives and the farmers and producers they are lifting up; and we should do this not only now, but we should keep doing it once the moment of crisis has passed.
Thinking more broadly, we can also stand in solidarity with food sovereignty movements around the world. La Via Campesina, for example, is an international organisation fighting for the rights of people across the globe to produce their own food in an environmentally sustainable and culturally appropriate way. It fights giant industrial agriculture projects like those which likely contributed to the Covid-19 outbreak, and which are creating misery for people and animals around the world. The Landworkers Alliance are members of LVC in the UK--supporting their work is incredibly important, now more than ever.
Food is political, and to pretend that it isn’t directly contributes to the injustice of the status quo. To this end, if we care about a fair and regenerative food system, we need to accept that it’s about more than only food: it’s about social justice more broadly. Only when all people live with dignity--and this includes being able to afford good, nutritious food for their families--can we consider the goal of fixing the food system to have been achieved.
OCS Media Team
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