THERE is likely to be a lot of mud-slinging over the next few years as the British government tries to negotiate trade deals with the US and other major economies.
The relative merits of our food and farming systems will be under the spotlight, and it’s likely to be pretty unedifying, even if not quite the race to the bottom which some are predicting.
Leaving aside the emotions of Brexit and the revulsion that many of us feel towards the current American president, we can’t pretend that the US is not a major export market for British manufacturers and farmers, nor that UK businesses don’t want to find new trading partners.
In Europe, we think our food is better than in the States and we are often right – but our old world prejudices are not always justified. We have had some of our most memorable meals in California and New Mexico, and the fresh produce and organic meat in US farmers markets is second to none.
But American industrial farming is horrible – for the environment, the people who work in it and the animals who endure it. It is also not good for the consumer because much of the meat is tasteless (which is partly why so many people smother their food in gloopy red, brown and yellow sauces).
US farming spokesmen are rude about European food and farming, citing foie gras production, foot and mouth disease or BSE (which resulted in necessary changes, particularly in animal feeds). Americans believe that their food is the safest in the world. But this is a country where many believe that all bacteria are bad, so we can be forgiven for thinking they don’t know much about health, science, nutrition … or good food.
At the moment, with talk of post-Brexit trade deals, the attention is focusing on GM (genetically modified) products, chlorine-washed chicken and animals pumped full of antibiotics. As part of Europe, we have successfully fought these for years – how will we fare in a world where we do not have the protection of a big international group of countries?
It is not hugely reassuring to picture Liam Fox or David Davis going in to bat for the many people who have environmental and animal welfare concerns.
So we find ourselves getting into metaphorical bed with a man for whom many of us do not have a good word to say. Michael Gove, hitherto the back-stabbing would-be prime minister and Brexit zealot, has emerged, as from a new chrysalis, as a fully fledged green! No, me neither.
It hardly seems but a blink since he was grinning vacuously in Trump Tower, and now he has reinvented himself as a campaigner for small farmers and real food. It’s a pretty big leap, even if he is not yet a total eco-warrior. (I am reminded of John Selwyn Gummer feeding his daughter a mass-produced burger before becoming a serious environmentalist. Wonders, as my mother would say, never cease!)
In his first major speech, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs railed against “corporate greed and devil-take-the-hindmost individualism … extractive and exploitative political systems” and the “selfish agenda” of vested interests. (We share his concern and admire his eloquence.)
He (rightly) castigated the EU farm subsidy system which has put hundreds of thousands of pounds into the coffers of vastly wealthy landowners and agribusinesses, at the expense of small family farms.
He told a World Wildlife Fund conference that the UK should be the global “home of the highest environmental standards” and said he “deeply regrets” Trump’s actions on the Paris climate agreement.
His stance on British versus American welfare standards and food handling came under cross-examination from Nick Robinson on the Today programme. Here again his answers were music to the ears of those of us who have voted with our cash and credit cards against cheap imported poultry and meat or any foods that contain GM products. Pressed by Robinson on the issue of whether chlorinated chicken would be allowed into the UK, as part of a trade deal, he said, simply, “No.”
Let’s hold him to this. Let’s hold him to his promises on standing up to greedy global corporations, reducing carbon consumption, meeting the government’s own (so far failed) target of planting 11 million trees.
He told the WWF delegates, in what was billed as his first major speech, that he is an environmentalist:
“ … first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to this earth that we share with others …
“ …[and] because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart. We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.”
These are fine – and unexpected – words from a man that many of us would not readily trust. So we must all remember these words. Remember that on Wednesday 26th July 2017 he told the seven million listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme that he would not allow chlorinated chicken into the country.
In his speech, Safeguarding Our Future, he quoted a poem by Philip Larkin that begins “And that will be England gone.” Not, apparently, if Michael Gove has anything to do with it. We need to share that vision, whatever our politics.