Food sovereignty or total surrender?

BREXIT presents so many challenges and problems that it sounds simplistic to suggest that anything about it offers a binary choice, but there was a distinctly black or white feel to a recent BBC Radio 4 Today item on the impact of zero tariffs. A spokesman for Stoke-on-Trent’s very important and world-famous ceramics industry spoke passionately about the disastrous effect a zero tariff policy would have, with cheap imports flooding in from China, Brazil and other countries, undercutting the more expensive but very high quality products of the old Potteries region.

An advocate of the benefits of zero tariffs suggested that “a few jobs” were a price well worth paying for lower prices, more choice and better quality. He went on to suggest that this argument applied similarly to food and farming.

There are times when I want to pick the radio up and hurl it across the room. This was one of them.

Stoke-on-Trent was one of the areas that voted heavily in favour of Brexit in the referendum. But let’s not worry about betraying the people who voted for Brexit. According to this man, whose metrocentric arrogance was breathtaking, the majority of people will be happy with lower prices. Of course they will, won’t they? Well, no, not really. Add the 20,000 jobs at risk in Stoke-on-Trent to the potential thousands in Sunderland – now hovering on the precipice of economic disaster that would result from a reduction in Nissan production in their (Brexit-voting) community – and you are looking at a lot of jobs, not a few. And in every devastated community, where breadwinners lose their jobs both in the core industries and in the supporting trades and businesses close down, there is less money to buy goods and services … and consequently more closures and more job losses.

Turning to food and farming, the situation is equally grim – zero tariffs means a rush of cheap imports, drastically hitting the fragile dairy industry and heaping trouble on the growers who are already fearing the problems they will face recruiting pickers and field workers post Brexit. Even though some of these areas – notably around the Fens – voted for Brexit, the consequences of fewer Eastern European workers willing to dig potatoes in the Fenland winter or pick vegetables and fruit in the kinder summer weather is causing deep concern among the growers, the wholesalers and thus the supermarkets.

All this casts a dark threatening shadow over a subject that has assumed great importance in the past two years – food sovereignty. For many of us who live in food producing and farming areas, the issue of food sovereignty has been a crucial topic for many years. But it is only a relatively few years ago that an (unnamed) DEFRA official is said to have written a memo suggesting that all farmland should be used for leisure – one glorified countryside theme park, in effect – because all our food could be imported. The story may be apocryphal but it was symptomatic of the attitudes that prevailed with some DEFRA officials at that time.

A focus on food sovereignty has been one of the good things about Brexit. Food campaigners have found politicians more inclined to listen to their concerns, not only about meat pumped full of antibiotics or chlorine-washed chicken, but also about the importance of supporting our farmers and fruit and vegetable growers, with their commitment to welfare and environment-friendly practices. The welcome consequence would be greater self-sufficiency in home-produced food.

There are basically two definitions of food sovereignty – for practical farmers and pragmatic politicians it can be simply described as producing as much food as possible for the internal market, to cut imports, improve farmer and grower incomes and strengthen the economy of rural areas. For the more idealistic or politically committed, food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

With all the promises that were made – and all the hopes of the 17 million people who voted for Brexit –  one thing was clear. They thought they were voting to take back control of their lives, of their jobs, of their communities, of their country. They didn’t think they were voting to end centuries of tradition and manufacturing skill or to give away thousands of jobs.

From where I sit, a zero tariff “deal” looks like total surrender.

Fanny Charles