One in six Americans fall ill every year from the food they eat (according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In Britain, it is one in 28. This week, the negotiations over the shape of the final relationship between Britain and the EU resume in earnest, making the next three or four months among the most fateful of our lives. The grandstanding is over. And food quality, standards and security are going to become flashpoints.
Will Boris Johnson’s government stick to keeping us relatively healthy by making legal commitments to maintaining food standards in a UK-EU trade deal, as British farmers, supermarkets and consumers want it to? Or will it instead prefer no deal or a minimalist one, moving to American food standards in its much coveted US trade deal, protesting all the time that we must trust it to keep its word on standards even though it refuses to offer legislative guarantees?
After all, the democratic mandate is clear: Britain voted to leave the EU and voted for a Johnson government. If the price is living with vastly more gut illness, a collective rise in obesity and shorter life expectancy – so be it. For the passionate Brexiter, it’s the price for becoming global Britain and more fool us for believing their promises.
The government is plainly trying to keep its options open – maybe permissive deals can be struck that will give both the EU and US some of what each wants. But no minister dare admit the obvious – that no trade deal with the US will pass US Congress unless there are major concessions to American big food. The US food trade associations that represent big food have enormous lobbying power.
This industrialisation of American farming, with its disregard for animal welfare and for the impact of fertilisers and chemicals (many banned in the EU) on food standards, delivers production results, whatever else. The US produces low-grade, low-cost food in ever greater volumes, with booming exports mainly to less developed countries that cannot afford to be too discriminatory. Midwestern states are over-represented in the US Senate. Their senators will not pass a UK trade bill that does not open up the greatest prize ever – a bridgehead into Europe, a market hitherto denied.
Indeed, with opening up the NHS to American healthcare now political dynamite after Covid, food is virtually the only major area on which the UK can offer concessions.
That it has come to this shows how out of step the Brexit Tory party is with core British values and public opinion, deluded by success in very particular and one-off elections. It was hostility to Jeremy Corbyn that gave Johnson his victory in December, rather than any love of Brexit. Equally, though Leave won the referendum, there was no popular support for the real Brexit mission – importing alleged American capitalist dynamism and killing off the postwar settlement.
For Britain remains stubbornly European in its values, despite the onslaught that tries to Americanise us. We believe in a universal welfare state, together with progressive taxes to pay for it, and in the NHS in particular. During the pandemic, most Britons have been prepared to accept the privations of lockdown for the greater good. We look in amazement at American, gun-toting, libertarian militias campaigning against lockdowns and grimly note that having opened up too early, especially in the south, the US has a Covid-19 infection rate climbing back to its highs.
For nearly three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said nothing about Covid-19, for fear of outraging Donald Trump. We want none of that, the whole American approach to public health, including the mores and standards of the US food business.
British supermarkets, close to the consumer, have got the message. Last Thursday, Waitrose’s executive director, James Bailey, declared: “It would simply be wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards.” Referring to animal welfare, he added: “We would be closing our eyes… to animals who are out of our sight and our minds.”
Tesco, Sainsbury and Morrisons have all made similar commitments, while even Lidl and Aldi, a little warier, as cut-price supermarkets, have nonetheless offered emphatic support to British farmers and farming standards. The National Farmers’ Union has campaigned throughout the passage of the agricultural bill for the government to promise maintained standards – to deaf ears. Then there is the security of supply: 40% of the vegetables and 37% of fruit we eat is imported from the EU. Brexiters like to deny geography, but vegetables and fruit perish. They can’t be sourced in the US.
Worse, if there is no deal with the EU, the whole British food supply chain, with its just-in-time delivery and suppliers all over the EU, will disintegrate. The EU food industry says there must be no tariffs and no quotas if the system is to continue operating. But that means food standards have to be the same so that zero-tariff food is interchangeable. If we want to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, eat meat from animals that have been well treated and chicken that has not been washed with chlorine, while also ensuring there is food on supermarket shelves next year, Britain has to have the same standards as the EU. And no meaningful US trade deal.
On this there can be no ifs, buts or qualification. We are all Brexiters now, even moderate former pro-EU Tories tell me. Really? Geography, values and hard economics, represented by what we eat, are brutal. Britons are Europeans and trying to reinvent us as wannabe Americans will doom the Brexit Tory party. The only question is how long will it take.
•Will Hutton is an Observer columnist