Midlands farming sold out: ‘it’s crass and it’s wrong’

Image: Joe Stanley

‘It enrages you, it’s crass, it’s wrong and transparent as to why’.

So begins Leicestershire farmer Joe Stanley about the mooted Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Stanley has farmed 700 acres of land with his parents for the past 12 years in the region. The farm is a mixed arable and beef and mainly tenanted farm on which the family have native longhorn cattle, a breed that was classed as rare until recently. Stanley clearly loves his cattle, and talks with passion about the many dozens of native sheep and cattle breeds that hover near extinction. He fears a Free trade Agreement (FTA) with Australia, said to offer Australia zero tariffs and quotas, will tip these breeds over the edge alongside most of the people who rear them.

Farmers’ viability was already marginal, but Stanley had hoped that the defeat of last year’s proposed US deal and government promises to protect Britain’s farming standards were true.

Instead, Stanley says, those pushing for FTAs at all costs have fought back. Last year, it took a massive coalition of farmers, consumers, environmental and animal welfare NGOs to defeat the proposed deal with the US.

Now they are pushing back. Talking heads like Daniel Hannan are doing the rounds claiming Australian standards of animal welfare are similar or higher than ours, telling us ‘they are 5/5’.

Stanley says ‘the cynic in me would say from what we know from personal experience and regulation, it is untrue to say animal welfare is the same’. He adds ‘there is mulesing (editor’s note: where animals are mutilated to prevent fly strikes), of course, and in Australia they take a view that if it lives it lives, if it dies it dies, which is not case in the UK’.

As for Australian standards being the same, Stanley says that ‘they use artificial growth hormones, there are many times more antibiotics in food chain, here the UK is the global leader’.

He adds that ‘It is being repeated ad nauseam and it is untrue, it is one of many untruths being used. Words no longer mean anything‘.

Joe Stanley is clearly angry.

While he has no idea on the timetable for this deal he suggests it will be quick as the UK wants to announce this deal before the G7 meeting in June, which he calls a ‘meaningless and self imposed deadline, painting ourselves into a corner, putting all the cards in Australian hands’.

British farms cannot remotely compete with Australian farms on volume and cost – Australian livestock farms can run to millions of acres where a British one might have just 80, with 20 animals.

Throwing out our standards is an existential threat. All other agricultural exporters will want what Australia has, Stanley says. New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and of course the United States. It is a threat to the UK, beef, lamb and of course sugar with all its environmental costs versus home grown.

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Despite Liz Truss’s continued references to cheese, Stanley remarks ‘there are only so many truckles of Stilton we can sell’.

An FTA with Australia will only improve trade by 0.02% over 15 years. This will not bring the red wall out in jubilation. Stanley continues, ‘we have the third cheapest food in the world because of the £3 billion in subsidies we get, and which are being phased out by 2027, and because there is no VAT on food’. This FTA, he suggests, will not make food cheaper: ‘there are only marginal gains to be made at the expense of the standard of food we eat. Why sacrifice this for a few pennies?’. 

On pesticides and antibiotics we would also be losing out on food safety. The loss of animal welfare and ethics in food production would be huge. For Stanley, this appeasement of the extreme right of the Tory party makes no sense. He says, ‘you wonder how the party of national security can let it [food production] go?’, adding ‘if getting cheap Australian food is the goal, how far have the ideals of Brexit fallen?’.

The loss of subsidy, the increased costs of trade and liberalisation will hurt British farming.  Sadly, Stanley thinks it is not even deliberate. It is more likely different departments not coordinate with each other, with no fixed plan for food and farming.

We will end up sourcing from the cheapest corners of the earth, he says, sometimes taking food those countries need, because of political muddle and zealotry. After 20 years of thin and negative margins, farming is on the brink.

He adds that British farming supports its largest manufacturing sector, agri-business and food employing 7 million people. Without farming, this sector will also disappear.

This brings us to the recently announced policy of supporting older British farmers to retire. Is this to make way for cheap imports rather than, as stated, to bring in younger, greener farmers? Stanley says ‘it’s a very poor policy’ although he can’t say if there is a link with undermining British farming. He does says it shows how wafer thin margins have been that farmers need help to retire. It is not new money, he clarifies, but existing subsidies being paid early.

Farming, he says, ‘needs investment in the future of farming’, but DEFRA does nothing. it would rather focus on environmental aspects. Meanwhile, there is a neocolonial mindset at work that is ‘arrogant to expect others to feed us’. Instead, we should grow what we can and to improve our footprint by ‘cutting imports of meat from far-flung places’.

This putative FTA may affect how farming happens in the UK. Stanley says ‘farmers will move towards more intensive farming and biotech to compete, which sets us against EU standards’. Yet the EU, he says, takes three quarters of our agricultural exports. He continues, ‘wanting to join the TPP is is nuts, when 80% of trade is with neighbours’.

In conclusion, Stanley says that changing this deal will be hard as it is being sprung at the last minute and there is little time to react. He says protest works, and that the farming sector needs to harness public opinion. Last year’s actions saw one million people sign an NFU petition, and MPs received 70,000 emails. People do not want lower food standards, especially those who will have no choice but to buy the cheaper, lower standard food, Stanley says. Lower standard food will also go where there is no choice: hospitals, schools, prisons, the armed services.

Efforts are also hampered as the promised UK farming advisory committee (announced after protests over a US trade deal last year) is still not operational. So who will oversee and assess the impact of the Australian trade deal?

Stanley has low expectations that the two MPs who cover his farm areas will be much help. Andrew Bridgen and Jane Hunt were elected on a pledge to support British farming standards but it seems reality is different. Liz Truss is claiming the impossible reconciliation of a trade deal will not hurt UK producers while bringing in tariff and quota-free agricultural imports.

Words, says Joe Stanley, mean nothing. They are just a distraction.

The hashtag #SaveBritishFarming is needed again.

Joe Stanley’s new book on farming is out now.
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