“Don’t sell our farmers out to the mighty dollar.” North Devon relief milker and team vicar urges MPs to support Amendment 16b

We ran this article last week on Torridge Council’s decision to express its anger at the government’s decision to vote against protecting food and animal welfare standards in the Agriculture Bill.

One of the passionate supporters of the motion proposed by sheep farmer and councillor, Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin, was the local Rural Dean and team vicar, Susanna Metz.

When I spoke to Susanna this morning, she had a simple message for our politicians ahead of the vote on 4 November:

“Don’t be taken in by the lobbyists and the empty promises of those in government. I beg them to reflect on what we would lose as a country if we tear down the food and animal welfare standards which we have built up so painstakingly.”

She also reflected on the dire effect on mental health evidenced by the upsurge in suicides within the farming community – a subject which was front and centre of recent discussions at Devon’s Rural Church Forum.

“How can these people feel anything but despair when they see that their government is not listening to them and that the outlook for their family farms looks bleak, unviable as their stewardship of the land of their animals is sacrificed in favour of cheap, sub-standard food? Is financial power all that counts? These people care deeply about their animals and the land. They need their politicians to care about them. Vote for the amendment. Don’t just promise to protect our farmers. People have no reason to trust these promises. Make it the law.”

Susanna’s compelling letter to the council sets out her case:

“I am writing to express my extreme displeasure at our government’s decision to vote against protecting food standards in the Agriculture Bill. It is especially distressing after having been promised by our own MP [Geoffrey Cox] and many others that protecting not only our food standards, but also the standards in place for the welfare of our animals would not be compromised in any trade deals.

I also feel that going forward on a “no deal Brexit” is irresponsible and is having an impact on how our farming industry is being sold out. I continue here with a focus on the US as that is where I have the most experience working with and for farmers other than here in north Devon. I am a permanent resident in this country having come from the United States. Whilst my primary position in both countries has been as a member of the clergy, I have also always been involved in working on owner operated farms as well as being involved in sustainable agriculture advocacy groups such as: Rural Church Network (a US rural advocacy group); Rural Chaplains Association (international); Appalachian Educational Resource Centre (US); Farmers for Action (UK), etc.

I have seen first-hand how agribusiness in the US has undermined not only food standards, but also animal welfare. In the US, I have worked with immigrants involved in multi-national chicken corporations who have been treated abysmally by those corporate giants. Yes, the US is geographically huge, but all across the nation land is being despoiled at an alarming rate by an agribusiness political machine that allows such things as manure lakes, animals housed by the thousands on land that cannot sustain them, the use of pesticides, bovine growth hormones, and antibiotics in an unsafe and poorly regulated manner, and an immoral lack of care for the people who, for generations, have seen their life work as providing healthy food for the world’s people. I have seen the despair in the eyes of these farmers and, as we have seen in our own country here, the devastation of a family who loses someone to suicide.

Is this the kind of partnership in a “trade deal” we want for this country? Do we want to see food from countries that can undersell us because of their, quite frankly, unethical and immoral agricultural practices, coming on to our store shelves? I hope to God not, but to be honest, I wonder when I read how our government is responding to the desperate attempts of our farmers to have their voices heard. I have marched with the F.F.A to Number 10 Downing Street, and I have watched as farmers I know drove their tractors to London in peaceful demonstrations begging our government to help us. The response has been negligible—almost as insulting as a pat on the head.

 We live in one of the most glorious agricultural areas in our country. The beauty of our small family owned and operated farms who produce food for local consumption as well as for production that feeds our country further afield assures us that our food is nutritious and that we can believe what we read on products’ labels. In the US, there is constant controversy over what needs to be labeled and, quite honestly, many in the US have little confidence in the governments’ willingness to be completely honest especially when Sonny Perdue was chosen by the current President to head the Department of Agriculture. I could rest my case right there.

 If we ignore the need to support and encourage sustainable farming in our country we leave ourselves open to finding our supermarket shelves filled with food that is far inferior health-wise to that we can grow here. Yes, it will be cheap, but we only have to read the problems people in the US are having, for example, because of the insane use of corn syrup sugar in foods that actually have no need of it. We will be tempted to buy dairy products that could very easily have antibiotic and bST in them. Is this what we want? In the Dalton, Georgia area (US southeast), hospitals were finding a much greater percentage of women who presented with breast masses which were traced back to cheap milk. These women were, however, Mexican immigrants brought into the US to work in the carpet and chicken factories, so they don’t make the headlines. They are expendable. Is this what we want to share?

I will admit to being an idealist. Perhaps because I’m clergy I’m hardwired to look first at what is moral, what is ethical, what is good for all people instead of looking first at the economics. Are we more interested in getting something for nothing regardless of the effect it has on those at the bottom of the food chain—those who are actually doing the work and giving their lives to providing nutritious food? Whose pockets are we willing to fill regardless of how questionable food sources affect the health of our people? How much faith are we willing to put into the hands of corporate leaders who, in one instance, fell asleep when he was supposedly on a fact-finding fly-over of agricultural land? I’d dearly love to see every member who voted against protecting our food standards spend a week working on a farm, listening to groups of farmers on their land and in their homes, not being hosted in town halls for an hour so they can trot out their canned speeches.

Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m frustrated and yes, I fear for the future of our farmers who are willing and able to try new things to keep the production of our British food at the highest standards possible. I fear for the future of our young people who desperately would love to go into farming, but cannot see how that would provide for their future families. It breaks my heart when I hear a local farmer tell me over and over that he understands my passion for all this, but “what can we do—it’s coming and there’s nothing we can do about it, we may as well go with it.” I tell him I will continue to speak out. I will continue to encourage my farm families from the pulpit and from the milking parlour where I work not to lose hope and to be willing to organise and fight for the right to have our voices heard and listened to. We must demand that our government listens to us and makes decisions that support ethical and moral practices in the food industry and that support our British farmers.

 People with whom I’ve lived and worked in the US constantly tell me how envious they are of our food system over here. They say, “You don’t want what we have here.” I can only hope that our voices will be heard and that this government will review and reverse their vote against upholding the standards of our food production.”

Please email your MP urgently and ask him/her to enshrine our commitment to our food and animal welfare standards in law.  The message is simple – vote for amendment 16b.

The main points of this amendment are:

“Duty to seek equivalence on agri-food standards in relation to future trade

 (1) When negotiating any international trade agreement containing provisions relating to the importation of agri-food products into the United Kingdom, it shall be a negotiating objective for Her Majesty’s Government to secure terms that provide for equivalence with standards applicable to domestic producers in the areas of—

(a) animal health and welfare,

(b) protection of the environment,

 (c) food safety, hygiene and traceability, and

 (d) plant health.

 (2) Before an international trade agreement can be laid before Parliament under section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (“the 2010 Act”), a Minister of the Crown must lay before both Houses of Parliament a statement confirming—

(a) that Her Majesty’s Government has, in the Minister’s opinion, fulfilled the requirement under subsection (1),

(b) whether equivalence with domestic standards has been achieved,

(c) any exemptions provided for individual products, and

(d) in relation to subparagraphs (b) and (c), the Minister’s reasons for this being the case.