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Bittersweet Brexit: Land, Labour and Food After Brexit was picked selected as one of openDemocracy‘s Best Political Books of 2017. For World Food Day, the author Charlie Clutterbuck explores why the issues in the book are still very much on the agenda, and why we need to pay closer attention to the erosion of food quality standards as the UK that are happening before our eyes.

The book is available with 50% off until the end of October.


In Bittersweet Brexit, I outlined the profound changes stemming from the Brexit deal which will impact our food and farming – more than any other sector in our society. 40% of all EU laws that have to be transcribed relate to food and farming. This includes all the standards, approval systems, many directives, 2000 farm tariffs and 15,000 food tariffs.  Published 3 years ago, the first draft was written when I expected a ‘hard’ Brexit – but nowhere near as ‘hard’ as this Brexit may be.

Food and farming is now coming on to the left’s agenda, as the virus has bought into sharp focus the divide in our food system – from big retailers raking in increased profits to communities catering for those in need.

Recently, Kier Starmer visited the leader of the National Farmers Union as they are leading the campaign to maintain our food standards. In the book, I explain how these standards are there to protect the Single Market – by making sure that only those who invest in decent food production can play the EU Game. This is part of a long history of Europe never wanting to be dependent on US imports again after the ‘Marshall Plan’ following WW2. While the Tories promised to maintain standards in the UK, it is clear in both the Agriculture and Trade Bills, currently working their way through parliament, they are not going to stop low standard imports. Liz Truss outrageously said in parliament that when they are making deals, ‘our high farm standards will be taken into account – to make sure our farmers are undermined’.

The UK has taken these high standards for granted. I know from my time on the government’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides that we worked to standards much higher than the rest of the world. I also worked with several unions, persuading the Health and Safety Executive of higher standards for workers using pesticides. Now, Boris Johnson is talking about pesticide approvals being moved behind closed doors.

The book also addresses the two other big EU functions – its governing Institution and the Customs Union. The Institution is responsible for the Common Agricultural Policy, which gives money to landowners. In the rest of Europe this is not too bad, as the other countries do not have big landowners like ours. Here, large landowners rake in the subsidies – including over a million pounds that the Queen gets for her Lancashire lands, as part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

I suggest that these monies would be much better spent on paying land workers living wages. Then we may not have to rely on low-paid migrant workers, present throughout the food system – not just in the fields, but also abattoirs and processing factories. While this is a good argument, it is difficult to see how to enact it. So since then I’ve been looking at funding local authorities to encourage much more local – fresh foods. If the present subsidies were divided up according to size, it means a city like Preston, just down the road, would have an extra £20m to invest locally. But all we have heard is Michael Gove discussing ‘public money for public goods’ making out this could be a ‘green Brexit’. At the same time, he is completely undermining this promise by encouraging imports of cheap food, without our prevailing standards. No wonder farmers are fearful, as they cannot compete with cheap meat from Argentina and Australia, who along with USE want to get rid of their excess produce.

But perhaps the biggest surprise to most people is the extent of tariffs – taxes – of food and farm stuffs, coming in or going out. These have taken years to develop and are there mainly to protect EU farmers. Once out of the Customs Union we will face those tariffs rather than have them protect our rural economies. People have asked me why many farmers voted for Brexit, and it is difficult to say. The Council of the National Farmers Union (the farmers’ not the workers’ union) voted overwhelmingly to remain, but did not campaign to do that. Perhaps that was due to concerns about splits between its big plantation members in East of the country versus the smaller pasture farms in West. Mind you, George Eustice, the Environment Minister, promised that subsidies would stay much the same. So many – who did not know about tariffs – thought Brexit was just a matter of removing some red tape.

So far, during the transition phase the tariffs remain the same. Except one. The tariff on the first quarter of million tonnes on raw sugar cane has been removed. There is only one raw cane sugar importer – Tate and Lyle – the most dominant pro-Brexit company. T&L Sugars are now owned by American Refining Sugars. So the £120m that was previously collected by UK that went to the EU (minus 20% handling charge which we kept) now goes straight to the US company.

We need to put food and farming further up the political agenda, as many on the left are now realising it is not an individual ‘middle class’ fad, but a collective class issue. The virus has intensified the divide between those who can access home delivery and those on the breadline. There are lots of developing local mutual aid initiatives but they need organising into a coherent force. This could challenge the hegemony of the international corporate marketers, and instead we could invest in our own economy, and eat local food that is both healthier for us, and the planet.

Charlie Clutterbuck PhD has three degrees in agricultural sciences. He has worked in many parts of the food chain from plucking turkeys, picking hops, working in kitchens and living on a hill farm. He has advised several major food retailers and was an active member of Unite’s Rural and Agricultural workers for many years, as well as an Honorary Fellow in Food Policy at City University London. At present he is on the Boards of Incredible Farm in Todmorden and ‘The Larder’ in Preston.

He is featured on BBC iPlayer, on episode 26 of Gardner’s World.

Painting of the Tate and Lyle factory by Alexander Pemberton.