The Hypocrisy Economy

Here’s a column I wrote recently, which I’m too impatient to wait and see in the Farmers Guardian:

We’ve all (hopefully) read the new agriculture bill. We’ve all (probably) heard Michael Gove talking about how great UK agriculture is going to be, and what high standards we will continue to have. And we have all definitely thought about what will happen to our businesses after Brexit, as the threat of unlimited imports in our own sector looms large. The hot topic this month seems to be whether we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings. Personally, I’ve never used these on cereals, but did on oilseed rape until a few years ago, and always have on our sugar beet, but many people rely (or at least think they do) on this chemistry to protect their crops. It’s now fairly clear – for better or worse – we’ve seen the back of this particular technology in Europe.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Or how about the graphite used in all our rechargeable batteries? Same story. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use. Paraquat would be a good example – and we haven’t even touched on the GM soya that is fed to so many of our pigs and chickens. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.

3 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy Economy

  1. It is very refreshing to have such an honest and accurate summary of all the facts and it is a great shame that this is the rarity rather than the norm – well done!

    The only issue that I have is the reference to child labour in the far east which is certainly true, but slightly undermines your point because the real issue is relative labour costs (you can make the same point about the use of prison labour, in Africa or migrant labour in the UK). I suspect that removal of child labour would not have a major impact on the labour costs in these areas plus this needs to be managed with care due to the role that this plays in family finances. In theory, all the clothes supplied by the major brands comply with strong ethical codes that addresses some of the points that you have made, including banning child labour, but sadly I think that this is just a PR stunt for many! One only has to look at the impact on the established and responsible high street retailers from low-cost internet retailers. The former are all in survival mode in the “race to the bottom” driven solely by price, where quality, sustainability, ethics and other factors are pushed into the background.

    Food has never been cheaper, but this doesn’t stop consumers moaning about food price increases fueled by the media and the net result of this is a food chain that operates on margins that are not sustainable. Proposing anything to increase prices to a more sustainable level is suicide for politicians because there are no votes in this.

    I am very worried for the future of UK agriculture and our precious farmed landscape because I think that farming will simply be used as a bargaining chip in future trade discussions. I have no confidence in politicians’ ability to make decisions that will have any impact beyond the next election and these will be fueled by lies and the selective use of facts for the electorate. I fear that farmers will be sacrificed as part of a lucrative deal on financial services or a different sector that has greater appeal to voters and society will realise the impact of this mistake many years after the decision makers have left politics, but which time it is too late. People need to realise that farming involves generational investments and not 5 year cycles. Perhaps we need to get politicians to operate on the same timescale – how about holding them personally accountable when their “promises” turn out to be lies. I am sure they would make different decisions if they had some long term “skin in the game”, like farmers, because the risk of losing a nice fat pension, country house and comfortable retirement might restore some balance.

    I very much welcome your approach in highlighting the total hypocrisy in this debate. Customer behaviour/demands lies behind many of the problems affecting farming, such as loss of biodiversity, reduced soil quality and ground water pollution and anyone who thinks that this will get better in a free market needs to be certified! Nothing will change until we get consumers to accept that their decisions affect all stages in the supply chain and the most vulnerable stages in particular, whether this is arable farmers in Cambridgeshire, sheep farmers in Wales or garment manufacturers in Vietnam! Anything which can be done to make people think more deeply about their decisions has to be a good thing, although we probably need better balance and less sensationalism from the media.

    Your approach has my support and we need more people that are prepared to help people to understand how supply chains really work and cut through all the BS.

    Thanks

    Ed

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