Guy’s news: Corn Laws, Brexit & Trump

1815 to 1870 was the golden age for British farming. Early industrialisation brought burgeoning urban populations which, combined with high tariffs on imported cereals created by the 1815 ‘Corn Laws’, kept food prices and farm rents high. Through controlling the food available, farmers and landowners prospered at the expense of the urban poor and invested heavily in their farms; arguably a bucolic rural idyll was built on the back of desperate urban poverty. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846; this, combined with new shipping and rail routes that opened the fertile US prairies to the plough, meant cereal imports rocketed and led to a collapse in UK grain prices and farm rents post 1870. Bar a brief let-up in WW1, the rural recession lasted until we were again threatened with dire food shortages by Germany’s U boats in WW2, exposing the risks of relying on global markets to feed us.

Post-war, UK and then EU farming subsidies brought a partial return to stability, prosperity and investment in farming over the last 60 years. I would argue its rules have also protected us from the most extreme and environmentally damaging versions of “free market” farming seen in the USA: lax pesticide regulation, vast intensive animal feedlots, the worst antibiotic abuse, soil loss, depopulated villages and hormone-injected cattle.

Judging by the limited information emerging from May’s discussions with Trump, it seems likely that farming, food safety and animal welfare will be sacrificed in a rush to the unregulated bottom that is World Trade Organization rules. Perhaps we could compete on world markets if farmers were free to bulldoze hedges, fell trees, pollute waterways and abuse their livestock, but I
doubt that is what Leave voters envisaged on June 23rd last year. Our island is too small and there are too many other legitimate stakeholders who want a say in how our food is produced and countryside managed. Welcome to an uncertain world in which we need to keep our eyes firmly on ensuring a decent food supply for all.

Guy Watson
With thanks to Professor Tim Lang for inspiration and editing.

39 responses to “Guy’s news: Corn Laws, Brexit & Trump

  1. Completely agree with you, very worrying time. Time to dig our gardens.

  2. Perhaps I’m missing the point, but surely we should be more concerned with feeding ourselves than competing in a world market – as far as agriculture is concerned anyway. We don’t have the space to compete with larger countries – and if the house building companies have their way, there’ll be even less growing space! It seems daft that we export some foods and then have to import almost exactly the same product (usually inferior quality) to fill the gap just because some idiot has discovered that they can make a larger profit.

  3. Agree with all that you say Guy. It feels like we will drop all standards just to get a trade deal.

  4. Come on Guy, cheer up. We are where we are, but compared to the woes of many across the world, it still ain’t a bad place to call home.
    Worse case scenarios are scary but I sense corporate greed will not have the clear field (no pun intended) you envisage. Negotiations require compromise of course, but surely Mrs May and her political tribe won’t capitulate on every point?
    Anyway, where the towel gets thrown in on the real nasty stuff, Brits have a reputation for fighting back especially where the driving force of media headlines come to bear. Don’t give up. Look what you’ve achieved by doing battle and building popular support. I respectfully suggest that there are many others who share your values and determination to do the right thing. The sun will still come up in the morning… well, on enough days to raise a smile.

  5. The scary thing for me is that I don’t think most people care – as long as there is cheap ‘food’ to buy. If you see how much is bought from the likes of Primark where cheap triumphs over decent labour conditions, then the likelihood is that GM cheap imports will be similarly welcomed by most. I think our ethical community is so small and will struggle to persuade others to feel similarly. Sigh.

  6. As an EU citizen I do share your concerns about the direction this country is taking in very many respects and I am glad to hear something positive said about the protection of food standards by EU regulations. Thank you.

  7. Andrea Bradley – sadly you are so right! Most of my neighbours eat cheap nasty food as they feed themselves by price and not by quality. I am a freak in their eyes not to want to get the ‘best bargain’ at Tesco/Lidl/Rubbish etc. They haven’t a clue what GM foods are – but if they are cheap then they would eat it! We often feel so isolated and just wish we could live in a community surrounded by other like minded people like yourself and Geoff Rogers. Sigh.

  8. Jacqueline Cloake

    We must put the pressure on May – not that I have much confidence. We live under a regime where we think we have influence but infact have little or none.

  9. May will do the usual bottom line, look after the interests of the big landowners and Tory Party donors. Better get your chequebook out Guy.

    • Why do you say this – what’s made you think she, a vicar’s daughter, is only interested in money. She should be, and shows every sign of being so, concerned about people’s lifestyles.

      Cameron disappointed me & I’ve never had much time for Osborne – they just look at overall nation income. Bad idea – yu need to see where it goes within the country.

      • Don’t be fooled by Theresa May being a Vicar’s daughter. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer and look at the damage she did. Remember BSE? If my memory serves me correctly, one of its was removal of rules governing what could be fed to livestock.

  10. The whole food dilemma is a problem on every level. As pointed out, there are people who do not know or care, as long as its cheap. For politicians problem is how to feed growing populations and not use the pesticides and GMO’s etc. For people like ourselves, who realise that good husbandry and organic production is vital for health, well, we seem to be fighting a losing battle. We can only hope that our attempts at spreading the message cause more humans to ‘wake up’.

  11. I’ve made it a priority to educate myself about food, chemicals etc because poor health has made that a necessity. I share what I’ve learnt with friends and family and anyone who’ll listen. I live in dairy farming country, where neighbours either farm or have some connection to farming. I talked with a neighbour about how wonderful the fruit and veg is from Riverford, and he sees the benefits of organic farming, but said we can’t produce enough to feed people. I had no answer to that because I don’t know enough, but I thought why not, why wouldn’t this be possible? Having removed anything processed and refined from my diet, I dont get food cravings, I eat less. I am gradually seeing friends give this approach a go, some may never, but some will. We might not have a voice in the crazy global decisions, but we can create a ripple effect by our own actions. And that’s what gives me hope.

  12. If it is as grim as this and our ability to choose our way of life is so likely threatened for wont of educating the masses to choose more wisely (and I am not doubting it), then perhaps it is high time the Organic movement used television, radio and multiplex advertising to spread the message? MervD suggested you would need to open your chequebook. Whether it was in this regard it is not clear, but if you have such a choice then an ad campaign could be the way, and if it was done in such a way as to layer the message in a sustained way over some months… Well… If you see Sid tell him there are Humphreys about… If organic farmers are such a community in UK, surely it is possible to coordinate something like that?

    • A lot of people seem to choose the opposite of what’s good for them. Something must turn the tide – The image that has stuck in my mind (and throat) is “bleached chicken” – Could a clever media team do something with that?

  13. ‘Science, well the science that doesn’t end up on the Cutting Room floor because it doesn’t fit with what they want, is always been used by Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. So we, who know that good organic food brings health to people, animals and the land, have to use science to get people to listen. I couldn’t get my daughter to have an organic box until I showed her graphs showing the amount of pesticides present in children’s urine after eating non organic food. She acted quickly after that – so please Guy help to get this kind of information out – such as a 2015 UN scientific report that states that we have as few as 90 harvests left before the soil is too depleted to support our arable regimes – and as it takes 500 years to make 1cm of topsoil it seems we may be hungry for quite a while if we don’t change what we are doing.

  14. This worries me too. We have the best animal welfare in the world – and that gives us the best meat and eggs.
    We also have some very good land and environmental regulations – which could be better.
    It shouldn’t be too much of a worry as Theresa’s plan is to bring all EU legislation into our law, and then over time, piecemeal, remove the bits we don’t want. So, provided the US Trade Agreement doesn’t violate these, and we keep our MPs aprised of what’s imporatant, we won’t be getting e.g. beef full of growth hormone. My biggest worry is GMO crops because the seed merchants in US and Canada have been over-agressive at sueing farmers who save their seed which has been corrupted by passing lorries or neighbours crops. Also, there was one GMO method which I thought was unsafe and I can’t remember which it was.

  15. Although EU legislation is time consuming, It is in the interests of all humans and animals alike. I agree with you Guy. We do not need to let these laws dissapear. Health is important to us all.

  16. The thing I like about Guy is that he is usually a half-full rather than half-empty person. For a more optimistic view of what Brexit could mean for agriculture I suggest people might like to read Neil Oliver’s article in this week’s Sunday Times. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/scotland/brexit-may-seem-a-seismic-event-but-our-world-isnt-tumbling-down-d6399qjtp
    Chin up Guy.

    • I’d like to respectfully point out that we haven’t left the EU yet, so it’s rather early to say that everything’s fine and business as usual.

  17. Uncertain times, indeed. As usual Guy raises vital questions about how our food is produced and how careful we need to be. Brexit and Trump have undoubtedly changed the landscape, coupled with Theresa May’s apparent support for free market economics irrespective of the human and environmental costs. We’ll stick with organic and continue to support Riverford, other organic producers and the Soil Association. Ethics and sustainability are essential in food production. It shouldn’t just be about making as much profit as possible whilst ignoring the downsides for human health, animal welfare and the environment.

  18. It seems to me that it is time population control is bought into the overall picture worldwide. With growing space diminishing, deforestation, living and commercial space ever growing, wages kept low for many, just how do the ethics and sustainability work in real life?

    • I am so much with you Angela. It’s time we all aim to limit our families to just two children. (We’ll forgive Guy his four.) But I’d like to see politicians taking up this message. I think there may have been recent changes to Family Allowances which support this aim, but more people need to be talking about this. It will take a long time to turn the ship around, but let’s make a start.

  19. Good food is important to my husband and me, we would never dream of buying GM and are disgusted that standards are broken for cheap food that a lot of people buy! Sadly many people want cheap everything and don’t give a thought of how and where it was produced and by whom, and as long as they can stuff themselves with cheap rubbish they are happy. I want to be happy and healthy so I’m sticking with Riverford and everything like it!

  20. Message for Guy to contact myself about the possibility of learning from Riverford business approach for strategies in Africa – mostly related to urban water and sanitation in low income peri-urban settlelements. Thanks

  21. Well done Guy, the historical perspective of the British Governments default position on Agriculture has not been given enough notice by all the post Brexit speculators. Personally speaking I am not looking forward to being buried in a Trumpian avalanche of GM corn and Hormone fed beef !

  22. I care about what I and my family eat. What I object to is all the political input from the Newsletters. When I visit my local shop, I don’t expect a Party Political broadcast.

    Actually Jacqueline, as the result of the referendum proves, we do have a say in what we want. Unfortunately, those who don’t agree with the outcome are hell bent on trying to reverse the decision which is hardly democratic.

    As for the abuse of livestock, don’t imagine this will only happen after leaving the EU. More an more cattle are being reared inside, never seeing the light of day, or being able to graze. One has to search to find pork from outside bred pigs. This is while we are still part of the EU.

    Valerie

  23. Corn Laws..perhaps the issue was the reluctance o employers to pay properly???Just a thought.We will need real muscle to ensure that Parliament actually comes out in favour of extending our production of high quality food. Food security a priority.

  24. Jennifer Rowlands

    I agree, & understand all that has been said, I have been trying to tell friends about the present farming practices not being sustainable, nutrients being leached from the soil & the destruction of the top soil, however many seem to think this unimportant, we don’t need to produce milk or meat etc, we are a rich country and can import all we need, think one of our PM said as much – might be wrong. That organic foods are a fad & a crazy idea thought up by tree huggers ( – I am proud to be one ) part of the problem is education, or post80’s
    Education – rural science disappeared from schools & domestic science.
    These are now crawling back & farm toys are coming back but-
    The sustainable mixed farming & organic farming need a much higher profile
    TV ads are full of what the supermarkets want us to by but nothing from these suppliers & reps such as the soil associations, documentaries explaining what is happening.
    I have lived in my present home for 30 years surrounded by farmland during that time I have seen the affects of the change in the loss of soil, the loss of wildlife habitats due to ploughing up old grazed pastures & introduction of arable crops & potatoes not an animal insight, a green desert, butterflies, bees, skylarks, wagtails, gone, other species depleted.- foxes buzzards, the one animal that is thriving is the rat.
    Building homes etc is important but so is our farms & protection of the soil,
    Once it’s gone it will difficult, if not impossible to get back. Sadly it seems the more humans there are, the less any thing else matters though the destruction of their habitat will lead to the destruction of our own, & us.
    Sorry about the rant, all the emails I have read all agree but how to get the message across to those who don’t understand or want to, is a problem, rants like mine don’t do anything little voices don’t achieve much,
    We need to be heard as with brexit, but we need to at least try to keep or values & keep an eye on PM May, the Lords & the rest of the MP.
    Not sure I will send this
    I agree very much with Valarie & Verina
    Jenny

  25. I recently signed up to your website and placed an order for a monthly delivery. Having done this, I thought it probably a good idea to find out a little more about the people with whom I had just placed a monthly order.

    I then read your political statements..

    Order cancelled. One customer lost.

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