Concerns about the safety of post-Brexit imports mask a bigger issue: the hyper-intensive American farming model.
As sugar was to the 18th and 19th centuries, so chicken is to the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been turned into one of the defining commodities of our era. A luxury until it underwent its industrial revolution from the 1960s on, it is now ubiquitous. Today, questions about how poultry is produced, by and for whom, and to whose profit, take you to the heart of the global trade system. So there is no escape from the debate about chlorinated US chicken.
Serious minds are engaged on the matter for good reason. For the US, one of the chief prizes of Brexit is the chance to open up a major European economy to its agribusiness, after years of failed trade talks in which the EU has refused to accept its food and farming standards. For British Brexiters, the reward will be cheaper goods for consumers on low incomes. Both parties see the EU regulations on these standards, such as its ban on imports of poultry washed with chlorine, as unnecessary and at root protectionist. Chlorinated chicken has become totemic because it encapsulates a much wider argument over what sort of agriculture the world needs and how far we should regulate it.
The figures are old, muddled and not comparable. What is certain is that the UK has had a serious problem with the food-poisoning bug campylobacter in its poultry supply, which is improving but not solved, while the US has a serious problem with salmonella and E coli contamination, which disinfecting reduces but does not eliminate.
The US argues that it has the comparative advantage of more land for grain to turn into feed, so that it can produce chicken that is cheaper than ours and there are no health reasons to object to it. The British poultry industry fears being caught between a rock and a hard place: if it wants to continue to export to the EU and to meet consumers’ expectations of welfare standards and reduced antibiotic use, it needs to stick to the more expensive rules the union imposes. But if it does, it will be undercut by cheaper US imports.
Free us from onerous EU regulation, today’s Brexiters believe, whether it be on genetically modified or gene-edited crops, on pesticide residues and agrochemical use, or on antibiotics and other veterinary drugs, and we will all benefit from cheaper food.
But these are answers to old questions from a previous era. In developed countries such as the UK, the cost of our food as a percentage of income is lower than it has ever been. Chicken is already as cheap as chips. The crises we face of climate breakdown, loss of natural species, and epidemics of diet-related disease globally will not be addressed with more of the same intensive production. Those on low incomes suffer the highest rates of obesity and illness caused by nutritionally depleted foods. They want decent pay to afford decent diets – the things that cost more to produce: fresh fruit and vegetables, whole, less processed foods. Instead, the share of GDP paid out as wages has fallen inexorably, while the share sucked up in corporate profits has grown.
US farming still depends heavily on the blunderbuss technology of genetic modification accompanied by an agrochemical payload that wages war on insect life and soils. Yet it is increasingly clear that nurturing more complex agro-ecological systems, combining traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science, will be vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting diversity.
British consumers do not need more, even cheaper, frozen imported US poultry, destined as it will be for highly processed chicken products or yet more takeaway fried chicken. We need a vision for a more enlightened way of farming for ourselves and the planet.
Original source: www.theguardian.com