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Brexit is taking our food policy in the wrong direction

One of the key roles of government is protecting us from ill effects of food that can take years to appear. But Brexit could undermine that.

Brendan Montague
16 October 2018
cows.jpg

Image: Aberdeen Angus beef cattle. Rights: Scott Bauer/CC Public Domain.

The decision around the food that we eat is among the most intensely private that we can make. Children express extremely strong preferences from the earliest ages - and these can last a lifetime. The choice about food has a direct, causal impact on our health. There is growing awareness for example that refined sugar is addictive, and is contributing to an obesity crisis.

We assume that the food that we buy is not poisonous, even if extravagances are ultimately unhealthy. We expect responsible companies to sell products that are not extremely bad for our children.

But we have a problem. There can be a conflict of interests between the producer of foods and the customer. The producer needs to sell as much food at as low a price as possible. If the ill effects are immediate and significant then customers will notice and most will stop buying the food. But if the effects are less direct and take longer, then this is not so clear.

We therefore want governments to ban hidden ingredients that will cause cancer, or otherwise make us sick. We want to go about our lives with an assurance that our food will not kill us. So who influences government decisions: is it us, or the corporations?

Take the use of growth hormones in the raising of beef for slaughter. The synthesised hormone causes the animal to grow more meat, resulting in higher profits for the company concerned - and more protein going into the human diet. The European Union has considered evidence that some hormones can cause cancer and has therefore banned their use as growth promoters, and also banned meat from other countries where hormones have been used for that reason.

The UK - as a member of the European Union - is protected by the “precautionary principle”. This is an ethic that sits at the very heart of regulation. When rigorously applied, it means that no new chemical can be used until scientific research shows that there is a low level of risk. A different approach prevails in the United States, and elsewhere, where the government must show harm before a substance can be banned.

Even at EU level, there is a shortfall of transparency and democratic processes when a government is making decisions around regulations and bans. And in most cases the secrecy and bureaucracy does not serve the general public - but instead the corporations that can afford legions of lobbyists.

Brexit is, in part, driven by corporates attacking European regulation –

and so these problems can only get worse. Those companies that can develop products that are extremely cheap, sell at a good price, but only have indirect or long-term health impacts will sell more, develop more profits, have more to invest in marketing. Indeed, over time the biggest companies will create complex monopolies that completely control the market - which is why only two or three companies sell almost all the drinks in a supermarket chiller cabinet.

These companies also invest vast amounts in lobbying. They don’t just lobby politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels. They lobby us directly, through advertising, through our newspapers, through ‘two for one’ deals at the check-out. And they also hire people to lobby on their behalf.

There are politicians who appear also to be lobbying us on behalf of industry - and foreign industry at that. Boris Johnson has led the charge against Theresa May and her Chequers plan, ensuring the debate remains between a hard and an extreme Brexit. Boris wants a Canada+ trade deal with the United States, an audacious attempt to undermine European regulation all at once, rather than piecemeal.

Johnson has attacked the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposal on the basis that “we [would] abandon control of our regulatory framework for goods and agri-foods - especially important in trade negotiations.” As I’ll explore further in my next piece, Johnson seems heavily influenced by Shanker Singham of the Plan A+ paper, which he describes as “excellent”. Shanker Singham, director of the International Trade and Competition Unit at the free market Institute of Economic Affairs, argues in that report that the EU is widely seen as “protectionist” and “in violation of WTO rules” for its stance on hormone-treated beef. Singham suggests the UK must not “remained tied to the EU regulatory system” but instead “meet CPTPP [the trading block of which Australia is a member] approaches to good regulatory practice”.

This is manna from heaven for the meat and livestock industry in the United States and also in Australia – both countries where the use of hormones to promote livestock growth and increase yield is profligate.

This summer Private Eye reported that one of the IEA’s trustees, Michael Hintze, is “one of Australia’s biggest landholders and a major investor in Australian farming, including beef cattle”.

The tobacco industry has for years been attacking the European Union for introducing the precautionary principle. It introduced instead the business case, where even the deaths of its own customers must be balanced against the profits of the company - and the jobs it can provide to the host country. Tobacco has moved on - selling cigarettes to children in the poorest countries in the world. But American agriculturalists want to sell their hormone beef.

This is one side of Brexit. The deliberate attempt by multinational companies from outside the European Union to break the protective regulation of the mega-state. This is what it means to take back control. We are now free. Free not to eat hormone treated beef. The aim is to break the EU regulatory framework, and flood Britain - and then continental Europe - with imported hormone beef.

But there is another side to Brexit. We, as a nation, could chose a government that does not allow corporations to sell us toxic chemicals disguised as food. A government that provides better regulatory protection for our families than the European Union.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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