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LEAKED papers from the EU-Latin America (Mercosur) trade negotiations have set alarm bells ringing.
The EU offer to allow an extra 70,000 tons of beef imports a year is worrying because of the absence of any environmental standards or (enforceable) “precautionary principles” (about food safety) attached to it. We’ve been here before.
Earlier this year the scandal about Brazilian “rotten food” triggered an international ban on their beef and chicken exports. China, Japan and Hong Kong led the way, with the EU being not far behind.
How quickly we forget — or perhaps the negotiators of trade deals aren’t bothered by such trifling details.
It is a recurrent problem within free trade mentalities: standards get thrown out of the window.
In the 1990s, British shoppers staged supermarket boycotts to stop the dumping of GM food products into our shopping trolleys.
Latin American states, then, lined up alongside US GM multinationals, opposing any European ban (or even labelling obligations) on GM foods.
It has ever been thus. In the battles over global food supply, multinationals have been happy to exploit the poor at both ends of the market; lowering pay and standards of production, on the back of lower consumer prices, but poorer quality goods.
My childhood baptism into food safety debates has a different origin.
Liverpool may have been 350 miles from Aberdeen but, as far as my mum was concerned her shopping trolley was the front line of the 1964 controversy surrounding contaminated Argentinian corned beef.
The typhoid infections associated with it never reached Liverpool, but the corned beef never again reached our house. From that point on, my mum insisted, we were going upmarket. Thereafter it was Spam.
Today’s twist in the food supply/food safety debate will hopefully get beyond the Spam option, but only if it forces Britain past the narrowness of the In-Out Brexit debate currently obsessing Parliament. Tomorrow’s food crises will need different solutions.
Turbulent weather is already disrupting everyone’s seasons. This will become the new norm.
Different approaches to “buffer stocks” will be needed, at both national and transnational levels.
Tomorrow’s food security will also be umbilically linked to climate security. The carbon footprint (hoof-print) of foods will become a feature of the carbon budgeting we will all have to live within.
It is a sad reflection on our times that Tory zealots who defend austerity economics — “you cannot spend more than you have in the household purse” — refuse to see that the bigger challenge is to get the planet to live within its carbon purse.
All of this is possible, we just need a different mindset to connect with it. The key is to put safety, sustainability and accountability at the centre of the conversation. Whenever we have done so, a much better set economic choices have emerged.
Britain, in the 1840s, didn’t have foodbanks. The period we now call “The Hungry Forties” did, though, have similar levels of poverty and social disruption.
The move from hand looms in homes to powered looms in factories, during the industrial revolution, changed the lives of working people. Exploitation was as ruthless in the shops as in the factories.
“Food prices were very high and many shopkeepers added weights to the scales so that customers did not receive the amount of food they had bought. Food adulteration was common, with water being added to milk, chalk being added to flour and gravel being mixed with oatmeal.”
The visionaries of the day didn’t call for an EU-Mercosur deal. Instead, they founded the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers — the Co-op.
It was the point at which people, collectively, established a “fair trade” agreement — with themselves.
No more dodgy flour, no indigestible oatmeal. The co-operative principle enshrined quality, fair pay and fair pricing at the heart of a different economic model.
Milk, too, got in on the act, with what became a national network of sustainable production and distribution.
It was hardly surprising that the most exploitative producers (and shop owners) of the day didn’t even want the Rochdale Pioneers to have access to an outlet. But Co-ops became a collaborative economic model that has lasted for over 180 years. The decades ahead will need us to remember and reclaim this vision.
In a similar vein, Indian dairy farmers in the 1940s (often with no more than a single cow to their name) faced the same problems when they took on the might of Nestle, in the battles over fresh milk versus dried baby milk.
What began as a local struggle in Gujarat turned into a national programme — From a Trickle to a Flood — endorsed by both Gandhi and Nehru. It also spawned the world’s biggest co-op, AMUL.
It made our 1970s food co-op, run from the back of our garage, look rather feeble. But this too allowed families to buy fruit and veg, collectively, at prices they could afford. It was a model the Italian “slow food” movement was soon to turn into their national network of slow towns and villages.
Wherever this happened, the key was to put locality, affordability and accountability into the same pot. So it is now.
What the EU-Mercosur negotiations highlight is a point Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were blocked from raising during the EU referendum debate. It was to take issue with the corporate takeover of what passes for internationalism.
Where Corbyn wanted to challenge the transfer of rights from citizens to corporations, free-trade Labour would have none of it.
This is how we ended up with a Little England versus Corporate Europe parody of a national debate.
Roll the clock forward to whatever the next food crisis is. Drought, flood, famine, civil wars or snap frosts, it won’t matter. We will be unprepared. European buffer stocks have been derided. United Nations relief appeals fall massively short of needs. Britain’s own “resilience” stocks are non-existent.
And localised, low-carbon-mileage food supply systems go unsupported (and even opposed) by Treasury policies. The answers go back to the co-op.
Nothing can now avert climate instabilities already in the pipeline. What we can do is manage, collectively, our way through them. Another round of free-trade free-for-alls would accelerate the crisis.
Safety — food, soil, air and water — will be found in the embrace of interdependencies.
As my much missed mentor Tony Benn used to say in answer to the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer must be a resounding “Yes ... and my sister’s, my neighbour’s, my parents’ and my grandchildren’s.”
In doing so, we will not only find tomorrow’s security, we might also rediscover ourselves.
Alan Simpson was MP for Nottingham South from 1992-2010. He now advises Jeremy Corbyn on environmental policy.
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