Kent Barker argues our environment and our health are being sacrificed as we move out of lockdown and out of the EU. 

Everyone seems to agree on one thing: virtually the sole beneficiary of the COVID-19 lockdown was the environment. Hardly a car on the road, hardly a plane in the sky. Clean air and quiet enough to hear every note from emboldened songbirds. Following so swiftly on the heels of the Extinction Rebellion movement it seemed the dream of saving the planet might actually be gaining some traction.

Supertrawler in English Channel
PICTURE: Greenpeace

But in the cold light of mid-summer it’s looking less a dream than a nightmare on myriad fronts: a US trade deal that requires ditching food safety standards; an EU trade deal that requires casting our fishermen adrift; and a new deal that will pour millions into fossil fuel-heavy enterprises.

Greener promises?

Part of Boris Johnson’s promise to “Build. Build. Build.” contained in his Rooseveltian ‘New Deal’ for Britain was a commitment to go greener. But environmental and conservation groups from the Climate Coalition to WWF scoff at that, pointing out that the Conservative manifesto pledge to spend £9.2 billion on a national home insulation programme has been watered down by two-thirds. Where’s the commitment to reverse last year’s devastating decision to scrap subsidies for domestic solar panels? And, anyway, how on earth does a £28.8bn new roads programme count as ‘green’? Or the expansion of airports? The suggestion of planting 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025 will hardly offset the increased carbon footprint of the rest of the polluting policies. And there’s growing concern from environmental groups that easing planning restrictions could result in the loss of swathes of countryside.

But equally serious for both our health and environment is the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations with our former EU partners. The cut-off of June 30th to extend the deadline came and went with hardly a whisper and a no-deal crash-out looks increasingly likely. 

Go fish

Fishing quotas are a serious sticking point for any deal; with the UK demanding a major increase in the catch its boats can land from ‘our’ waters. The EU wants to maintain quotas based on the old Common Fisheries Policy and its chief negotiator Michel Barnier maintains that no deal on fisheries means no deal on anything. This could ultimately have serious consequences for all British fleets including Hastings’ with fears of physical confrontation with French, Belgian, Dutch and German fishermen who rely on ‘our’ waters for much of their quota. 

The whole issue, though, is a serious distraction from the problem of overfishing and marine conservation. The Eastbourne and Hastings local Greenpeace group recently documented ‘supertrawlers’ illegally catching and processing hundreds of tons of fish from Marine Protected Areas just off the South East coast.

Subsidies scrapped by government

Do they want a deal?

Suspicions grow that Johnson’s Brexit-ultra government doesn’t really want a trade deal with the EU at all, preferring instead to sign up with the US regardless. Here, apparently insurmountable hurdles intervened because of the Tories’ previous commitment to maintain EU-level food standards. That pledge seems all but certain to be ditched. Ministers are now actively considering accepting imports of the far lower-standard US foods but applying tariffs to them. Though this is primarily to protect British farmers from cut-priced US imports – itself a very real threat – suggestions are already circulating that such tariffs would be reduced to zero within ten years. 

Absent altogether seem to be any concerns about health. According to the Soil Association it’s not just about the totemic chlorine-washed chicken but worries over a range of other dangers. The use of antibiotics per animal in the US is five time higher than here, so anti-microbrial resistance poses an increasing threat to lives. Add that to the pervasive use of hormones in US beef, ubiquitous production of genetically modified foods, massively increased pesticide use, and food dyes so dangerous they’ve been banned in the UK since 2007 – and you have an extremely unpalatable and toxic dish. 

A significant and little-remarked impact of adopting US food standards would be to prevent UK farmers from selling their products into the EU – our largest market and our nearest. So add in the detrimental environmental effect of a significant increase in food miles and you begin to see why so many are accusing Boris Johnson of complete ‘greenwash’ in his ‘New Deal’ or indeed any deal he may be able to cobble together. 

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