Opinion Articles

Chlorinated chicken, the European ‘museum of farming’ and the agricultural revolution of the future

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Woody Johnson, United States (US) Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently commented (The Telegraph, 1 March 2019) that British agriculture is being disadvantaged by a protectionist European Union (EU) which ‘prizes history and tradition over innovation and science’, following a ‘Museum of Agriculture’ approach. As the Ambassador has highlighted, the use of terms like ‘chlorinated chicken’ have sparked fears about food hygiene standards and animal welfare post-Brexit. Such terms refer to certain non-traditional food hygiene practices developed through modern scientific production methods, which are intended to lower production costs and consequently food prices. Johnson recently described such reactions as ‘inflammatory and misleading’ (for further information see the recent BBC Reality Check article Chlorinated chicken: How safe is it?). However, whilst the European Food Safety Authority has stated that there are no safety concerns with the chlorination of chicken — indeed European producers wash fruit and vegetables in chlorine — the practice may not be sufficient for maintaining robust hygiene standards throughout the rearing and slaughtering process. Hence British concerns about accepting chlorine-washed chicken, and also the use of growth-promoting hormones in cattle, as part of the agreement of a bilateral trade deal with the US.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s evocation of a needlessly backward-looking approach is echoed by Owen Paterson, Conservative Member of Parliament and former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2012-14, who has argued that countries like France could enjoy the benefits that US farmers enjoy, for instance by raising maize yields (The Telegraph, 3 January 2019). As he wrote, ‘Consumed by an overarching desire for bureaucratic uniformity, the Common Agricultural Policy is consigning the EU to become the Museum of World Farming. Its hostility to new technology, driven by powerful but misguided campaign groups, is causing European research to stagnate and agricultural yields to suffer.’ He also cites Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ speech to the Oxford Farming Conference in which he argued that ‘science is the future’ for agriculture.

The landmark 1947 Agriculture Act formally enshrined the system of price support that had been implemented during the Second World War and was introduced to promote ‘stability and efficiency’ in British agriculture. It established a system of farm support which continued until Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Farmers have continued to be protected by policies of intervention prices and farm support under the Common Agricultural Policy. Critics of this type of farm support have argued that by providing an assured market for agriculture products, farmers have been less inclined to adopt the latest technology and scientific innovations. However the history of post-war British agriculture illustrates the dramatic increases in output and productivity as a result of scientific advances.

In the early 1980s arguments were made that what was portrayed as a generous EU price support system had led to the emergence of massive food surpluses, the outcome of which was rising land prices well in excess of their agricultural value. The leading exponent was the controversial Conservative MP Richard Body. As a corollary of this argument it has been suggested that Britain can learn lessons from countries like Australia and New Zealand, who abandoned farm support in the 1980s, as market forces prompted producers to adopt the most advanced and efficient technologies to boost their productivity. Such a claim is not however as convincing as it may appear at first sight. In comparison with the US, Australia and New Zealand, Britain has a more limited land base for agricultural activities particularly in terms of its size of population. Such constraints limit British farmers’ ability to compete with low cost producers by exploiting economies of scale. For instance New Zealand has an exceptionally long growing season for grass ideally suited for large-scale sheep farming. Furthermore in Britain there are demands on land for other uses such as urban development and tourism which constrain what farmers are able to do. Hence it is not so much that British farmers need to be freed from the limitations of a bureaucratic system of control which inhibits innovation, but that they need to be able to compete on a level playing field with countries whose food production systems are less well regulated and with lower standards of animal welfare.

Asserting that the development of British agriculture has been retarded by its association with the EU does not do justice to the country’s impressive record in pioneering agricultural innovations, which are evident in increasing crop and livestock productivity. For example Britain has been very successful in expanding poultry production. In 1950 chicken was an expensive luxury accounting for less than one per cent of total meat consumption whereas today it has become the most important single source of meat dominating the market, undermining the historical dominance of beef, lamb and pork. This was facilitated by the development of improved strains of birds and modern systems of production from the early twentieth century. Testing, quarantining, greater nutritional understanding and intensive hygienic housing contributed to the decline of disease and led to the transformation of the sector after the Second World War with the expansion of broiler production. Similarly the turkey sector has been transformed from a small-scale seasonal activity exclusively for the Christmas market to all-year-round production by household names, notably Bernard Matthews. It is not so much that British agriculture has been able to develop despite being under the jurisdiction of the EU’s directives, but that it has been able to successfully embrace scientific innovations without jeopardising its welfare standards, as evidenced by the transformation of poultry production.

Any potential willingness to allow US imports of chicken is likely due to the strong wider imperatives for a US-Britain trade deal, rather than because it truly represents a superior alternative. ‘Agriculture’, wrote the Ambassador, ‘will always be an important priority in any trade negotiation we do.’ He encouraged British farmers to join their US counterparts in shaping the ‘agricultural revolution of the future’. Whether or not the issue of chlorinated chicken is exclusively concerned with animal welfare or also encompasses food safety is as yet an unresolved moot point: the most recent contribution to this debate is by Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, who has suggested that Britain may have to accept chlorinated chicken as it would not be possible to ban the practice under World Trade Organization rules as part of a trade deal with the US (The Independent, 15 May 2019). The US is the largest importer of food, but also exports more than any other country. This would not only introduce poultry with possibly lower welfare standards, but also affect British farmers who historically have struggled to compete with low-cost overseas producers. Opening up the market to such imports would either lead to British farmers being possibly priced out of the country’s biggest market - the domestic market - or a decline in standards in order to remain competitive. It is important that after leaving the EU, British farmers are not forced to lower presently high standards of animal husbandry to compete with low-cost imports as a result of free trade deals with major agricultural-producing countries.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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