UK - USA - RECIPROCAL GRIFT
The Conservative manifesto made a clear promise. It pledged that in the government’s trade talks, “we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. Just six months after the election, the promise has been ditched. Our government is now proposing that chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from animals injected with ractopamine and scores of other foods produced in the United States by dangerous, cruel and disgusting means will be allowed into this country, as long as higher trade taxes (tariffs) are applied to them.
The trade secretary, Liz Truss, has made it clear that any such tariffs would be removed within 10 years. It’s impossible to see the US negotiators allowing them to pass in the first place. The US intends to secure “comprehensive” access to our food markets, while “reducing or eliminating tariffs”. This nonsense about higher tariffs is a blatant attempt to soften us up, to sugar the toxic pill of US imports that don’t meet our standards. When I say sugar, I mean high fructose corn syrup.
It’s not as if our standards are wonderful. But by comparison to the revolting practices in the US, our food rules, laid down by the EU, are a haven of sanity. As well as washing chicken flesh with chlorine, to compensate for the filthy conditions in which it is raised and processed, and injecting dangerous substances into cattle and pigs, Big Farmer and Big Food in the US use 72 pesticides that are banned here and food colourings that have been linked to hyperactivity in children, impose no limits on the amount of sugar baby food contains, and permit cow’s milk to contain twice the amount of pus that the UK allows.
What this means is that we will bring into this country food whose production is banned here. Either our farmers and food processors will be outcompeted, or our domestic production standards will be brought down to match. Some Conservative MPs attempted to insert an amendment into the Agriculture Bill, to uphold the manifesto promise. But it was decisively slapped down by government loyalists.
The US government argues that these matters should be left to consumers. We should each be allowed to decide whether we buy cheap vegetables containing residues of pesticides that are banned here. But I suspect that, rather than having to read and interpret the labels on everything we buy from shops, takeaways and restaurants, most of us would prefer to know that all the food on sale is safe to eat. Anyway, just in case we did try to exercise such choice, the US also insists that all useful labelling be banned.Perversely, it has argued that warning labels are “harmful” to public health.
This doesn’t end with food. In the same section of their manifesto, the Conservatives promised that “in our trade talks … the NHS is not on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs is not on the table. The services the NHS provides are not on the table.” The leaked dossier of trade documents released by the Labour Party last year revealed that the US is seeking “full market access” to the NHS. If the promised food and farming standards were a lie, how long will it be before we discover that the NHS pledge was also worthless?
I suspect this has been the agenda all along. The neoliberal extremists who populate the front benches have long sought to rip down our public protections, rip down our public services, rip down everything that stands in the way of the most vicious form of capitalism. A trade deal with the US allows them to do so while disclaiming responsibility for the consequences. Once they have signed it, they can claim that, sadly, their hands are tied. Unfortunately, the rules don’t allow us to maintain food standards, and force us to open the NHS to competition. Perhaps mistakes were made during the negotiations, but it’s a done deal now, enforced by legal instruments. There’s nothing we can do. They know they could never obtain public consent for these policies. A US trade deal would impose them without consent.
Even parliamentary consent is unnecessary. The Trade Bill, in its current form, makes no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of any deal. Parliament has no legal right under this bill to debate or vote on a trade deal, or even to know what it contains. The bill also grants the government Henry VIII powers to change the law on trade agreements without parliamentary approval. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are granted no formal role in negotiating or approving trade treaties. In other words, nothing is being left to chance. This is not democracy. This is elective dictatorship.
To make matters worse, the US is likely to insist that the deal is enforced by an offshore tribunal, which allows corporations to sue governments if domestic law affects their “future anticipated profits”. This mechanism has been used all over the world to punish nations for laws their parliaments have passed. It ensures that, over time, legislation everywhere has to be tailored to the demands of corporate power. Far from taking back control, a trade deal on these lines with the US involves a massive renunciation of sovereign power.
The government knows that accepting such a deal means no deal with the EU. US food rules are incompatible with EU standards. In the leaked documents, US officials remark that “there would be all to play for in a No Deal situation”. I suspect our government sees it the same way. The pigheaded obstructionism of the UK in the current EU talks is at stark odds with its willingness to prostrate itself before US power. Dominic Cummings says he intends to stay in his post for the next six months. In other words, he will stay for long enough to ensure that the transition period is not extended, making a no deal Brexit more likely.
Just as Trump seeks to erase Obama’s legacy, Johnson and Cummings seek to erase Clement Attlee’s much deeper legacy. It’s not about sovereignty. It’s not about taking back control. It’s not about British values or British autonomy. It’s about locking deregulation and the demolition of public services in place, by means that cannot be challenged by either people or Parliament. The combination of a no deal Brexit and a coercive US trade agreement will allow the government to rip down a wide range of rules and protections, creating a paradise for the disaster capitalists funding the party, and hell for the rest of us.
They intend to pursue this agenda regardless of the pandemic, regardless of a petition that has already gained 800,000 signatures, regardless of the economic and political harm it might do. This is their game, and we must use every democratic means to stop it.
GAME OF CHICKEN
"Global trade once made us rich. Now it unleashes a full-spectrum assault on our well-being." - George Monbiot (26th July 2017)
What’s wrong with chlorinated chicken? It’s not as if chlorine is absent from our lives: we drink it in tap water every day. Surely it’s a small price to pay for the trade deal with the US the British government seeks? There are several answers to this question, that range from the instrumental to the existential. Let’s begin with the immediacies.
Washing chicken carcasses with chlorine allows farmers and processors to save the money they might have spent on systemic sanitation, throughout the chicken’s life and death. You need only dunk the meat in a chlorine bath to kill any accumulated germs. Does it work? It is true to say that rates of foodborne illness are similar between the EU and North America*. But chlorine-washed chicken, remarkably, could be the least offensive of the US meat regulations a trade deal might force us to adopt. It has been pushed to the fore because it’s less politically toxic than the issues hiding behind it.
While European Union rules, that currently prevail in the UK, take a precautionary approach to food regulation, permitting only products and processes proven to be safe, the US government uses a providential approach, permitting anything not yet proved to be dangerous. By limiting the budgets and powers of its regulators, it ensures that proof of danger is difficult to establish.
An investigation by Reuters discovered that chicken companies in the US use a wide array of antibiotics as routine feed supplements, both to prevent disease and as growth promoters. Among these drugs are some listed by the US Food and Drug Administration as “critically important” in human medicine. They’re administered to the chickens in low doses, creating perfect conditions for bacterial resistance and the emergence of new superbugs.
Further reports reveal that chickens are dosed with antihistamines, to make their meat more tender. Some carcasses contain steroids and ketamine. A hormone injected into US cattle to fatten them more quickly, according to the latest scientific paper on the subject, “promotes breast cancer cell growth”. And all this is before Trump completes his assault on the US regulatory system.
Trade agreements today have little to do with reducing tariffs, most of which have already been eliminated. Now they have two principal functions. The first is to extend intellectual property rights, that tends to raise prices and help the biggest corporations eliminate smaller competitors. The second is to “harmonise” regulations. When you have an asymmetric deal – between a very large country with low standards and a smaller one with higher standards – there is going to be only one outcome. We will end up with US standards. How many people in this country, offered a vote on the matter, would accept such a deal?
But there are still bigger issues in this game of chicken. On Monday, the Guardian carried an article by a consultant called Colin Cram, complaining that the UK is not engaging sufficiently in China’s Belt and Road programme: a series a vast infrastructure schemes the Chinese government is funding to facilitate its exports (Manchester’s Airport City is one component). The UK, Mr Cram claimed, “must” become a full participant in this programme, “massively revitalising its infrastructure so that all parts of the country, not just the south-east, can engage with these huge markets”. That’s because we suffer from a deficit of air pollution, noise, climate change and plastic waste. We must accelerate the Gadarene rush over the environmental cliff.
A study published by researchers at the London School of Economics last year discovered that the regions that voted most strongly for Brexit were those that had been hit hardest by “the Chinese import shock”. Anger towards immigration, they argue, became a proxy for the loss of manufacturing jobs and incomes: many of the strongest Leave votes were in places with the least immigration. Their data suggests that Brexit was globalisation’s blowback. But our government wants to seize this opportunity to accelerate the process. So much for taking back control.
So the existential question the chicken issue raises is this: why do we want more trade? What is it for? The old promise was that trade led to prosperity. But what if we have enough already? What if enhanced global trade, far from promoting well-being, now undermines it?
To people of Mr Cram’s mindset, rainforests and ancient woodlands, coral reefs and wild rivers, local markets and lively communities, civic life and public space are nothing but unrealised opportunities for development. Where we see the presence of beauty, tranquillity and wonder, they see the absence of palm oil plantations and soybean deserts, container ports and mega dams, shopping malls and 12-lane highways. For them, there is no point of arrival, just an endless escalation of transit.
Nowhere is a place in its own right: everywhere is a resource waiting to be exploited. No one is a person in their own right; everyone is a worker, consumer or debtor whose potential for profit generation has yet to be realised. Satiety, well-being, peace: these are antithetical to globalised growth, which demands constant erasure and replacement. If you are happy, you are an impediment to trade. Your self-possession must be extinguished.
So this is where the chickens come home to roost. Enhanced global trade now threatens our health, our sovereignty, our democracy. Once, it made us rich. Today it impoverishes us.