I’m not here to persuade you to vote one way or the other in the upcoming EU referendum. There are plenty of people already doing that – experts, politicians, celebrities, pundits and the like. But crucially there aren’t many food and farming businesses or trade organisations actively arguing the case, one way or the other.
What I want to do instead is share what I’ve taken away from the three events that the Food Ethics Council has recently run on the EU referendum and all things food and farming. We’ve had an event with a business audience (one of our regular Business Forums), another with a predominantly civil society audience (jointly with the Kindling Trust in Manchester) and a third aimed at a Parliamentary audience (jointly with the Food Foundation and the Food Research Collaboration).
Across the three meetings, a shared certainty emerged – that if the UK leaves the EU, in the short term, UK food and farming will be subject to considerable chaos and uncertainty. As for the long term, some argue the UK’s food and farming sectors would be better off out of the EU, whilst others argue the reverse.
One of our expert speakers – a Scot – pointed out the craziness of giving people 2 ½ months to make up our minds on such an important issue. Voters in the Scottish referendum had 2 ½ years to get to grips with the arguments. This unseemly haste may well be one reason why no one seems to have their heads round the full set of issues, the potential outcomes and the possible implications.
In moments of gloom, I can’t but reflect that – to date – another possible reason for the lack of in-depth debate is the sheer complexity of the issue and uncertainty about the journey’s end point. Mixed with a big dollop of narrow self-interest, these factors close down genuine discussion rather than open it up. Our events, on the other hand, provided nuanced argument, insights and debate. We had an excellent set of speakers and participants who ensured that the content went beyond the more obvious issues of trade, the economy and farmer support mechanisms – as important as those all are.
So what were my tentative conclusions?
Food and farming matter – People relish having their eyes opened to the breadth, depth and relevance of food and farming issues.
We need a compelling vision – There is need for a clear, positive vision for sustainable food and farming, regardless of the referendum outcome.
Values and different voices matter – We heard about values and voices that have largely been neglected in mainstream debates about the EU referendum to date – fairness, animal welfare, environmental protection (including soils), fisheries, labelling, agricultural research, migrant workers (in food, agriculture and horticulture) and more.
We need to work together – Participants and speakers alike argued about the importance of working together on environmental protection, social justice, food safety, human health and animal welfare concerns. Those in favour of remaining in the EU argued that it is a sensible platform for doing just that – and that we might be isolated ‘on our own’. Those in favour of leaving tended to talk of the UK’s strong track record on some of these issues and the potential opportunities for a ‘clean slate’.
We must respect fairness and protect the vulnerable – If the UK left the EU, we need to have answers for how that would affect the most vulnerable in the UK’s food system – the people, animals and environment that need protecting the most.
Some questions raised particularly struck me. Should we have had a referendum in the first place? How do we encourage people to vote beyond their own self-interest? Who is looking after the long term public good when it comes to food and farming?
As for the killer question of ‘how should I vote?’, That’s up to you. But please do consider the potential impacts on food and farming either way.