Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) is the only environmental group on the new Trade and Agriculture Commission, set up to advise the government on looking after food, animal welfare and environmental standards in trade talks. Leaf promotes sustainable farming and runs the Leaf Marque environmental assurance scheme. EHN Extra caught up with Leaf’s chief executive Caroline Drummond.
As told to Katie Coyne
As the only environmental group on the new commission, what will you bring to the commission and does it have enough teeth?
We're not a huge NGO, but we do represent a lot of farmers and we have worked with so many people for so many years. We have huge amounts of expertise in that area. I've been running Leaf since it started some 30 years ago. So, I would like to think that I have a good breadth of knowledge, but also that I have access to many people who have more specialist areas of knowledge, and I hope they will commit and give feedback and ideas.
It's very easy to say what the commission is not. But actually, let's embrace it for what it is and really take the opportunity. The very fact that there is an environmental voice around the table is just fantastic. There will be subgroups, so that in itself is something that's equally important. We’ve got to make it work. My big thing is, let's not talk about what it isn't, let's talk about what we need to do and what we need to deliver.
Should there be more than one environmental voice around the table?
I think the reality is, this is about trade and agriculture and it is so critical we get that right. The environment piece is really important because agriculture and farming provide so many of the solutions to all the environmental concerns we have, whether it be climate change, carbon sequestration or diet and health.
Agriculture is right at the heart of that, so getting it right is really, really important. But it has to ultimately be a balance, as this is not just solely around environmental issues – they’re going to be addressed through other areas and other aspects. We've got the Environment Bill coming through and the responsibility towards the environment lies across many portfolios.
Could individuals and groups get in touch with you to share their thoughts and concerns with the commission?
Yes. We don’t yet know the full detail of the scope of the commission. The very fact that all the commissioners have had their names published shows there is a strong commitment for transparency.
You can sit and grumble and complain about something but if you don't raise it, or you don't share it, or you don't try and help fix it, then it just remains a grumble. So I would like to think that actually, this is a unique opportunity. But at the same time we're wanting to get this right, and trade negotiations will go on for many years. So we can learn, we can share, we can adapt. But we've got to make it work. And I think that's the important thing, trying to look for solutions and pragmatic solution-driven approaches.
I think all of the commissioners will be very open to questions. The secretariat from the Department of International Trade will be certainly looking for support and papers and ideas coming forward. So I think that's something that is absolutely critical.
You mention transparency – details of the trade talks are not being made public, but will they be shared with the commission?
I don't know the answer to that. There will be some privileged and confidential information shared, I'm sure. But I think the ultimate idea of this commission is to make sure the documents that the chairman reports on are as inclusive as possible.
Public health isn’t your area of expertise, and there has been some criticism that experts from this field have not been included.
I would imagine the Food and Drink Federation – chief executive Ian Wright – has a lot of expertise in that area. The importance of standards in our farming and food production has been absolutely key for many years. To undermine those standards is, I’m sure, something that none of us round the table would want to see.
I think it's also worth noting that we've got the National Food Strategy due to be reported on any day now. From that point of view, public health is not just about a food safety issue. And commission chair Tim Smith himself has food safety standards expertise from when he was FSA chairman. It is very evident that there will be a public health piece, which stretches beyond what was traditionally seen in food safety, but actually moves into the space of diet and health, which I know many of the Environmental and Food NGOs are very interested in. I would imagine that they too would be raising some of these sorts of issues, which is public health in its best and broadest sense.
The commission will take six months to report back but trade talks are happening now, is this a concern?
I think it would be a concern if there hadn't been talks. I think it's absolutely critical. We have a Department of International Trade, so they have been very busy, I understand. I don't know how large the department is but there will have been a lot of thought and thinking going on for quite a number of years in this area. So I don't think it's a concern. I think it's a foundation.
And what's going to be important is ultimately bringing all of this together. We have a very high level of standards, and food safety has always underpinned that. But now there are different aspects beyond food standards, such as bringing in a healthy diet.
If you look at some assurance and certification processes, whether it's Red Tractor or Leaf Marque or Soil Association, all of us are proud and capable and skilled people. As citizens, we have a level of confidence in this country that our food is safe, and is delivered against additional values such as animal welfare and the environment. That mustn't be lost, and that certainly will be important in the discussion going forward.
Tim Smith described the debate over chlorinated chicken as ‘alarmism’ – do you think that’s fair?
I haven't seen the article. I think this goes a lot deeper than chlorinated chicken at the end of the day. I can't comment on what Tim said but I know it might well have been just a part of what he said, because he has worked at Tesco, he's worked at the FSA, and he knows so well the quality and standards that our farmers have delivered and of course, he knows that consumers have values. That's the ethics that underpins our shopping for instance, and that's been really brought to a head by the impact of lockdown and COVID-19.
Leaf can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org