The St. George and St. Theresa Parish Centre in Dorridge was host to a public meeting on 4 November regarding sustainable food and farming in Britain. It was an exciting opportunity for members of the public to direct any questions they had at Caroline Spelman, MP for Meriden and Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The evening kicked off with a warm welcome from Solihull Friends of the Earth, followed by the short film “Killing Fields: the Battle to Feed Factory Farms” (watch online at http://feedingfactoryfarms.org/). The film, produced by Friends of the Earth as well as several other international organisations, highlighted how destructive soy plantations in South America are, both to the environment and the indigenous people. The majority of plantations are owned by large multinational companies, who often use genetically modified crops and pesticides, which poison local water supplies and the natural environment. These soy plantations exist to produce feed for livestock in battery farms across Europe. The main aim of the meeting was to discuss the Sustainable Livestock Bill; a bill which will require the Secretary of State to commit to improving the sustainability of all processes involved with livestock farming in Britain.
Next up was a short talk from Martyn Williams, the Senior Parliamentary Campaigner for Friends of the Earth. Again focussing on the Sustainable Livestock Bill, he was particularly keen to improve food labelling, reduce the amount of food wasted, and for the Government to offer alternatives to soy which are beneficial to farmers. He has been heavily involved with the Bill, and was keen to get a firm commitment from Caroline Spelman that she would attend Parliament on 12 November to support the Bill.
Caroline Spelman was next to speak. Some of her comments were not received particularly well with the audience, in particular her insistence that even if the UK commits to sustainable farming, other countries will continue not to support it. However, despite this her general message was encouraging, saying that the Government’s priority in the environmental sector was sustainability, and her number one priority was to promote British food and farming. Although she wouldn’t commit to attending Parliament to support the Bill (primarily because she’d only just had chance to read through it), she did say the government was undecided as to whether to support it or not. This was encouraging, as rumours were abound that it would definitely be opposed. Spelman handled questions from the audience well, and her take home message seemed to be that if the British public wanted sustainable food on their shelves, they would have to be prepared to pay for it.
Sadly, Caroline Spelman did not attend Parliament on the day, and the Bill was opposed. Although the majority of MPs agreed with the sentiments of the Bill, they appeared to be more concerned with the additional legislation that it would eventually involve, as well as it damaging the export industry. They also implied that that the Bill was misleading, perhaps missing the point that the Bill aimed to promote sustainability in a way that would benefit farmers. Many MPs took issue with the fact that the Bill contained no specific legislation, which is surprising as this would surely allow the Government to work in conjunction with the relevant parties to ensure sustainability was advocated in a way which benefited all involved. It is disappointing that the Government had the chance to take the first steps towards sustainable farming but chose instead to postpone any reasonable debate.