Why effective regulation is so important along the food chain

This article was first published on the Food Manifesto website

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced it would make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ). This is a European mechanism that requires farmers to follow stringent rules to reduce nitrate pollution. It was greeted with fury by the farming unions, who had favoured a voluntary approach. At the root of this is the view that nitrate pollution, as a by-product of food production, is the responsibility of wider society. It should therefore be managed by negotiation, as has been proposed in Pembrokeshire, not by draconian measures imposed from above. Additionally, regulations that are not widely supported tend to be less effective, which might be why a 2009 study found that many NVZs in England showed no significant benefits even after 15 years. 

What this controversy proves, negatively, is how important it is to have good regulation. We all want clean rivers and waterways, and farmers need clear rules about what they can and cannot do, so that the playing field is level and the quality of their goods is recognised. But regulation must be fair if it is to be effective, and it must be supported by a network of trust and communication as well as credible enforcement. This applies all along the food chain, from environmental protection to nutrition, food safety and trade.

So how is Wales doing? A recent report from Unchecked UK, Safeguarding standards in Wales: Why Wales should lead the way commends the Welsh Government for its generally positive approach, and for the notable Well-being of Future Generations Act, and contrasts it favourably with the policy of deregulation that it sees in Westminster. Unfortunately, though, the UK Government’s austerity policy has weakened the regulatory agencies in Wales, and most of the report is a chronicle of the damage that has been done.

First on the list is environmental protection. Their research shows that the main environmental regulator, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), has lost 35% of its funding from 2013 to 2020, while prosecutions of environmental offences fell by 61% in the period from 2014-20. This is cause for concern. But what the report does not cover is the positive ways in which NRW could uphold standards, for instance by working alongside farmers and businesses to help them to do better, and by maintaining conversations with countryside groups and organisations.

This is important because the Well-being of Future Generations Act, as part of its Five Ways of Working, requires public bodies to focus on prevention rather than the cure, and to be collaborative and to involve their stakeholders – with the punishment of offenders as a backstop. Consultation takes up staff time. But NRW, the report says, has 53 fewer staff than it had six years ago and so it is likely that this function has also been weakened. Meanwhile, local authority spending on environmental services fell by 13% during 2009-20, adding to the problem.

The section on food and public health also makes for a depressing read. Wales has brought in some ground-breaking legislation, including its food hygiene rating system, nutritional standards for school meals and a national strategy on tackling obesity, as well as the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But because of cuts to local authority funding, the number of people working in councils across Wales fell by 37,000 between 2009 and 2018.

“This has had far-reaching effects on local authorities’ ability to carry out their duties,” the report notes. “As a result, frontline staff tend to work reactively rather than proactively, at which point the damage – be it fraud, health and safety violations, or food safety breaches – has often been done.”

When councils lose staff, they also lose expertise. It isn’t just that local health and safety inspections in Wales fell by 45% during 2015-20 – a whole culture of cooperation and local knowledge has been weakened. Again, the principles of collaboration and involvement that are so key to the Future Generations Act are threatened, as the public realm is hollowed out. Opportunities for local food democracy will be lost.

Wales does not act in isolation, of course. It has been subject to regulation by both the EU and the UK government, and both of those relationships have changed since Brexit. The Welsh government has pledged to retain EU standards of environmental protection, using the Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts. However, it will no longer be able to call on the European Court of Justice to hold public bodies to account, and we have already seen how NRW has been weakened by staff cuts. Meanwhile the UK government’s Internal Market Act, intended to secure frictionless trade within the UK, threatens the rights of devolved administrations to set their own (higher) standards and has caused alarm in Wales

Unchecked UK has conducted a survey which finds support across all political persuasions for strong regulation in Wales. Over two-thirds of people in Wales, for instance, would like to see legally binding targets for wildlife restoration. There is also strong support for maintaining quality and sustainability standards for food, and fair workplace practices. Their campaign video calls on the Welsh public to keep up the pressure on our politicians, and “protect the things that make Wales the country we all love.”

Good enforcement of regulations is certainly essential, and government has a vital role to play. But equally, we need public understanding and support to build consensus around the regulations that are put in place. That requires joined up thinking. The consumers who want higher food standards are also the taxpayers who support farmers, who in turn have a huge influence on wildlife and water quality. They are also the citizens who have been empowered to create a better world for future generations. We need to bring all that together.

It is telling that the report commends the forthcoming Agriculture Bill for strengthening food safety and environmental and animal welfare standards. What the Bill fails to do however is to consider the contribution that farming makes to food production itself, because that is held to be a market good, not a public one. But a thriving local food economy, to which farming is central, is about much more than food security or the viability of farms. It is about the sense of place that creates social as well as economic bonds, and this is ultimately the basis of regulation in its truest sense – a set of agreements arising from a shared intention. Regulation must be bottom-up as well as top-down.

© Jane Powell and Food Manifesto Wales 2021. This article may be freely shared with acknowledgement.

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