Brexit could be an opportunity for the UK to create new ambitious laws to restore the environment, the Green Party Conference has been told.
At an event titled ‘What Brexit means for our environment’, Ruth Davis, Deputy Director of the Global Environment Programme for RSPB told the party’s annual conference in Harrogate: “We should not see Brexit as a vote for deregulation and reducing standards.”
Davis told Green Party members there was a disconnect in public understanding about how important the European Union had been to create a body of regulations protecting the environment.
“During the referendum, people didn’t think about the laws that enable us to clean up our rivers and beaches and protect our best nature sites. That idea was totally disconnected to the fact this was overseen by the EU. They felt that we can actually do better outside of the union,” she said.
According to Davis, Brexiteers’ push for deregulation is a matter for concern but this could be overridden by the fact concern for the environment was part of British culture.
“People in this country care about wildlife and animal welfare standards but they didn’t think Brexit would lead to lose some of the laws protecting them,” she said, adding “During the referendum, I took a comforting sense that the UK is culturally interested in the environment.”
Davis said the UK now has an opportunity to raise its environmental standards and regulations above and beyond EU levels.
“I would like to see a legal commitment not only to maintain and protect our environment but also to restore it, which the EU does not do. That should be part of our new environmental regulation.”
In order to achieve these steps, Davis added young people had to be empowered to shape debates and put their issues on the agenda for environmental policies.
She said the voices of young people had been “neglected and ignored” during the referendum despite them taking the lead in campaigns on the use of plastic and debates around diet, which she described as one of the most important in a generation.
But while Davis was keen to urge the Greens to seize opportunities for the environment after Brexit, Professor of Food Policy at City University Tim Lang warned that leaving the EU could have catastrophic impacts on the UK food system.
Professor Lang told Green members “I have never known the food industry in such a state of worry. I kid you not”, claiming some experts warned Theresa May of a looming food security crisis in the UK as a result of Brexit.
“I have never known anything since the 1940s which has been such a mess. This is an astonishing failure of government,” Professor Lang said, slamming the Conservatives’ “neo-imperialist” stance over plans to import more food from Africa and the lack of discussion with the World Trade Organisation over future food safety regulations.
Lang explained the UK food system was entirely woven into a complex food supply chain in the EU with a third of food consumed in the UK imported from the bloc.
In a report published in July called ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real’,Tim Lang and co-authors Erik Millstoneb and Terry Marsdenc warned the UK was “sleepwalking” into a post-Brexit future of food insecurity.
The report states that Brexit creates urgent complications for food and agriculture in the UK and criticises government ministers for their inertia on the subject. It warns, “the silence about the future of UK food is an astonishing act of political irresponsibility and suggests chaos unless redressed”. The report adds food security could be “seriously undermined”, leading to a decline of food standards, dwindling supplies and volatile prices.
Speaking in Harrogate, Lang said: “Brexit is a total deviation from a sustainable food system. Do we really want to import food from East Africa that should be feeding East Africa or eat chlorinated chicken from the US? Politically, Caroline [Lucas] and the Green Party, you have everything to play for.”
He added the debate should focus less around Brexit’s impact on farming which he said was small in economic terms but engage with the impact of an EU exit on food “because everyday people eat the EU”.
Lang suggested the way to address the issue had to be through a wake-up call targeting Britain’s culture and identity on food.
He added: “This is going to be about whether we want to continue to get our food the way we have been? Because that is going to stop. This is absolutely crucial politics.”
Concluding the event, Green MP Caroline Lucas, who chaired the panel of speakers, told party members the party now had “a clearer direction about what we can and should be doing”.
Main image credit: Pxhere CC0. Updated 09/10/2017: The word 'fringe' was removed from the second paragraph.