Farmers, environmentalists and consumer groups are pressing the government to honour its manifesto pledge not to undermine food standards with low-quality imports in a post-Brexit trade policy.
A coalition of organisations, led by the National Farmers Union, failed to secure amendments in the Commons to the agriculture bill last week to protect UK farmers and producers from lower-quality imports from countries like the US.
Imports that are of particular concern to UK farmers and producers include US poultry products, including chlorinated chicken, eggs and hormone-injected beef.
As the bill moves to the Lords for a second reading, the NFU and environmental and consumer groups say they want the government to ensure that any future trade policy ensures that goods imported under a free trade agreement are produced to as high or higher standards of animal welfare, environmental protection, food hygiene and plant health, as are currently applied under UK law.
The NFU is calling for a Trade, Food and Farming Standards Commission to review policy and develop solutions to promote free trade while holding all food imports to the UK’s high food standards.
MPs said last week, as they rejected amendments in the agriculture bill, that the standards of imported food were a matter for the trade bill, which has just begun its passage through parliament.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said a commitment had to be written into law safeguarding British farmers and food producers from the damaging impact of importing food that would be illegal to produce in the UK.
“Our trade policy must reflect our moral responsibilities to the planet and the people and creatures that live on it – protecting our natural environment, caring for our farmed animals, and working toward a more sustainable, climate-friendly way of farming and food production,” she said. “These are issues that cannot be wished away or presumed dealt with by brief pledges in a manifesto or verbal assurances in media interviews.
“We are at a make-or-break moment for British farming. We have the chance to become a global leader in climate-friendly farming, and neither farmers nor the public want to see that ambition fall by the wayside because our trade policy does not hold food imports to the same standards as are expected of our own farmers.”
Anna Taylor, executive director of the charity Food Foundation, said trade agreements that did not prevent cheaper, lower-quality imports would harm both citizens and UK farmers, who would be undercut and at risk of going out of business.
“We must support the health of our citizens and the viability of our farming sector by putting a requirement for imported food to meet our high standards in legislation,” she said.
While it was a member of the EU, imports to the UK were restricted to those that complied with strict standards of food and hygiene, animal welfare and environmental standards. Michael Gove said recently that the UK would maintain its standards on animal welfare, which would be closer to the EU’s than to US benchmarks. However, amendments to ensure that imports are of similar or higher standards were rejected by 328 to 277 votes by MPs last week.
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, said research has shown that British consumers value the UK’s high food standards and believe imports produced to an inferior standard should not be allowed in the UK.
“The government has made promises to protect food standards, but these commitments must be enshrined in legislation so consumers can have confidence that they won’t be traded away,” she said.
The National Trust said they would be working with others across the environmental and farming sector to see how these changes might be made during the Lords stages of the agriculture bill.
Patrick Begg, director of natural resources at the National Trust, said: “As we move towards a more environmentally sustainable system at home, it’s essential that this long-overdue move is not undermined by food imports that don’t meet UK standards. This would undermine our world-leading farming sector and jeopardise our new environmental ambitions, all while expanding our global environmental footprint.
“The bill should therefore be amended to provide safeguards against this.”