UK food sceptical as government insists 'no dilution of standards' for post-Brexit trade deals

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Theresa Villers, DEFRA Minister, at the Oxford Farming Conference 2020 ©Defra
Theresa Villers, DEFRA Minister, at the Oxford Farming Conference 2020 ©Defra

Related tags Defra Brexit Net zero

The UK government’s food and farming minister has insisted that environmental, animal welfare and safety standards will not be put on the line in trade deals struck after Brexit. But calls for a food standards commission to scrutinise future agreements suggest the sector remains unconvinced.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference this week, Theresa Villiers, who heads up the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), suggested that the protection of the UK’s food standards will be an important part of the UK’s strategy as it enters trade negotiations with the European Union and other countries.

“Backing better standards is a core part of the Government’s approach to Brexit…. We can maintain and indeed enhance UK standards as we negotiate new trading relationships with friends and neighbours in the EU and leading global economies.”

Villiers was responding to widespread concerns that the government will accept the import of food made to lower standards than currently allowed in the European Union. The USA has already suggested that it would expect the UK to open its market to chlorine-washed chicken and beef raised using growth hormones. Neither practice is currently permitted under European regulations governing food standards in Member States.

Villers insisted the high quality of British food production will be crucial to success on the world stage after Brexit. “Our strong British food brand is built on the high standards to which we hold ourselves. The high standards of British farming are the backbone of our biggest manufacturing sector – food and drink – that exports £22bn to over 200 countries,”​ she told delegates.

She was also quick to stress new export markets that have been opened to UK agri-food exports. “We’ve opened burgeoning markets for sheep meat in India and Japan, and put British beef back on Chinese plates for the first time in 20 years,”​ the Defra minister and Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet stressed.

“Please be reassured. Hear this. As our manifesto, as the Prime Minister has said, we will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality and grounded in our shared national values.”

However, calls for the establishment of an independent body to assess the potential impact of trade deals on food standards would suggest that producers are anything but reassured.

Indeed, an impromptu poll of delegates at the event - which targets the farming community but attracts attendees from across the food system - revealed that they do not trust the current government to back the sector's interests in trade negotiations. In fact, not a single delegate voiced confidence in the government to do so. 

NFU: Establish a food standards commission, backed by legislation

NFU President Minette Batters at the Oxford Farming Conference 2020
NFU President Minette Batters at the Oxford Farming Conference 2020 ©NFU

The National Farmers Union urged the government to commit to introducing a food standards commission to scrutinise future trade deals and safeguards to British farming as a ‘global leader’ in climate-friendly food production.

Speaking at the same event, NFU president Minette Batters said the NFU would resist British farmers being put out of business by trade deals that allow imports of food that would be illegal for farmers to produce in the UK.

“This year will be the greatest reset for our food and farming system since the 1940s and the decisions made by this government will be felt for decades to come. We must once again recognise that there is nothing more important to our economy, our health and our environment than the very food we eat,”​ she stressed. 

A food standards commission should be a ‘fundamental part’ of how the government approaches trade deals. And this should be backed by legislation in the upcoming Agriculture Bill, Batters argued. The commission would require the power to scrutinise trade deals and make recommendations to protect UK standards – and the government should be required to act upon these recommendations.

“This all comes back to how we value our food and farming standards. British farmers are world-leading in our standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety. Farmers and the public want it to stay that way, which is why it is crucial that the government introduces a food standards commission that can scrutinise future trade deals and ensure we do not allow imports of food that would be illegal for our farmers to produce here. This needs to be backed in legislation by the Agriculture Bill – which will be so significant for our industry.”

Support for ‘climate smart’ agriculture

Batters also urged the government to implement legislation that supports climate-smart food production. The NFU has outlined an ambition for British farming to hit net zero emissions by 2040.

“The defining factor to reach that goal and help tackle climate change is a willing government. We are already leading the way in producing climate-friendly food in this country and this government has a chance to enshrine the UK as global leader in sustainability,”​ Batters claimed.

Changing climactic conditions are already impacting UK farming and causing increased uncertainty. Batters pointed to the affect water is having on food production in the country.

“I can’t discuss future farming policy without mentioning water scarcity. Right now, potentially 50% of our potato crop is still in the ground and only a third of winter crops are planted. This not only reminds us of the unique volatility farmers have to manage year-on-year, but it also masks the fact that we face huge challenges in managing water in the years ahead,” ​she warned.

“The first domestic agricultural policy in over 70 years must address how we manage water in this country. We are currently wasting one of our most precious natural resources and we need a revolutionary approach to how we plan, protect and pay our farmers to store water.”

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