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By Adele Waters
UK farmers gave Theresa Villiers a tough message at last week’s Oxford Farming conference.
Yes, they were prepared and ready to do more to increase sustainability in farming, maintain high welfare standards and reduce carbon emissions. But the government must protect their interests when it comes to negotiating international trade deals post-Brexit.
The environment secretary was warned that flooding the UK’s supermarkets with cheap imported food could devastate the UK’s farming industry.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, demanded more than just verbal promises to protect UK farmers’ interests.
‘Will the government pull together a council or commission on food standards to scrutinise trade deals and ensure that we don’t end up with a two-tier food system and import food that would be illegal for our farmers to produce here?’ she asked the environment secretary.
‘It’s been great to hear verbal commitment from you on our welfare standards, but this ambition must be hardwired across government and it must be backed by legislation in the Agriculture Bill. I know that this will test the moral compass of some in government but failure to deliver is simply not an option.’
She said UK farmers wanted to be the most sustainable farmers in the world but they needed government support. She suggested the government had a significant opportunity to lead through its procurement policies – so that food sourced for places such as hospitals, schools and the Ministry of Defence was always British.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, repeated the call to protect UK Farming plc. ‘Trade trumps everything,’ he said. ‘We could have the best system here in the UK but if we do trade deals with other countries that allow imports of food produced to lower standards than here, that will undercut our farmers and be devastating for this industry. We’ve heard some warm words from the government on trade, but they haven’t yet said they would turn down trade deals with Donald Trump.
‘At the moment the conversation from the government is about maintaining high standards in this country – that’s very welcome – but we have to also say that food will not be imported to this country unless it’s made to similar standards.’
Villiers sought to reassure them by saying the government would seek to ‘maintain and indeed enhance’ UK standards as the country looked to form new trading relationships with the EU and other countries.
We will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare
‘We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare,’ she said. ‘ Let’s face it – it’s worth restating…even limited access to our £47 billion market for food is a big prize for any country to aspire to. So in our forthcoming trade negotiations, this government will defend our national interest strongly…and will be prepared to walk away from those negotiations if that is in the national interest.’
She also promised an Agriculture Bill later this month, bringing with it the prospect of rewarding farmers with public money for ‘public goods’ – such as enhancing biodiversity, tackling climate change and raising standards of animal welfare.
In response, the BVA welcomed the pledges but also called for more firm reassurance. Its president, Daniella Dos Santos, said: ‘It is encouraging to hear the environment secretary’s pledge to recognise animal welfare as a public good as well as a promise that the government will protect the high farm animal health and welfare standards that we value here in the UK.’
But she added: ‘This promise now needs to be strengthened and acted upon as the UK begins the process of negotiating trade agreements with the EU and the rest of the world. It is essential that domestic standards are protected, but we also need to see a firm commitment that goods produced to lower standards of animal health and welfare will not be permitted on to the UK market.’ ●
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