John Grantchester on ensuring post-Brexit trade deals uphold the UK’s well-respected standards of food production and animal welfare
The Agriculture Bill makes its debut in the Lords tomorrow after two separate runs in the Commons, with the 2018 legislation falling and an amended Bill only surfacing in January of this year, Despite government assertions that agricultural reform and environmental protection were among its top priorities.
During this time, British farmers have faced a great deal of uncertainty – something that has been exacerbated by the climate crisis, with many rural communities having suffered horrendous flooding. We must urgently reform how we utilise land across the UK; and at the same time strike the right balance between our food production, environmental and animal welfare standards.
Maintaining these standards, which were heavily influenced by our time in the EU and continue to lead the way internationally, has long had overwhelming levels of public support. In February, a Which? consumer report found 93% of respondents thought it vital to continue enforce these requirements post- Brexit. Three-quarters agreed with the notion that food from countries with lower standards should simply not be available for consumption.
UK food standards are supported by strict farm and supply chain inspections, with detailed assurance provisions regarding freshness, dating, cleanliness and purity, keeping qualities, certified techniques and procedures, and production methods. Animal products must be from guaranteed healthy animals, raised to high welfare and veterinary standards, free from adulteration and drugs. Food regulation is maintained by the Food Standards Agency with stringent traceability controls to outlaw such practices as chlorinated washing of chickens and artificial growth hormone inoculations in beef cattle.
Any reasonable person would assume that a supposedly ground-breaking Bill would include provisions to prevent domestic producers being undercut by lower standards overseas. But Conservative ministers refuse to write their own manifesto commitment on standards into domestic law – even when the hard work had been done by their own backbench MPs. If recent reports are to be believed, a heated battle has broken out between George Eustice at Defra and Liz Truss at the Department for International Trade. The strength of the disagreement revealed through the words of Neil Parish, Chair of the Commons Defra Committee, when he told Farming Today: “I trust George Eustice. Whether I trust Liz Truss in the same way I’m not sure...”.
He has good reason to be sceptical, with Truss aiming to block these protections from the Bill and arguing that its rightful place is elsewhere – in the Trade Bill. Yet she has also been suggesting it would also be invalid there. A leak last week suggested a compromise agreement to allow imports of food produced to lower standards into the UK, subject to it being liable to some extra degree of tariff and for an unspecified duration. Such an outcome would not be acceptable to us, and neither British farmers nor consumers should be happy with it either.
As Maggie Jones, my colleague on the Labour Lords frontbench, has already stated this week, Labour has various concerns with the Agriculture Bill, including on environmental protections and the UK’s ability to produce more of what it eats. For my part, I will be making the case for our existing standards to be enshrined in the legislation, to protect against these being watered down at a later stage. And in my parallel work on the international trade brief, I will seek a provision in the Trade Bill similar to the amendment agreed during Theresa May’s government – one which, unlike the current administration, was prepared to listen rather than oppose for opposition’s sake.
It is vital that new trade deals do not allow imported food to undermine our standards, that food is what it says on the label, and that our trading partners are very clear that we will not accept imports that are produced to sub-standard farming practices. Our production, environmental and animal welfare standards all matter. Only by upholding these can we ensure the future of British farmers – and, in doing so, allow consumers across the land to continue to have confidence in what goes on their plates.
Lord John Grantchester is a member of the Shadow Defra and International Trade teams in the House of Lords.
Published 9th June