We must vigorously defend high animal welfare and environmental sustainability standards in FTAs
It would be economic folly and environmentally self-defeating to import cheaper livestock products produced to lower standards, and would ultimately threaten the viability of our indigenous livestock sector, writes Lord Trees.
In entering the brave new world of ambitious free-trade agreements, several different members of the Government on several different occasions have made commitments that in future trade agreements the UK’s current high standards of animal welfare and environmental sustainability will not be compromised. This includes a manifesto commitment to this effect. Despite this, the Government has been reluctant to commit into law or define in its negotiating mandate these principles. There is thus justifiable concern from many relevant bodies notably the NFU, the BVA, the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, amongst several others.
With regard to this issue, there will be considerable pressure in negotiating FTAs, particularly with the USA, and the Government may be tempted to relax demands from countries where not only economies of scale but also “economies” with respect to animal welfare and environmental sustainability may enable lower costs of production. However, it would be economic folly and environmentally self-defeating to import cheaper livestock products produced to lower standards which would mean we are exporting poor animal welfare and poor environmental standards whilst at the same time disadvantaging and indeed threatening the viability of our indigenous livestock sector.
On this subject, the media have tended to concentrate on chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef and there have been explicit promises from the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, that these will not be allowed. Whilst these examples are emblematic of the issue and the specific assurances are welcome, welfare and environmental standards in general go far wider. For example, they include types of husbandry, access to pasture, regulations around slurry and manure disposal, stocking densities, and housing and caging.
Thus, there are calls for more transparency in developing the negotiating position to allow for effective parliamentary scrutiny. Establishing a trade and standards commission – as committed to by previous Secretary of State for Defra, Michael Gove - could play a vital role in assuring the Government’s strategic objectives and the NFU has developed a detailed proposal.
The UK, in addition to being world-leading in its own internal standards as it can currently claim to be, can now use this opportunity to also elevate global standards. Far from being negative, by vigorously defending our standards in international trade negotiations in livestock products we can make a meaningful contribution to improve standards elsewhere in the world.
Lord Trees is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords.