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Inside the big Tory row over food standards as Boris Johnson eyes post-Brexit trade deals

10 min read

The debate over chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef has had a distinctly 19th Century feel to it, with combatants split into two camps: free traders and so-called protectionists. As Britain embarks on a new future as a free trading nation, which side will prevail? Sebastian Whale reports

Twenty-two Conservative MPs rebelled against the Government last month over food import standards – though at least one did it by accident. 

Rishi Sunak made a hurried phone call to his chief whip Mark Spencer after voting in favour of an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, put forward by Neil Parish, the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, that would have guaranteed a ban on chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef in any future trade deal. A source close to the chancellor attributed the blunder to “teething problems” with the temporary remote voting system.

While the amendment was defeated by 277 to 328, and three other MPs are thought to have made the same error as Sunak, the Tory rebellion was still notable. It illuminated a dividing line on the Government benches – including between members of the Cabinet – over how the UK should approach its reclaimed role as a free trading nation.

None of this is to do with protection. Frankly, it’s a lazy and irritating critique

This split actually began to emerge after the EU referendum, when chlorinated-washed chickens first entered the lexicon. “This has been an issue since the vote to Leave,” says David Henig, UK director of the European Centre for International Political Economy. “The trade experts have known there was going to be a problem.”

The debate has had a distinctly 19th Century feel to it. Those who support largely unfettered free trade refer to those who want to enshrine standards as protectionists who, in turn, dispute the characterisation entirely. “None of this is to do with protection. Frankly, it’s a lazy and irritating critique,” asserts Simon Hoare, Tory MP for North Dorset. 

On one side you have MPs including Theresa Villiers, a Brexiteer and former Defra secretary, and an unlikely alliance of the National Farmers’ Union, environmentalists, veterinary and animal welfare groups. They’ve been joined by the likes of Jamie Oliver, who wrote a public letter to the PM in the Mail on Sunday (a campaigning newspaper on this cause), warning against “opening the floodgates” to cheap, low-quality food imports from the US.

The thinking is that a failure to set an equivalence in standards during trade talks will mean production methods used in America – naturally cheaper given there are less onerous rules to abide by – will allow products to enter the UK market at lower prices than homegrown producers, driving them out of business, or in a race to the bottom. Instead, the UK, they argue, should be a bastion for ethical standards in agriculture, livestock and food production.

It isn’t fair to say that one side of this argument favours farmers and the other doesn’t.

They find themselves up against the likes of Owen Paterson, another former Defra secretary, and other MPs who have long touted the potential rewards of an independent free trade policy. Compelling third countries to meet UK food safety, hygiene and traceability requirements, they fear, would infringe on international trading rules, be impossible to enforce, and cause talks to collapse. They also contend that British farmers have lots to gain from the removal of non-tariff barriers and the opening up of new markets, with additional opportunities for domestic expansion through greater marketing of produce, while arguing concerns about US foods have been overplayed or incorrect. “It isn’t fair to say that one side of this argument favours farmers and the other doesn’t,” says Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil. 

On accusations that advocates of free trade would welcome a race to the bottom on prices, which could benefit UK consumers, Fysh says: “That isn’t true. That isn’t what our plan is at all.”

The US, which has long lamented EU restrictions, had hoped for a liberalisation of the rules in a deal with post-Brexit Britain. Sonny Perdue, the US secretary of agriculture, told Radio 4: “If your farmers are constrained by things other than food safety – by protectionism and other things – my suggestion would be for the leaders of the UK to unshackle them and let them compete on that level playing field of products. If the consumer doesn’t want them that way, they won’t buy them and that will change production, both in the United States and the UK.”

He added: “What I’m suggesting is that you set your standards based on sound science, not on mythical protectionist [rules] that have nothing to do with the health, safety and nutrition of our food supply.” But the UK will need to balance any such moves on tariffs or standards with a potential backlash from the EU, with whom officials are currently negotiating a new trading relationship.

In the same way Fysh and co say they support farmers, the alleged protectionists insist they embrace the notion of free trade. “I believe in the benefits of trade liberalisation and certainly would welcome a degree of liberalisation in trade in food, particularly on products that we don’t grow here,” says Villiers, who left Defra in February. However, she says any reductions on tariffs should be conditional on meeting the UK’s standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections.

For MPs such as Neil Parish, a farmer himself, it is all about creating a level-playing field. “You can’t ask our farmers to maintain really high standards and then have them undermined by imports. You’ve either got to go down the free trade route of saying, ‘Okay, we can compete with America, we’ll have the same rules, lower costs of production, and then we can compete’. But we’re not going to go down that route because our public won’t want it, the Government won’t want it, so they must maintain that when they come to negotiating the trade deal.”

Marco Longhi, Tory MP for Dudley North, believes his colleagues have “put the cart before the horse”, with negotiations between Liz Truss and her American counterpart Robert Lighthizer still in their early stages. “All I can say is that traditional economic models that look at a protectionist view of markets end up failing. Wherever you’ve seen economies that have had the ability to trade freely, they have grown, they’ve created jobs and wealth,” he says.

Truss, the international trade secretary, is said to be at odds with Defra secretary George Eustice, who is concerned that cheaper US goods may undercut UK farmers. Writing in Farmers Weekly, Truss said she was committed to securing the “best possible deal for UK farmers”, insisting: “No UK import standards will be diminished as part of an FTA.”

Parish claims Boris Johnson is “sympathetic to a degree” with the position he and others have taken. Indeed, according to The Times, the prime minister told the Cabinet: “We must not let our farmers down.” 

Recent reports suggest the Government is considering allowing products such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef into the UK market, while applying tariffs in order to protect domestic farmers. Parish says he could support this so-called “dual tariff system”, as US producers would not ostensibly gain a competitive advantage on price, but adds: “Somehow or other, it ought to be put down in some form of legislation.” Some fear that the tariffs could be reduced or removed over time, or reject entirely the notion of allowing such foods into the UK market.

When asked about the policy, the prime minister’s spokesman told journalists: “The position is that the UK will decide how we set and maintain our own standards and regulations and we have been clear that we will not compromise on our high standards of food safety and animal welfare. The UK’s food regulators will continue to provide independent advice to ensure that all food imports comply with those high safety standards.”

Despite the best efforts of the rebels, the Agriculture Bill has reached the House of Lords unamended. In a letter to MPs in May, National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters called on lawmakers to turn their attention to the Trade Bill, which recently had its second reading.

The NFU – which has been leading a concerted lobbying campaign – has called for a Trade, Food and Farming Standards Commission to deal with issues pertaining to trade policy. When Michael Gove was Defra secretary, he signalled interest in the idea, though no such body has been created. 

“The issues that the Commission will examine in detail need addressing. They cannot be wished away or presumed dealt with by brief pledges in a manifesto or verbal assurances in radio studios,” wrote Batters. Trade expert David Henig says: “I always thought that you would be better putting this into some kind of independent commission in order to try to take the sting out of it.” 

The rebels hope to impose a requirement for trade partners to have an equivalence in food standards to the UK, rather than the same standards. This, according to Neil Parish, would circumvent pushback from the World Trade Organisation. “If you put ‘the same standards’, the WTO will say different countries have different methods of evaluating it, therefore you can’t say it’s got to be the same.”

His opponents in the debate say such a demand would be in breach of WTO rules either way. “Those sorts of measures would put us outside the WTO and, frankly, totally unable to do any sort of trade deals with anybody,” says Marcus Fysh.

David Henig says WTO law is “not entirely clear” and also “outdated” during an era of climate change, given that you cannot currently take into account how a product is produced. “The basic rules of World Trade Organisation law is, you should treat a like product equally – so, a cow is a cow is a cow, is essentially how that works. The reality in agriculture is that all manner of special devices are used in which people don’t treat them particularly equally.”

Theresa Villiers says that while “there are issues in terms of WTO rules”, she insists “they’re surmountable”, and argues the UK could lobby for rule changes within the organisation.

While certain of their arguments, the rebels are realistic about their chances of getting anything on statute. “I’m afraid it seems to me that the Commons has sent a pretty clear signal on this,” says Villiers. “I hope the Government would still recognise there is real concern about this. We have an unprecedented coalition of environmentalists, animal welfare charities and farmers. This is their top ask.” Others have not given up hope of parliamentary success yet. “At some point, the Lords or the Commons are going to have to crack this particular nut,” says Tory MP Simon Hoare.

Some trade experts believe the UK and the US could sign an “early deal” that omits agriculture for the time being, promising to return to the issue – often the most contentious in any such negotiation – at a later date. “Now, whether that’s possible – because it won’t get the US farmers what they want – we will see,” says David Henig.

What the debate makes clear is that the UK has yet to fully address what it wants to do with its new-fangled powers as an independent trading nation. Henig concludes: “This is the time when, if you like, Brexit gets real. We’ve got this power now with trade deals, what are we going to do with it? What we can’t do is keep putting it off.”  

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