Our high standards of food safety, environmental protection and animal welfare must be protected after Brexit
Whilst the government has said it has no intention of allowing the UK’s high standards of production to be undermined after the UK leaves the EU, it has not been clear about how this will be delivered, writes Lord Carrington.
UK farmers and growers are proud of their high standards of production – whether in terms of food safety, environmental protection or animal welfare and we want to protect these in the future. However, whilst the government has said it has no intention of allowing the UK’s high standards of production to be undermined after the UK leaves the EU, it has not been clear about how this will be delivered.
While much of the debate has focused on how we can protect our standards in trade deals with countries like the US, the question of how food imports will be managed outside the auspices of high-profile trade negotiations is often overlooked. Justifiable fears remain that, post-Brexit, the UK will begin to allow imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of UK farmers, whether we strike bilateral deals or not.
The food we import should be produced in accordance with our high standards, by which we mean standards of safety, animal welfare and environmental protection. This starts with our regulatory baseline - we should not be importing food that would be illegal to produce. We also must not undermine our leadership in food standards which has meant British food is among the safest in the world and bought with confidence.
Allowing food that is produced to lower standards into the UK will ultimately mean that we are displacing domestic production overseas and in some cases, this would increase the environmental footprint of our food. I also believe that there is a compelling moral imperative to make the most of all productive land, something that we are blessed with across the UK, to provide food to a growing population.
With this in mind, it is vital that against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, the government makes an unambiguous commitment to uphold our high production standards through its future trade policy. To this end, it is paramount that my colleagues in the Lords and Commons support existing or new amendments to primary legislation (as and when it passes through Parliament) that seek to uphold domestic production standards in trade policy. It is also vital that the government reviews the tariffs it will charge on imports of many agricultural goods if we leave the EU without a deal. The current plan, which will see some tariffs completely eliminated, will mean goods produced to cheaper and lower standards suddenly having open access to our market.
However because of the complex and multifaceted nature of the issue, the National Farmers Union (NFU) wants us to go further. The NFU’s President Minette Batters at their conference in February directly challenged the then Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to convene a high-level commission to examine how best to ensure our future trade policy upholds our high standards. Mr Gove confirmed he would, but the commission has yet to be announced.
The establishment of a trade and standards commission would bring together industry, government and experts to look at trade policies and negotiating mandates that would harness the benefits of international trade for consumers and producers, while ensuring we also continue to promote high animal welfare and environmental protection. This would include recommendations on how mandates for future trade deals should be agreed and ensure that the views of Parliament, businesses and the public taken into account. The commission needs to be charged with producing a report quickly and the Government would need to act on its recommendations.
So, in my question in the Lords today I hope the government will follow up on the commitment made some six months ago and introduce this commission. I will continue to press them on this point because I want to ensure that these warm words on protecting standards are turned into legally binding protections. Only once these are in our statute books can we be sure that our excellent farming sector will be protected.
Lord Carrington is a Crossbench member of the House of Lords.