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In late October, the Government published a long-awaited response to a report by the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), in which it committed to investing in promoting British food overseas and launched a new TAC to advise MPs on future trade deals.
The role of the new Commission is “to inform parliamentarians and the public about how new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are consistent with UK laws on animal welfare, animal and plant health, and the environment.”
However, industry bodies have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the new commission, including whether it was created with the best interests of consumers in mind and whether the right support will be available to British farmers as they look to decarbonise.
“There is little doubt that our food standards could be at risk of dilution,” said Chris Elliot OBE, professor of food safety at Queen’s University, Belfast, and vice president of The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH). “I fear that the Commission will lack the teeth to preserve the integrity of the UK food standards and will not be able to stop trade deals that mean food produced to much lower welfare and environmental standards flood into our country.”
Chris said this would mean the Government would be shrugging off its sustainability responsibility onto other countries. “This could have devastating impacts on our farmers and would suggest an eagerness to offshore environmental impacts of food production to importing countries rather than investing in our own industry,” he said.
The report focuses on exports, but as Tim Lang, professor emeritus of food policy at City, University of London and vice president of CIEH added, “the danger to food safety and standards in the UK is far more likely to come from imports. Food imports have a direct relevance for UK public health and the sensitive issue of what level food standards are set at.”
While the NFU said it was good to see a new TAC established, president Minette Batters said the Government’s responses “needed to move on from warm words to concrete commitments and practical and deliverable measures, which it has failed to do. Where is the commitment to establish a clear set of core standards on which to base our free trade agreements – something farmers and the British public alike want to see?”
In the time it took the Government to respond to the TAC’s report, two free trade deals were agreed in principle, which Minette said “will impact on British farming significantly”. She continued, “The disconnect between the Government’s domestic and trade policies is stark and needs bridging urgently. The NFU has repeatedly stressed the importance of a strategic approach to boosting domestic food production so farmers can compete in the face of new trade deals and, given the TAC’s own recommendation for a new agri-food trade strategy, it’s frustrating that Government has once again failed to address this.”
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, agreed that the Government has missed an opportunity to set core standards. “UK voters strongly support high food standards. More than two million people signed petitions to protect British food standards last year, and public polls and the Government’s own research show continuing support. It beggars belief that ministers are ignoring such a loud, clear message from the electorate,” said Kath Dalmeny, chief executive at Sustain.
Rather than back UK standards and farmers, the Government has said it will influence international standards. “But these are often lower than in the UK. The Government is well on track to breaking its own manifesto commitment on standards and will need to justify to the public why it is so keen to accelerate cheap meat imports over backing higher standard British food and farmers,” Kath said.
“If the Government is to maintain its commitment to the electorate on maintaining standards, it needs lay out clearly what those standards are so our trade negotiators have a set of red lines in negotiations,” she continued. “Other nations have published trade strategies, impact assessments and open and consultative discussions about setting red lines for their trade negotiators. Why can’t we?”