The fight over the future of Britain’s food standards rages on

03 November 2020, 08:29 AM
  • Farmers, chefs and campaigners are keeping the pressure on MPs to protect Britain’s food standards as the Agriculture Bill heads back to the House of Commons
The fight over the future of Britain’s food standards rages on

With the Agriculture Bill due to return to the House of Commons on 4th November, the fine food and farming industries are heaping pressure on the government to #SaveOurStandards.

MPs earlier this month voted against an amendment by the House of Lords that would require imported food products to meet or exceed Britain’s own standards. Peers then voted again to ensure trade deals meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules.

Farmers, charities and food campaigners fear that lower-quality imports such as ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone-treated beef’ will be allowed to flood the UK market, forcing British farmers – who are held to higher standards – to try to compete with cheaper imported goods.

The fierce debate has already led to the resignation of Red Tractor chair Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, who was met with criticism after reports she had not voted in favour of the Lords’ amendments. Baroness Lucy later said she was “wary of all attempts to shackle our negotiations”. The Mail on Sunday reported that TV chef and judge on The Great British Bake Off Prue Leith cancelled her Conservative Party membership over the party’s rejection of the amendment.

Farms to Feed Us, a volunteer-run social enterprise group, which sprung up following the outbreak of Covid-19 to work to connect people with farmers, fishers, and food producers, is writing a letter to MPs with support from the likes of the Soil Association and the NGO Sustain, urging MPs to “take a stand” for farmers on behalf of chefs, home and community cooks and bakers. Sustain is also producing its own letter from farmers, farm workers, and land managers.

Will the government protect standards in future trade deals?
James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain​, which campaigns to improve food and farming in the UK, told Speciality Food that the pledges made by the government in its 2019 manifesto are not a guarantee that they will uphold British food and farming standards when negotiating trade deals.

“One of the main concerns is that the government will use secondary legislation to alter or remove standards after the Agriculture Bill becomes an Act,” James explained. “Secondary legislation skirts around parliamentary scrutiny and can be done in the background with little public transparency and accountability.

“If this government was genuinely committed to current British standards, they would put them within the Agriculture Bill in order to safeguard them in trade negotiations, something which is possible under World Trade Organisation rules,” James said.

Farming minister Victoria Prentis has said the government is “absolutely committed to high standards”, according to the BBC. The government says that existing laws will be enough to safeguard standards, and that the EU rules banning imports of chlorine-washed chicken would be automatically written into UK law after the Brexit transition period ends.

However, campaigners worry that unless safeguards are included in the Agriculture Bill, pressure to sign quick trade deals will trump food standards – something that not just farmers and animal welfare campaigners, but the majority of Brits, are against.

Over the summer, a survey by YouGov found that 79% of Britons believe that importing vegetables grown with pesticides that are illegal in the EU, but legal in the US, was unacceptable. Another 75% said the same for dairy products that have been treated with antibiotics. Eight in 10 Brits are opposed to allowing imports of chlorinated chicken to the UK.

“If a no deal EU exit happens, we hope that agri-food trading arrangements can be safeguarded in some sort of way, otherwise farmers will suddenly lose an important export market and we may see government hastily sign free trade agreements with countries like the USA, which could include big compromises on our food and farming standards in order to secure those deals,” James said.

“The USA, and other countries which the government are prioritising for swift FTAs, have been clear that they want full access to UK markets for their lower quality agri-food products, so consumers could soon find pesticide laden produce, chlorine-washed chicken and hormone treated beef on supermarket shelves, in restaurant meals and in takeaway food,” he added.

Trade and Agriculture Commission to scrutinise deals
Over the weekend, international trade secretary Liz Truss extended the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which she said would give farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy. Initially launched for a six-month period in July, the government decided to give the commission a more active role through a new legislative underpinning, which will be reviewed every three years.

“The Trade and Agriculture Commission is an important part of our vision for a values-led and value-generating trade policy. It is about putting British farming at the heart of our trade agenda, and ensuring the interests of farmers and consumers are promoted and advanced as we move closer to becoming an independent trading nation on January 1st,” Liz said.

The commission will produce a report on each new free trade agreement, in time for the start of a 21-day scrutiny process. The NFU welcomed the news, saying it was a “significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards”.

NFU president Minette Batters said the decision marked a “landmark moment for people of the UK”.

“This decision means everyone who cares about our trading relationships with the rest of the world – MPs, stakeholders and the public – will see independent expert advice from the Trade and Agriculture Commission on future trade deals before they are ratified,” she said.

Minette, who recently met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said, “It was clear to me how much he personally cares about this issue. I am delighted that he has led the government to draw a line in the sand and commit to the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment not to undermine our farmers in future trade deals by ensuring the Trade and Agriculture Commission can report to Parliament and MPs can give proper scrutiny to future trade deals.”

While this means that we can expect to see greater scrutiny and expert consultation, James warns that because any recommendations made on trade negotiations would be advisory, the government would not be forced to implement them.

Ian Rickman, deputy president of The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) “cautiously” welcomed the news, saying that the FUW would need to see the full wording of the commission’s new terms of reference to assess the degree to which the decision “addresses major concerns”.

“This change is certainly not the red line that farmers, environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and millions of members of the general public have lobbied to be introduced into the Agriculture Bill. However, it is a welcome step towards allowing better scrutiny of trade deals negotiated by the government in terms of their impact on animal welfare and agriculture,” he said.

James said he “would like to think” MPs would listen to the commission’s recommendations, but there is no guarantee. “So our priority continues to be working with partners, our members, farmers, and the public to secure the amendment (known as the Grantchester amendment) that will put environment, animal welfare and food standards on the face of the Agriculture Bill.”

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