During last year’s Parliamentary debate on the Agriculture Bill, government voted down amendments designed to protect UK food standards by stopping imported products made under inferior conditions from undercutting them. This was despite agrifood industry pressure and a petition backed by one million citizens supporting this move. At the time, government responded to these concerns by stating they were a Trade Bill, not Agriculture Bill issue.
But the government recently voted down a Lords amendment to the Trade Bill that sought to protect UK standards, as well as blocking an amendment for greater Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals. At the same time, the UK government has applied to join the elven countries in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a free trade area that includes large agricultural producers such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps eventually, the US.
Government has conceded to NFU calls for a Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on future trade deals – but it the TAC has no teeth. Therefore, industry fears that the UK market will be opened to foods produced under standards illegal here – such as sow stalls, antibiotic and other growth promoters, less onerous pesticide regulation – appear valid.
The post-Brexit food standards debate coincides with a consultation over proposals to revise the Red Tractor production standards, with some vociferous growers failing to see they provide any benefit to their businesses.
Red Tractor grew out of (and consolidated) the early farm assurance schemes that emerged after the BSE debacle in the mid-1990s. The arable and livestock sectors sought to protect themselves from potential further public disquiet over common farm practices, sparked by the fact that animal proteins were routinely fed back to livestock. And there is no doubt that the storage of grains and animal feeds has markedly improved since then, as has animal welfare and the responsible use of crop inputs and livestock medicines. Trade schemes such as UFAS and TASCC supported this progress to enable whole food chain assurance.
No one like audits, especially if they are to prove a baseline standard rather than result in a premium. But equally there is no point in the UK food production sector bearing the cost of assurance to prove that it has some of the best standards in the world, if government is determined to sacrifice this work on the altar of free marketeerism.