99.The consultation paper states the Government will “adopt a trade approach which promotes industry innovation and lower prices for consumers”. Many witnesses noted the inherent tension in the consultation paper between its proposals to enhance animal welfare and environmental standards in England whilst lowering prices for consumers. The NFU told us there is a role for Government to ensure producers are not put at a competitive disadvantage from imported products produced to lower environmental and welfare standards:
It would be very difficult for our nation’s farmers to deliver high standards in terms of animal welfare, environmental responsibility and assurance, as we do now, and yet compete on a global market against competitors who do not have those standards.
100.We heard mixed views on how farmers in England could be protected from this competitive disadvantage. Sustain and Compassion in World Farming suggested that food which does not meet UK standards should be disallowed or subject to higher import tariffs:
When negotiating new trade agreements it is vital that the UK insists on the inclusion of a clause permitting it to require imports to meet UK animal welfare standards. Alternatively, the UK could press for the ability to place differential tariffs on imports. Imports that do not conform to UK welfare standards would be subject to tariffs that are sufficiently high to safeguard UK farmers; imports that meet UK welfare standards would benefit from a low or zero tariff.
101.Michael Taylor from Policy Exchange disagreed and said that there should not be what he described as an “artificial trade barrier”. He suggested food produced to lower standards should be imported, with consumers given the choice of whether they want to purchase food produced to lower standards: “Consumers may judge that they do not agree with chlorinated chicken for whatever reason and, therefore, they choose not to buy it. What is wrong with that? It is consumer sovereignty”. He added that minimum standards could be created, but that these should not artificially protect UK-produced food: “I agree we cannot let in absolutely everything, but you set a minimum above which you allow imports”.
102.Angela Francis from Green Alliance told us that there should be transparency through labelling: “You can communicate all different sorts of features in terms of provenance and production standards”. However she cautioned that it is not a complete solution as 60 per cent of food is processed and so can be difficult to label. Which? told us that the Government has an opportunity to make it easier for people to choose products based on their origin through wider adoption of country of origin labelling. In our recent Brexit: Trade in Food Report we recommended that “the Government improve country of origin labelling following the UK’s departure from the EU [and] that the Government introduce mandatory method of production labelling”.
103.We asked the Minister to clarify the statement that Defra will “adopt a trade approach which promotes industry innovation and lower prices for consumers”. He told us that this will not necessarily undermine farmers in the UK as there are products we are not able to produce and drew on the example of citrus fruits:
There will be lots and lots of products and things that we do not produce at the moment, where currently there is a tariff wall of the EU that maybe keeps some of those prices higher, and where we would be free to do trade deals to buy in some of those products from other third countries at a price that is lower than the EU currently allows, so there will be instances such as that.
104.The Minister told us that the UK will be able to set its own standards: “In my view, when it comes to trade deals, it would be quite possible to put together a trade agreement with, say, the US, where you would allow beef to come in if it met our standards”. We pressed the Minister on the relationship between Defra and the Department for International Trade and how he will ensure that his approach is successful. He told us:
Defra will lead on agri-food negotiations, so all elements around sanitary and phytosanitary issues will be for Defra to lead on. DIT will deal with all other sectors and will have an overview of the whole deal. It is because food and agriculture is so complicated and so difficult—it is the reason why most trade deals fall apart in the end—that Defra will lead on the agri-food issues.
105.We welcome Defra’s involvement in agri-food trade negotiations and the Minister’s statement that a trade agreement which did not allow beef to enter the UK if it did not meet UK standards is “quite possible to put together”. We recommend that, in response to this Report, Defra clearly states that it is Government policy that trade agreements should always contain provision to prevent food which does not meet our environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards from entering the country.
195 [Angela Francis]; NFU (), para 5.2; Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland (), para 2.4; Compassion in World Farming (), para 4
197 Compassion in World Farming (), para 2
200 [Michael Taylor]
201 [Angela Francis]
202 ; [Angela Francis]
Published: 6 June 2018