Raising UK food standards on a domestic level only to then import lower-quality food sounds counterintuitive, but this forms the basis of the debate around the country’s Agriculture Bill, which will potentially have a dramatic effect on UK consumers, farmers and the country’s environment.
There are two main trade-related amendments being voted on in the House of Commons; one is to ensure that imported foods meet UK production standards, which include the same level of animal welfare, food safety and protection of the environment.
The second amendment revolves around enhancing parliamentary scrutiny of any future deals, strengthening the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. On 1 November, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Secretary for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice announced that the government will be tabling this amendment and putting the commission on a statutory footing.
These amendments were rejected at the House of Commons on 12 October, then returned to the House of Lords, where they were voted in on 20 October, and now they have returned to the Commons, with the bill resembling a game of ping-pong between the two houses.
Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas stands by the importance of these amendments and states the significance of making sure they are enshrined into law.
“The government’s repeated refusal to put its own manifesto promise on protecting food standards into law shows that they simply can’t be trusted when it comes to standing up for our farmers and our standards on food, environment and animal welfare,” she says.
The government has insisted that it will not get into trade deals that will compromise UK food standards, although many, such as Lucas, remain unconvinced.
“This government has been clear it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change,” said a government spokesperson when asked about the ways in which food safety will be ensured in future UK trade deals in the event of it not being enshrined by the Agriculture Bill.
Will UK farmers be on a level playing field?
Future trade deals with countries that do not hold similar food standards to the UK will not only potentially affect the health of consumers but could also threaten the livelihood of farmers, who will not be able to compete with those imports, according to head of sustainable farming at food and farming alliance Sustain Vicki Hird.
“If we allow products to flood in that will be produced to low standards, potentially highly polluting or with low animal welfare, or with seriously different standards in terms of food safety, hygiene and toxins, then… farmers will find it very difficult to compete with imports from [their counterparts who don’t] have to adhere to those standards,” she says.
This will also undermine the good that could be achieved through the Agriculture Bill itself, explains Hird, who gives credit to the government over the measures to protect nature, clean air, clean water and animal welfare in the bill.
However, if the same standards are not maintained for trade deals, the food imported to the UK could contribute to endangering the environment or be produced in countries with poor labour conditions, explains Lucas.
“If we look at the food system as a whole, we see that what ends up on our plates can be implicated in the destruction of habitats and wildlife beyond our borders – as well as working conditions that we would not countenance here,” she says.
How will the Agriculture Bill affect future trade deals?
The Agriculture Bill includes a new chapter on fair play and transparency in the supply chain, which will help farmers in their negotiating positions, according to Hird. She adds that farmers currently get about 8% of the gross value added of food in the UK while taking all the risks of working in a natural environment that is highly unpredictable.
Here again, if high standards on food safety and production conditions are not a requirement for future trade deals, farmers in the UK could be severely hindered.
“We will be wasting money,” says Hird. “It is hard to justify having strong water protection rules if stuff is flooding in and [British farmers] can’t compete so [therefore] can’t survive.”
The Agriculture Bill is seen by many as having the potential to improve the lot of British farmers while improving environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards. However, with no safeguarding with regard to future trade deals, all efforts could be in vain.
If high food and environmental standards are made a requirement in trade deals and included in the Agriculture Bill, the UK would be raising the importance of both the health of consumers and the environment. In a topic that has reflected the bitter divide caused by Brexit, this may just prove to be an issue that both sides can get behind.