Farmers and green campaigners are pinning their hopes on the House of Lords to make last-minute changes to the government’s agriculture bill to strengthen safeguards on food safety and animal welfare.
Amendments to the bill that would have secured clear legal status for the UK’s existing food and farming standards, which campaigners fear will be at risk in post-Brexit trade deals, were rejected in the House of Commons on Monday night, despite a rebellion from backbench Tory MPs.
Peers will now reconsider the legislation, and have the opportunity to beef up the role of a proposed trade and agriculture commission, which would scrutinise any deals and their impact on farming and food safety.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “The future of British food and farming is at stake. Without proper safeguards on future trade deals, we risk seeing an increase in food imports that have been produced to standards that would be illegal here. [There is] a new opportunity for the Lords to put forward an amendment that will give the commission more teeth and enable MPs to have their say.”
Farmers are concerned that without safeguards in the agriculture bill, they will be placed in an impossible bind. If they are to keep access to their biggest export market, Europe, then UK standards must be kept in line with EU regulations; but if the government does not mandate similar standards for imports, floods of cheap food produced to lower standards will undercut UK produce, destroying the domestic market.
The impact is likely to hit small family farms hardest, and thousands could go out of business.
Video: Minister says laws barring chlorinated chicken ‘won’t change’ after US trade deal despite No 10 dropping pledge.mp4 (The Independent)
More than one million people signed an NFU petition, and a campaign to “save our standards” has been supported by Jamie Oliver, the chef, and other public figures. Kath Dalmeny, of the Future British Standards Coalition, warned: “The government seems to be underestimating public sentiment on this matter. The public cares profoundly about this issue, and won’t forget a broken manifesto commitment on it.”
Vicki Hird, head of farm policy at Sustain, an NGO coalition, said: “We are in active discussions with peers about what to do when the agriculture bill returns there. We reject the government’s line that it isn’t workable to have high standards at home and sign trade deals. We want peers to keep advocating to protect our food and farming standards as well as secure a trade and agriculture commission that has powers and a wider membership that better reflects the range of interests involved.”
Campaigners are also concerned about the impact of lower-standard imports on public health and on the global environment. Ministers have offered repeated assurances that two of the foods which have hit the headlines – chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef from the US – will continue to be banned in any trade deal.
These are just two products out of a raft of agricultural offerings from the US and other countries that would violate EU rules and, according to scientists, pose a threat to health, as well as entailing unnecessary suffering on the part of livestock.
For instance, antibiotics are used five times as much on US farms as in the UK. Using antibiotics in large quantities leads to the growth of resistant strains of bacteria, which can infect people and in serious cases can kill. Pesticides are still used in the US and other countries that have been outlawed in the EU because of health concerns, with residues found in fruit and vegetables. Meat produced in the US also often comes from animals at higher stocking densities than the UK, with lower welfare standards.
One option favoured by the government is for clearer labelling, so consumers can make the choice to buy higher welfare and higher standard products. Campaigners point out, however, that about half of food is eaten outside the home, where detailed labelling and provenance information is rarely available.
The government has also argued that parliament already has the power to vote against future trade deals. All deals will be assessed by an independent board which will look at the impact on the environment and society. Their report will then be debated in the Commons and a deal can be “blocked indefinitely” under the so-called Crag (constitutional reform and governance act) process, the international trade secretary Liz Truss said recently.
Critics say it will be difficult to challenge any future deals given the government’s 80-strong majority, which is why they wanted a “democratic lock” created to avert any deals involving objectionable farming practices.
A government spokesperson said: “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, and claims to the contrary are unhelpful scaremongering. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change. Chlorinated chicken and hormone -injected beef are not permitted for import into the UK. This will be retained through the EU Withdrawal Act and enshrined in UK law at the end of the transition period. The government is focused on getting trade deals that protect and advance the interests of our farmers and consumers. If a deal isn’t the right one, we will walk away.”