Shoppers cannot fairly be expected to ask about standards when buying a beef sandwich, so they must be protected in trade deals by all future Governments, says Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association.
Whatever the outcome of the election and Brexit, it seems uncertainty for farmers will be unresolved for some time.
The Soil Association continues to stand alongside the UK farming community in arguing that UK trade policies must not undercut British farmers and risk offshoring our environmental impacts.
Farmers are rightly concerned they may have to compete against food imports produced using practices forbidden in the UK.
It’s little comfort for us to be told chlorine-washed chicken is ‘safe’ and it’s up to consumers to choose whether they want to eat food produced like this.
Are consumers really going to be expected to ask, as they buy their beef sandwich, what sort of antibiotic regime the cow experienced?
This issue goes beyond food safety – it’s about the farming systems these practices prop up.
It’s entirely wrong that British farmers who operate to higher standards should be forced to compete against farming systems with poor welfare and environmental standards.
While there is more to be done, UK farming has made great progress on reducing antibiotic usage, with a reduction of around 50 per cent since 2014.
But if UK supermarkets are stocked with meat from countries like the US, where antibiotics use in cattle can be up to 9 to 16 times higher than in Britain, is it reasonable to expect UK farmers to keep upping their game?
This week’s BBC documentary ‘Meat: A threat to our planet?’ showed the stark differences between livestock production systems.
In the UK, when animals are grazed on pasture, this can capture carbon in soils and benefit wildlife, as the documentary recognised.
We should be wary of trade deals which fail to protect British farmers or allow meat that is driving deforestation and antimicrobial resistance onto our supermarket shelves.
Not only will this make it harder to continue to push up standards at home, we will simply offshore our climate and animal welfare impacts.
And prospects are even worse when it comes to pesticides.
The Soil Association’s recent report with PAN UK, The Cocktail Effect, revealed a quarter of food samples tested in the UK contained pesticide cocktails, with some containing traces of up to 14 different pesticides.
None of us can know the human health and environmental impacts of this long-term, multiple exposure, and there’s a clear risk that future trade deals could pave the way to imports from countries using pesticides not allowed here.
This risks an increase in the level and variety of pesticides we consume, while again undercutting our farming standards and diverting from the focus needed on supporting farmers to move away from pesticide reliance.
UK citizens are increasingly concerned on climate issues and we know British farmers are committed to a model of farming based on high environmental and welfare standards.
The Soil Association is therefore looking to any new Government to deliver a trade policy which builds on these aspirations.
That’s why we’ve published seven manifesto asks for the next UK government – including a guarantee that future trade agreements maintain the high standards of UK food and farming and don’t move our climate impacts offshore, alongside a commitment to support agroecological, nature friendly farming.
Anything else would risk reversing the hard work and progress achieved at a time when we are facing a climate emergency and should be supporting British farmers in a race to the top of farming standards, not a race to the bottom.