America has lower animal welfare, hygiene and environmental standards than the UK, making it unfair to expect our farmers to compete with the US and remain profitable, says Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster ag spokesman.
The gathering of world leaders for the G7 summit in Biarritz has featured heavily in news bulletins this week, with detailed reports on the discussions held on matters ranging from the prospects of world trade to the tensions simmering in the Persian Gulf.
One aspect which gained particular attention was that of a potential UK-US trade deal, and the Prime Minister’s insistence that, much like Hugh Grant in Love Actually, he was going to stand firm to our American cousins, and only entertain an agreement that was to the UK’s benefit – pork pies and all.
Nothing has quite so animated my inbox as the topic of a free-trade deal with America: concerns about the flooding of the UK market with a lower standard of food products, of chlorine-washed meat and hormone injected beef, are widespread.
Although the direct consequences of a US free trade deal for our own agriculture have been discussed at length, in my opinion a crucial consideration is often omitted.
How would domestic policy react to such a deal, and what might this in turn mean for our trading prospects with other nations?
A significant question that has arisen from Brexit deliberations is to which major trading bloc the UK aligns itself. The EU, or the USA?
Some, myself included, argue it would be better to align ourselves with Europe. Others extol the virtues of closer Anglo-American alignment, and there is a further school of thought which contends it is possible to enjoy the best of both worlds.
America’s acceptance of hormone-injected beef and chlorine-washed chicken has been raised and objected to on several occasions, but usually as specific, isolated, examples.
They are of course symptomatic of an agricultural industry which falls well below the standards expected of the UK industry – whether in terms of animal welfare, hygiene, or the environment.
A trade agreement with the US under such circumstances would be nothing short of a betrayal of UK agriculture, and in particular Welsh red meat producers. How could any Government expect them to compete on such an uneven playing field?
One can well imagine the lowering of UK production standards being entertained as a way to overcome this economic imbalance with US producers, but it is difficult to see how this would be palatable, and politically it is almost certainly infeasible.
However, even if a UK Government succeeds in doing so, the door to the European market – to which regulatory alignment will be needed if we are to continue to enjoy access, let alone remain competitive – would be closed as a result.
As such, it is difficult to see how free and unfettered trade with both the EU and the USA could work for UK agriculture. As is so often the case with Brexit, honesty is lacking about the options in front of us.
It is becoming increasingly evident that when it comes to agricultural trade, a US deal is incompatible with the aim of maintaining a prosperous UK agricultural industry.
There simply is no ‘have our cake and eat it’ option, and the sooner we admit to it, the better.
Ben can be found tweeting at @BenMLake