The UK’s food security could be put at risk if all lower standard imports are banned from entering the country, new Farming Minister Victoria Prentis has said.
Explaining the Government’s refusal to legally protect food production standards in trade deals, the Minister claimed such a move would ‘create considerable uncertainty’ about whether current imports could continue.
She pointed to the example of poultry, where not all of the UK’s £2.1bn-worth of chicken imports meet domestic stocking density requirements, and said new restrictions would lead to price rises.
She also suggested domestic legislation in this area would be unenforceable, because the UK would have no way to check conditions on farms elsewhere in the world.
Her comments, made to MPs during a March 5 session of the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Agriculture Bill, were the most detailed explanation yet of the Government’s resistance to legally protecting standards in trade deals.
Responding to Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner, who tabled an amendment to the Bill which would have banned lower standard imports, known as ‘new clause 1’, Ms Prentis said: “The Government takes the view that banning imports unless all domestic standards are met is not always appropriate.
“Accepting new clause 1 would create considerable uncertainty about whether current imports – on which we rely for food security, particularly at times of worry – including those from the EU, could continue.
“Our significant concern is that the new clause would put current trade agreements at risk and threaten our vital agri-food export trade.”
Former Farming Minister Robert Goodwill, who sits on the Public Bill Committee, raised the issue of animal feed, pointing out the proposed amendment could prevent soya beans and maize destined for UK livestock production from entering the country.
Ms Prentis went on to suggest banning lower standard imports could leave the UK open to challenge at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“The WTO allows for trade restrictions in very specific circumstances, such as for food safety or to protect public morals,” she said.
“It is not clear to the Government that the requirements of new clause 1 would meet the WTO criteria, and we are concerned we would risk significant challenge from it… if [any WTO member] believed our import measures were arbitrary, discriminatory or a disguised form of protectionism.”
TFA chief executive George Dunn: “Food security is not just about quantity but about quality. British farmers are producing to some of the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental management in a global context.
“Is the Minister really saying that in order to provide a sufficient quantity of food she is prepared to sacrifice the quality standards we hold dear at home and offshore our environmental and animal welfare consciences?
“The Agriculture Bill requires that the Minister uses the available financial assistance powers in the context of assuring food can be produced sustainably. Rather than taking the easy option of importing cheap, substandard food, the Government should be ensuring that we have the capacity to fulfil our needs from domestic sources produced to the standards we all support.”
NFU Cymru president John Davies: “It is extremely concerning to hear the Farming Minister’s reluctance to rule out a ban on low standard imports.
“In our view, this news is a kick in the teeth to the professionalism, dedication and investment of Wales’ farmers in producing food to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.
“NFU Cymru has been steadfast in its calls that future trade deals must not compromise high-quality domestic food production, but in one sweeping statement it would appear the Minister has not heeded these concerns and is instead advocating a course of action that would be extremely damaging to our sector.
“Previous promises of a bright new future for the industry outside the European Union already seem to have been forgotten. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario where the UK farming industry can benefit from having its high animal welfare and environmental standards - standards farmers are proud to produce to and are recognised by UK consumers - undermined in this manner.”
FUW president Glyn Roberts: “The Minister refers to the risk of ’creating considerable uncertainty’, but in reality it is the UK Government which would be proactively creating such uncertainty by taking a position on trade which deliberately severs the established supply chains which extend across Europe. In other words, far from being inevitable, it is within their gift to avoid such uncertainty.
“In terms of the UK not having means by which to check welfare conditions on farms elsewhere in the world, we must note animal health and animal welfare are inextricably linked. The EU’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) checks farms and supply chains in other countries to ensure they meet EU animal health standards, and the Government should not be willing to throw caution to the wind when it comes to risks such as importing FMD from regions where the disease is prevalent.”