Former Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers has warned against dropping all agricultural tariffs after Brexit, branding it a ’risky strategy’.
Ms Villiers said such an approach would have ’significant disadvantages’ for the industry and Government must be ’very cautious’ about reducing tariffs in sensitive sectors such as beef, lamb, poultry and dairy.
She sounded the alarm just two months after Dr Tim Leunig, a powerful Number 10 and Treasury adviser, told the National Food Strategy team agriculture is ’certainly not’ important to the UK and suggested food could be imported from elsewhere.
Ms Villiers said: "The casual assumption of the free trade purists that removal of tariffs on food would simply mean buying our beef and chicken from lower cost producers in the US is misguided.
"Offshoring food production to countries far away generates serious risks when a crisis hits.
"Our goal should be to increase the proportion of food we consume which is grown domestically, not reduce it."
But during her time as Defra Secretary, Ms Villiers faced strong criticism for failing to amend the no-deal Brexit tariff schedule put together by Theresa May’s Government.
Some imported products, such as cereals, fruit and vegetables, pork produces and eggs would have faced no or low tariffs under the terms of the schedule, leaving domestic producers in those sectors open to being undermined.
She also touched on the importance of maintaining production standards in her Conservative Home opinion piece, despite refusing to push forward NFU plans for a Trade and Food Commission during her time in office.
Ms Villiers said: "US producers are allowed to use intensive farming methods which would be unlawful in this country because of the tough rules and animal welfare with which we require our farmers to comply. That is why I believe the ban on such imports, which is currently on the statute book, should stay in place."
One other concern set out by Ms Villiers in her piece was a fear that the UK may not agree to a free trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.
She pointed out trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms would mean lamb exporters face an EU tariff of around 67 per cent, with the highest tariff on beef more than 80 per cent.
Her comments came shortly before the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told the House of Lords EU Committee the UK would be prepared to accept tariffs as part of any deal with the EU to avoid signing up to ’level-playing field’ provisions.