Trade Secretary Liz Truss has announced the Government will set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission to explore ways to protect food production standards, just three weeks after Farming Minister Victoria Prentis rejected the idea.
The Secretary of State confirmed her intention to establish the body in a letter to NFU president Minette Batters, who has been pushing for its creation for 18 months.
The commission has been charged with producing a report to be presented to Parliament which will consider the policies Government should adopt to ensure UK farmers are not undermined by low-standard imports; reflect consumer interests and those of developing countries; explore how the UK can push for higher animal welfare standards across the globe at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and look at how new export opportunities can be opened up.
After it has completed its work, the body will be closed down, and its recommendations will be advisory – not legally binding.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “I am very pleased the Government is taking concrete action to address the challenges of safeguarding our high food and farming standards by agreeing to set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission, something we first called for over 18 months ago. This is a hugely important development.
“We look forward to working with Government and other stakeholders in the days ahead on the Commission’s terms of reference, to ensure its work is genuinely valuable.
“In particular, it will be vital that Parliament is able to properly consider the Commission’s recommendations and can ensure Government implements them effectively.
“The NFU will continue to scrutinise the progress of trade negotiations with the USA and other countries over the coming months outside of the work of the Commission so our future trade deals work for British farmers and consumers, and believe it is vital that Parliament is provided a strengthened role in this regard as well.”
Just three weeks ago, Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said the Government did not believe it was necessary to set up a commission because agri-food experts were already feeding into trade negotiations through existing channels.
After Farmers Guardian reported her comments, Ms Batters said she had ‘quite a few strong words with Ministers and officials’, and believed they had ‘fallen on receptive ears’.
Vicki Hird, head of food and farming policy at Sustain, welcomed the Trade Secretary’s acknowledgement that future trade deals must be fair to farmers and consumers, but sounded a note of caution.
She said: “We note she has only agreed to a commission in principle, that it would be time-limited and its recommendations would be advisory only.
“Such a weak and short-term approach leaves so many cracks through which food standards could slip.
“We are concerned too that Liz Truss only refers to food safety and animal welfare standards, seemingly ignoring wider concerns such as the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides and environmental standards to protect wildlife, soil and water.”