The Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) set up by Government has recommended that tariff and quota-free access to the UK market should only be given to food which meets domestic standards.
The group made the recommendation, which says trading partners could demonstrate ‘equivalence’ with core UK standards as part of any future trade deals, in its final report published today.
Agreements currently being negotiated, such as those with the USA, New Zealand and Australia, would be exempt from the requirements, with the commission claiming a swift change in approach would be too ‘challenging’.
Outside of free trade deals, the TAC has said import restrictions could be introduced on products which do not meet internationally agreed standards on climate, environment, ethical trade or animal welfare, where consistent with World Trade Organisation rules.
The group also recommended that a Minister be given explicit responsibility to lead on agri-food trade, to ensure policy coherence across Government and lead in pushing for an elevation of global standards in international forums, and said market access should only be conceded where there is reciprocal benefit for UK producers.
NFU president Minette Batters and NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy welcomed the document’s publication.
Ms Batters commended the report for recognising there is a tough balance to be struck between doing trade deals and safeguarding standards, while Mr Kennedy congratulated the commission on setting out a ‘bold and ambitious vision’ for future UK agri-food trade.
But other farm groups gave a more lukewarm response.
Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn told Farmers Guardian the ‘rubber would hit the road’ on policy mechanisms.
“Issues around carbon, animal welfare and wider environmental considerations are to be dealt with through the tariff system,” he said.
“While I am not wholly opposed to that – after all if you set your tariff high enough you can use it almost like a standard – it does give the Government much greater levels of flexibility.
“Tariffs can be negotiated away and manipulated according to political expediency rather than necessarily against core policy targets.”
Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain, also warned the ability for trading partners to demonstrate equivalence, while not following the exact same practices, was ‘worrying’.
“The big question now is will Government cherry pick to do the minimum while being seen to lead on the international stage, where we know international processes are slow and tortuous,” she said.
“The dual tariffs approach could still allow in lots of cheap imports. We need strong red lines.”
In total, the commission made 22 recommendations, including improving country of origin labelling in out of home supply chains; ensuring future trading partners have a plan to reduce antibiotic use; reviewing public procurement rules to maximise UK sourcing and rapidly increasing overseas resourcing to open up new markets.
The Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, will set out her response to the report shortly.