Defra Secretary Theresa Villers repeatedly failed to deliver any clear assurances as to how the Government intends to protect UK farmers from lower standard imports, when she spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference.
Mrs Villiers did reveal that the Agriculture Bill will return to parliament this month and confirmed that current farm spending will be maintained throughout this term of parliament. She said the Bill would be largely unchanged from the previous incarnation, with the notable addition of a commitment to regular reviews of the UK’s food security. There will be measures to support productivity, although the centerpiece of the new farming policy will be the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
Mrs Villiers also confirmed that the transition from the current Basic Payment Scheme towards the new ‘public money for public goods agenda would commence in 2021.
But the political session on Wednesday morning, also featuring NFU president Minette Batters and Friends of the Earth’s Craig Bennett was dominated by a debate over food standards. This included discussion on how UK farming, supported by the new post-Brexit agricultural policy, can be incentivised to deliver ‘public goods’ that help, for example, address climate change, enhance biodiversity and improve animal health and welfare.
But Mrs Batters and Mr Bennett said any move to raise UK standards must be accompanied by clearly defined steps to ensure post-Brexit trade deals do not open our doors to imports produced to standards outlawed here.
Mrs Batters reiterated her calls for the government to commit to introducing a food standards commission. She said the body would scrutinise proposals in trade deals and make recommendations on the UK’s future food trade policy ‘to ensure that the UK farming’s high production standards won’t be undermined.
“British farmers are world-leading in our standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety,” she said.
“Farmers and the public want it to stay that way, which is why it is crucial that the government introduces a food standards commission that can scrutinise future trade deals and ensure we do not allow imports of food that would be illegal for our farmers to produce here. This needs to be backed in legislation by the Agriculture Bill.”
Mr Bennett reiterated these calls for clear policy commitments to protect UK farmers, pointing out that the Government had issued a number of assurances in this area, without giving any firm policy commitments.
During her speech, Mrs Villiers said UK farmers will lead the way in environmental and animal welfare standards after Brexit, and stressed the Government will ‘stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK’.
“We can maintain and indeed enhance UK standards as we negotiate new trading relationships with friends and neighbours in the EU and leading global economies.”
But repeatedly pressed during a conference Q&A session and a press conference on how the Government would deliver this, she was unable to give any more detail.
She resorted to a stock answer that the Government’s manifesto included a commitment that the UK’s high environmental and animal welfare standards would not be diluted in future trade deals.
She said the UK would ‘defend our national interests’ and suggested negotiators would be prepared to ’walk away’ rather than accept sub-standard imports.
But she said there was still a discussion going on within Government about whether the food standards commission was the right approach to achieve this, stressing that the industry could have a say via other routes.
Delegates were unimpressed with her position and the lack of any clear steer on how the Government would resist the desire of the desire, for example, of the US Government and industry for the UK to drop current EU restriction on various aspects of food production that currently bar US imports.
When the BBC’s Anna Hill, who chaired the session, asked delegates for a show of hands for those who believed the Government would protect UK farmers in future trade deals, not a single hand was shown.
You can read Mrs Villers’ full speech here