I’ve received an enormous amount of correspondence relating to the Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill and I fully appreciate both the symbolic and tangible importance of the issues raised – both in debates on the Second Reading and in last night’s debates in the Commons.
In particular, I know that Lords amendments 12 and 16 (which would have required all food imports to meet UK domestic standards) have been seen as a critical measure to ensure that our farmers are not undercut and that consumers are protected from products which are produced to a lower standard than currently required. Of course, no-one wants to see a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection, animal welfare or food quality.
But it’s worth saying, by way of context, that all existing EU safety provisions (including existing import requirements) will be transferred to the UK statute book – and could only be changed through legislation (which would involve a parliamentary vote). These standards already preclude, for instance, importing chlorinated chicken (prohibited under Section 3 of the WA. Regulation (EC) No 852/2004) and beef produced using artificial growth hormones (banned under EU legislation 2003/74/EC).
So these amendments are not about maintaining existing safety standards but would, instead, impose new, significantly more onerous requirements for import. That is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. It’s absolutely vital that we strike a balance between preserving access to global food markets (indeed, we are the third largest food market in the world behind China and the US) and protecting domestic consumers and producers.
But these amendments – while aiming at the laudable goal of ensuring the UK maintains its rigorous standards – would have several undesirable consequences. They would not simply maintain a bar to import for products which are unsafe or produced using methods we would regard as cruel or environmentally damaging, but render many existing imports illegal.
If, for example, we wished to continue importing bananas from the Dominican Republic or Belize or coffee from Vietnam or Ghana (as we do under EU rules at present)), those countries would, under the requirements imposed by Lords Amendments 12 and 16, have to demonstrate absolute compliance with thousands of pages of UK domestic legislation – much of which has been enacted to tally with our own specific geography and ecosystem. For example, the UK’s climate and geography necessitate extremely strict regulations governing nitrate concentration in our soil and the processes by which hedgerows are maintained. In a UK context, those regulations are vital.
But to require countries with very different ecosystems to meet these standards would not protect the integrity of our standards but demanding the possible dilution of their own in return for continued UK market access. This would, of course, prove a real barrier to trade – and the reciprocal ability for UK agricultural businesses to export on symmetrical terms. Continued access to international markets is critical if we are to maintain the integrity of our food production and agricultural sectors. Given that total UK agricultural exports total over £20bn, imposing such requirements could destroy the viability of businesses across the country – and within our part of Somerset.
As I say, we are already transferring all existing import requirements under EU law into UK legislation - which already fully ensures our existing standards are maintained. Any new trade deal will be laid before Parliament under the CRAG protocols, and be the subject of a parliamentary debate. And any changes to our animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety standards would have to be accomplished through new legislation. It’s also worth saying that the UK’s food standards (for both domestic production and imports) are overseen the by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide shape regulations that ensure all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and are made completely separately from trade discussions.
I should restate that I certainly would not support any legislation which diluted our existing standards and exposed our farmers to asymmetrical competition. And as someone who argued and lobbied for the creation of the new independent Trade and Agriculture Commission, I’ll be examining its final report very carefully. It has recently put out a call for evidence to 200 people in the industry – and it’s critical that the voices of those whose livelihoods depend on the standards enshrined in future trade deals inform the direction of policy. Alongside that call for evidence, the Commission has established three working groups covering consumers, competitiveness and standards to ensure we retain those protections upon which the farmers, food producers and the public depend.
I hope this gives a little more context for my vote on the Lords amendments relating to food standards and explains why - having looked carefully at the issue, our current and future protections, and the unintended damaging consequences of the amendments – it would have been wrong for me to support them. But I will continue to do all I can to ensure that our existing standards are strengthened and maintained.