Thank you for contacting me about food standards and future trade deals.
I fully recognise the importance the public attach to the UK’s high standards of food production, and the unique selling point it provides for our farmers, whose high-quality produce is in demand around the world. For all these reasons, it is good news that the landmark Agriculture Act has now become law.
Regarding the Agriculture Act, the Government opposed new clauses one and two. The UK already imports food from countries such as Canada, South Africa and Japan through preferences in existing free trade agreements – none of these agreements require those countries to follow domestic UK production standards.
The amendments would have put up new trade barriers and prevented the Government from being able to agree fair and mutually beneficial trade deals. Indeed, forcing all our trading partners to produce to UK domestic standards would only result in fewer export opportunities for our own farmers. In addition, the amendments, if implemented, would have caused real challenges for developing countries and our Commonwealth partners, as for them it would be particularly difficult to align with UK domestic production standards.
The Government needs the freedom to negotiate trade deals on a country by country and case by case basis. As such, a blanket ban on imports that do not meet the UK’s standards would undermine this.
Although Lords amendments 11, 12, 16 & 17 were intended to protect farmers, they would actually have caused immense harm to British farmers. Being unable to secure free trade deals would not only have stopped imports coming into the UK, it would also mean that it would be harder for our farmers to export to other countries, thereby depriving them of the huge opportunities provided by free trade.
Insisting, as Lords Amendment 16 would have done, that we only trade with countries who meet our high production standards would have created a vast set of new conditions that our trading partners must meet – imposing a massive new barrier to trade. This goes well beyond existing EU rules and our current standards. This would have made it virtually impossible for the Government to strike a free trade deal with any country, including countries we currently trade with.
Such a situation would have been deeply damaging for the UK economy. Free trade with other countries will be a central part of driving our recovery as we bounce back from the pandemic. The proposed amendments would have wrecked any chance of new free trade deals and would ultimately lead to job losses and lower living standards.
It is a long established principle that more developed countries do not impose their own standards on less developed countries when it comes to trade. As such, not only would amendments 12 and 16 have inflicted harm on some of the world’s poorest people, it would have sent a message to the rest of the world that we do not share their values in relation to helping poorer countries to develop and prosper.
I know that in trade negotiations the Government will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards, which is why I believe Amendment 93 made to the Agriculture Act when it was making its way through the House of Lords was an unnecessary potential source of duplication and confusion.
Furthermore, I would also like to assure you that the Government will not compromise on matters relating to the health and wellbeing of our children during any trade negotiation.
The second part of the Government’s plans on childhood obesity, published in 2018, introduced firm commitments to tackle the problem head-on. This strategy established a target to halve childhood obesity by 2030.
I am pleased that the Government is now taking steps to ban unhealthy food adverts on television and online before 9pm, to reduce the likelihood of children seeing them. Further, a short consultation has been held on whether a ban on online adverts for unhealthy foods should apply at all times of the day. I await the Government response to the consultation with interest.
Regarding the relationship between trade agreements and health outcomes, there is no evidence to suggest that a free trade deal with the United States, or indeed any other country, would lead to an increase in child obesity in the UK.
The health and diets of our children is at the heart of the Government’s commitment to the high food standards that protect and benefit British farmers and consumers and which will not be compromised in any trade negotiation.
Without exception, all animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements from all trading partners, including the EU and others, will have to meet our stringent food safety standards, as they do now. These standards have been built up over many years and have the trust of the public and the world. I know the Government will not adjust those standards to secure trade deals. The standards will be based on science and decided by the UK alone.
An agreement with the US could lower tariffs on products, including beef and cheese, creating new export opportunities for the UK’s high-quality producers. You may be interested to know that the National Sheep Association recently stated that a free trade agreement with the US would benefit sheep farmers in all parts of country by creating new opportunities and driving demand.
Prices for premium products also tend to be higher in the US, so improved access will allow UK farmers to obtain high prices for their quality produce. It is also worth noting that the US has relatively high costs of production compared to the UK. As an example, US beef is currently 6 per cent more expensive than EU beef.
The EU Withdrawal Act has transferred all existing EU food safety provisions onto the UK statute book. This includes import requirements, which for example ban the use of artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products, and stipulate that no products besides potable water are approved to decontaminate poultry carcases.
I strongly welcome the UK-Japan free trade agreement. As well as securing tailored benefits and additional market access for UK businesses trading with Japan, this deal has also secured 70 geographical indications for iconic British food and drink products such as English sparkling wine and Welsh lamb. These protections outstrip those found in the EU-Japan FTA and set a powerful example for an innovative UK trade policy built on high food standards.
I want to see a vibrant and resilient farming sector in the UK, and the UK’s newfound status as an independent trading nation has the potential to bring huge benefits to our farming industry, including our family-run farms. Indeed, new free trade agreements could lead to gains for UK agriculture. For example, analysis by the Department for International Trade shows that an agreement with the US would strengthen UK farmers’ incomes.
I know how highly the British public value traditional family farming and the quality produce they provide. I would like to assure you that the Government will not undermine the position of family farms in any future trade negotiations. In fact, I know the Department for International Trade has been supporting family farms through the Coronavirus crisis by helping them gain access to invaluable export opportunities.
Farming is a bedrock of our economy and environment, generating £112 billion a year and helping shape some of our finest habitats and landscapes. I am pleased that the Government has guaranteed the annual farm budget for each year of this Parliament and nearly £3 billion will top up the remaining EU funding to match the total funding for direct payments that was available for 2019.
I am pleased that the Government is engaging with the agricultural sector, including the National Farmers Union, as part of its trade discussions. The government has established the Trade and Agriculture Commission as well as trade advisory groups, ensuring that British farmers, businesses, and consumers will play a central role in the nation’s trade policy. It is encouraging that Ministers share my determination to ensure our future trade agreements will deliver benefits for our brilliant farmers and food producers.
The Commission will ensure close engagement with the agriculture industry to help inform, shape and guide agricultural trade policy. It will be independently chaired by food safety expert Tim Smith, a former Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency. Within a fixed term the Commission will consider trade policies that the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, producers and exporters. The Commission will also ensure the agriculture sector remains competitive and that animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined.
I am glad that the Government is putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing and confirming that the body will produce a report, to be laid in Parliament at the start of each 21-day scrutiny period, on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture arising from each new free trade deal.
I hope this response has provided some clarity and reassurance.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP