Farmers and activists call for ‘level playing field’ in UK trade deals

Agriculture and environmental groups are demanding assurances from the UK government that it will maintain a “level playing field” for food and animal welfare standards in future trade agreements after Brexit.

A broad coalition of more than 10 lobby groups has called on Prime Minister Liz Truss’s new government to avoid a repeat of recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which they believe could undermine British farmers and endanger consumers.

In a letter to International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch ahead of the Conservative party conference starting Sunday in Birmingham, they warned that the Australian deal meant British farmers would compete with imported food “produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK”.

The signatories, including the National Farmers’ Union, WWF and the Greener UK coalition, said the government should develop a set of minimum product standards to “ensure imports do not undermine domestic standards”.

The call for the UK trade department to sign for a level playing field follows a bitter row over the Australian deal signed in June 2021 by Truss’ predecessor Boris Johnson, which was hailed as a success by Brexiters but heavily criticized as a rushed sell-out by agricultural and conservation organizations.

NFU President Minette Batters said the deal was “one-sided” and a “betrayal” by British farmers, who faced undermining by huge Australian producers who had been given access to British markets.

Minette Studs
Minette Batters: ‘To achieve this we need a good process involving all stakeholders that goes beyond warm words’ © Simon Hadley/Alamy

The pressure groups’ new demand for formal protection comes as the Truss administration signs a new trade deal with India this fall and prepares to complete its accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Shaun Spiers, chairman of Greener UK, a coalition of 12 conservation groups, said the government had “effectively authorized imports of lower quality food” by removing tariffs and increasing import quotas in the UK-Australia trade agreement.

He urged Badenoch to heed her own warnings about the need for a level playing field during a 2018 parliamentary debate when she argued that the UK should “require the same standards from farmers in other countries as we do from ours.” “.

Kate Norgrove, head of campaigns at WWF, said the government needed to stand up for British farmers by setting essential environmental production standards for all food sold in the UK to ensure that local produce “is not undermined by imported food that is – free literally – costs the earth”.

The Australian deal sparked a fierce battle in Whitehall before it was signed in 2021. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted farmers to be protected and accused the trade department – ​​then under Truss – of rushing to make a deal with Canberra at any cost.

However, Whitehall insiders said Truss’ recent appointment of former International Trade Secretary Ranil Jayawardena as Defra’s new secretary was widely seen as a move to stop any repetition of such objections. “Liz has placed one of her people in Defra for that very reason,” said one person.

Batters also argued that UK consumers would support the adoption of core standards, citing a 2020 petition backed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and signed by more than a million people calling on the government to ban imports from countries with not accept lower standards.

“We need a good process involving all stakeholders to achieve this that goes beyond just warm words,” she added.

David Bowles of animal charity RSPCA said the Australian deal had set a “dangerous precedent” for future negotiations with countries such as India, Mexico and Canada. “We hope that the new government will reconsider this issue,” he added.

The International Trade Department said the UK would “make no concessions” to high food, animal and safety standards when signing trade agreements, adding that the post-Brexit trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand will include “unprecedented” animal welfare chapters and contain “ambitious”. environmental chapters.

“All imports will have to continue to meet our food safety requirements, and the independent Trade & Agriculture Commission has concluded that neither agreement undermines the UK’s domestic protections,” it added.

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