Wednesday is a crucial day. The Agriculture Bill, currently before Parliament, will provide Ministers with a range of powers to shape the future of Agriculture in this country.
Much of the Bill is welcome. Absent, however, is any legal commitment to maintain our high environmental, food and animal welfare standards for imports under new trade deals.
We have had verbal commitments from the Prime Minister that we will not lower our high standards. And in our Conservative Manifesto, at page 57, we say “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.
We have promised not to reduce our high domestic standards. So we should not undermine them through trade deals. There is no point having world-leading standards in the UK if we do not expect trade partners to reciprocate. Allowing preferential access to food imports produced to lower standards will put many of our farmers at a competitive disadvantage and out of business. Not only will this export jobs in farming and food production, it will export the impact of this production, turning a blind eye to poor animal welfare standards abroad and encouraging environmental degradation there. We will be exporting control, not taking it back.
We must ensure the progress we have made on climate change, loss of biodiversity and concerns over the welfare of the farm animals we rear are not traded away on the altar of cheap food. These issues should be front and centre. We must ensure imported goods are made to equivalent high standards before we give them easy access to our markets.
That’s why I have tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, which I hope you will support. It is already backed by the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee – and a growing number of backbenchers too.
My amendment, New Clause 2, would prevent the ratification of a trade agreement that allows the importation of agricultural or food products which have not been produced to equivalent standards. A minimum of equivalence, though, does not mean ‘the same’.
A piece by Liam Fox on this site yesterday suggested that an amendment, such as mine, would prevent imports under any trade agreement if UK standards on animal welfare were not applied in the country of origin. This is an unfortunate conflation. Just as we have argued in our negotiations with the EU, there are different ways to reach the same high standards.
Within the framework of trade negotiations, we can put in conditionality. We can ask our negotiating partner that, in order to get preferential access to our market, certain rules be respected. For instance, in the area of animal welfare, the recent EU-Mercosur trade agreement included a conditionality on animal welfare for the importation of eggs. We should look to reduce tariffs, but not at any price.
Trade negotiations are a two-way street. My amendment will hold the Government to its commitments on standards and help us drive a harder bargain. If we truly intend to keep to our manifesto promise that we will not compromise on standards, then the Government should have no issue with New Clause 2 being adopted.