Food standards must not be sacrificed in trade talks - NFU regional director Adam Bedford

Adam Bedford is the regional director of the National Farmers' Union in Yorkshire and the North East. Picture by James Hardisty.
Adam Bedford is the regional director of the National Farmers' Union in Yorkshire and the North East. Picture by James Hardisty.
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A greater reliance on food produced to standards that would be illegal here is the risk we run with the Government’s apparent approach to liberalising agricultural markets in the UK.

This week’s announcement of tariffs for goods coming into the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit made for depressing reading.

While parliamentary debate still rages over the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it was worrying to see significant reductions in tariffs applied to non-EU imports.

The proposals provided some protection for certain farming sectors – most notably beef and lamb producers – but left others facing the potentially devastating impact of full liberalisation.

Even for more protected sectors, the proposed tariff regime could well result in damaging market distortion.

Set this against the aims of the United States negotiating team for example and it’s easy to see why local farmers are rattled.

The Trump administration is open in its desire to secure “comprehensive market access for US agricultural goods”.

This approach came as no surprise but with other countries likely to be queuing up to take advantage of lower UK tariffs, we should reflect on what successful US negotiation may mean for UK farming and the food we eat.

We have been absolutely clear that future trade deals should not allow the import of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers.

We are proud of the standards we achieve – designed to deliver on animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety. These are all things we know British shoppers value.

But these standards are not universal.

In the US, the use of hormone implants in beef and pork production and chlorine wash in the production of chicken fails to meet the standards we have to meet, but does contribute massively to the cost advantage that US producers enjoy.

It is clear that the US wants to see us align our standards more closely post Brexit.

But this would not only affect our ability to meet consumer expectations here, it would also impact our future access to the EU.

There are, of course, benefits associated with looser ties to the EU but we must maintain our standards, respond to consumer demands and fulfil our environmental obligations, while looking for smarter ways to deliver this.

It’s safe to say the smooth functioning of the Northern Irish border has been the most challenging aspect of Brexit negotiations.

The further we diverge from EU standards, the more barriers we can expect for our EU exports.

Currently, more than 60 per cent of our food and drink exports are Europe-bound and we need free and frictionless access to that market.

When the UK stands alone in its negotiations with the US, will the UK team stand firm and block lower standard imports? Or will the prize of a deal with the US be too big a lure?

To avoid leaving UK farming as the sacrificial lamb, our point is clear: If it’s illegal here, it mustn’t be allowed under future trade deals.