Government told warm words no longer enough on protecting British farming's high standards

Farming leaders have publicly called on the Government to waste no more time in setting out its plans on how British farming’s high standards will be protected in any future trade deals.

Picture by James Hardisty.

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The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said fresh survey findings suggested that the public recognises the value of maintaining the same high standards for imported food in any post-Brexit trade agreements, and that Ministers must now act to do the same, and end years of uncertainty.

The plea comes after a survey of 2,000 adults by OnePoll found that 86 per cent said they believed future trade deals must ensure imported food is produced to the same standards as in the UK.

According to the NFU, the survey also showed that public support for UK farmers has equalled an all-time high.

The findings demonstrate the overwhelming support for the high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety that British farming guarantees, the union said.

Minette Batters, the NFU’s president, said: “Today’s figures send a clear message to the Government and our future Prime Minister just how strongly the public feel about not sacrificing British farmers in a future trade deal.

“The survey is clear – shoppers tell us they simply will not tolerate the Government signing post-Brexit trade deals which would see food on supermarket shelves that would be illegal to produce here.

“British farmers produce food to some of the highest standards in the world and these new statistics paint a very clear picture that the public hugely support what our food and farming sector delivers for the nation.

“Food security and domestic food production should not be jeopardised or off-shored. It is strategically important for a country to have the ability to feed its people.”

The OnePoll survey, conducted online last month, found that 69 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of UK farmers, equalling a record-high when compared with previous surveys.

Ms Batters called for the Government to take a firmer approach to back British farming, saying: “A no-deal Brexit or a bad trade deal puts all that in danger and I urge the Government to recognise this as we enter the pivotal months ahead.

“It is striking that after US President Donald Trump’s visit to the UK, a further 2,000 people joined our campaign to Back British Farming to throw their support behind our farmers and the principle that the UK should maintain our high standards of food production in any future trade deal.

“We now have nearly 30,000 people who back British farming and its values.

“The months ahead will prove pivotal in determining our future relationship with the EU and we have to get this right.

“The nation recognises British farming as an industry of great importance and value, it is now time for the Government to do the same.”

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: “The Secretary of State has been clear on numerous occasions that we do not intend to compromise on our high food standards in pursuit of any trade deals.

“Our food and drink enjoys a global reputation for quality and the Government is proud of our high standards of food safety, animal health and on-farm welfare, which our farmers work hard to maintain.

“We will only accept imports that meet the standards we currently maintain on behalf of British consumers.”

In a keynote address to farmers at the NFU’s annual conference in February, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “We have been clear – across Government, from the Prime Minister down – that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure the standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.”

While Mr Gove’s words were welcomed by the industry, concerns remain over the Minister’s ability to deliver upon his guarantee.

According to recent reports, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said Britain could accept chlorinated chicken in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US without cutting food standards, claiming the controversy around chlorine washing is an “animal welfare” issue.

Last month, Caroline Normand, director of advocacy at Which? was quoted rejecting that argument, saying one of the reasons for foodborne disease rates being much higher in the US is that measures such as chlorine washing are “often used as a desperate attempt to make up for widespread safety problems in food production”.