National Farmers Union president Minette Batters repeated calls for the Government to put together a council or commission on food standards to scrutinise trade deals and prevent the introduction of a two-tier food system.
Addressing secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Theresa Villiers, Batters said: “It’s been great to hear commitment from you on our welfare standards, but this ambition must be hard-wired across Government and it must be backed by legislation in the agriculture bill.
“I know that this will test the moral compass of some in Government, but failure to deliver is simply not an option. There is a significant opportunity for you, secretary of state, and for Government as a whole to lead this agenda in upholding our food values.”
She also called on the secretary of state to work together with the agrifood industry to drive forward climate and water-friendly food production in the pursuit of net-zero carbon emissions and provide financial stability through the introduction of a new agriculture bill.
Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett also touched on the UK’s move toward net-zero. He urged the Government to ramp up its efforts to reduce the damage to the environment, most of which needed to be done in the next 10 years.
He pointed to the reduction of meat consumption as a simple way to help reduce emissions, but not necessarily give up meat completely.
“Every model to get to net-zero requires a reduction in meat consumption,” Bennett added. “It’s about eating less but better meat.
“At Friends of the Earth, we think the biggest culprit driving climate change and biodiversity loss is the industry adoption of large-scale intensive meat production.”
Bennett also voiced concerns that the UK Government had yet to confirm it would reject trade deals with countries producing food and drink to lower standards than our own.
“Trade trumps everything,” Bennett continued. “We could have the best system here in this country, but if we do trade deals with other countries that allow imports of food that have been produced to lower standards, that will undercut our farmers and be devastating for this industry.
“We’ve heard some warm words from Government on trade, but they haven’t yet said that they will turn down trade deals with Donald Trump if they resulted in importing lower-standard food to this country.”
Despite the concerns raised surrounding international trade by Batters and Bennett, professor in international economic law Fiona Smith offered some words of reassurance to delegates at the conference.
WTO ‘not a panacea’
While she did warn that World Trade Organization rules were not a panacea that would plug the gaps left if no trade deals were agreed post-Brexit, she noted that the system wouldn’t collapse and devolve into “the trade equivalent of the Wild West”.
“The UK has real opportunities to be a thought leader in trade and trade agreements in the field of agrifood in a way that supports business and protects the climate going forward,” said Smith.
Meanwhile, Villiers vowed to continue to work with the food and drink sector to better understand the industry’s concerns and make sure food firms’ voices were heard at the negotiating table in international forums.
She added: “Please be reassured, as our manifesto says, as the Prime Minister has said, we will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality and grounded in our shared national values.
“We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.”