The government should make future free trade agreements contingent on imports meeting current standards of UK food production, a group of experts has concluded.
The recommendation not to sacrifice environmental standards in pursuit of trade deals with the likes of the USA, Australia and New Zealand was made by the independent trade and agriculture commission in its final report published this week.
The commission was established following pressure from campaigners and the public for greater scrutiny of future trade deals. Its role is to advise the UK government on how best to advance the interests of British farmers, food producers and consumers in future trade agreements.
Although the commission encouraged the UK government to lower trade tariffs and quotas on agricultural products to zero over time, it said this should be “contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers”.
It also recommended the government develop “a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy” framed within the context of a broader UK food strategy currently being drawn up by Henry Dimbleby.
Other recommendations included to align UK trade, aid and climate policies relating to agri-food and put climate change and other environmental pressures at the centre of negotiations by promoting the issues through forums such as COP26.
The foodservice sector was the focus of a recommendation to review the current public procurement plan for food. In addition to achieving value for money and meeting nutritional requirements, the commission said the plan should “maximise the opportunity to source from the UK, source sustainably and improve the transparency of the sourcing process”.
It also urged the government and food industry to work together to improve country of origin information in out of home supply chains. “This will respond to consumer appetite for more trust and transparency in those supply chains,” it said.
In forming its recommendations, the commission, which was chaired by former Tesco executive and FSA boss Tim Smith, sought the views of farmers, businesses, trade bodies, academic and civil society organisations and elected representatives across the UK. It conceded that “not all will be winners” from the liberalisation of trade policy.
Campaigners welcomed the call to protect standards but expressed concern over how this would be enforced in practice. “The report says that food that can't show it is equivalent to our standards will not be permitted tariff free access. But that raises a number of questions about how and who will decide what is equivalent and will the government be committed enough to stand up to future trading partners on these issues?” said Sustain’s head of farming, Vicki Hird.