Farming groups have cautiously welcomed a government commitment to establish a new independent body to offer advice on free trade deals; but environmental NGOs warned of a “weak and short term” approach to safeguarding food standards.
In a letter this week to NFU president Minette Batters, trade secretary Liz Truss agreed in principle to the establishment of a Trade and Agriculture Commission to consider the policies the government should adopt in free trade agreements to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that animal welfare and production standards are not undermined.
The NFU has been pushing for the establishment of the Commission for the past 18 months amid concerns a US free trade deal could open the door to foods, such as chlorinated chicken, produced to lower standards than are required in the UK.
Batters said the pledge to establish the Commission was “a hugely important development”, adding that the NFU would work with government and other stakeholders on its terms of reference to ensure the work would be “genuinely valuable”.
Batters said: “In particular, it will be vital that Parliament is able to properly consider the Commission’s recommendations and can ensure government implements them effectively.”
Sustain, the food and farming alliance, struck a more cautious tone. It expressed concern that the trade secretary only referenced food safety and animal welfare in her letter, seemingly ignoring wider consumer concerns about food standards such as the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides and environmental standards to protect wildlife, soil and water.
Vicki Hird, head of food and farming policy at Sustain, said: "It is welcome that the trade secretary has today acknowledged that future trade deals need to be fair for our farmers and consumers. However, we note that she has only agreed to a Trade and Agriculture Commission in principle, that it would be time limited and that its recommendations would be advisory only. Such a weak and short term approach leaves so many cracks through which our food standards could slip.”