Trade rows rumble on

The government has committed to protect environmental and animal welfare standards but is struggling to prove it. Nick Hughes reports.

Disputes over trade policy have become a post-Brexit news cycle staple as the UK government strives to strike deals around the world. What made the latest altercation especially noteworthy was that the offensive came from the chair of the government appointed Trade and Agriculture Commission.

In a blunt interview with the BBC’s Farming Today programme at the start of the month, former Tesco executive and Food Standards Agency boss Tim Smith said he was “beyond frustrated” and couldn’t think of a “single, coherent reason” why the Department for International Trade (DIT) had yet to respond to the commission’s report, published in March, which contained a series of recommendations for balancing trade liberalisation with upholding the UK’s environment and animal welfare standards.

The independent Trade and Agriculture Commission was disbanded following the report’s publication. The intention was that it would be replaced by a new commission tasked with examining future trade agreements; but such a commission has yet to be established. In response, the DIT told Farming Today that applications for the new commission were being considered and membership would be announced shortly.

Smith’s intervention reflects a growing fear that the government has little intention of taking seriously the recommendations of a commission it established in part to assuage concerns that UK animal welfare and environment standards could be undermined as a result of future free trade deals.

“This delay in responding to the original TAC report and putting a new, permanent body in place raises serious questions about the government’s manifesto commitment to protect standards in trade,” said Vicki Hird, head of Sustain’s sustainable farming campaign.

Smith said he genuinely hoped the government was delaying responding to the report for the right reasons. “I’m still an optimist when it comes to the secretary of state [Liz Truss] and her ministers taking our recommendations seriously, but as time marches on it seems less likely and so those who were sceptical at the time are probably winning the arguments just now.”

Since the publication of the commission’s recommendations in the spring, a trade agreement in principle has been signed with Australia, which some fear could lead to lower standard food imports entering the UK market. Australia allows certain practices such as sow stalls and barren battery cages that are banned in the UK.

Henry Dimbleby wrote in his national food strategy for England that “if we [the UK] are seen to lower our standards for the Australia deal, it will make it much harder to hold the line with Brazil – or the next potential trading partner, or the next.” Dimbleby added that, at a time when the government is asking its own farmers to raise their environmental standards higher than ever, “this would be an extraordinary failure of joined-up thinking”.

Sky News, meanwhile, reported last week that ministers have bowed to pressure from Australia to drop binding commitments to the Paris climate change agreement from the UK-Australia trade deal.

Attention now turns to Australia’s neighbour New Zealand, with which a sixth round of free trade agreement negotiations took place between July 19th and 30th. The UK government says the agreement could see the removal of tariffs on an array of UK and New Zealand exports, including food and drink. Campaigners, however, say a lack of transparency about the talks has set fresh alarm bells ringing about animal welfare protections in the UK.

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood claimed the agreement with Australia showed the government was willing to sacrifice animal welfare standards to get a deal. He added: “The situation with New Zealand is different – their welfare standards are higher and much closer to our own. However, if we do not set a line in the sand that makes any import of food equivalent to our welfare standards as a condition of this deal, we are sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that we are willing to accept cheap imports reared in conditions which are illegal in the UK.”

With the big prize of a US trade deal still to be won, don’t expect the war of words over trade to fizzle out any time soon. 

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