The Agriculture Bill is potentially the biggest victory for nature and farming in a generation, and it is enormously important that we make the most of this fantastic opportunity.
Brexit gives us the chance to export our exceptional food around the world, something we haven’t done enough of while we were members of the European Union. We need to strike good trade deals if we want to make the most of this opportunity, and that has already begun, with this Conservative Government securing the first beef exports to the United States in over 20 years, and trade deals signed with Japan and many more. We all want to maintain our excellent food standards; it is what makes UK produce so appealing to global markets and it is the type of food domestic consumers wish to buy.
What MPs cannot do is vote for amendments or legislation because it sounds good, or because it is well-meaning. The amendments you wish me to vote for would harm our ability to feed our nation, and whilst I’m aligned with the intentions behind the amendments, the consequences of them are not right the right way forward.
The issues with the Lords Amendments are as follows:
Firstly, they create a potentially large set of new conditions that imports under trade agreements would have to meet. For example, having to manage their land the way we do: strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils which are inappropriate for other countries, burning heather as we do, hedge cutting laws (to protect nesting birds), or having the same climate change initiatives we do such as cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, even if this does not work for their domestic climate or country. It wouldn’t make sense to require trading partners with certain climates or environments to meet UK requirements which are designed specifically for the UK, and it would be wrong to require this of them. The amendment would require us to ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets.
These are conditions that do not exist under any agreement the UK or EU has today, so these amendments go beyond what we, or EU, currently have. It would be unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements and in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. Many imports that are legal under EU trade deals would become illegal if we pass this law and roll over the trade deals. The EU is instinctively protectionist but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet its environmental and animal welfare standards – it makes no sense that we would.
Secondly, the amendments could immediately disrupt negotiations on those trade agreements that we are seeking to roll-over, but have not yet ratified, and put at risk preferential terms for UK exports. In a worst-case scenario this could for example affect whisky exports to Canada worth £96m; potato exports to Egypt worth £30m; and milk powder exports to Algeria worth £21m in 2019. The people who suffer if we fail to roll these over are our farmers. In demanding the wide requirements set out in the amendments, we must therefore consider the cost that could come to not only these exports, but any future potential in our new agreements.
Thirdly, the amendments stipulate the UK should require new validation processes to be set up to ensure agricultural imports entering the UK met a vast range of domestic standards of production. These processes would rely on trade partner cooperation as partners would be responsible for assessing and documenting that those of their own domestic suppliers choosing to export to the UK met the prescribed standards. The more standards that are added, the greater the cost for developing countries, as the infrastructure and processes required to meet validation against the new UK food production standards register may not already be in place. This could adversely impact upon the economic wellbeing of many farmers in developing countries.
The UK imported an average of £213mn of black tea per year between 2017 and 2019, of which £142mn was from Kenya. Well known British tea brands including Taylors of Harrogate based in Yorkshire, Twinings of Hampshire, and Spicers of Tyne and Wear are key recipients of tea imports. Similarly, coffee imports to the UK totalled, on average, £108m per year within the same time period, the majority of which was from Vietnam, at £43m. Kenco and Union Coffee, based in Oxfordshire and East London respectively, are British producers of a variety of different coffee products sold directly to UK consumers as well as to other businesses in the retail and hospitality sector, including Waitrose, Ocado, Gail’s Bakery and Peach Pubs. If Vietnam, and other developing countries that produce coffee beans exported to the UK, such as Ghana and Indonesia, were expected to provide evidence that they met UK carbon emission targets as set out in the Climate Change Act, the UK retail and hospitality sector would be heavily impacted.
Bananas are imported into the UK in large numbers every year from a variety of developing countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize, and Cameroon. The supply chain of bananas features UK supermarkets and food retailers both directly and via British manufacturers of, for example, cereal products, confectionery and desserts. Companies such as Jordans Cereals, based in Bedfordshire, and Dorset Cereals, based in Dorset, are examples of UK food manufacturers who contribute to the import of £105mn worth of bananas on average per year (2017-19). These companies would likely face huge supply chain disruption if the developing countries’ imports could not economically provide evidence of meeting existing UK legislation on the protection of animals, plants and habitats. A similar problem would be experienced by British confectionery and dessert manufacturers such as Tunnock’s, based in Glasgow; Cadbury, based in the West Midlands; Gü, based in Hertfordshire; and Mr Kipling, based in West Yorkshire, if the 2017-19 annual average of £70mn of cocoa bean imports from countries such as Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria were affected.
Would you support a law that bans imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies?
Finally, the amendments are not in keeping with World Trade Organisation rules.
So, under these amendments, our farmers, food producers, supermarkets, our hospitality industry, and farmers in developed nations would be negatively impacted.
In terms of what the Government is doing to uphold food standards:
- The Government has already established a Trade and Agriculture Commission to oversee food standards rigorously and independently as well as supply chain advisory groups – on which farmers from Rutland and Melton sit. Recently, the Commission launched a call for evidence to 200 relevant parties and experts covering several questions, including how standards can best be upheld while securing the benefits of trade. Its report will come before Parliament to be debated after the end of its term.
- The UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen the by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide advice to the UK and Scottish governments. They will continue to do so in order to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreement.
- We have made it illegal in legislation to import hormone-grown beef. The ban is contained in EU legislation 2003/74/EC, which we have put into UK law.
- Equally, there is already a UK law banning the sale of meat that is washed in non-potable water. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it, which we will not do. This is EU law under Section 3 of the WA. Regulation (EC) No 852/2004 defines ‘potable water’ as water meeting the minimum requirements laid down in Directive 98/83/EC. Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 lays down specific rules on the hygiene of food of animal origin for food business operators. It provides that food business operators are not to use any substance other than potable water to remove surface contamination from products of animal origin unless the use of the substance has been approved in accordance with that Regulation.
- The International Trade Select Committee and International Agreements Sub-Committee play a powerful role in scrutinising trade deals.
- Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not support.
- The Government has committed to a rapid review and consultation on the role of labelling to promote high standards of animal welfare.
We must drive a hard bargain for access to our market, but we have to recognise that the more new and extraneous conditions these amendments place on UK imports, the larger the trade off against access for our agri-food products to the markets of our trading partners. These amendments, therefore, cast doubt on the benefits that any trade deal could secure for UK agri-food businesses.
The UK Government will not compromise on our standards. Our manifesto is clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We remain firmly committed to upholding our high environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU and the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book.
I hope this outlines why I cannot support amendments which would have such a catastrophic effect, not only on the future potential of UK agricultural businesses but would have a devastating impact on our existing imports, which are not only vital products in the UK market but would also have a terrible impact on the exports so vital to the economies of developing nations. We cannot insist that imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards. This does not mean we do not absolutely uphold food standards, but it is about doing it in a way that doesn’t undermine our nation’s food supplies and our farmers.
I will not support any amendment that may be well-meaning but would in reality undermine our nation’s food supplies and our ability to strike trade agreements which will benefit our farmers and food producers.