Farmers remain to be convinced as government pledges to hold line on standards
PUBLISHED: 09:46 10 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:46 10 January 2020
There has been a mixed reaction from Suffolk farmers after environment secretary Theresa Villiers sought to reassure them that UK agricultural standards would not be compromised in pursuit of crucial post-Brexit trade deals.
They welcomed Ms Villiers' vision for defending "our strong British brand" - set out at the Oxford Farming Conference on January 8 - but remain sceptical about the realities.
"We will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality, and grounded in our shared national values," she said. "We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare."
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There would be an armoury of tariffs that would make sure that the UK can maintain standards and that imports do not undercut them, she added later.
BBC1's Countryfile programme makers said that in an interview to be aired on January 26, she revealed exclusively to them that chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef will not be allowed into the UK under any trade deal with the US, telling presenter Tom Heap that the current European Union ban on such imports will be carried over into UK legislation following Brexit.
Ms Villiers said the government would "hold the line" in any trade negotiations with the US and would "defend our national interests and our values, including our high standards of animal welfare", she told the BBC.
Glenn Buckingham, chair of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) welcomed her reassurances, describing them as "great words of support" and a continuation of her predecessor Michael Gove.
But he added: "But let's see the agricultural bill - as we know, the first since 1947. There were different pressures then. Today it will have many new issues to deal with.
"We are assured of the same support mechanism for 2020 while we digest the future opportunities and threats. We have a great and loyal home market to care for, backed up by high standards compared to others."
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Andrew Blenkiron estate director at Euston Estate, near Thetford said Ms Villiers had set ambitious targets for UK agriculture, but questioned how all these aspirations would be achieved using public money for public goods and helping to improve productivity through grant aid.
"The fresh approach to farming post the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) she describes as world leading is certainly going to be a significant challenge," he said.
"I might be lazy or have little imagination but her wish list is similar to the one that I have after winning the lottery.
"To deliver a sustainable agriculture that is more productive, will feed the nation, deliver food security as well as meeting the challenges of climate change, whilst ensuring that nature/biodiversity are protected and enhanced, whilst not forgetting that we will plant very many more trees does seem to be a step too far all at once."
As far as the promise to walk away from trade deals that would allow imports of food to lower standards than our own, he feared that pledge might stand only as long as she remains in post.
"I do hope that she is going to be secretary of state long enough to help honour that promise," he said.
NFU president Minette Batters told the conference that 2020 was "about getting Brexit right".
In a question and answer session at the conference, a straw poll suggested delegates were not convinced the government would defend their interests in international talks.
Ms Batters called for legislation in the agriculture bill to protect UK standards.