Trade tariffs can protect us from substandard food imports, says report

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford has urged the government to act on the recommendations of the Trade and Agriculture Commission - Credit: Pagepix

East Anglian farmers have welcomed a major report which says post-Brexit trade deals should only allow tariff-free imports for foods that meet the same standards expected of British producers.

The new Trade and Agriculture Commission was launched in July by Norfolk MP and international trade minister Liz Truss, following industry campaigns demanding that cheap, substandard food imports should not be allowed to undermine Britain’s high environmental and animal welfare standards.

It has now published its report, which sets out 22 recommendations for an agri-food trade strategy that balances an “ambitious approach to the liberalisation of the UK’s import tariff regime", combined with a safeguarding of UK standards.

The commission says the government should "seek to lower its tariffs and quotas to zero within trade agreements over a reasonable time period", but this would be "contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers".

Gary Ford, regional director for the National Farmers' Union in East Anglia, said the report highlights the "difficult balance to be struck between agreeing trade deals on the one hand and safeguarding our high standards of food and farming on the other".

“It’s vital that the government now moves quickly to explain how it intends to accommodate the report’s recommendations within a trade strategy that works for UK farmers and consumers alike," he said.

"As the report states, we must avoid a race to the bottom and anything that would turn the clock back on standards.

"This trade strategy must contain a clear commitment to support our farmers in producing food to the highest standards of animal welfare and environmental protection, in leading the world in climate-friendly farming and in remaining the beating heart of our rural communities."

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The commission was chaired by Tim Smith, non-executive director of food firms Cranswick and Pret a Manger, and former head of the Food Standards Agency.

Its report says environmental, ethical and animal welfare factors are increasingly shaping the decision-making of consumers.

"For some, this trust in the framework of standards has recently been eroded," it says. "They appear to be threatened by the potentially pernicious impact of signing agreements with countries whose food standards appear to be weaker than our own.

"Farming unions, businesses, civil society, consumer groups and celebrities have lined up to push for a safeguarding of these important standards."

Vicki Hird, head of farming at Sustain, a coalition of organisations advocating sustainable food and agriculture policies, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards, but said the tariff proposal “raises a number of questions about how and who will decide what is equivalent”.

She added: “Will the government be committed enough to stand up to future trading partners on these issues?”

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