Farmers and activists call for ‘level playing field’ in UK trade deals

Farming and environmental groups are demanding guarantees from the UK government that it will maintain a “level playing field” for food and animal welfare standards in future post-Brexit trade deals.

A broad coalition of more than 10 lobby groups have called for Prime Minister Liz Truss’s new government to avoid a repeat of recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which they said could undercut UK farmers and put consumers at risk.

In a letter sent to international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch ahead of the Conservative party conference that starts in Birmingham on Sunday, they warned that the Australian deal left British farmers competing with imported food “produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK”. 

The signatories, including the National Farmers’ Union, WWF and the Greener UK coalition, said the government must develop a set of minimum product standards to “ensure imports do not undermine domestic standards”.

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The call for the UK trade department to sign up to a level playing-field follows a bitter row over the Australian deal signed by Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson in June 2021, which was hailed as a success by Brexiters but heavily criticised as an overhasty sellout by farming and conservation groups.

NFU president Minette Batters said the deal was “one-sided” and a “betrayal” of British farmers, who faced being undercut by massive Australian producers that had been granted access to UK markets.

Minette Batters: ‘We need a proper process involving all stakeholders to achieve this that goes beyond merely warm words’ © Simon Hadley/Alamy

The pressure groups’ fresh demand for formal protections comes as the Truss administration is closing in on a new trade deal with India this autumn and is preparing to complete its accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Shaun Spiers, chair of Greener UK, a coalition of 12 conservation groups, said the government had “effectively approved the import of lower quality food” by scrapping tariffs and increasing import quotas in the UK-Australia trade deal.

He urged Badenoch to heed her own warnings about the need for a level playing field during a 2018 parliamentary debate when she argued that the UK should “demand the same standards of farmers in other countries as we do of our own”.

Kate Norgrove, the head of campaigns at WWF, said the government needed to stand up for British farmers by setting core environmental production standards for all food sold in the UK to ensure local produce “isn’t undercut by imported food that — quite literally — costs the earth”.

The Australian deal led to a ferocious battle across Whitehall before it was signed in 2021. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted farmers protected and accused the trade department — then under Truss — of rushing to cut a deal with Canberra at any cost.

However, Whitehall insiders said Truss’s recent appointment of former international trade minister Ranil Jayawardena as the new Defra secretary was widely seen as a move to shut down any repeat of such objections. “Liz has put one of her people in Defra for exactly that reason,” one person said.

Batters also argued that British consumers would support the adoption of core standards, citing a 2020 petition backed by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and signed by more than a million people that called for the government not to accept imports from countries with lower standards.

“We need a proper process involving all stakeholders to achieve this that goes beyond merely warm words,” she added.

David Bowles from animal charity RSPCA said the Australian deal had set a “dangerous precedent” for future negotiations with countries such as India, Mexico and Canada. “We hope the new government will look afresh at this issue,” he added.

The international trade department said the UK would “not compromise” on high food, animal and safety standards when signing trade deals, adding that the post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand had both included “unprecedented” animal welfare chapters and “ambitious” environment chapters.

“All imports will continue to need to meet our food safety requirements, and the independent Trade & Agriculture Commission has concluded neither agreement undermines the UK’s domestic protections,” it added.

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