Thank you for contacting me about the amendments to the Agriculture Bill made in the House of Lords related to food standards and international trade, the Government’s new Agriculture and Trade Commission and childhood health and obesity.
Food standards and international trade
There have been many misleading claims made by celebrities and lobby groups throughout the progress of this bill which understandably have caused alarm. I would like to clear some of these up.
Firstly, there is nothing in the Agriculture Bill or in the proposed (defeated) amendments, which is concerned with maintaining our current food standards. The high standards we have enjoyed for many years are already enshrined in UK law. To suggest otherwise is factually incorrect, as is the claim that these amendments should be supported to ‘save our standards’, they are already safe in law.
Instead, the amendments would have imposed a vast set of new conditions, which no other country or trading bloc in the world has, and which do not exist under any existing EU or UK trade agreement.
Whilst the intention of such an approach is well meant, the affect would be disastrous. The UK has world leading animal welfare and environmental standards, higher than many countries, including the standards required by the EU.
Therefore, requiring that any country exporting food to the UK market meet those standards, would end the ability of many countries to import food products into the UK. The sweeping provisions would certainly mean that developing countries were cut out of the UK market, causing huge damage to some of the world’s poorest economies and ending the sale of everyday products such as coffee, tea and bananas in the UK.
Developed nations can better afford to meet UK standards, but many of them do not translate to other geographies and climates. For example, we have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be inappropriate to impose on producers with different eco-systems.
Countries that are able to meet our standards are under no obligation to trade with the UK on such terms. Such conditions are not in place for imports under trade agreements negotiated during our membership of the EU, it would therefore make it impossible to carry these trade agreements over when the transition period ends on 31st December. If we shut other countries out of our market, it is likely that they will retaliate in kind, this would be disastrous for UK farmers and food producers who export their produce.
I want to see the UK take a lead in driving up international standards but not in a way that is bad for British farmers, consumers and developing countries. Instead we should use our presidency of COP26 and membership of the international bodies responsible for the health and safety of food, animal and plant welfare to do so.
Trade and Agriculture Commission
I welcome that the Government is establishing a Trade and Agriculture Commission. The Commission will ensure close engagement with the agriculture industry to help inform, shape and guide agricultural trade policy. It will be independently chaired by food safety expert Tim Smith, a former Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency.
Within a fixed term the Commission will consider trade policies that the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, producers and exporters. The Commission will also ensure the agriculture sector remains competitive and that animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. When its work is concluded the Commission will produce a report, which will be presented to Parliament by the Department for International Trade.
Given the strength of the Commission’s membership, its broad representation and extensive remit I do not believe that there is a need to make changes to its structure, remit or duration.
Regarding the relationship between trade agreements and child health, there is no evidence to suggest that a free trade deal with the United States, or indeed any other country, would lead to an increase in child obesity in the UK.
The second part of the Government’s plans on childhood obesity, published in 2018, introduced firm commitments to tackle the problem head-on. This strategy established a target to halve childhood obesity by 2030.
I am pleased that the Government is now taking steps to ban unhealthy food adverts on television and online before 9pm, to reduce the likelihood of children seeing them. Further, a short consultation will be held on whether a ban on online adverts for unhealthy foods should apply at all times of the day.
The health and diets of our children is at the heart of the Government’s commitment to the high food standards that protect and benefit British farmers and consumers and which will not be compromised in any trade negotiation.
Thank you again for contacting me on these issues.