I fully recognise the importance the public attach to the UK’s high standards of food production, and the unique selling point it provides for our farmers, whose high-quality produce is in demand around the world.
Leaving the EU creates a once in a generation opportunity to design a domestic agricultural policy that will stand the test of time. We can bring in innovative new ideas to support investment in healthy, sustainable British food production and do much better for farming, the environment and animal welfare.
The Agriculture Bill will allow the UK to move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods including environmental protection, access to the countryside, and work to reduce flooding. It will champion British food by improving transparency and fairness in the supply chain and through investing in new technology and research to ensure our food producers remain competitive and innovative.
British consumers want high welfare produce, and if our trading partners want to break into the UK market, they should expect to meet those standards. The manifesto I stood on was clear that in all trade negotiations, our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards will not be compromised. I know the Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers.
As agriculture is a devolved matter in Wales, the Bill mainly applies to England. That said, Welsh Ministers and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will receive similar powers so that they can start preparing new schemes.
I understand that they plan to introduce a bespoke Agriculture (Wales) Bill which will set out the new framework, and I am assured that my Welsh Conservative colleagues in the Welsh Parliament will be fully engaged throughout the legislative process. Already the UK Government has ensured that the Welsh Government has the same level of funding for agriculture as under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Ultimately, the Agriculture Bill gives the Welsh Government the freedom and flexibility to take forward its own proposals for a made-in-Wales support system for farmers.
The proposed amendments to the bill, despite being well intentioned, would have a number of severe unintended consequences. To insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards can, on the face of it, appear to be reasonable. However the stipulations laid out in the Lords amendments created a potentially large set of new conditions that imports under trade agreements would have to meet. These conditions do not currently exist under any agreement the UK or EU has today.
As an example, it wouldn’t make sense to require trading partners with certain climates or environments to meet UK requirements on nitrate vulnerable zones, which are specifically adapted to UK conditions.
It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements and in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but they do not require all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards.
We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing rules. Yet the amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary. If we passed this amendment, food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.
There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban the same coffee imports.
I believe we should be pragmatic. The detail is complex so we shouldn’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.
During trade negotiations the Government will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. The EU Withdrawal Act will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions onto the UK statute book. This includes current import requirements, which for example ban the use of artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products, and stipulate that no products besides potable water are approved to decontaminate poultry carcases.
Without exception, all animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements from all trading partners, including the EU and others, will have to meet our stringent food safety standards, as they do now. These standards have been built up over many years and have the trust of the public and the world. I know the Government will not adjust those standards to secure trade deals. The standards will be based on science and decided by the UK alone.
I want to see a vibrant and resilient farming sector in the UK, and the UK’s newfound status as an independent trading nation has the potential to bring huge benefits to our farming industry, including our family-run farms. Indeed, new free trade agreements could lead to gains for UK agriculture. For example, analysis by the Department for International Trade shows that an agreement with the US would strengthen UK farmers’ incomes.
Opening the vast US market could help boost UK farmers’ incomes and reduce their input costs, making them more competitive, more productive, and more profitable. Locally, there are potentially big advantages of opening up new markets for Welsh lamb and putting in place new arrangements that will be in the best interests of the Welsh agriculture industry which could have significant benefits for Delyn.
An agreement with the US could lower tariffs on products, including beef and cheese, creating new export opportunities for the UK’s high-quality producers. You may be interested to know that the National Sheep Association recently stated that a free trade agreement with the US would benefit sheep farmers in all parts of country by creating new opportunities and driving demand.
Prices for premium products also tend to be higher in the US, so improved access will allow UK farmers to obtain high prices for their quality produce. It is also worth noting that the US has relatively high costs of production compared to the UK. As an example, US beef is currently 6 per cent more expensive than EU beef.
In addition, I strongly welcome the agreement in principle of a UK-Japan free trade agreement. As well as securing tailored benefits and additional market access for UK businesses trading with Japan, this deal has also secured 70 geographical indications for iconic British food and drink products such as English sparkling wine and Welsh lamb. These protections outstrip those found in the EU-Japan FTA and set a powerful example for an innovative UK trade policy built on high food standards.
I am pleased that the Government is engaging with the agricultural sector, including the National Farmers Union, as part of its trade discussions. The government has established the Trade and Agriculture Commission as well as trade advisory groups, ensuring that British farmers, businesses, and consumers will play a central role in the nation’s trade policy.
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.
I hope this response has provided some clarity and reassurance.