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Food Standards row brewing

Boris Johnson has hinted at allowing genetically modified food to be imported from the US after Brexit as he called for an end to “hysterical” fears about American products coming to the UK as part of a trade deal.

In a speech setting out his goals for trade after Brexit, the prime minister said the UK would not accept a “diminution of standards” on food hygiene or animal welfare as a result of a deal with the US. He also said Britain would be “governed by science, not mumbo-jumbo” when looking at whether imported food was acceptable for consumption in the UK. Johnson criticised “America bashers” who take a “hysterical” attitude towards US food and view it as “inferior”.

He accepted that there was an argument against chlorinated chicken on animal welfare grounds, but his comments potentially open the door to other US practices coming to the UK, such as genetically modified food. “There are other issues where I think that I’ve heard a certain amount of hysterical … there is a sort of thing about as if American food was somehow inferior,” he said, speaking at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

“I look at the Americans, they look pretty well nourished to me. And I don’t hear any of these critics of American food coming back from the United States and complaining … So let’s take some of the paranoia out of this argument.”

Asked where the government stood on allowing genetically modified food into the UK after Brexit, Johnson’s official spokesman pointed to a speech from the summer in which the prime minister suggested it was time to “start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules”.

Commenting on the Prime Minister’s speech the FDF’s Chief Executive, Ian Wright CBE, said:

“The ultimate judge of the success of the forthcoming negotiations will be UK consumers and shoppers, who will rightly expect the same – or better – choice, quality and price for their food and drink.

“The EU market is the largest source of UK food imports and the largest destination for UK food exports. This fact is driven by geography, shelf-life and customer tastes. Introducing friction into those supply chains will have implications for our largest manufacturing sector and for all food and drink consumers.

“It is critical, therefore, that we carefully assess the costs and benefits of any changes to our trading relationship with the EU – and balance them against new opportunities we want to seize for easier food trade with the rest of the world. We also need generous rules of origin that support our food and drink exports success story and recognise the global nature of UK food and drink supply chains.”

“As the Prime Minister referenced in his speech, the provenance and high quality of UK food and drink is an essential selling point overseas. We urge UK and EU negotiators to take a common-sense approach to recognising equivalent food standards, so that we do not inadvertently raise barriers to trade. We are working closely with the UK Government to identify new trading opportunities and to keep tariffs, quotas, product checks and inspections at the border to the barest minimum.”

This letter, sent by Minette Batters of the NFU to the Prime Minister, perfectly summarises the arguments:

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to you as a broad coalition of major farming, environment, animal welfare and public health organisations who share and support your government’s stated commitment to ensuring the environmental, animal welfare and safety standards of UK food production are not undermined after we leave the EU and develop our own independent trade policy.

We are all agreed that Brexit provides an opportunity to foster a sustainable, carbon neutral model of farming in the UK building on our reputation for high quality, safe and affordable food. There may be differences of opinion as to the best way of achieving that outcome, but we are all agreed that without the right domestic policy, supported by a progressive and ambitious trade policy, none of us will realise this shared vision.

You have pledged “not to in any way prejudice or jeopardise our standards of animal welfare or food hygiene”, and the Secretary of State for Defra recently promised to “defend our national interests and our values, including our high standards of animal welfare.” Along with your party’s manifesto commitment that, “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” we are increasingly reassured that you are as committed as us to making the UK a world leader in food, farming and environmental standards.

However, we also recognise that this is a complex issue that goes beyond just the negotiating position of the UK government in any potential trade deals, and that there will be intense pressure on British negotiators to make significant concessions on this issue.

Furthermore, as an independent member of the WTO the UK will also need to consider how it manages its trading relationships outside the terms of bilateral trade deals. It is vital that we have more than just verbal assurances to ensure our standards are properly safeguarded. In light of this, we urge you to take some specific actions we believe will enable you to ensure that the UK government can achieve its commitment to safeguard the standards of UK production, now and in the future:

The government should enshrine its manifesto commitment in law. The Agriculture Bill provides a good opportunity to do so for some key standards. We would be pleased to work with the government to draft legislative provisions that meet the government’s commitment to safeguard standards while allowing sufficient flexibility to conduct meaningful trade negotiations.

Formal processes are vital to allow government and stakeholders to engage openly on this issue. As Secretary of State for Defra, Michael Gove committed to establishing a trade and standards commission. A body such as this could undertake such a role, bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders to engage on the UK’s trade policy and how it affects our standards.

Finally, we believe that Brexit provides a vital opportunity for the UK to lead the way in devising a global trading system fit for the 21st Century. While the liberalisation of global trade in recent decades has been successful in growing economies, providing jobs and lowering prices for consumers, it has failed to deal with the negative impacts of such growth – most evident today in the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity and concerns over the welfare of the farm animals we rear. Brexit means the UK can show leadership in pioneering a new type of global trading system; one that moves away from the narrow and dated focus on ever cheaper goods, regardless of how they are produced, to one that rises to the challenges of climate change and promotes more sustainable models of production and consumption across the world. In the year that the UK hosts the COP26 climate change summit, we are ready to work with you in pushing forward this agenda with energy and vision.

With the enactment of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and our formal departure from the EU, we believe these measures must be pursued as a priority. We believe that with the right policy framework and the establishment of a clear understanding of our shared vision for the future, Brexit can be a catalyst for UK farming not just to be the envy of the world, but to provide gold-standard model for high standard, high quality, sustainable food production. We would welcome the chance for a delegation of the signatories to this letter to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss how we can work in partnership to achieve this vision.

Yours sincerely,
Minette Batters, President, NFU

When taken in the context of the review of the UK’s Food Strategy being conducted by Henry Dimbleby and his team, there is clearly much yet to be decided on these matters – but one thing is certain, they will be critical for our Food and Farming system in the years ahead.

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