Phillip Blond is director of ResPublica.
Food is one of those rare commodities that is important to everyone, and for obvious reasons.
We all eat three meals a day, our health and happiness are greatly influenced by the food we eat, and most would agree that access to high quality, nutritious and affordable food is a basic human right that should be accessible to all. all.
Yet I wonder how many families – sitting around the dining table enjoying their usual Sunday roast, perhaps – would be comfortable knowing that the food they eat may have been produced under poor quality, unethical and environmentally damaging abroad?
It is the subject of ResPublica’s new report on UK trade policy and animal welfare, which brought together the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
He argues that the government has a chance to use its own trade policy development to become a world leader in animal welfare in the agri-food sector, and thus raise standards around the world.
The NFU and RSPCA agree: for an international campaign on ethical food production, the UK must be the one setting the bar.
With the Conservative leadership race well underway and two very different economic prescriptions presented to the nation, now is the time to remind the Truss and Sunak teams of the broader social and environmental implications of their approaches to future trade deals. .
The UK has already rushed into two free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, both of which have come under scrutiny on agri-food grounds.
This is perhaps not surprising. Agribusiness is still a contentious area, due to the role of national agriculture in national life – as a provider of national food security, and as an employer and essential source of income in rural areas.
As the UK continues to go its own way after Brexit, it will sign new trade deals that will give countries preferential access to its market through lower tariffs. It is a laudable goal.
However, in doing so, it is essential that we take into account the common concerns of farmers, animal welfare activists and the general public.
In its drive to cement a new business strategy for the UK, the government must remember that being a global leader in animal welfare is not a fair weather requirement. What we don’t want to see are the efforts of UK farmers and food producers who are being undermined by trade deals that simply bring in food that has been produced illegally here – and which, at the same time, make poor animal welfare practices more acceptable. somewhere else.
If we fail to draw such a line in agreements with relatively similar nations like Australia and New Zealand, how can we hope to protect our domestic food industry from countries whose production standards diverge even more drastically from ours, like India?
To its credit, the government has heeded the calls of over a million people who have joined the NFU’s call for the establishment of an Independent Trade and Agriculture Commission in 2020, which now advises on the how trade policy can protect UK agrifood standards.
Yet he has also already rejected the recommendation that preferential access to the UK market should be conditional on meeting our national ethical standards. The Australian and New Zealand FTAs both commit to ‘cooperation’ on animal welfare issues, but also to phase out tariffs on beef and lamb with no conditionality on any kind of standards fundamentals.
FTAs also contain few “hard measures” to deter controversial practices common in Australia, including in sensitive areas such as transport times for live animals and the clearing of rainforests for beef production.
Fortunately, our new report contains a list of steps the government could easily take to address this disparity.
Above all, it should adopt the proposal of the Interim Committee on Trade and Agriculture that trade liberalization (in the form of tariff reductions and quotas) should be linked to compliance with environmental and animal welfare standards. in production.
At the same time, it should adopt a set of basic requirements for production in the agro-food industry that will apply to any future trade agreement and to any import policy more broadly.
The UK should also work to harmonize these issues within trade agreements; and demonstrate leadership in international fora such as the World Organization for Animal Health, the International Plant Protection Convention and the Codex Alimentarius for food safety standards.
The bottom line is that the UK must not allow our existing animal welfare practices to be undermined by imports produced in countries with lower production standards, and generally less scruples about how the sausage is made.
It would undermine the efforts of UK farmers and food producers to improve animal welfare in the agri-food sector and make poor animal welfare practices practiced elsewhere even more acceptable.
When buying meat or other animal products in a UK store, the public should be confident that what they are buying has been produced in accordance with UK ethical guidelines. If we don’t do this, we risk having some of the highest standards in the world… with no one living up to them.