Vice President's Blog - 19 October 2020

Evidence given to the House of Lords on what the issues around a US/UK trade deal are likely to be was eye-opening writes Vice President Martin Kennedy.

The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy has a 30-year history of pursuing solutions that benefit family farmers, rural communities and the planet. This institute teamed up with ‘Sustain’, a charitable organisation looking at ways to better promote sustainable farming.

In their submission, IATP and Sustain outlined what could emerge from the current fast-paced talks and the significant risks posed to UK food and farming practices.

The Institute’s view of negotiations is enlightening and well worth reading:

The UK’s negotiation objectives for the trade agreement state that the government will not compromise “on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards” and acknowledge “UK product sensitivities, in particular for UK agriculture.” However, the UK government has refused to enshrine food standards in legislation and has yet to over parliamentary scrutiny on trade deals to MPs. This effectively ensures that our industry remains a bargaining chip.

According to the Institute’s evidence, a US/UK trade deal could permit the sale of American imports with higher pesticide levels than are currently allowed here, or indeed with residues of banned pesticides. It speculates that this could lead to the UK reauthorising active substances which have been previously banned due to concern over their negative impact on human health or the natural environment. In addition, it could put in place measures which restrict the UK from introducing more protective standards in the future.

The UK (currently through EU regulations) has detailed species-specific legislation for animal welfare from farm right through to slaughter.

According to the IATP/Sustain evidence, American animal welfare regulations are weak; there is no federal legislation governing the welfare of animals while they are on the farm. There are federal provisions on slaughter, but this legislation does not cover poultry. U.S. legislation is apparently much less protective on the transport of live animals; with significantly longer journey times permitted by America.

The UK banned barren battery cages for egg laying hens since 2012 and sow stalls since 1999. The IATP states that while these systems have been prohibited in some U.S. states, there is no federal ban and most states lack such protection. The U.S. also has no mandatory labelling related to animal welfare concerns.

The IATP also claims American livestock received on average 5.4 times more antibiotics per animal in 2018 than their UK counterparts. These levels increase to 8 or 9 times more in American cattle and include the routine preventative use of an antibiotic (virginiamycin) formerly classified as a growth promoter, all uses of which are prohibited in the UK

The threat is there that America could use these trade negotiations to seek to roll back our rules under the guise of reducing non-tariff barriers that “discriminate” against U.S. products and incorporate provisions to “harmonise” standards with less stringent U.S. rules to ease trade.

Equally as worrying, the Institute contends that the U.S. not only wants to lower standards, but also wants to limit labelling so that consumers will not know what they are buying and eating.

As NFU Scotland has argued throughout the passage of the UK Agriculture Bill, without specific measures in legislation to offer domestic producers protection, then trade deals such as the one being negotiated currently with the U.S. could force UK farmers to step back from our high standards to stay competitive. This would pose a significant economic threat and could result in a race to the bottom for both food and environmental standards. If UK food standards slip, then British farmers will struggle to meet EU standards, thereby losing their primary export destination which currently accounts for 60 percent of U.K. agricultural exports.

The UK said in its negotiation objectives, it wants to “futureproof the agreement in line with the Government’s ambition on climate.”  

According to the Institute, this may be impossible, however, since U.S. trade negotiators are explicitly required by Congress under the trade promotion authority law to avoid any provisions addressing global warming or climate change.

It goes on to state that the very fact of a trade agreement between the USA and UK, which is designed to increase the shipping of goods across the Atlantic, will exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions. Provisions in the agreement could promote fossil fuel use and energy-intensive chemical, fertiliser and pesticide use in agriculture while limiting the authority of the UK government to regulate climate-harming practices.

Given this evidence, highlighted consistently throughout the passage of the UK Agriculture Bill, it’s hardly surprising that the House of Lords voted with a massive majority to support new clause 16 to the Agriculture bill that would have protected our standards. NFU Scotland is bitterly disappointed that, despite vast support from consumers, stakeholders, and cross-party MPs, the UK Government chose not to support this amendment when the Bill returned to the House of Commons last week.

We cannot afford to give up on trying to put legislation in place that does not allow substandard imports into the UK that compromise our ability to feed our country, deliver increased biodiversity and continue to do more to meet climate change head on.

With the Bill now in its final stages, there is still a vital window of opportunity for improvements to be made to the Bill which would strengthen oversight and scrutiny of trade negotiations via Lord Curry’s amendment which will be voted on tomorrow (Tuesday 20 October).

This amendment would strengthen the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and allow MPs to have better oversight of trade negotiations before they are agreed. We believe this is a sensible, proportionate measure which would ensure that the UK Government can pursue its desired independent trade policy post-Brexit but would also ensure that democratic oversight and expert advice on the implications of trade negotiations for domestic agriculture are formally considered.

NFU Scotland can see no good reason for this amendment not to be supported. If the amendment is supported in the Lords vote tomorrow, as we hope it will, all eyes will be on the House of Commons again as to whether they will support these vital principles.

Without profitable agriculture, none of the above is possible.  My message to ‘Westminster’ is do the right thing and look after your own, and you might find you will get appreciated a little more.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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