Brexit 2017: Farmers express fear of unrestricted imports of foreign food

Farmers have said that British farming standards must be protected due to the prospect of unrestricted imports of foreign food
Farmers have said that British farming standards must be protected due to the prospect of unrestricted imports of foreign food

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has stressed the United Kingdom's commitment to a free trade policy in a speech to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A number of farming leaders in the United Kingdom have expressed their fear about the prospect of unrestricted imports of foreign food as a result of post-Brexit trade deals.

But in his recent address to the WTO, Dr Fox said international trade is the 'lifeblood' of the British economy, the 'driver of prosperity', and that commerce is part of the 'UK's national DNA.'

Dr Fox told trade envoys during a meeting in Geneva: "The UK will work towards the reduction and ultimate elimination of trade barriers wherever they are found."

He said: "Britain is open for business as never before. It is our ambition to be the beating heart of global trade; the world’s natural business partner."

His speech came just three days after the first meeting of a bilateral trade working group set up to explore a free trade agreement between the UK and Australia. This inaugural meeting took place between the UK's International Trade Minister, Lord Price, and Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo, in Canberra.

Following the meeting, the two Ministers issued a joint statement, which read: "We want the working group to advance an agenda that will ensure the expeditious transition to FTA negotiations when the UK has formally completed its negotiations to exit the EU."

'Seriously alarmed'

The National Sheep Association, particularly, has raised concerns about any such free trade deal with Australia.

Chief executive Phil Stocker said he was “seriously alarmed” at the possibility of a completely free trade deal with a country that was a global sheep meat exporter. He said it could be “catastrophic” for British sheep farmers.

“The UK sheep sector is already suffering unacceptably high levels of imports of New Zealand lamb, much of which is sourced by retailers at times of the year when UK product is in plentiful supply. We would be keen to see an outcome of Brexit being tighter controls on New Zealand lamb being allowed into this country, and we certainly need to avoid making the situation worse by allowing Australian product to head our way too,” he said.

However, during a speech to the Australian-British Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, Lord Hill said: "As protectionist sentiment continues to spread around the world, I want the UK to be the most fervent champion of global free trade."

He said it was vital that the trading relationship between the UK and Australia was strengthened. "We are both instinctively free traders and our future success will be determined by how much we work together to champion this natural instinct."

'British farming standards must be protected'

National Farmers Union (NFU) president Meurig Raymond has said that British farming standards must be protected, and NFU vice president Guy Smith told farmers at a meeting in Cheshire that the Government should avoid embarking on a “reckless” cheap imports policy.

The National Pig Association (NPA) has warned about the threat of low standard foreign pork, and Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council, has said that British producers would be unable to compete with lower welfare and lower standard egg products if they were allowed free access to the United Kingdom market.

During the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference (EPIC) in Wales recently, Farming Minister George Eustice insisted that the Government wanted the UK to be a leader on animal health and welfare.

"I would like us to pioneer new policies, new ways of working to create a policy that is the envy of the world. I want us to get to a place where, a decade from now, the rest of the world will want to emulate the policies that we put in place," he said.

However, his message seemed to be one of persuading other countries to follow the UK's high welfare model rather than protecting British farmers.

"I want to make clear to you as well that I recognise the limits of regulation. If you want, as we do, to encourage open markets and to recognise that we want to trade around the world we've also got to recognise that some countries have lower standards of animal welfare and animal health than we do in the UK.

"But for me that's not a reason to place animal welfare at the heart of our policy when it comes to livestock. I believe that we can incentivise the right types of system that will enhance animal welfare as part of a new architecture of agricultural policy."

He continued: "I want to make clear in terms of trade that this Government has a manifesto commitment to reflect animal welfare in trade negotiations and I am mindful that if we want to open free trade agreements with other parts of the world, including say the US, we have got to recognise the fact that they have got lower standards of animal welfare and we should be using those negotiations as an opportunity to drive up standards elsewhere in the world."

Commitment to free trade

Liam Fox made his commitment to free trade clear during his recent WTO speech.

"The UK will work towards the reduction and ultimate elimination of trade barriers wherever they are found, countering the threat of protectionism for the benefit of the global economy. We know that trade is a moral mission, its benefits measured in human as well as economic terms," Dr Fox said.

"Trade is the greatest emancipator of the world’s poor yet, without these freedoms from damaging barriers and protectionist behaviour, it cannot raise them from poverty.

"Unless we remove damaging restrictions, trade cannot act as a great social leveller, allowing people across the world to buy the best goods at the lowest price."

It is not yet known what the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union will be once it withdraws from the bloc.

The NFU was among 75 food and farming organisations to sign an open letter to the Prime Minister recently calling for the greatest possible access to the EU single market following Brexit.

Liam Fox is believed to favour the UK leaving the single market.