Ministers have been advised to consider tariffs on imports of lower-standard food and farm produce from overseas, in order to protect the UK’s high standards of food safety and animal welfare.
The recommendation, by an independent commission advising the government, was greeted with dismay by some farmers and food campaigners, who wanted an outright ban and regulations to prevent lower-standard imports in trade deals after Brexit.
George Dunn, the chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said: “Seeking to protect environmental and animal welfare considerations by using tariff policy alone will not provide the long-term guarantees we need. Tariffs can be easily re-negotiated, reduced or removed altogether, unlike clear, statutory standards.”
Kath Dalmeny, the chair of the Future British Standards Coalition, also said tariffs were inferior to an outright ban on lower-standard imports. “We have been clear that tariffs are no substitute for clear blanket bans and that tariffs could be easily reduced or phased out over time, thus breaking the government’s promise of ‘no compromise’ on food standards,” she said.
The recommendations of the trade and agriculture commission were published on Tuesday, and will be considered by ministers for possible incorporation into guidelines for future trade deals. The commission was set up to reassure farmers and the public after ministers rejected calls for parliament to be allowed to scrutinise trade deals before they are signed, despite widespread fears that UK food and farming standards could be at risk in trade deals.
Dalmeny also warned that the recommendations by the trade and agricultural commission would allow imports without tariffs on products that were judged “equivalent” to the UK in terms of standards, or aligned with “core global standards”.
“In many cases global standards are lower than the UK’s. Big questions remain over who would decide what was equivalent, and how,” she said.
However, the government’s food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, told the Guardian the recommendations would protect British consumers. “This report far exceeds my expectations and is very ambitious,” he said.
“It sets clear intent for the UK about what we see as the future global trading system, which should be not just about GDP but about governments working together to protect the environment and animal welfare, and reduce carbon emissions.”
He rejected the idea that tariffs alone were not enough to protect the UK’s consumers and farmers from lower-standard food produced abroad. “Tariffs are effective bans,” he said, as importers would be priced out of the market by tariffs.
The guidelines from the trade and agriculture commission call for liberalised trade in food and agriculture with other countries, but say this should be balanced with a commitment to “international leadership by the UK on climate, environment, animal welfare and ethical trade”.
Tim Smith, the former chief executive of the Food Standards Agency and Tesco group quality director, who chaired the commission, said its recommendations should reassure the public.
“We will not see a backsliding on standards. We are recommending very solidly that our standards remain,” he told the Guardian before the publication of the report. “We need to balance the need to be open to liberalised trade with the importance of long-established UK standards.”
The question of food standards has been one of the most controversial issues raised by Brexit. Many of the countries with which the government wants to do trade deals have much lower food safety and farming standards than the EU, and many products from these countries were previously banned from the UK under EU rules.
The government will be under pressure in trade deal negotiations to allow such imports. That has raised fears among farmers that a flood of lower-standard imports could undercut British produce, while they must maintain high standards to be able to export to the EU. Food campaigners have warned that consumers could be subjected to unsafe or lower-standard products that would promote intensive farming, damage animal welfare and boost diseases such as superbugs that are associated with the overuse of antibiotics in farming.
Sue Davies, the head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, said the government must not allow any weakening of UK food and farming standards. “The government must hold firm to its commitments to uphold food standards and listen to the voices of consumers,” she said. “They have told us clearly they are not prepared to sacrifice high food standards and do not want a two-tier system where only those who are wealthier can be assured that the food on their table meets the standards that consumers currently expect.”