We are being led down the garden path—we really are —and it is time for us to stand up and be counted.
Changes to legislation that would protect the UK from imports of food produced to a lower standard than that in the UK were defeated by the government in the House of Commons yesterday.
The agriculture bill, which will bring in new legislation to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, returned to Parliament yesterday under a new remote voting system. The legislation will pave the way for farmers to be paid for protecting the environment, including water, soil and biodiversity.
The bill has been criticised for failing to protect UK farmers and consumers from imports of food from countries such as the US, which has lower food standards than the UK. The government has repeatedly stated that food standards will not be lowered in trade deals, but has so far not enshrined this in law.
An amendment to ensure that imported food is produced to the same, or better, environmental, food safety, plant health and animal welfare standards as those in the UK was proposed by Conservative MP Neil Parish, who chairs the cross-party environment, food and rural affairs select committee.
During the debate, Parish was sceptical of the government’s position that such protections were about trade and should not therefore be included in the agriculture bill: “When we try to put it in the trade bill, it will be out of scope. We are being led down the garden path—we really are —and it is time for us to stand up and be counted.
“I am not a little Englander who will defend our agriculture against all imports, quite the reverse. I think competition is good, but on a level playing field that allows us to produce great food and allows our consumers to have great food, and makes sure that we deliver good agriculture and environment for the future."
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers agreed, arguing that allowing unrestricted imports from countries with weaker rules would offshore carbon emissions and animal cruelty.
But former Conservative trade secretary Liam Fox said that Australia and the US would walk away from trade deals if the proposed ban became law.
Farming minister Victoria Prentis said that a US trade deal was perfectly compatible with “a thriving UK farming industry and very high standards”, and that any changes to UK law would have to be voted on in Parliament.
The proposal was defeated by 51 votes. Several Conservative MPs voted in favour of the amendment, including chancellor Rishi Sunak. The bill will now move to the House of Lords.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.