Thank you for getting in touch me regarding the UK’s food standards and animal welfare rules, and the risk that these could be undermined by a trade deal with the United States. Let me apologise for the delay in replying, but I wanted to wait until the dust had settled after the US presidential election, so I could reflect the current status of US-UK trade negotiations.
However, let me begin on the wider issue you have raised. I agree with you that – while they are far from perfect – the standards we apply in Britain in terms of food safety and the welfare of farm animals are some of the most stringent in the world, and we should be proud of that fact.
But if we are going to require our farmers to meet those standards in terms of how they rear their animals and produce their food, we have an absolute duty to ensure that their competitiveness is not undermined by cheap imports produced by farmers overseas who do not meet those same standards.
Those of us with long memories will remember what happened in 1999 when the UK banned sow stalls, the cruel steel cages used to hold female breeding pigs in place during their pregnancy. That was absolutely the right thing to do, but because the rest of the EU did not follow suit until years later, the UK pork industry was badly undercut in the interim by cheap imports from Germany and Denmark.
Today, three-quarters of the pork produced in the United States comes from farms using sow stalls. Their production costs are 40 per cent lower than pork farmers here in the UK. So if those imports come flooding in from the US after any future trade deal, we will see a repeat of 1999.
That is just one example of the damage it would do to our farmers if they are undermined by cheap, low standard imports. But this is not just a question of economics – it is also a question of morality. Where we have rightly taken action to ban inhumane practices towards animals in our farms, I do not want to see that cruelty imported from overseas instead.
The same goes for environmental sustainability. Whilst many, including myself, think we should go much further, we have stringent regulations in place in Britain to protect our biodiversity, fresh water supplies, and local environment from the impact of farm waste and chemicals. If we allow imports from agricultural companies overseas who ignore all of those standards, we are not just harming our farmers’ competitiveness, we are harming our planet.
For all of those reasons, I fully support the various campaigns that have been launched by Save our Standards, the RSPCA, Which?, Save British Farming, the National Farmers Union and others, and in my role as Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, I have been working closely with all those campaigns to try and turn their strong public support into concrete parliamentary action.
I have personally led the efforts to force amendments to the Trade Bill, which would make it unlawful for the government to do trade deals allowing the import of agricultural products that do not meet the standards that UK farmers are required to meet, on food safety, animal welfare and the environment.
While the government has resisted those amendments to date, we will be continuing to press for them in the coming weeks in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and the vocal support of campaigners like yourself is invaluable in that regard.
However, I also believe that – thanks to your support – we have achieved something fundamental. There is no doubt in my mind that, had it not been for these concerted campaigns, the government would have sought to reach a rapid deal with the Trump administration ahead of the presidential election, with the UK’s food and farming standards sacrificed as the price of that deal.
We made sure that could not happen, and now that Trump will thankfully soon be a thing of the past, the chances of a quick deal – rammed through without proper consultation on the detail or the consequences – have also diminished greatly.
Nevertheless, it is vital that these campaigns continue, and that we do not rest until the protection of our food and farming standards against cheap imports is written into law, and cannot legally be undermined by future trade agreements, with the US or any other country.
I am hugely grateful for your support in those efforts, and rest assured, this is a constant priority for me in my work each week in Parliament. Thank you again for getting in touch, and please do not hesitate to contact me again on this or any other issue where I can be of help.
The Rt Hon. Emily Thornberry
Islington South and Finsbury
Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade