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Debunking MPs’ arguments on food standards

Agriculture Bill Debrief: Debunking Arguments For Not Enshrining Our Standards In Law

Obviously the 95 per cent of us who want to keep our high food standards; the 92 per cent of us who want animal welfare standards maintained in future trade negotiations; the 86 per cent of us who fear food banned here will eventually find its way into institutional food (schools, hospitals, care homes, etc.) after a trade deal with the US; the 74% per cent of us who oppose the import of food with lower welfare standards, and the 68% per cent of us who want further legal requirements to ensure animal welfare is protected are disappointed that the Govt voted against enshrining these standards in the Agriculture Bill on October 12th.

Re-reading the three-hour debate in Hansard, it was clear three articles had been influential: ex-MEP Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph, new MP Anthony Browne in ConHome and Trade & Agriculture Commission member Shanker Singham in CapX. A number of sentences in speeches by Tory MPs voting against the amendments were word-for-word what had been written in one or other of these articles.

It is important to state at the outset that there is almost universal respect amongst MPs for Britain’s food and farming standards—at least, those who spoke on the day appeared to be sincere in their aim to uphold them. Where they differ is in how best to deliver—and in having the courage to break the whip. This is always a big ask, especially for new MPs, but now is one of those occasions when MPs need to ignore the siren calls of the whips and stand up for the British people and their farmers.

There were essentially ten claims made by Tory MPs who voted against enshrining our food, animal welfare and environmental standards in law:

CLAIM 1. It violates a fundamental World Trade Organisation (WTO) rule that domestic standards not be used as barriers to trade

It is true that one of the prime objectives of the WTO is to minimise protectionism so as to ensure that developing countries can compete on a more level playing field. Countries are also not allowed to ban the import of goods outright. Here’s the thing: there are exceptions to these rules. Standards set by global organisations are an example. These might include the Conference of Parties (COP, which we are hosting in Glasgow next year) for climate change rules; the Convention on Biological Diversity, Codex Alimentarus, for food standards, and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for rules on animal welfare.

Furthermore, exemptions and derogations are set out in Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). They include: measures necessary to protect public morals, “exhaustible natural resources”, and human, animal or plant life or health. In other words, the WTO rule is not absolute; there are exceptions, exemptions and derogations we could take advantage of, as other countries do.

Now, the Tories would argue that none of these apply to the process by which an animal is reared, so we cannot ban chlorinated chicken, or growth hormone-laden beef, or ractopamine packed pork unless we can demonstrate it is unfit for human consumption. This we cannot do. The food is unhealthy, not unfit —Americans eat it. Sure, their rate of foodborne disease is 10x higher than ours and they have far more resulting deaths, but that’s not evidence enough, from a WTO perspective, to ban it.

Technically, then, this argument is right. In practice, however, the opposite is true. Those foodstuffs have previously been banned here in the UK, because the EU bans them. China and Russia have joined the EU’s ban on pork where ractopamine has been used in the rearing process. The only question is, does “Global Britain” have enough clout to impose such a ban?

CLAIM 2. The government being “absolutely clear it is committed” to high standards is enough to prevent standards being undermined by trade deals

A Tory government has been absolutely clear that it is committed to “votes for life” for British citizens, no matter where in the world we live, since at least 2010 —so “clear”, in fact, that it has been a manifesto pledge in the last FOUR general elections. Do we have votes for life? No.

This government has been absolutely clear that it is committed to the right of reunion of unaccompanied child refugees with family members already settled here —so “clear”, in fact, that it has twice voted against it in the past twelve months.

Unfortunately, there are many instances that the government is “absolutely clear it is committed to” something or other, and it hasn’t happened. Government doesn’t have the bandwidth to do everything it commits to. Things fall through the cracks all the time. It was never more important to “get it in writing” on the face of an Act of Parliament as it is now.

CLAIM 3. It would make trade deals more difficult to negotiate

MPs from all parties gave this argument short shrift. Jonathan Edwards intervened on Neil Parish to point out that enshrining standards in law would actually strengthen our negotiators’ hand. Neil Parish agreed.

“Would it not be right for the Secretary of State for International Trade to have the armour of Parliament’s backing to say, “I can’t negotiate away that particular part of the deal with you because it is written down in law”?” Parish said.

Going further, Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse reminded the House that The Future British Standards Coalition had that very morning published its interim report with evidence that it is possible to reject low food standard imports, remain WTO-compliant and still strike trade deals.

CLAIM 4. Enshrining our standards in law raises our current standards for imports, to the detriment of poor farmers in developing countries

The government has spent the last four years telling us that EU laws, regulations and standards would be carried over into UK law on an “as is” basis. How does “as is” suddenly become “dramatically raising current standards”?

It is touching to see such concern for farmers in developing countries, but is it credible? Brexit means forty-seven less developed countries (LDCs) will be deprived of access to our market on a zero-tariff/zero-quota basis through the EU’s “Everything but Arms” (EBA) trade agreements. Government’s recent downgrading of our world-leading Department for International Development (DfID) to an adjunct of the Foreign Office and syphoning off £2.9 billion of DfID’s budget doesn’t exactly send a clear signal of concern for LDCs.

There may be genuine concern, but it feels like an attempt to manipulate us by tugging on our heart-strings. Developing countries won’t be able to meet our standards, they say. Our imports will dramatically decline, and that will have a knock-on effect to British companies supply chains, which will be severely disruptive and may put some of them out of business, they complain.

Four things. First, (going to press) the latest in the EU trade deal saga is that this government will inflict a Yellowhammer-style Brexit on us without batting an eyelid, in the midst of a lethal global pandemic, the worst economic downturn in our history and during the winter flu season. This will cause far greater disruption to British companies than putting our standards on a stronger legal footing, yet the prime minister’s recorded attitude to this is, “F**k Business”. Second, these countries were already exporting to us when we were in the EU, and have already made the investment to meet required EU standards, which are ostensibly the same as ours. Third, flannelling about coffee and bananas is meaningless, as we don’t grow them here, so which of our standards would keep them out? They’re not banned now, are they? It goes without saying we would disapply irrelevant standards, as we do in the EU now. Fourth, companies from other developed countries manage to sell their products all over the world without their governments “betraying their populations and farmers through the food that they produce and feed to their children”, as SNP MP David Doogan so colourfully put it.

As someone who worked in LDCs for many years, I find the tone of some MPs patronising and paternalistic in the extreme. It is unimaginative and unkind to underestimate LDCs’ ability to innovate to meet our standards. Government is missing a golden opportunity to co-ordinate trade and aid. Where a potential trading partner does not meet our standards, we could put in place a plan with a glide path for them to comply, with UK technical assistance and aid to help them do it. That way we trade and use aid to help improve LDCs’ standards, which eventually spread to their non-exporting enterprises and embed. A virtuous circle.

CLAIM 5. The controversial claim that it would deny the least affluent Brits a cheaper source of food

The irony is, products produced cheaply won’t necessarily be cheaper to the British consumer, poor or otherwise. Tariffs are only one element of price. The prices of commodity fluctuate, due to a variety of factors, including the exchange rate. At the moment, there’s not a lot of difference between, say, farm-gate beef prices in the UK and those in the US. We’d roll over and assume the dead hamster position on food and farming standards and accept low-welfare, inferior food products, for no gain! Is it worth it?

CLAIM 6. It is unnecessary: the Trade & Agriculture Commission will scrutinise trade deals for violations of our standards, and we should trust the consumer

The Trade & Agriculture Commission has only been set up for six months, has next to no clout, and many in the farming community feel it is unrepresentative. In other words, more ornament than useful.

As to “trusting the consumer”, that’s all very well and good if the consumer has the necessary data to make an informed decision. This is rarely the case. We enter the realms of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) and dog-eat-dogism where marketing (not unlike political campaigning) is designed to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes.

In its trade negotiations, the United States typically insists that there be no informative food labelling, even to the point of removing country of origin. Canada, for example, prohibits the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a manmade bovine hormone that increases lactation in cows, because it was found to be too stressful for cows. The United States does not. As a result of the new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada is obliged to open a portion of its market to milk from American cows. There’s nothing in the labelling to inform the consumer about the source of the milk.

Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a workaround, in that consumers can avoid hormone-laden milk, which may have harmful side effects in humans, by sticking to those brands labelled “100% Canadian”. However, it serves as an illustration that it is naïve in the extreme to think a US-UK free trade agreement would not hurt our food safety and animal welfare standards.

CLAIM 7. Enshrining our standards in law would lead to contradictions

Anthony Browne feels there is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards. Without a well-designed system that might be the case. See the proposal under Claim 4 to combine trade with an aid package to help developing countries reach our standards. The problem here is not intrinsic, but rather a lack of ambition, consistency and imagination.

Where Browne may have a valid point is in highlighting an unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade under a free trade agreement, so trade with countries with lower standards could still go ahead on WTO rules. Clearly this loophole would have to be addressed in the “well designed system” to be put in place for trade + aid.

Is there not a greater risk of hypocrisy than of contradiction? If we ignore a trading partner’s poor environmental standards and effectively use trade to off-shore our pollution and other concerns, would that not be the height of hypocrisy? Michael Gove seemed to think so when he told the BBC’s Countryfile in 2018, “There’s no point in having high animal welfare and high environmental standards if you allow them to be undercut from the outside.”

CLAIM 8. Our trading partners will never agree to respect the standards, and the (false) claim no other country or trade bloc imposes such requirements

From classic Brit-flick “Chariots of Fire”:

“If I can’t win, I won’t run,” says sprinter Harold Abrahams.

“If you won’t run, you can’t win,” replies opera singer Sybil Gordon.

Why is our government conceding defeat before it has even tried? Talk about “talking the country down”!

As to the false claim that no other country or trade bloc imposes such requirements, Hilary Benn gave examples of the EU enshrining animal welfare standards in trade deals. The EU itself says:

“The European Commission works to ensure that Europe’s food supply is the safest in the world and that the same standards of food safety apply to all products regardless of origin. As the world’s biggest importer and exporter of foodstuffs, the European Union works closely with international organisations and offers advice as well as assistance to non-EU country trading partners.”

Mr Benn also informed the House about California’s “cruel confinement law”, which not only bans the use of sow stalls in that state, but also bans the sale in California of pork produced in other American states that still use sow stalls. Why would “Global Britain” find it so hard to do what the EU, various other countries and at least one of the US’s states are doing?

CLAIM 9. Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise deals

Parliament, or rather the overwhelming Tory majority within it, has voted not to give itself this power —TWICE. This means parliament does not have a say on the government’s negotiating objectives, nor on key issues during the negotiation. It may get a ratification vote, but that will be an accept/reject proposition at the end of what could be a lengthy negotiation process, when it may be too late to alter the deal.

The 3-tiered process set out by International Trade Secretary Liz Truss:

  • Independently verified assessment including animal welfare
  • Full scrutiny by the International Trade Select Committee
  • The CRaG process for Parliament to have a say (under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, treaties subject to ratification have to be laid before parliament for 21 sitting days before they can be ratified).

has been examined by British trade expert David Henig and found to be “wholly inadequate”. He concluded, “Sorry to say the proposals made by the Department for International Trade for scrutiny of trade agreements show disdain for Parliament, devolved authorities and everyone on whose behalf they are negotiating.”

10. Free trade at the expense of all else

Free trade proponents want “Global Britain” to be the champion of free trade. Nothing must be allowed to get in its way. Not our culture, our values or our moral compass. This sixth-form debating society extremism is contrary to the will of the British people who want a trade policy cut to fit with our values, and not to have to change our values to fit the government’s trade policy.

Above all, we must preserve the precautionary principle whereby a producer has to prove their product is fit to be on our market and potentially find its way onto our children’s plates, rather than a free-for-all where everything is allowed until something bad happens and it is banned. Abolishing this fundamental principle and completely changing the basis on which we conduct our commercial affairs has never been put to the people, so there is no mandate for abandoning it.

“Free” trade can carry hidden costs. We only have to look at the tragic consequences of the Great Famine to see what happens when an experiment in free trade goes wrong, and a failure to identify and mitigate risks leads to loss of life on a grand scale. Some will cry “project fear”, but it’s not scaremongering if it’s true –the health risks of cheaply produced, low-welfare food are well-documented (such as our own commissioned health report) and are very real.

I’m with Labour Leader Keir Starmer when he says Britain could be a beacon of high food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, and Tory MP Steve Brine who says enshrining them in law would send out a message to the world that we are serious about our standards and invite the world to join us in adopting them.

What is most disappointing about this list of claims is that it doesn’t provide a solution to, or even take into consideration the need to prevent, British farmers being undercut by the absence of a level playing field. Some Tory MPs consider it protectionism to help prevent our farmers going bankrupt for following our world-leading standards, while those from other countries who do not freely undercut them.

True protectionism involves shielding your industries to give them an unmerited advantage in their home market and deliberately diminishing trade with other countries by unfairly taxing imports. Enhancing the legal underpinning of our standards is not that. Rather it is a question of not going too far the other way, and unduly disadvantaging our food producers, which would lead to job losses, risks to national food security, a bigger carbon footprint as food miles increase, off-shored pollution/welfare issues and a deleterious impact on our countryside.

Other countries, including LDCs, all have governments that look after their farmers’ and consumers’ interests. Shouldn’t our government put the interests of British farmers and British consumers first?

This is an extract of an article that first appeared in West Country Bylines by Sadie Parker.

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Read more from this article in West Country Bylines by Save British Farming’s Liz Webster.