Shadow Commerce Secretary Emily Thornberry has launched a scathing attack on government trade policy which she says will drive farmers out of business.
The Labor MP said at a meeting on the sidelines of the NFU at this week’s party conference in Brighton: The world’s largest agricultural exporters.
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Ms Thornberry said a “pragmatic” trade deal would include:
- A certain level of tariffs, to take into account the different costs and environmental damage in other parts of the world
- Quotas to allow the UK to meet its import needs without a bonus that would hurt farmers
- Minimum production standards to ensure a level playing field.
Yet the government, in its dealings with Australia and now New Zealand, had ignored all of these considerations, she said.
“These two precedents will leave us unable to argue for anything different when it comes to the United States, Canada and Brazil. It is an act of economic, political and social madness, ”she said at the meeting.
NFU Vice President Stuart Roberts shared his frustration. If it was fair to maintain the high standards of British agriculture – which all farmers supported – he said this was undermined by trade policy.
“The story tells us it’s about protecting our standards, but we’re being asked to take on all the other producers in the world, who don’t necessarily meet those same standards. It just isn’t fair.
Instead, the UK should use its trade policy offensively, to impose higher standards in other parts of the world.
Angela Francis, chief economist of the WWF environmental campaign group, said it was entirely possible to insist that exporters increase their production standards, without breaking World Trade Organization rules.
The United States has already done this for seafood imports, she said, as has Thailand for fruits and vegetables.
But the UK Department for International Trade seemed to have a “blind spot” when it came to agriculture, Ms Francis said.
The agreements with Australia and New Zealand were treated as “soft deals between friends”, but when it came to agriculture, the two sides were light years apart.
“We are offering our best price – zero tariffs and zero access to quotas – to the world’s worst farmers,” Ms. Francis said. “Australia has gotten really, really good at the worst kind of industrial farming. “
Livestock farming was characterized by high levels of deforestation, despite using twice the amount of pesticides as in the UK.
But Ms Thornberry said there was still time to do a reset – given that former International Trade Secretary Liz Truss had now left her post and the ‘permissive’ voices of right-wing free trade in Parliament s ‘were appeased.
It was therefore important to quickly establish the new Committee on Trade and Agriculture, to give agriculture an appropriate voice on proposed trade agreements.
“Every other country in the world, when negotiating trade deals, is looking at what’s good for the country,” she said.
“We need to force the government to meet those same standards, that is, seek trade deals that benefit the agriculture industry rather than hurt it.”