The environment secretary, Michael Gove, is to pledge that British food standards will not be lowered “in pursuit of trade deals”.
In an address to the National Farmers’ Union annual conference on Tuesday he is expected to also vow to minimise the risk that food producers will be left at “competitive disadvantage” in the face of cheaper imports that are below EU standards.
His words follow a recent warning from senior figures in the US that if the UK chooses after Brexit to adhere to EU regulations, which ban chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, then trade talks will be difficult.
There have also been warnings that high tariffs on beef and lamb imposed after the UK’s departure could wipe out some farmers who rely on exports to the EU.
Gove will tell farmers: “We have been clear that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that we will use the tools we have at our disposal – tariffs, quotas and legislation – to make sure standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.”
The government is to announce its proposals for tariffs in a no-deal scenario this month. Gove’s words suggest that those plans do not entail zero tariffs.
Minette Batters, the NFU president, who has been highly critical of Gove in the past, will use her speech at the conference to call for a high-level expert commission to be set up to make sure imported food meets the same standards as British produce after Brexit.
“When I say standards, I mean all of the high standards British farmers observe – often at considerable expense – in protecting the environment, safeguarding animal welfare and providing safe food,” she is due to say.
“Mr Gove has said that over his dead body would British standards be undermined. I don’t want it written in blood. I want it written in ink.
“The issue of maintaining our food standards is critical. Which is why I am asking for a high-level commission to be convened, bringing together government officials, industry representatives, civil society groups and experts in food and farming.”
Batters has frequently expressed concern that the government does not take the consequences of Brexit to the agriculture and horticulture sector seriously enough. Last year she warned that exporters would in effect be locked out of the EU for up to six months if no deal was struck. She is deeply concerned that in such a scenario the government would put trade deals ahead of farmers and says her proposed commission could deliver critical parliamentary scrutiny of terms of negotiations with other countries.
“This commission needs to be charged with producing a report before the end of the year. Critically the commission would need to make recommendations on how future trade deals should be scrutinised at a high level by parliament and industry, and the government would need to act on those recommendations,” Batters is to say.
“Warm words are nice but we need firm commitments and clear actions.”