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Agriculture faces trade deal challenges

On March 29 the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, so firing the starting gun that will see the UK exit the EU by March 2019. This starts our negotiations with the other 27 Members on our future trade relations, and allows us to begin trade negotiations with other countries around the world. British experts negotiating trade deals has not happened for over 44 years, so what challenges do we face as we try to protect our high welfare standards, particularly in farming, from being undermined by cheaper produce produced at lower standards?

Eighteen years ago the European Commission received the report from its animal welfare scientific committee stating that use of Bovine Somatotrophin (BST) was a welfare problem for the dairy cow as it had adverse impacts on the animal's welfare, increased incidence of disease such as mastitis and led to welfare problems such as leg and foot disorders. The report resulted in the European ban on BST from January 2000, which is still in place today.

But the ban is not in place in the USA or Canada. Nor is the ban on feeding hormones to beef cattle, the ban on adding Ractopamine to pig feed to increase muscle growth or the ban on washing chickens in chlorine to prevent faecal contamination. All are what are known as ‘non-tariff measures’ in trade language and all will be measures the US farm lobby, and their Government, will want us to remove as part of any future trade deal. Or, at the very least, ensure we don't prevent imports of meat and other products treated this way. All have also been subject to disputes between the EU and the US in the World Trade Organisation, some going back 20 years and never really solved.

So how will the UK react? In favour of consumer protection, on the side of animal welfare, or tempted into a race to the bottom? In the past the UK was against the EU ban on beef-hormones and it will be enthusiastic to have a deal with the US as soon as possible. But it has also said we should be proud of our high animal welfare standards, indeed called it a UK USP, and will not stand by to see them discarded.

As well as these bans, the UK has some 19 legal farm welfare standards that it wants to keep. It wants to and should protect those farmers using them. They are it's USP.

The US currently have two federal animal welfare laws - so their standards are well below ours. Without a ban on the conventional battery cage, sow stalls, or veal crates, they can produce food more cheaply and at lower standards. The potential for British farmers to be undercut by such a system is immense. The challenge large. The solution obvious.

We should sign a trade deal with other countries but seek equivalence to our higher animal health and welfare standards - allow in free range eggs or dairy products produced without BST but keep high tariffs on ones not produced to our standards. This would be the right course of action for our farmers, our farm animals and it is the bar our Government has already set itself.

David Bowles

Assistant Director, Public Affairs and Campaigns, RSPCA

Find David on Twitter @DavidBowles21

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.