Keir Starmer has demanded that the Prime Minister “back British farmers” by supporting the Labour Party’s plans to protect the UK from lower-standard food imports after the Brexit transition phase ends.
The opposition party has argued that the government has refused to protect the country’s food standards ahead of Brexit – despite the Tory 2019 manifesto celebrating the “high standards” of British farming.
The government refused in May to amend its agriculture bill in a way that would ensure the UK’s existing environmental protections, food safety regulations and animal welfare laws are safeguarded in future trade deals.
In a letter sent today, Starmer told Boris Johnson: “I want our country to produce the best food in the world, where our farmers compete on the basis of quality and are not undermined by producers working to lower standards elsewhere.
“Britain should be a beacon of quality, high standards, ethical treatment of animals and environmental protections in all aspects of food production.”
Commenting ahead of a visit to National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters’ farm in Wiltshire with Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard on Thursday, Starmer said: “No-one wants lower quality food on our plates.”
But the Labour leader added that “unless the Prime Minister shows some leadership and backs British farmers, there is a real risk this could happen”.
The agriculture bill, which makes provisions for farming in preparation for the end of the Brexit transition period, recently passed through the House of Lords and is now due to return to the Commons on October 1st.
Tory MPs have voted down Labour attempts to use this bill or the trade bill, which is also progressing through parliament, to enshrine in law the country’s high environmental protections, animal welfare and food standards.
Pollard said: “Conservative MPs have a choice: they can show they are on the side of our farmers and quality produce, or they can continue to play political games. No deal with the US or anywhere else is worth trading away our high values.”
Labour has also said it wants the trade and agriculture commission to “have the teeth” to assess each trade deal against core standards and ensure parliamentary oversight, as recommended in the government’s own national food strategy.
The NFU, the largest UK organisation representing farmers, has been lobbying the government to ensure that food imports from countries with lower standards, such as the US, are banned. More than one million people signed its recent petition.
A recent survey found a significant majority of the British public do not want food produced to lower standards to be allowed on sale in the UK, and several supermarkets have committed not to stock lower standard imported food.
Starmer’s comments come after Labour shadow ministers discussed the Tory positions on trade standards, food imports and the threat to farmers amid Brexit at the online conference held by Labour Coast and Country in September.
Shadow minister Daniel Zeichner argued: “Rural communities don’t want any of this, and that is a huge opportunity for Labour. I think we could have a perfect moment when the Conservative government is deeply unpopular.”
Outlining Labour’s approach, he added: “If we can present ourselves as a credible, plausible alternative that wants to build an environmentally friendly, sustainable food and farming system for the future, that is our chance.”