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Government seeks to reassure farmers on post-Brexit trade deals

Victoria Jones/PA Wire

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers has sought to reassure farmers that high food standards will be protected as the UK seeks trade deals after Brexit.

Concerns have been raised that food produced to lower environmental and welfare standards than are permitted in the UK will be allowed into the country in future trade deals - undercutting the domestic agricultural sector.

But Ms Villiers told the Oxford Farming Conference: "Our strong British brand is built on high standards to which we hold ourselves.

"The high standards of British farming are the backbone of our biggest manufacturing sector of food and drink."

She said the UK could maintain and enhance its standards amid future negotiations with the EU and other countries.

And she promised to work with the farming sector to understand their concerns and make sure their voice is heard in international talks.

"Please be reassured, hear this, is as our manifesto says, as the Prime Minister has said, we will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality, and grounded in our shared national values.

"We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare."

And she said: "In our forthcoming negotiations the Government will defend our national interest strongly and will be prepared to walk away from negotiations if that's in our national interest."

The Environment Secretary also set out plans in the Agriculture Bill for a switch away from subsidies mostly paid for the amount of land farmed to paying for "public goods" such as boosting nature and tackling climate change.

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters told the conference that 2020 is "about getting Brexit right".

She said: "Be under no illusion, we face the greatest reset in agricultural policy since the 1940s."

Ms Batters called for the Government to legislate to set up a commission on food standards to scrutinise trade deals and protect the UK's high standards on food, and to lead on climate friendly farming.

Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett said changes to agriculture were needed to tackle the nature and climate emergencies, including lower pesticide use, boosting trees and agroforestry and reducing meat consumption to ensure "less but better meat" production.

And he warned: "We could and hopefully will have the very best farming practices here in this country for producing good nutritious food, and protecting biodiversity and tackling the climate and given a really good strong fair return to our farmers for doing that, but trade trumps everything.

"We could have the best system here in this country but if we do trade deals with other countries that allows imports of food that have been produced to lower standards, that will undercut our farmers and be devastating for industry.

In a question and answer session at the conference, a straw poll suggested delegates were not convinced the Government would defend their interests in international talks.

Pressed on the issue, Ms Villiers said there would be an armoury of tariffs that would make sure that the UK can maintain standards and that imports do not undercut them.