Opening Britain’s fridges to deregulated food would ‘not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane’

The 2020 NFU conference saw farmers, politicians and other stakeholders argue over the future of agriculture and food in Britain. James Fisher was there to report back.

The NFU has once again called for the Government to enshrine British food standards in law. In her opening address to the NFU conference at the end of February, president Minette Batters said: ‘If the Government is serious about animal welfare and environmental protection and doing more than any previous government, it must put legislation in the Agriculture Bill. What is the Government waiting for? What is more important to our economy, our health and our environment than the very food we eat?’

In a wide-ranging address, Mrs Batters also said that 2020 was the most important year for British agriculture since the 1940s. She outlined what she believes is a huge opportunity for Britain’s farmers to show the world how to farm in the future, and called on the Government to show ‘leadership’, adding that it must ‘insist that UK farm standards are the benchmark for climate-friendly farming around the world and that whoever wants to trade with us trades on our terms’.

‘We’re talking a lot about raising the bar… when we have no assurance at all on the standard of food imports’

There are still concerns among rural groups that food standards are ‘on the table’ in future trade deals, specifically with the US. Former DEFRA Secretary Theresa Villiers, who was sacked in last month’s reshuffle, had previously said that EU restrictions on imports such as chlorine-washed chicken would be carried over post-Brexit, but Ms Villiers’ replacement, George Eustice, has come under fire for appearing to soften the Government’s position. He told the BBC and Sky News last week that, although the Government ‘has no plans to change’ current rules, there is ‘room for a sensible discussion’.

Mrs Batters hit back in her opening address, stating that it’s ‘not only about chlorinated chicken, this is about a wider principle’. She added: ‘To sign up to a trade deal that results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food that would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane.’

Speaking face-to-face with Mr Eustice at the conference, Mrs Batters said that ‘there just seems to be a total lack of agreement in Government on what the future holds on food standards. We’re talking a lot about raising the bar, taking our farmers higher up the ladder on legislation, on welfare, when we have no assurance at all on the standard of food imports, and that does one thing. That puts [our farmers] out of business.’ Mr Eustice replied: ‘You have got those assurances, they’re in our manifesto.’

See Country Life’s issue of 4 March 2020 for more news and analysis from the NFU conference, including a look at George Eustice’s speech.