Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told British farmers his government “will not compromise” on safeguarding food and animal welfare standards.
Johnson pledged at the National Farmers Union (NFU) virtual conference on Tuesday, in a bid to allay growing concerns in recent years that standards could be eroded.
The government’s Brexit deal has given the UK greater freedom to deviate from EU rules in areas such as food and animal welfare.
Farm leaders and opposition parties fear the government will bow to pressure to downgrade standards in order to secure trade deals with countries like the United States. The alarm over potential exports of chlorinated chicken or hormone-filled beef from the United States has sparked particular controversy.
But Johnson said in a short pre-recorded video message to the conference that the government is committed to “producing high quality products at a high standard.”
“We will not compromise on animal protection, animal welfare and food standards,” he said. He added that the pandemic had increased public appreciation for the work of farmers, and offered a “heartfelt thank you” for keeping supermarkets stocked and the country fed.
In her own speech, Minette Batters, president of the NFU, however, underlined the strength of the public alarm over British food standards undermined by cheap imports.
She said more than a million people signed her petition on the issue in just a fortnight last year, with 80,000 writing to their MPs. The campaign had led the government to create a trade and agriculture commission, making agriculture “the only sector” to have obtained such surveillance to ensure that trade deals did not penalize it.
“Believe me when I say this commission was the most important thing we did last year, we could have the best future agricultural policy in the world, but if our own agriculture is outmatched by cheap imports of food. illegal food to be produced here, then we would no longer have an industry, ”Batters said.
Johnson also said the government wanted to promote more consumption of British products in the UK and abroad. Meanwhile, freeing the ‘chains’ of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) meant that agriculture could become profitable, sustainable, productive and resilient, he said.
The UK’s ability to set its own agricultural subsidy policies meant it could focus more on protecting the countryside, the natural environment and animal health and welfare, he said. he adds.
Watch: Boris Johnson thanks farmers for their work during pandemic
George Eustice, Minister of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave more details in a speech on how new subsidies replacing EU subsidies would be linked to these public goods, rather than based on the size of the land. “The era of top-down European rules is over,” he said.
Three programs will be launched where farmers can apply for funds to protect the environment, natural habitats and flood management, or landscapes such as forests and wetlands.
He announced that farmers would be able to express their interest in the weeks following the piloting of the Sustainable Agriculture Incentive (SFI), which focused on environmental measures. Other programs will be launched “in the coming years”, including one targeted at animal health and welfare, he added.
In a press conference after the speech, he said the government was “exploring” paying farmers for higher animal welfare systems, such as free range. “At the moment, we expect the market to provide the premium to justify this, and people have to hope that consumers will pay this additional premium. They do on some but not all.”
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