SCOTTISH FARMING interests are to be represented on the new body which will advise on food production standards in the UK's post-Brexit trade deals.

Following concerns that UK farmers could be ‘sold down the river’ in future negotiations, the UK Government recently announced the creation of a Trade and Agriculture Commission. The membership of this new body has now been revealed to include representation from regional farming unions such as NFU Scotland, as well as the British Retail Council, UK Hospitality, and the Food and Drink Federation.

Chaired by food safety expert Tim Smith – a former Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency – it has a fixed term of six months and will produce an advisory paper to be presented to Parliament.

Although the body is only acting in an advisory capacity, it is designed to steer the UK Government on pursuing new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined.

The new Commission will report directly to International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss: “My officials and I are working round the clock to ensure that any trade deal we strike brings the very best opportunities to the UK’s farming community,” Ms Truss assured. “We recognise the importance of engaging with the agriculture industry and seeking expert advice, which is why we have set up the Commission.

“We are putting British farming first and giving our producers the best opportunity to export their world class food abroad and grow their businesses. Our high food and animal welfare standards won’t be compromised.”

New chair, Tim Smith, pointed out that trade decisions made now will shape the future direction of British farming and the whole country, making input from the industry and British public so crucial.

“This Commission will bring a clear-eyed perspective on what is fair and works for consumers, farmers, food producers and animals. I am delighted to chair it, and look forward to independently advising the Government on how trade policy can both protect and advance the interests of British farming and the UK as a whole.”

NFU Scotland has been campaigning behind the scenes for such a body to be created and will now be in a prime position to represent the interests of Scottish farmers and crofters.

“As the UK sets its own trade policy this is a moment in time that will shape Scottish farming for generations to come,” said NFUS president Andrew McCornick. “The Commission has the potential to set a roadmap for UK trade policy that will allow farming to grow and thrive across the UK by opening up new markets but also ensure that our production standards are front and centre of all new trade deals. For NFUS ensuring that production standards are taken into account in trade is absolutely critical.”

UK Government minister for Scotland, David Duguid MP, urged Parliament to take heed of the Commission’s future guidance: “As a result of leaving the EU we are able to set our own tariffs for the first time in four decades, based on the needs of our economy. It is important we listen to the industry and this new Trade and Agriculture Commission, including representatives from Scotland, will help to guide our trade talks and ensure we remain competitive on a global market, while maintaining our high production standards."

The National Sheep Association praised the swift action of the Government to set the Commission’s wheels in motion: “It’s really pleasing to see the Government have acted so quickly on this. We’re very pleased to see sheep farmer Rob Hodgkins on the panel, as an NSA member and proactive farmer, we know Rob will provide a strong voice for sheep farming interests,” said NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker.

However, NSA has stressed that although there are strong agricultural voices at the table, it believes the body lacks wider expertise which would encompass the industry more broadly. The organisation also took issue with the six-month time frame: “This is very time sensitive with Trade Deals already being developed by the Government,” Mr Stocker continued. “The commission needs to act quickly and decisively but taking on board the interests of all sectors to produce its report. However, six months is a tight timetable, and we are concerned the necessary work might be rushed if we’re not careful.”

This view is not shared by the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers who stressed that the time line is unnecessary: “We believe that giving the new body a full six months to report is entirely unnecessary given that all the relevant information has already been gathered by the UK Government as part of the Brexit engagement process in which all food, farming and processing sectors have been heavily involved since the Referendum result was announced," stressed Executive Manager of SAMW, Martin Morgan.

The meat lobbying body also criticised the membership of the new body: "While it's good to see Scottish farming interests represented by NFUS, it is disappointing to see an almost total lack of practical international trade expertise within the Commission’s membership,” Mr Morgan continued. “Although farmers obviously provide the raw materials on which the entire meat supply chain functions, and are clearly vital to the whole business, their part in the export industry effectively ends when they sell their livestock. From then on, all international trade, be it exporting or importing, is managed by wholesalers, retailers and specialist export/import businesses. These are the people who have the detailed knowledge and expertise to ensure that the lengthy and complex import and export processes, across a wide range of products and multiple consignments, are in place to ensure this economically valuable trade continues.

The RSPCA has pointed out that the lack of animal welfare representation on the new body sends warning signals that it is a ‘fig leaf’ which 'will fail' to protect welfare standards.

“For this to be truly effective, it must have proper representation from the animal welfare sector - without this, the commission appears to be a Trojan horse which fails to fulfil the Government’s manifesto promises to protect welfare standards,” accused RSPCA Chief Executive Chris Sherwood.

“We fear this industry-heavy commission will not have animal welfare at its heart and instead will be a tool for deregulation, which represents a real risk to farm animal standards.

“So far, the Government has stopped short of enshrining the UK’s animal welfare standards in law and shutting the door for good on imports of not only chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, but pork produced from sow stall systems and egg products from hens in barren battery cages. Both farming methods are banned in the UK on welfare grounds,” he continued.

“Brexit presents an opportunity: to protect our farm animals and protect British farmers, making Britain a beacon for higher welfare production, and we urge the Government to grasp this.”

The British Veterinary Association has also raised concern over the balance of expertise on the body, pointing out that whilst nine members of the 16 are representing industry and retail bodies, only one member is a veterinary surgeon. President of the BVA Daniella Dos Santos has called for additional veterinary representation to enhance the Commissions credibility when it comes to protecting animal health and welfare standards.

“International trade in animal products cannot happen without the veterinary profession,” stressed Ms Dos Santos. “We are uniquely qualified to safeguard animal health and welfare and public health and we should be well represented on the Commission.

“The public is understandably concerned about the potential lowering of UK standards. We are asking Liz Truss to rethink the membership of the Commission so that it has the right balance of expertise with much more emphasis on animal welfare,” she conlcuded.