ACCESS TO cheaper food is driving political trade agendas – furthering global disconnection with our food systems.

This was one of the warnings delivered during a lively debate on the future of trade and agriculture by NFU president Minette Batters, who added that a ‘radical rethink’ is needed in global food trade, in order to address climate change challenges.

Going head-to-head with Ms Batters in the Oxford Farming Conference Bitesize webinar was former Australian Prime Minister and UK trade adviser Tony Abbott, who wasted no time in arguing that being a member of the EU has placed restrictions on the UK’s economic freedoms and ability to trade more freely with everyone else.

The NFU president voiced concern over UK Government intentions to complete 60% of new trade deals before the end of its parliamentary term: “The danger is, I have heard ministers say that Brexit could be seen as an opportunity to bring cheap raw ingredients in and add value to them under the union flag. That is abhorrent.

“Politically we have been globally disconnected from our food system,” she continued. “We have been focused on ever cheaper food rather than values that are needed to drive food production."

She went on highlight agriculture’s role in addressing climate change: “We will never deliver on climate change unless we empower our farmers and get down to really sustainable food production methods. This is our time, but we need a radical rethink in how this world chooses to trade in agricultural commodities.”

Mr Abbott implored that Britain must make the most of trading opportunities now it has been released from EU restrictions: “When it comes to trade the aim should always be to freely trade high-quality goods and services. Britons have always had a robust sense of their capacity to do things well, and to learn from anyone who might be able to do better. That is why Britain has made such an extraordinary and unique contribution to these times and that’s why global Britain should be able to do more for the world, and for itself, than a Britain that needs to double check things with Brussels.”

When queried on concerns over cheap food imports undermining British farmers, he agreed that Britain is right to have high standards, however stressed that it isn’t up to Britain to tell other countries how they have to meet those standards.

“Claims that one country, or another, might want to mistreat its animals, poison its people or spoil the environment are unlikely to stack up and can easily become a smokescreen for those who would rather not change and innovate.

“I’m all in favour of global cooperation to boost standards but if we do this through trade deals, we’ll end up not doing any trade deals.”

Ms Batters was quick to point out that 50% of food consumed in the UK is outwith the home, giving a gateway to cheaper produce where labelling plays no part: “There is no way of a customer knowing how honest or what integrity food has, that becomes quite a danger.”

She went on to quell doubts over the newly strengthened role of the trade and agriculture commission and whether it would be enough to safeguard British standards: “It took a complete unprecedented tsunami of support to get this government to capitulate and allow a mechanism for parliament to have oversight of all aspects of agri-food; to be able to debate them and ultimately to be able to have that say before a trade deal is ratified,” she responded.

“This was as good a deal as we were going to get. We could have all fallen on our swords and could have kept going with the mantra of ‘no food can come in produced to lower standards’ and we would have lost everything, and parliament wouldn’t have had a say.

“This has put down the first opportunity for democracy, for bringing back control in a way parliamentarians can shape that future. Other sectors will want it, but agriculture did it first, this is something this country should be proud of.”