DEFENDERS of home-produced Scottish food this week expressed concern over the newly signed 'memorandum of understanding' between the United Kingdom and agricultural powerhouse Brazil, warning that the scene was being set for the importation of beef produced through the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest and under lax scrutiny for animal welfare and growth hormone use.

While the new accord with Brazil has not grabbed the headlines in Britain, it has been widely reported in Brazil, where agriculture minister Tereza Cristina predicted that, over time, the UK would become more aligned with international rules on food safety, 'closer to science-based approaches'.

This was a red rag to the proverbial bull for Ruth Watson of pressure group Keep Scotland The Brand, who noted that 'science-based' food safety was debating shorthand for the United States-led position that the onus should be on legislators to conclusively prove that a food or its production process was unsafe, before banning it from their market. Under EU membership, Scotland and the UK employed the stricter precautionary principle that food would not be imported unless its country of origin could prove that it was safe.

Brazil has a patchy record on animal welfare and traceability, with past visits by Scottish industry observers casting doubt on its official claims regarding biosecurity and hormone use. Its suitabilty as a source of agricultural products has also been questioned in light of the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon to make way for farming operations. As such, Ms Watson was keen to sound an alarm over the current direction of travel.

"Scotland's farmers and our communities are faced with the results from this new deal with Brazil – assurances are being made that standards will not drop and yet I note with concern the Brazilian minister's comments about changes in phytosanitary standards enabling more exports to the UK post-Brexit," she said.

"It is worth noting reports from Brazil that domestic consumption of beef is falling. Given that beef farmers make up a significant section of President Bolsonaro's support base, I am very concerned we will see hormone-treated beef from pastures in felled rainforest shipped across the seas to compete with our premium, hormone-free Scotch Beef.

"This is very worrying. Scotland's people are used to good food as standard," she said. "Brexit means this may no longer be the case. More now than ever, it matters that our food and drink is clearly labelled on the shelves so that people understand what is before them and can make informed choices."

The document signed by Minister Cristina and Defra Secretary George Eustice deals with the creation of a Joint Agriculture Committee involving Brazil and the UK, within which the two countries will work together to maintain the bilateral relationship in relation to trade in agricultural products, in addition to discussing possible trade arrangements in the future.

Last year, Brazilian exports of agricultural products to the UK increased by 5% compared to 2019, and are now well in excess of (US) $1 billion annually. Much of this is soy, poultry and fruit, and Brazil has welcomed moves by the UK to further increase this trade since Brexit, by deregulating some fruits, which no longer required Phytosanitary Certification.

Minister Cristina looked forward to more streamlining of her farming industry's interactions with the United Kingdom.

“We understand that, at this first moment, the United Kingdom will continue to adopt many of the European parameters, including sanitary and phytosanitary. But we expect that, over time, without abandoning its high standards, the UK, in its technical standards, will become more aligned with international rules, closer to science-based approaches," she said.

Responding to the furore over the 'memorandum of understanding', a Defra spokesperson said: “We have been repeatedly clear that we will not lower our standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection as part of any future trade deals, and this Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil does not change that.

 “Creating the Joint Agriculture Committee  reinforces our commitment to support and develop agribusiness - and will facilitate discussion and collaboration between the two countries on sustainable agricultural and food trade issues.”