We all eat...So surely we only want high-standard produce?
A blog by David Bowles our head of campaigns & public affairs.
Recently, we joined the National Farmers Union to launch a new report calling for transparency and consistency in animal welfare standards in our trade policy.
We're sorry if the above sounds like a boring subject that should be discussed exclusively by geeks in a darkened room... How about if we rephrase the question to be:
Do you care what you eat and how it's produced?
We know the public do care about this - in fact, more than 80% of UK citizens believe that UK animal welfare standards should apply to imports as shown in post-Brexit polling. Additionally, when asked if they believe the UK shouldn't allow imports of food from the USA that have been produced to lower standards than those in the UK - 83% agreed.
Hold on - but doesn't the Government has a manifesto commitment to not compromise animal welfare standards in any trade agreement? Yes, they do - yet only recently, Parliament nodded through a new trade agreement with Australia that did precisely this...
This trade deal will permit a 60-fold increase in the amount of beef that could be exported from Australia to the UK. We know that this beef (and that's a lot of beef) will sadly come from barren, shadeless feedlots.
The live cattle could also be transported for up to 48 hours through the Australian bush and then slaughtered in abattoirs that have no mandatory CCTV. Three clear examples of standards that would not be permitted to you if you were an English beef farmer.
It's an inauspicious start to the first free trade agreement that the UK has signed on its own for over 50 years. This is why the UK's largest farmer organisation and its largest animal welfare charity (that's us!) have joined forces for the first time to give a clear message on this very important issue.
We risk leaving thirty years of high animal standards behind
The report is a calm reflection of the position the UK finds itself in. Desperate to do new trade deals at seemingly any cost, it's prepared to rip up and export its high animal welfare standards that have been implemented and improved over the past thirty-odd years - leaving British farmers producing to those standards exposed.
At a time when the UK is secretly negotiating new trade deals with a further eight countries, all of whom have farm standards that are lower than the UK's, the NFU and the team here at the RSPCA, believe now is the time to act. So, we've laid out a clear six-point plan to save our farm welfare standards:
Our plan to save UK farm welfare standards
Firstly, the Government needs to set out a clear policy detailing what its core animal welfare production standards are - whether relating to eggs, chicken, pigs or indeed lamb and beef. These should be used to adopt trade-compliant import restrictions to ensure only food and products produced to UK standards are permitted into the UK.
We actually already do this by putting high tariffs on imports of sensitive products, such as eggs or pigs. However, once we start negotiating trade deals, these are the same barriers that others such as India or Canada will be looking to lower. So let's be honest in our trade policy and be proud of our animal welfare standards. Let's also be truthful and clear with other countries where our red lines are in these negotiations.
Food shoppers and ethical farmers are at risk
If we allow eggs from battery cages or pork produced from sow stalls (both phased out in the UK ten years ago and so not open to British farmers) those products could end up in our sandwiches, quiches or fast food restaurants.
They would be unwittingly eaten by the same British consumers who petitioned the Government to get rid of those same systems in the UK. We also risk offshoring our standards and putting our farmers (who are producing to those higher standards) out of business.
We didn't spend all the 1970s and 1980s campaigning for these systems to be abolished only to see food produced from them back on our shelves. So we need to be clear when talking to other countries in saying that it will not be acceptable for us to import these low standard products.
We also want the UK to show leadership internationally by leading the discussion with others in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - who set and regulate the trade rules on the importance of animal welfare standards to UK farming, both to the British public and ultimately of course, to the animals themselves.
We wouldn't be the first to start this conversation. Only this month, the European Commission agreed that as animal welfare standards were very important to them, they wanted all food imports entering the EU to be produced to their standards.
They mean business. In July they agreed to a trade deal with New Zealand that only pasture-fed beef will be allowed into the EU - this is better than the trade deal the UK has struck with the same country where there was no conditionality on standards for imported beef.
So why is this a problem for the UK?
47 years of EU membership means that we, by and large, have the same animal standards. The UK has always been proud of having high welfare produce, so let's see this pride in action by, yes, exporting our food to new markets but also promoting those standards overseas for others to take up.
At the same time, we need to maintain standards on product imports to the UK by stating that produce entering the country should always be produced to those same, important, high standards.
We know the WTO rules could permit this as the UK already has rules permitting only meat that has been slaughtered to UK standards to enter our market and since 2009, banned the import of seal products due to the inhumane method of killing involved.
What does the Government think?
The Government so far remains unconvinced that core animal welfare standards should be part of its trade strategy and has not come up with any other alternative to ensure that its manifesto commitment not to compromise our animal welfare standards remains.
Agrifood trade is always one of the most contentious issues in any trade discussion as although we need to eat every day, where we get our food from and how it is produced, is only just starting to be discussed.
It's a sector that is proud of the animal welfare standards that food is produced to, and also one that employs half a million people while also managing our natural environment.
If we get this wrong, it has implications not only on how we treat our farm animals but also on what our countryside looks like and how we value our rural sector as a whole.
The stakes could not be higher. In September, we'll have a new Prime Minister. It's time for a fresh start. The proposals produced in this report by ourselves and NFU start this conversation - we now need a positive response from the Government.
If you eat meat or dairy, buy RSPCA Assured to ensure animals are raised to higher welfare standards.
You can also campaign with us for animal welfare by signing up for our 'Give Animals a Voice' campaign newsletter to find out the latest.