Animal welfare standards could take a step backwards after Brexit as UK farmers struggle to compete with cheap imported foods, a new report is warning.
A House of Lords investigation into the impact of leaving the EU on animal welfare predicts farmers could be sucked into a “race to the bottom” as they struggle to keep prices low.
There are fears farmers would resist improvements to animal welfare rules and the UK could slip behind EU standards in order to for farmers to remain competitive.
The warning comes amid splits in the Cabinet over whether the US should be allowed to sell chlorine-washed chickens in the UK after Brexit - something currently banned under EU rules.
Food Secretary Michael Gove said the UK should not “compromise” on animal welfare in “pursuing freer trade”, but during a visit to Washington, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox dismissed concerns over chlorine-washed chickens as “a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement.”
The Lords report - published by the EU Energy and Environment Sub Committee this morning - said: “Our evidence strongly suggests that the greatest threat to farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit would come from UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK.
“Unless consumers are willing to pay for higher welfare products, UK farmers could become uncompetitive and welfare standards in the UK could come under pressure.”
It also warns: “This could undermine the sustainability of the industry or incentivise a race to the bottom for welfare standards—contrary to the wishes of the UK industry.”
Agricultural agreements are typically one of the most difficult aspects of free trade deals to complete.
During the negotiations between the EU and the USA for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal, concerns were frequently raised by animal welfare and agricultural groups on the impact of allowing American produce to flood the market.
America has a much more relaxed policy on genetically-modified crops and hormone-treated meat than the EU, meaning US farmers are able to offer cheaper food.
Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor at Compassion in World Farming, urged the UK to stand strong on its animal welfare rules when it enters in trade talks.
He said: “When negotiating new trade agreements - with the EU, US or others - it is vital that the UK insists on the inclusion of a clause which ensures imports meet UK standards of animal welfare.
“If we cannot prevent low welfare imports, the US may flood the UK market with meat and eggs from animals kept in cages or crates so narrow they cannot turn round, with meat and milk from clones and genetically engineered animals, with hormone-treated beef and chicken meat that is washed in chlorine.”
Research published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface published in January 2016 revealed the UK imports more than 50% of its food, while the National Farmers Union has estimated Britain can only produced 62% of what is required to feed the country.
Of the top 10 meat exporters to the UK in 2016, just one was outside the EU: New Zealand.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Leaving the EU provides us with an opportunity to develop gold standard policies on animal welfare. We are determined to get a good Brexit deal for Britain and we have been absolutely clear we will maintain our world-leading animal welfare standards.”