Liam Fox’s “madhouse” claims of a free trade boom after Brexit will lead to the UK flooded with lower-standard food, one of the country’s top farming union officials has warned.
Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers Union, claimed free trade was a “myth” as so many countries subsidise their agricultural sectors.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has repeatedly talked up the benefits of free trade deals with countries such as the US and Canada after the UK leaves the EU, but there are concerns over contrasting standards between Britain and farms across the Atlantic.
Speaking at a fringe event at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton on Monday evening, Smith said: “It’s a myth. There is no free trade in food in the world.”
He went on: “If you offered British farmers the chance to compete in a world where no farmers from Japan to US and Canada got any support, we’d probably say bring it on, we’ve got the chutzpah, the necessary skills, the climate, the crops, the livestock, we’ll take on anyone.
“But what we’re rightly wary of is competing against other farmers in other parts of the world who either have greater levels of support than we do, or who have lower costs because of lighter regulation and lower standards.
“That isn’t a level playing field, that isn’t an equal opportunity, that is the economics of the madhouse that will lead to us simply sucking in foods from other parts of the world produced to different standards.
“We don’t think that’s a very sensible scenario for anyone to just sign up to some ideological idea that free trade actually exists where I don’t think it does.”
Food and farming standards have risen up the political agenda after Liam Fox travelled to the US for a trade mission in July.
The International Trade Secretary grew frustrated with British journalists for repeatedly asking him about the American practice of washing poultry in chlorine – a practice banned in the EU.
Fox slammed the media for being “obsessed” with the issue after he was challenged to eat chlorine-washed chicken to show he was comfortable with the product entering the UK food market.
A clearly angry Fox told reporters: “In a debate which should be about how we make our contribution to global liberalisation and the increased prosperity of both the UK, the US and our trading partners, the complexities of those - the continuity agreements, the short-term gains that we may make, the opportunities we have and our ability to work jointly towards both a free-trade agreement and WTO liberalisation - the British media are obsessed with chlorine-washed chickens, a detail of the very end stage of one sector of a potential free trade agreement.
“I say no more than that.”
Other practices either banned or restricted in the EU but used heavily in the US include injecting growth steroids into pigs and antibiotics into cows.
While Fox appeared ambivalent to chlorine-washed chicken entering the food marker, Defra Secretary Michael Gove was clear the Government would not lower the UK’s food standards as part of any free trade deals.
Responding to the comments from Smith, a Government spokesperson said: “Maintaining safety and public confidence in the food we eat is of the highest priority and any future trade deal must work for UK farmers, businesses, and consumers.
“Any new products wishing to enter the UK market must comply with our rigorous legislation and standards – we will not compromise on animal welfare and food safety.”