Government urged to implement Core Environmental Standards for food imports and trade

A new report from WWF has urged the Government to introduce a set of Core Environmental Standards (CES) to cover all imports and trade deals, to ensure UK farmers aren’t undermined and that the UK reduces the chance of incentivising harming environmental practices overseas.

Government urged to implement Core Environmental Standards for food imports and trade

The states that a CES would safeguard the UK against bad farming practices overseas

The new report from WWF, published on Thursday (1 December) recommends that the Government creates a CES that would apply to food imports from overseas. The aim of the CES is to ensure that imports are aligned with existing standards for UK farmers, which in turn would reduce the risk that imports come from harmful environmental practices overseas.

“We import almost half the food we consume in the UK, yet we have no standards that cover the environmental impact of its production”, the report states. “This risks the UK giving incentives to environmentally harmful practices overseas and undermining UK producers, especially as trade deals are signed, reducing tariffs and quotas for agri-food imports without any environmental standards or conditions.”

The report argues that without a CES set, UK trade agreements could actually incentivise harmful environmental practices, as it would offer a zero tariff, zero quota market access for food. However, the UK has existing food standards for UK farmers and growers and WWF believes these should be mirrored in the CES.

UK farmers comply with various legal requirements to protect animal welfare and protect soils, habitats and water quality and WWF has urged the Government to transpose these into new CES for international imports. These standards would then apply to all of UK trade, whether under a trade deal or not.

WWF is also promoting a flexible approach to standard setting, stating that requirements should be reviewed regularly to either improve best practice or account for externalities.

WWF-UK’s director of policy solutions Angela Francis said: “The UK has the opportunity to use its new powers as an independent trading nation to align its trade and environmental objectives but, instead, it has opened up access to UK’s lucrative food market to global environmental laggards, undermining those UK producers,  who already doing the right thing for climate and nature.

“The UK Government could still fix this by setting national core standards, including environmental standards, for all foods sold here. That would show that the Government is serious about delivering on its climate and nature promises, safeguarding the high standards UK farmers are already required to meet and UK consumers really value. Setting those standards would also ensure UK demand is supporting the shift to safer, more sustainable food production and cutting our impact on precious landscapes elsewhere in the world.”

Agriculture in international trade has been a hot topic in the environmental space, following the UK-Australia Trade deal last year.

Last year, Government trade advisers led by the then Trade Secretary Liz Truss called for greater free trade for low-carbon technologies amid the net-zero transition, but green groups argue that poorly regulated free trade has been a major driver of the climate emergency in the first instance.

The advisers claimed that they would compare the footprint of commodities like beef and lamb from different countries. In a report, the advisors outlined how climate change could disrupt trade patterns in food and agriculture, with some regions set to see a major decrease in crop yields, outlining how agri-tech imports and exports could form part of the solution.

But green groups including WWF stated that more information on the total environmental footprint of agriculture, encompassing biodiversity loss as well as emissions, is needed – and that core environmental standard for all trade deals are necessary both for the net-zero transition and for the UK economy.

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