UK’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal ‘risks encouraging hugely destructive agriculture’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on Friday (31 March) that the UK is joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after some two years of negotiations. This is the UK’s biggest post-Brexit trade deal to date and paves the way for increased trading with nations including Australia, Japan and Mexico.

The UK Parliament, and the governments of the 11 other members of the CPTPP, are expected to ratify the deal later this year, given that the UK is the first non-founding member of the bloc.

British Ministers claim that the deal will generate £1.8bn of extra income for the UK within a decade, on top of income it already expects from existing bilateral trade deals with some members. This is still not sufficient to stem the 4% reduction in potential economic growth for the UK that the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast.

Trading food and drink is the primary purpose of the CPTPP, but other industries including automotive, services and technology are also covered.

The UK Government has claimed that the agreement “protects the UK’s vital industries and entities” and “upholds high animal welfare and food safety standards”. Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch has also argued that there would be no adverse impact to UK infrastructure, but, instead, that British farmers would have “new markets” for their products.

But some groups working on ethics and the environment want to see more information on exactly how UK producers won’t be undercut by cheap imports produced to lower standards.

WWF’s director of policy solutions Angela Francis said: “By joining the CPTPP, the UK Government is encouraging hugely destructive agriculture, which would be illegal in the UK, into our market. This announcement risks more imports of food produced in ways that drive deforestation, use harmful pesticides, or rely on unregulated fishing practices – all of which undermine the high standards UK producers are already required to meet.

“There are currently no environmental standards on food imported into the UK, and the Government must fix this by implementing a set of core environmental standards.”

There are also questions about the worker rights implications of the CPTPP. The TUC has raised questions about trade with Malaysia, given evidence of forced labour, and with markets like Vietnam, which do not allow workers to unionise

The UK Government vowed in early 2022 to more thoroughtly assess the environmental impact of free trade agreements going forward, but has not implemented overarching standards applicable to all deals. edie contacted the Departments responsible for trade and food for information on the assessment of the impact of the CPTPP in environmental terms.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business and Trade said: “The Government shares the public’s high regard for the UK’s environmental protections, and we have been clear that we will not compromise on these in our Free Trade Agreements, including CPTPP. Decisions on environmental standards remain a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreements.

“CPTPP includes an extensive environment chapter, where all parties have signed up to provisions to cooperate on addressing deforestation, and several commitments on sustainable fishing including preventing overfishing and overcapacity, and tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

The environment chapter includes a right for participating countries to regulate in line with their own levels of domestic environmental commitments, including on net-zero and biodiversity.

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