US trade deal: a threat to British farmers?

Are you a Waitrose Conservative or a Lidl free marketeer? That’s the question dividing Tory politicians as the Government seeks a potential trade deal with the US, said Katy Balls in The Guardian. The priority of the so-called Waitrose set – which includes Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Environment Secretary George Eustice – is to protect British farmers and resist any dilution to animal welfare or environmental standards. By contrast, the Lidl free marketeers such as International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak prioritise boosting trade and getting cheaper food on our shelves. It is, in essence, the same split that divided the Tories back in the mid-19th century, when Robert Peel abolished the Corn Laws that prevented Britain importing cheaper grain. The ensuing schism kept the party out of power for 28 years.

Britain must protect its agriculture sector, said Jimmy Doherty in The Mail on Sunday. If we sign a deal with the US that allows in chlorinewashed chicken, and hormone-pumped beef produced in vast concrete feedlots housing tens of thousands of cows, it will “make a mockery of everything British farmers have been trying to do for 20 years” with regards to producing sustainable, traceable, high-quality food. Our farmers would have to lower their welfare standards to compete or risk going bust. Europe would then stop buying our produce. We surely should have learnt by now that price is not everything when it comes to food.

But what we should also have learnt from history is that free trade ultimately benefits everyone, said Robert Colvile in The Sunday Times. We have little to lose and much to gain from a deal with the US. As Truss and Eustice reminded MPs in a joint letter, chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef are banned here under food safety standards and “would effectively remain so without further legislation”. And since beef is actually no cheaper in America, “British lamb is more likely to invade America than US burgers to conquer Britain”. With talks on a free trade agreement with the EU still gridlocked, the Government really needs to land a deal with the US, said Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph. It’s exploring the idea of a halfway-house arrangement under which we’d open up to US food imports, but impose a levy on those that didn’t meet our higher standards – yet it’s hard to see that working. In the end, you either trust in free trade, with all its risks and opportunities, or you don’t. Boris Johnson faces “the age-old choice for Tory prime ministers: farmers or consumers? It will be hard to placate both, as Peel discovered.”