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The greatest threat to farm animal welfare standards after Brexit would come from UK farmers competing against cheap, imported food from countries that produce to lower standards than the UK.
A report from the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment sub-committee says that the Government’s desire for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards.
The report published on 25 July says that the UK currently has some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world and there is cross-sector support for maintaining those high standards after Brexit.
“UK producers are rightly proud of these standards, and there is cross-sector support for maintaining high levels of farm animal welfare after Brexit. In order to deliver on its commitment to preserving these standards, the Government must transpose existing EU law on farm animal welfare into domestic law so as to be effective on day one after Brexit,” the report says.
“Thereafter, the Government, in consultation with the industry, consumers and other relevant stakeholders, will be able to consider whether to improve these standards.
“Scientific evidence and advice should be at the heart of any farm animal welfare policy decisions, and the Government must ensure that withdrawal from the EU does not lead to a shortfall in funding for farm animal welfare research.
“The Government must also bear in mind that while high farm animal welfare standards can be a selling point for UK producers, they also increase the cost of production.”
The report finds that the demand for high-welfare products is ultimately driven by whether consumers prioritise purchasing those products, at added cost, rather than buying cheaper, lower-welfare products.
The Committee found that consumers are not always aware of the difference between production systems or willing to pay a higher price for premium welfare products.
This could exacerbate the challenge to UK farmers’ competitiveness arising from a potential increase in cheaper imports produced to lower welfare standards.
The report also found there is an overwhelming reliance on non-UK EU citizens to fill crucial official veterinary positions in the UK. The Committee calls on the Government to ensure that the industry is able to retain or recruit qualified staff to fill these roles post-Brexit.
“Skilled veterinary staff on farms, in abattoirs and during transport play a key role in inspecting the health and wellbeing of animals. As the UK leaves the EU Single Market and customs union, the need for veterinary certification related to trade may rise significantly,” the report says.
“Yet the UK agri-food sector relies heavily on workers from other EU countries, in particular as veterinary staff.
“The Government must therefore make sure the industry continues to have access to the staff and the skills that it needs to support good welfare and certify products for exports.”
Chair of the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, Lord Teverson said: “The UK has some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world and UK producers are rightly proud of those. We see no reason why Brexit should diminish those, as long as the Government is aware of the challenges ahead and acts accordingly.
“We heard evidence of undeniable concern that opening up the UK market to free global trade poses a number of issues. As we said in our last report, Brexit: agriculture, the Government may find it hard to reconcile its free trade ambitions with its commendable desire for preserving high farm animal welfare standards.
“We heard overwhelming support for farm animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved. To help achieve that, we urge the Government to secure the inclusion of high farm animal welfare standards in any free trade agreements it negotiates after Brexit.
“Whilst Brexit provides the UK with the unique opportunity to review and potentially improve farm animal welfare standards, the Government will need to consider the effect of increasing standards on the competitiveness of UK producers as well the future trading relationship with the EU.”