United Kingdom

Animal welfare 'at risk' from post-Brexit trade deal with US, warns conservation charity WWF

The world's largest conservation organisation has warned of an 'unedifying race to the bottom' in food standards if British farmers are forced to compete with inferior foreign imports.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF-UK) has thrown its support behind The Mail on Sunday's campaign to protect welfare and environmental practices in the post-Brexit trade deal with the US.

Chief executive Tanya Steele said a failure to ban low-standard imports would lead to the 'driving down of environmental standards, the decimation of our farming community and our natural environment'.

WWF have warned of the horrors of 'industrial scale mega farms' in the US, where there are 'sheds filled with tens of thousands of pigs, cows and sheep crammed together in poor conditions' (file photo)

She added: 'In opening our borders to imports without legal protection to ensure they do not undermine our own higher environmental standards, we'd contribute to environmental and health problems overseas and force British farmers to make a terrible choice.

'Namely, to compete in an unedifying race to the bottom or go out of business.' There are fears that the UK could be flooded with mass-produced chlorine-washed chicken and beef pumped full of hormones.

Both practices are rife in the US but have been banned for decades in the EU.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has previously called animal welfare law in the US 'woefully deficient' and Ministers have repeatedly said they will not undermine current standards in any trade deals.

The WWF-UK has added its voice to this newspaper's Save Our Family Farms campaign, with Ms Steele warning about the horrors of 'industrial scale mega farms'.

She highlighted the fact that in the US there are 'vast sheds filled with tens of thousands of pigs, cows and sheep crammed together in poor conditions and raised to produce cheap meat at incredible quantities, using methods and in conditions which we don't currently allow in the UK'.

One pig farm in Missouri, she said, has permission to house 79,488 animals – making it around 346 per cent larger than the biggest pig farm in the UK.

'Currently, we have protections that stop UK farms from becoming so large they cause environmental damage from air, water and land pollution.

Chief executive Tanya Steele (above) said a failure to ban low-standard imports in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US would lead to the 'driving down of environmental standards'

'But if we allow… a flood of cheap, intensively produced, hormone-treated meat from the US, the only way our farmers could compete on price is to vastly increase their production – leading to the creation of our own mega farms. This would mean either abandoning basic environmental and welfare standards, or keeping our protections in place, which would then price British farmers out.'

A petition launched by the National Farmers' Union and backed by The Mail on Sunday to demand that food be produced to world-leading standards has so far attracted more than one million signatures.

The WWF-UK is also running a Don't Trade Our Planet campaign, which calls on the Government to enshrine in law a commitment to importing foods that do not rely on unsustainable farming, the destruction of nature and animals being kept in disease-ridden conditions.

Ms Steele added: 'Ultimately, if our farmers can't compete, they will lose their livelihoods and have to sell up – leaving only the biggest corporate farms with animals kept indoors and fed on imported soy able to operate in the UK.

'It would destroy the landscapes that have been nurtured by farming families for generations.'

You can find the petition by clicking here. 

Forcing our farmers at home to compete with cheap imports by increasing intensive production would mean dire consequences for British wildlife habitats and for our health, says WWF-UK chief executive Tanya Steele 

In the last four months, as our lives have been lived mostly indoors and normality has paused, we have found moments of enjoyment in the simple things.

We have found ourselves reconnecting with the nature around us, and watched as nature has reclaimed some of our spaces while we have been absent. We have learned to value its importance in our lives, and many of us have talked of the need to hold onto that as life returns to whatever ‘normal’ means.

The roots of this pandemic have also shone a light on the way we are fundamentally connected with nature, and that what happens on one side of the world can devastate lives on the other.

And yet as the country rebuilds from the ravages of this health crisis while also trying to forge its independent path in the world, the decisions we make could affect our natural environment for many years to come.

Brexit means that we will be shaping our own trade policy and trade deals for the first time in 50 years – and we have a choice to make about whether those deals will celebrate and safeguard nature, or contribute to its destruction.

Brexit means that we will be shaping our own trade policy and trade deals for the first time in 50 years – and we have a choice to make about whether those deals will celebrate and safeguard nature, or contribute to its destruction (file photo) 

The Government is right now trying to strike a trade deal with the US that would, based on the Department for International Trade’s own assessment, only save the average UK household a maximum of around £8 a year. The deal would, at most, lead to a 0.16% increase in our GDP over the next fifteen years. To put that in context, a UK business contributing £100,000 to the economy each year might hope to see that increase by £160 by 2035.

But this meagre benefit is far outstripped by the vast potential cost - the driving down of environmental standards, the decimation of our farming community, and our natural environment both here at home and in fragile ecosystems overseas driven ever closer to the brink.

In opening our borders to imports without legal protection to ensure they do not undermine our own higher environmental standards, we contributing to environmental and health problems overseas and we are forcing British farmers to make a terrible choice. To compete, in an unedifying race to the bottom, or go out of business.

In parts of the US, industrial scale megafarms have been a breeding ground for diseases. Vast sheds filled with tens of thousands of pigs, cows and sheep crammed together in poor conditions and raised to produce cheap meat at incredible quantities, using methods and in conditions we don’t currently allow in the UK.

The largest megafarm in the US is an 800 square acre beef farm, bigger than the City of London. One pig farm in Missouri has permission to house 79,488 pigs – that's around 346% larger than the biggest pig farm in the UK. It’s a breathtaking scale - Old Trafford holds 74,879 people.

The by-products from these megafarms, the giant piles of manure from thousands of animals, have to go somewhere. So places like North Carolina have become home to vast stinking pits and lagoons of animal manure, blighting the landscape and putting the health of some of the area’s poorest communities at risk.

Right now there are protections in place that stop UK farms from becoming so large they cause environmental damage from air, water and land pollution.

But if we allow the import of a flood of cheap, intensively produced, hormone-treated meat from the US, the only way our farmers could compete on price is to vastly increase their production – our very own megafarms. In order for these to exist we would have to abandon basic environmental and welfare standards, or keep our protections in place, which will then price British farmers out.

In a country the size of the UK, dealing with the environmental impacts of industrial scale farming out of sight and smell of human habitation would be a tall order. Huge industrial farms packed with animals could spring up ever closer to our towns and villages, bringing with them the risk of air and water contamination that has been well documented across the Atlantic. 

One pig farm in Missouri has permission to house 79,488 pigs – that's around 346% larger than the biggest pig farm in the UK (file photo)

Our natural environment and our wildlife in the UK have already been the victims of changing farming methods over the years, and the UK is already one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Mass industrialisation of farming over the past century wiped out many of the wildflowers whose seeds are a vital food source for species already in terminal decline, from turtle doves to tree sparrows. Our hedgehog numbers have plummeted by half since 2000 as we have lost hedgerows to intensive farming.

We’re turning that around. British farmers have been increasingly focused on transforming their farming methods with smarter, cleaner, high-welfare practices that make them true custodians of our iconic landscapes. And with Brexit, we can finally get rid of the Common Agricultural Policy and instead properly reward our farmers for protecting our precious countryside and restoring nature.

Throwing all that away for £8 a year would be a very bad deal.

Forcing our farmers at home to compete with cheap imports by increasing intensive production would mean dire consequences for our British wildlife habitats and for our health.

We know that the roots of pandemics like Covid-19 lie in humanity’s destruction of habitats and intensification of farming, which is driving humans and wildlife closer together and creating the perfect storm for the next global health crisis. Over the last 30 years, between 60 and 70 per cent of new diseases in humans had animal origin, and land conversion for farming has caused 70 per cent of planetary biodiversity loss. Today, soy and beef farming are driving the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at an ever-increasing rate.

Ultimately if our farmers can’t compete, they will lose their livelihoods and have to sell up – leaving only the biggest corporate farms with animals kept indoors and fed on imported soy able to operate in the UK. It would destroy the landscapes that have been nurtured by farming families for generations.

It’s been nearly fifty years since the UK was in charge of its own trade deals and agricultural policies. As we find our own path, let’s say no to a race to the bottom that puts our future health and our environment at risk.

It’s great that the Government has promised that it won’t give away our high standards and our planet in trade deals – but that’s a political promise, vulnerable to breaking under pressure in what we know are going to be some tough negotiations. Our farmers, our planet and our future generations need better protections.

We need a legal requirement that the products we import must meet our high environmental standards. That would protect the quality and safety of our food, help our farming community to survive and thrive, and help us protect our natural world.

There are laws going through Parliament right now that could put that in place. We must say no to products and practices that are already driving the destruction of nature elsewhere, and that if allowed in would wreck our rural communities and our countryside.

That’s why WWF is running the Don’t Trade Our Planet campaign, to show the Government that British consumers don’t want food on their plates or goods on their shelves that have contributed to environmental destruction overseas, and that don’t meet our own high standards.

Join us and tell Liz Truss and Number 10 that we don’t want trade deals that wreck our countryside, that threaten our green and pleasant land at home, or that put the future health of our planet at risk. 

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