Prime minister Boris Johnson has told Britain's farmers his government "won't compromise" on safeguarding food and animal welfare standards.
Johnson made the pledge at the virtual National Farmers' Union (NFU) conference on Tuesday, in a bid to ease growing concerns in recent years that standards could be eroded.
The government's Brexit deal has given the UK significantly greater freedom to diverge from EU rules on areas including food and animal welfare.
Farming leaders and opposition parties fear the government could cave into pressure to downgrade standards in order to secure trade deals with countries such as the US. Alarm over potential chlorinated chicken exports or hormone-treated beef from the US has sparked particular controversy.
But Johnson said in a short pre-recorded video message to the conference the government was committed to "high quality produce to a high standard."
Watch: Boris Johnson thanks farmers for work during pandemic
"We won't compromise on high animal protection, animal welfare and food standards," he said. He added that the pandemic had raised public appreciation of farmers' work, and offered a "heartfelt thank you" for keeping supermarkets stocked and the country fed.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, highlighted the strength of public alarm over British food standards being undermined by cheap imports in her own speech, however.
Prime Minister @BorisJohnson begins his recorded message for NFU members with a “heartfelt thank you” for the role that British farmers played in keeping the nation fed through the challenges of the past year. #NFU21 pic.twitter.com/85rJ47om92
— National Farmers' Union (@NFUtweets) February 23, 2021
She said more than a million people had signed its petition on the issue in just a fortnight last year, with 80,000
writing to their MPs. The campaign had led to the government establishing a trade and agriculture commission, making agriculture "the only sector" to have secured such oversight to ensure trade deals did not penalise it.
"Believe me when I say that this commission was the most important thing we achieved in the last year – we could have the best future agricultural policy in the world, but if our own farming is out-competed by cheap imports of food illegal to produce here then we would have no industry," said Batters.
Johnson also said the government wanted to further promote consumption of British produce in the UK and abroad. Meanwhile freedom from the "shackles" of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) meant farming could become profitable, sustainable, productive and resilient, he said.
The UK's ability to set its own agricultural subsidy policies meant it could focus more on protecting the countryside, natural environment and animal health and welfare, he added.
George Eustice, minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, set out further details in a speech on how new subsidies replacing EU grants would be linked to such public goods, rather than based on land size. "The era of top-down EU rules is over," he said.
Three schemes will be launched, with farmers able to apply for funds aimed at protecting the environment, natural habitats and flood management, or landscapes such as forests and wetlands.
He announced farmers would be able to express interest within weeks as the sustainable farming incentive (SFI), focused on environmental measures, is piloted. Further schemes will be launched "in the years ahead" including one targeted at animal health and welfare, he added.
In a press conference after the speech he said the government was "exploring" paying farmers for higher animal welfare systems, such as free range. "At the moment we expect the market to provide the premium to justify that, and people have to hope consumers will pay that additional premium. They do on some but not all."
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