Food standards must be maintained and written into UK law, the Lords have told the UK government.
Concern has grown over weakening food standards as a means to help secure trade deals with other countries following the UK leaving the EU.
Political and public support has gathered pace, as has campaigning among interest groups for food, environmental and animal welfare standards. Celebrities have even been attracted to the cause.
Last night the Lords succeeded in adding an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to ensure food products coming into the UK should be of the same standards as those produced within it. The Agriculture Bill will now have a formal reading, before going back to the Commons (known as 'ping-pong') where the Commons could block the amendment.
The UK government has repeatedly claimed that additional legislation to protect standards is not needed as it is already protected in law. However, leaks in the mainstream press about current trade talks have undermined this argument.
Sustain sustainable farming campaign coordinator Vicki Hird said: “This is a big step in the right direction by the Lords in terms of agri-food imports standards. They’ve put the government in a difficult spot as the Trade and Agriculture Commission is clearly not seen as an adequate alternative to having a statutory set of red lines saying our food standards should not to be undermined in trade deals.
“But it now goes to MPs where the government majority holds sway. This vital amendment may fall if Conservatives fail to respond to the unprecedented wave of opposition to lower standard food imports. The public care about their health, animal welfare, farmers’ survival and animal welfare. MPs ignore that at their peril.”
Five amendments were voted through. 89ZA, ensuring agricultural and food imports meet domestic standards, was voted through by peers with a majority of 95 (307 to 212). Amendments to limit pesticide use to protect public health, and to ensure agriculture and associated land contribute to climate change targets were also voted through.
Friends of the Earth trade campaigner Kierra Box said: “It's a really positive step that the Lords have realised that it's important that government promises to maintain and uphold and improve legislation are all written into law. And we were very supportive of amendments, both to guarantee standards in primary legislation, but also to increase the levels of scrutiny across all kinds of future changes.
“It's a really great step. But the problem is that this is the Lords and it is not the Commons and government have not shown themselves really very willing to compromise, and to put legislative weight behind the warm words of earlier this year. So I think it's going to be a long fight. I would not be surprised if ping-pong lives up to its name and there is some back and forth.”
Box argued that last year the Lords were able to secure changes in the trade bill on scrutiny when there was similar strength of feeling, and said she hoped this strength of feeling is also exhibited around import standards.
She added: “The real fight will be when we see what the debates are like in the Commons and if there's enough support, which hopefully there is from Conservatives, willing to put those words into some kind of legal action. Then we should see some good debates.
“Hopefully, if those debates don't result in this amendment being carried as is, then what we need to see at that point is the government accepting that they need to make concessions here.
“They need to be proposing how they are going to legally guarantee standards if the methods that are proposed in these amendments aren't seen as fit for purpose by government - a lot of their argument has been around technical operability.
“Then they need to begin proposing, at that point, how they will make these promises technically operable, because if they can't do that, they really shouldn't have put these guarantees in the manifesto.”