Too often we kow-tow to the WTO on animal welfare standards for fear that all we will do is export our industry to countries with lower welfare standards.
By George Eustice MP
How we treat sentient animals raised in captivity for food matters. The importance that we place on the welfare of other species on the planet is a measure of how civilised our society is. Animals feel pain and fear, they have maternal instincts. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows that they can also feel emotions such as loneliness and jealousy.
It is also an area where legislators should be prepared to act. The truth is that the public care deeply about the welfare of animals. But the paradox is that, in modern sophisticated societies, people are separated and divorced from both farming practices and the slaughter of the animals they consume.
There is a danger that the human conscience of consumers is dissipated by the simple fact that, for the majority of people, farming and slaughter processes are frankly out of sight and out of mind. The only way to bridge that gap if for legislators to exercise judgement and implement laws which recognise the ethical dimension in food production practices.
Farming is sometimes described as an "industry" but it is not just any industry. Farming is unique and unlike any other industry. It is not just about churning out a product for consumption at a given unit price, it is intrinsically linked to life itself and entwined with the very environment of which we humans are just one part. When we take that special nature of farming for granted, we end up in trouble be it through animal health problems or disease.
But in recent decades, that is exactly what has happened. Considerations such as animal welfare standards have been trumped by seemingly more important economic theories about free trade.
That is wrong. I am a Conservative and no one believes in free trade more than me. But even I can see that the concept of free trade is frankly a lower order consideration when compared to more fundamental issues such as animal welfare and the health of our environment.
All too often, moves to take a lead and improve animal welfare standards at home are stopped in their tracks by the threat that all we will do is export our industry to third world countries which have lower welfare standards. It is a fear that is entirely justified. When the UK unilaterally banned sow stalls for pig production our industry lost out to that in other countries where pigs were treated less well.
The concern that our farmers will lose out means that the policy response has traditionally been to trim our ambitions and stifle our consciences because the theory of unfettered free trade has been considered beyond challenge and seen as a principle that trumps concerns such as animal welfare.
It is time to challenge that muddled thinking. A civilised society should have a system which encourages competition to raise animal welfare standards, not competition to lower them and we should not jeopardise our farming industry simply because of some arbitrary rules set down by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Just one year ago, the Conservative party took exactly that view in there excellent document, 'A new age for agriculture'. This stated, "We will promote animal welfare at an international level and work towards the inclusion of production standards in WTO negotiations".
However, a recent response to a parliamentary question was more ambiguous. I asked, "What recent discussions the minister has had on the importance of animal welfare considerations in WTO negotiations?", the response I received was, "None. The WTO's sanitary and phytosanitary agreement only allows controls on food safety, plant and animal health grounds. While we are totally committed to improving animal welfare standards the situation is that unanimous agreement of the WTO's membership would be needed to change this to include production standards such as those relating to animal welfare. Such agreement is unlikely to be forthcoming because many of the WTO's members would regard such standards as likely to facilitate protectionism rather than trade."
I would like to know whether this position has changed, was it dropped as the price of the coalition? Surely not. Is it the case that we still intend to push welfare considerations but have not yet held the discussions to make this happen?
I want to explore further how we go about getting from A to B. I am conscious that it is easy for people to say that it is impossible to achieve change because of the difficulty of getting worldwide agreement.
There is undoubtedly a reluctance on the part of the WTO to recognise what are described as "process and production methods" or PPMs when dealing with world trade disputes but as I stated earlier, farming is unique and unlike any other industry and we must be ensure that the WTO opens its eyes to that fact.
But the truth is that the provisions already exist within the GATT. All we need is the confidence to implement them effectively.
The government is aware that there is currently much discussion within the poultry industry about the danger that the new EU legislation to improve the conditions for cage-reared birds might be implemented here but not elsewhere in Europe. This has caused much concern within the industry and I understand the government is considering banning eggs from EU countries which have not been produced to the new required legal minimum standard.
What an upside-down world it is that we can consider banning imports from other EU countries on welfare grounds when we are supposedly in a single market. But adopting a similar stance towards food produced outside the EU using processes which would be illegal in the UK is considered a debate that cannot be had.
When it comes to agriculture, a "like" product must mean products produced to the same standard of animal welfare.
I also want to touch on the issue of consumer choice. We have got ourselves into a position where we apply asymmetric legislation to our farmers and then tell them that the way to make ends meet given the new regulation applied is to try to get a premium in the market place. I think that is a cop-out.
There is an important principle here. If a farmer makes a conscience choice to adopt farming practices such as organic production which go beyond the legal minimum he does so voluntarily and having made the judgement that he will be able to command a premium in the market.
But if he is forced by law to improve animal welfare standards, then there is a responsibility on legislators to ensure that he is not exposed to unfair competition produced using practices which would be illegal in this country. Otherwise all you do is export cruelty and no one wants that.
Notwithstanding the argument I made earlier about farming practices and slaughter houses being out of sight and out of mind for most consumers, there has been a sharp increase in demand for ethically produced food in recent years. Some argue that this is the solution to the problem.
I say it proves something else. If consumers are willing to recognise that there is a difference between products based on how they are produced why can't legislators recognise the same?
It is time to modernise the WTO and the world trade system and give nation states the right to safeguard their markets against meat imports produced in third countries to less civilised standards.
Some say that such an approach risks protectionism and would undermine the interests of developing countries but that claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It does not follow that welfare standards are lower in developing countries.
In many cases, they pursue less intensive and more traditional farming practices which are better for animal welfare and in other cases, their production processes are already informally regulated by minimum requirements set down by retailers in countries like the UK.
Also the truth is that the latest Doha round has been stalled for several years anyway. Rather than leave the negotiations on opening up trade bogged down and making no progress whatsoever, why not be realists? Reconcile ourselves to the fact that farming and livestock farming in particular is a special industry and a special case for all the reasons I have identified and then that would free up the position as far as negotiations on other products is concerned.
So requiring that all export production should at least match the standards of the country for which it is destined is less radical than it sounds but could have a huge impact on culture and attitudes towards animal welfare.
George Eustice is the Conservative MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.
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