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Call for core environmental standards for food imports

The UK government must introduce core environmental standards (CES) to prevent environmentally damaging imports entering the UK market, according to a new report by WWF.

The charity warned that despite the UK importing almost half the food it consumes, there are no standards that cover the environmental impact of how that food is produced.

“The UK has the opportunity to use its new powers as an independent trading nation to align its trade and environmental objectives but, instead, it has opened up access to [its] lucrative food market to global environmental laggards, undermining those UK producers who already doing the right thing for climate and nature,” said Angela Francis, director of policy solutions at WWF.  

The standards would set minimum sustainability requirements for imports, comparable to those in the UK, ensuring trade does not compromise UK farmers and is in line with UK consumers’ values. Core standards would be based on those in existing UK legislation and regulation and would apply across the board to all of UK trade, whether under a trade deal or 

Not, the charity said.

Without the standards, UK trade agreements risk incentivising harmful environmental practices overseas by offering zero-tariff, zero-quota market access for food produced in ways which would be illegal in the UK.  

Francis said: “We need to take action now to support those farmers, both at home and overseas, who are working hard to develop resilient and sustainable farming that provides nutritious food for all.”

Farmers Weekly reported that delays to the rollout of the government’s environmental land management schemes are causing anxiety across the sector. There is even concern that some farmers may pursue intensive farming as a more financially attractive option than entering ELM.

Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said farmers were “desperate” for leadership from the government on how it sees nature and food working together. Others warned that the decline in nature could accelerate if the government continues to dither and delay.

Speaking at this week’s ‘Farming for food and nature’ conference, Natural England chair Tony Juniper raised concerns about the growing calls to intensify agricultural output following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

He highlighted how some commentators are “claiming we need to prioritise food security over nature in order to maintain food supplies. It is of course right for questions to be asked about the extent to which making more space for species and habitats will mean less space for farming,” he explained, “but it is also vital that we find answers based on evidence and rooted in reality. When we do that then it is clear that we must, and can, do both – restoring nature whilst also feeding ourselves.”