Devon, Cornwall and Somerset farmers could lose business to imported GM foods and produce made to lower standards under a new “toxic” trade deal with the United States, critics have said.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), negotiated between the European Union and the US, is poised to be the largest bilateral agreement ever secured.
The British government argues the deal is worth up to £10 billion a year to the UK, with the South West region enjoying a dividend of £1.5 billion annually, with key sectors including farming and food and drink likely to benefit most.
But some MPs and MEPs and campaign groups are fearful of environmental standards and workers’ rights being watered down.
Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West, said the “toxic deal” being thrashed out at “secret briefings” could have a “devastating effect” on farming in the region.
She argues food products allowed in the US such as chemically washed poultry, livestock treated with growth hormones and genetically modified (GM) crops could be sold in the UK.
She said: “TTIP could have a devastating effect on the region’s many small scale farmers.
“Food products such as chemically washed poultry, livestock treated with growth hormones and genetically modified crops – all allowed in the US – could be sold in the UK.
“This would severely undermine farmers in the South West who adhere to the higher European standards on animal welfare and food quality and are leading the way in implementing sustainable farming practices.”
But the Department for Business, which has launched a campaign to promote the benefits of the TTIP following the wave of criticism, argues it is a “myth” the deal will lower food standards.
Officials say it will be easier for food producers on either side of the Atlantic to export, but only if they conform to each other’s rules on food standards and crops.
They claim the cost of British food and drink exporters complying with US regulations and tariffs is the equivalent to a 13% tax.
The EU and the US began detailed negotiations in 2013 and the aim is to increase transatlantic trade partly by getting rid of tariffs and agreeing common rules and regulations, so that products made in one continent can be exported to the other without requiring significant changes.
Eliminating these differences will make trade with the US much easier, in particular for small businesses, ministers say.
The TTIP would also ensure similar rules on how governments buy products or services from the private sector, and similar rules regarding employee rights and protecting the environment.
But trade unions fear that common employment laws will mean European workers have less protection than they do now and warn that the treaty could lead to privatisation of the NHS.
Dr Scott Cato, elected as the region’s first Green MEP earlier this year, said one aspect of the deal – Investor State Dispute Settlements, which she claims would give multi-nationals corporations the right to sue governments – is the “most disturbing”.
She said: “This has the potential to seriously undermine democracy and allow corporate powers to lock-in the privatisation of public services, particularly health services including the NHS.”
She also claims the benefits trumpeted are a “statistical conjuring act”.
In a briefing with journalists, Business Minister Lord Livingston insisted the South West will benefit from the trade deal, saying it would slash red tape for businesses, create jobs, increase wages and boost the economy.
For example, when a car is approved as safe in the EU, it has to undergo a new approval procedure in the US even though the safety standards are similar.
Lord Livingston, former BT boss, said: “This is a very big prize, removing most tariffs so that more companies will be able to trade with the United States.
“We are trying to bring standards together, not reduce them.”