Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers has sought to allay farmers' fears that British food standards could be undermined in a post-Brexit rush to secure new trade deals.
British farmers have raised serious concerns that the farming industry could be sacrificed to seal trade deals with countries like the United States.
Industry groups have been strenuously lobbying to ensure that the UK market is not thrown open to lower standard food imports.
At Wednesday's (8 January) Oxford Farming Conference, Villiers insisted that high standards would be maintained after Brexit, telling delegates that backing better standards was a core part of the government's approach.
“We can maintain and, indeed, enhance UK standards as we negotiate new trading relationships with friends and neighbours in the EU and other leading global economies,” she said.
“I will continue to work with you and others across the food and farming sector as these negotiations progress to understand your concerns to make sure your voice is heard loud and clear at the negotiating table in international forums,” she said.
“Please be reassured. We hear this. We will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality and grounded in our shared national values.
“We will not dilute our strong environmental protections. We will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.”
She insisted that the government would defend the UK's national interests strongly and it would be prepared to walk away from trade negotiations if that was in the national interest.
However, the Secretary of State's reassurance fell short of NFU demands for promises to be enshrined in law.
Speaking at the same conference, NFU president Minette Batters called on the government to commit to introducing a food standards commission to scrutinise future trade deals.
She said the NFU would never accept British farmers being put out of business because of a trade deal that allowed imports of food that would be illegal for farmers to produce in the UK.
A new food standards commission must be a fundamental part of how the government approached trade deals and should be backed by legislation in the Agriculture Bill, she said.
It needed the ability to scrutinise proposals in trade deals and make recommendations on the UK’s future food trade policy to ensure that UK farming’s high production standards would not be undermined, with a requirement for the government to act on these recommendations, said the NFU president.
“This year will be the greatest reset for our food and farming system since the 1940s and the decisions made by this government will be felt for decades to come.
“We must once again recognise that there is nothing more important to our economy, our health and our environment than the very food we eat.”