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Health and agriculture campaigners have urged the UK government to not compromise safety standards as part of a new India trade deal

The UK’s upcoming trade deal with India is set to expose British food sectors to “large amounts of toxic chemicals”, activists have claimed.

UK consumers and farmers should be “particularly concerned” about a forthcoming deal with the south Asian country as its food exports “regularly contain high and even illegal levels of pesticides residues”, health and farming campaigners have warned.

A group of industry campaigners, including Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK and Sustain, has urged the government to not compromise food safety standards as part of negotiations for the new India Free Trade Agreement.

“We saw the government sell British farmers down the river with the Australia deal,” PAN UK’s head of policy Josie Cohen said. “The impact of a similar agreement with India – one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters – will be much greater.”

Many pesticides that are currently banned from appearing in food in the UK are permitted in India – for instance, Indian regulation allows fruit & veg to contain residues of chlorpyrifos and malathion, both of which are not allowed in the UK or the EU.

Indian basmati rice regularly gets rejected by importing countries due to pesticide residues that exceed the permitted limits, PAN said.

It was “highly likely that a rise in Indian food exports incentivised by the deal will result in the increased exposure of UK consumers to harmful pesticides”, it claimed, particularly “with the UK border control system under-resourced and in flux” due to Brexit.

The deal could turn “significant” health risks to the UK public into a “competitive advantage for Indian agribusiness over our own farmers”, also warned Sustain’s head of sustainable farming Vicki Hird.

“A deal with one of the world’s largest agri-producers risks undermining the considerable efforts being made to ensure UK farming is more sustainable – we must get the details right.”

Read more: Food safety at ‘huge risk’ as EU laws set to expire

PAN added India has a “long history of attempting to weaken pesticide standards” in the EU and a “track record of obstructing international efforts on pesticides”.

It voiced fears that UK border controls have not seen any rise in investment nor staff capacity in the pesticide residue testing team since Brexit – “as a result, it is unlikely that the UK has the infrastructure and resources required to adequately test produce imported from India for pesticide residues”.

Greenpeace’s head of politics Rebecca Newsom also said the UK government should be wary of “creating a race to the bottom” that undermines food safety rules when negotiating new trade deals post-Brexit.

“In its rush to sign trade deals, the government must be sure it’s not in a race to the bottom on environmental standards.

“The government has promised to put the environment at the very heart of trade deals, so any suggestion to the contrary would be very concerning – for consumers, British farmers and the environment. This an opportunity to enhance environmental standards around the world, not to sell them down river.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have strict statutory limits for pesticide residue levels on imported food and a robust programme of monitoring. 

“An FTA with India won’t change this – products which don’t meet our requirements won’t be permitted to enter the UK market and we will not compromise our high food standards.” 

It comes as the UK approaches the December 2023 deadline for either keeping or ditching EU food safety laws it carried over from its time in the bloc.

As The Grocer reported earlier this year, the government has previously been under pressure to keep currently banned flour additives from making their way to UK supermarkets as part of potential trade deals with countries like the US, China and Brazil, where those chemicals are allowed.