ENVIRONMENT Secretary Theresa Villiers has sought to reassure farmers in Oxford that high food standards will be protected as the UK seeks trade deals after Brexit.

Concerns have been raised that food produced to lower environmental and welfare standards than are permitted in the UK will be allowed into the country – undercutting domestic agriculture.

But Ms Villiers told the Oxford Farming Conference today: "Our strong British brand is built on high standards to which we hold ourselves.

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"We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare."

The Environment Secretary also set out plans in her to start paying farmers for 'public goods' such as boosting nature and tackling climate change.

It is a move away from subsidies mostly paid for the amount of land that a given landowner uses for farming.

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters told the conference that 2020 is 'about getting Brexit right'.

She said: "Be under no illusion, we face the greatest reset in agricultural policy since the 1940s."

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It comes amid trying times for the entire farming industry, with concerns about the environment, climate change and meat consumption.

Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett said changes to agriculture were needed to tackle 'nature and climate emergencies', including lower pesticide use, growing more trees and reducing meat consumption.

And he warned: "We could and hopefully will have the very best farming practices here in this country for producing good nutritious food, and protecting biodiversity and tackling the climate and given a really good strong fair return to our farmers for doing that, but trade trumps everything.

"We could have the best system here in this country but if we do trade deals with other countries that allows imports of food that have been produced to lower standards, that will undercut our farmers and be devastating for industry.

In a question and answer session at the conference, a straw poll suggested delegates were not convinced the Government would defend their interests in international talks.

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Pressed on the issue, Ms Villiers said there would be an armoury of tariffs that would make sure that the UK can maintain standards and that imports do not undercut them.

Ms Villiers was challenged on how the Government plans to ensure high environmental standards in the UK and support British farmers to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, while negotiating with the US which is not prepared to address climate change in the talks.

She said: "We will certainly continue to advocate on this with the Americans and also via WTO and other international forums.

"Environmental considerations should play a much greater role in trade negotiations."

She added that the WTO should be reformed to better reflect concerns on both climate change and animal welfare.

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Mr Bennett said it was "an absolute disgrace" that the US had pulled out of the international Paris Agreement on climate change and warned: "If global Britain is to mean anything, we should not be doing trade deals with any country that is not signed up to the Paris Agreement."

Asked if she was convinced by the Environment Secretary's reassurances, Ms Batters told the PA news agency that she wanted to see legislation in the Agriculture Bill that protects UK standards.

"The bit that concerns me is that, if the manifesto commitment is to be honoured, the legislation must be in the Agriculture Bill, it must be set down on the UK statute book in the long term," she said.