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With momentous decisions being made in Parliament this week, we asked trade expert, Vicki Hird, of Sustain to explain the latest implications for our food and farming sectors.

The media are abnormally keen to discuss trade deals, revelling in talk about chlorine-washed chickens or tariff impacts on food prices as well as government infighting. Such profile for normally arcane trade issues has led to the US ambassador to the UK writing polemics in the Sunday papers, and hundreds of thousands writing in to UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s consultation about trade policy. This higher level of citizen scrutiny in what and how we trade globally can only be a good thing after decades of leaving it largely to the EU to sort; but only if it leads to better policy.

When it comes to food, the potential for new deals with other countries means food may flood in at standards potentially lower than ours. Recent comments by the US Ambassador Robert Woody Johnson IV, that the US has higher food standards and lower food poisoning, were greeted with derision and quickly disproved. The US is extremely keen to lower their deficit by exporting more food to the UK (and as a possible bridge to the huge EU market) yet Sustain research unearthed food poisoning rates in the US of between up to six times and ten times the rate in the UK. In addition, the US uses five times as much antibiotics per animal than the UK as well as livestock hormones and pesticides banned across the EU. 

Yet this is not just about unsafe food but about whole systems of rearing, growing, processing, transporting and labelling food; what chemicals are used, what health and safety and wages the workers get, how much consumers know about the production of the food or what is in it. Obligingly, the US in particular is very specific and open about what rules they want to remove and UK Secretary of State for Food and Farming Michael Gove has had to repeat many times to farmers and the public “... that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure the standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.”

Food prices are also top news fodder and there is much debate about whether we need to cut tariffs (import taxes) on imported foodstuffs once we leave the EU to avoid price hikes, or impose tariffs and at what level, to protect UK farmers. To apply such tariffs is a political hot potato and always has been; pitting rural incomes against urban workers. But we should recall that UK food has never been cheaper.  Food poverty is mainly due to income levels, benefits and access to food; not the price of food. It seems incredible that in the immediate aftermath of a no deal with the EU, officials are discussing slaughtering thousands of lambs under meat hygiene rules applied to non-EU countries or to deal with tariffs on lamb exports of 45%.  Such nightmare scenarios seem to be getting closer to a reality.

Yet possibly for the first time in my 30 years working on food we’ve had both huge interest and cross-stakeholder, cross-party consensus that we should not have an open border to food produced to lower standards. That’s good news.

The immediate problem is the Secretary of State for the Department for International Trade (DIT), Liam Fox, and free market think tanks are deeply committed to the UK being a paragon of free trade virtue to the world.  They want to do deals, fast.  With a veneer of helping those on low incomes to access cheap (cheapened) food, they claim we need to cut tariffs and have minimal barriers (such food safety or environmental rules) limiting food imports. They oppose putting any legal statutory constraints – such as new clauses in Bills or allowing parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals.

But legal solutions are on the table and they need to be supported. Trade can be a force for good but only when governed well,  so it serves health, the environment and public welfare, and does not contribute further to climate change, disease or inequality. Three legal routes may be available:

  • Deal with the EU - The ins and outs of the EU Withdrawal Agreement may provide ways to protect standards and farmers depending on its final form via customs arrangements and equivalence. It may mean we will adopt EU standards and tariffs levels for some time or permanently and that could limit what trade deals we can do with third countries like the US. But will we get a deal?
  • The Trade Bill - The Trade Bill is one of the only ‘Brexit’ Bills actually in motion right now – whilst others have stalled in the mess - and as such does hold out some hope. Scrutiny by the House of Lords has proved useful as they saw a major gap in governance. Modern trade agreements affect such large parts of public policy, including consumer and workers’ rights, environmental legislation and so on and yet parliament currently has a little role in the development of trade agreements. The processes need to be updated to provide a far higher level of scrutiny. Whilst a clause specifically covering food, animal welfare, environmental and other standards was withdrawn at the last minute, some useful clauses did get voted into the Bill – against the government’s wishes - by the Peers. A cross-party Amendment would allow Parliament to have a vote on government’s trade policy, a final vote on agreed trade deals and the ability to amend agreed trade deals. The government will no doubt do everything to remove this clause when the Bill comes back to the MPs for further amendments and votes.
  • The Agriculture Bill - The third legal route that has been proposed, with universal support, is to insert strong clauses into the new Agriculture Bill. This Bill has stalled maybe largely due to this issue, as various trade amendments have been tabled.  A clause by Kerry McCarthy MP has the most support at the time of writing and would ensure agri-food imports are required to be produced to the same food safety, environment and animal welfare regulations as our own. This is unacceptable to the Department of International Trade, to President Donald Trump and others across the globe keen to start trading with the UK free from the constraints of ‘red tape’.

 

The bigger trade vision

The ‘solutions’ above are inevitably all rather stuck in the narrow confines of Brexitland.  Longer term, as the recent RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission's interim report made clear, we are at a fork in the road.  As a nation, we need to think of the bigger changes to how we govern food trade and interact with global food players noting “There is simply no point in a ‘race to the bottom’ strategy. It is a race we cannot win, and the penalties of trying to do so are just too great.”  We need to rethink how resources are used sustainably and equitably and how the existential threat of climate breakdown is addressed in food trade.

Preferably, we should be assessing the best use of land, water and other resources, transforming our system to regenerative productivity and matching demand to that, in equitable ways. We should be using all tools available including tariffs and other policy measures to nurture food production whilst tackling the biggest threats such as climate change, biodiversity loss, obesity and loss of antibiotics.

 

Vicki Hird MSc FRES 

@vickihird

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