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Safeguarding standards in an uncertain future

04 March 2020

Climate-friendly farming will be a huge component of the UK’s free trade posture after Brexit, but lack of government leadership could permanently weaken the agriculture sector.

The NFU Annual Conference, held on 25 to 26 February, brought delegates, policymakers and union members together for two days of advocacy and knowledge sharing. Though much of the conference celebrated the achievements of British farmers and agriculture, lingering doubts over the UK’s future trade relationships outside the EU dominated discussions.

Members of the Green Alliance Trust and the UK Trade Policy Project outlined the potential pitfalls facing the UK as it enters trade negotiations with powerful economic blocs. They also offered ways for the NFU and UK public to lobby the government to protect food safety and animal welfare standards.

The background

The UK’s ability to safeguard its safety and welfare standards after Brexit is a critical concern for the NFU. The UK government, with support from the NFU, has introduced policies and legislation that prioritise net-zero carbon farming and environmental protections – responding to the climate emergency.

However, recent comments from MPs and cabinet ministers regarding the UK’s future trade and regulatory regimes indicate that farming standards might be eroded. Though politicians all agree that they want to maintain the UK’s existing farming practices, the government’s need to finalise free trade agreements could outweigh its commitments to food safety and animal welfare. The lack of clarity from Whitehall on the UK’s stance has done little to assuage doubts within the agriculture sector.

The EU, the UK’s biggest trading partner, requires close regulatory alignment in order to maintain existing trade relations with the single market. The current government has hesitated to agree to these terms, believing that establishing their own regulatory regime would be more beneficial than aligning themselves to product standards they didn’t set.

The US on the other hand will likely pressure the UK to relax its quality and welfare standards in order to grant a free trade agreement. Though this presents a huge economic opportunity, it doesn’t jive with existing UK policy priorities or public sentiment regarding animal welfare, climate change and food safety.

However, the UK will still be party to WTO rules if it doesn’t finalise its own trade agreements. Those rules state that the UK can’t arbitrarily discriminate against goods from other countries while maintaining its market access – making food safety and welfare advocates nervous about low-quality imports being dumped in the UK. There are also fears that existing standards could be lowered to compete with the new products.

“Sleepwalking into disaster”

According to Shaun Spiers, Director of Green Alliance UK, the question of food and welfare standards goes to the core of British identity. It is possible for the UK to thrive outside of EU governance, but the sector needs certainty from the government – something that’s been in short supply.

As Spiers addressed conference delegates, he stated that the government should support anti-dumping amendments to the new Agriculture Bill. Committing to non-regression in the Environment Bill could also be a crucial step to safeguard the UK’s agricultural integrity. Thus far, the government has refused to do both.

Spiers warned conference delegates that if the UK’s green farming ambitions are undermined, the country could wind up exporting its environmental footprint. It could also find itself importing and selling goods that don’t meet the UK’s existing standards. This could wind up jeopardising the UK’s overall food security.

Balancing safety, sovereignty and reality

David Henig, Director of the UK Trade Policy Project began his address by conceding that trade is a thorny issue. Organisations like the WTO and political blocs like the EU want access to consumers in the lucrative UK market. They also want access to the high-quality agricultural goods the UK produces. The lack of coherent trade policy from the UK government isn’t a great starting point.

According to Henig’s analysis, the UK finds itself in a unique position post-Brexit. Since it is in the 11-month transition period, the UK must form an internal consensus on what the right path forward is. However, this is easier said than done.

The current talking point from the government is that the UK will assert “regulatory sovereignty” in trade deals. Ministers believe that the UK can set its own safety and welfare standards independent of EU rules and US pressure. They also believe that the UK has the leverage to build consensus while negotiating trade deals.

Challenging times ahead

Though the concept of regulatory sovereignty scores political points, Henig quips, “we can’t eat sovereignty.” If the UK overplays its hand in negotiations, it could lose access to exports and imports from the crucial economic blocs that support UK farming. Shaun Spiers echoed this sentiment, stating that government brinksmanship in this sector is risky.

As it stands now, the UK is in a fight against the clock. Downing Street has indicated that they want to have 80 percent of their prospective free trade agreements finalised by 2022. This means that the UK wants to agree terms that satisfy not only the EU single market, but the US, Australian and New Zealand trade regimes as well.

These blocs have divergent rules regarding pesticides, animal welfare and GMOs. Deconflicting their demands while maintaining the UK’s own standards and preventing commodity dumping will be hugely challenging. The fact that the UK hasn’t negotiated its own trade deals for nearly 40 years hasn’t done much to alleviate the fears of UK farmers.

Spiers explained that the potential trade agreements are a black box for the UK public. Currently, the EU Parliament and United States Congress will be able to vote and make amendments to free trade policy; British MPs and civil society groups won’t be extended the same privilege. The Department of International Trade will agree to the terms of these agreements behind closed doors and only get Parliamentary assent at the end stage – it’s more of a rubber stamp than an oversight power.

When answering audience questions, Henig was tentatively reassuring. He explained that the Department for International Trade has been on a huge recruiting drive, so the negotiating staff is there. However, the expertise and trade literacy of the new hires may not be as strong as their American, European or Australian counterparts. Henig concedes that the UK staff will likely be learning on the job.

In order to address this issue, Henig suggests introducing a commission that explores what our food standards and production values should be. Ideally, the commission should report to the government and facilitate an open dialogue between key stakeholders. That way, the UK can build a consensus as it approaches trade negotiations instead of dithering. The commission could also prevent the UK from entering overhasty deals that could frustrate its climate and agriculture goals.

Spiers echoed these sentiments, stating that building a consensus around policy and standards would place the UK in a stronger position to address the climate crisis.



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