After lengthy debate and several attempts to get it across the line, in December the Agriculture Act finally passed, writes Paul McGrade, Senior Counsel on Trade, Lexington Communications.
The legislation was necessary, as post-Brexit we are going it alone on agriculture, with increasing pressure to provide greater volumes of food despite challenges ranging from climate change to population growth.
The question for many at the end of last year was, therefore, what comes next.
With the launch of the consultation on the future regulation of plant breeding techniques, the Government took the first step towards divergence from European regulation.
Defra Secretary George Eustice said the consultation represents a chance for the UK to ‘achieve a simpler, scientifically credible regulatory framework to govern important new technologies’.
This represents the first tangible example of how the UK could take advantage of its new powers post-Brexit.
The UK-EU trade deal creates two separate agri-food markets, without any mutual recognition of standards, with trade between them heavily checked at customs.
This means UK agri-food will be subject to more checks than food coming from New Zealand.
Since that is now the legal and operational reality, why should not we try and make a gain from our new regulatory freedoms?
Any goods heading to Europe will have to meet EU standards but there is no reason the UK cannot innovate within its own markets.
Furthermore, innovation in agriculture is essential to meeting the Government’s policy priorities across multiple areas including reducing farming’s carbon footprint, and increasing farmers’ productivity to grow more of our own food and compete globally, which is ever more important post-Brexit.
The gene editing consultation is an important step towards helping farmers farm in a more efficient, greener way.
Agricultural drones are another example. Until now their use has been prevented despite proven benefits to farmers. While there are some legitimate concerns, we are now in a position to strike a balance between these and the numerous benefits drones can offer farmers and society as a whole.
While the EU may insist on tougher border checks in response to overt forms of divergence such as these, those measures are largely happening already.
There are challenges coming down the track but there are also opportunities, and the ability to use existing technologies will be essential if farmers are to respond.
Government ambitions for a global Britain will also increase competition in agriculture.
Any future US trade deal would mean accepting US standards. Farmers need time to integrate new technology so that, if a US trade deal does happen in say, five years’ time, they have a chance of competing.
And, more realistically, if the UK does join the CPTPP, the price of entry might be lower agricultural tariffs – as New Zealand and Australia (who have a veto over our application) are already demanding.
If tariff protections are removed, how can British farmers compete with rivals who already can, and do, use these technologies?
The fact is, with Brexit we have been given the opportunity to forge our own regulatory path. With that opportunity, we need to also give our farmers access to the tools needed to face the future.
* Paul McGrade is speaking at Agri-TechE’s Agri-tech Express event on this topic, exploring the opportunities for the UK’s agri-tech sector post-Brexit on February 16.