Banning imports is an impractical and probably illegal idea which was always doomed to fail, but there are other ways to protect our domestic food standards, says Cambridgeshire Fens farmer Tom Clarke.
I wonder how many readers can vividly remember the chill running down your spine when you saw aisle after aisle of empty supermarket shelves?
While we hoped Government would put more value on home grown food security, the weeks since then have been a wakeup call to some, but we should have seen it coming.
I can completely understand why so many farmers felt betrayed by the voting down of the amendment to the Ag Bill which sought to ban imports ‘which would be illegal to produce here’.
But expectations had been raised, not least by farming leaders themselves, that this was the pay off, the once in a lifetime turning point.
In truth, an import ban was a simplistic idea. It was impractical, probably illegal and always doomed to fail.
I take no pleasure in saying so, but farming leaders should have known better than to bet the whole farm on red.
So, popular as it is among many farmers, why is a ban on imports falling below Red Tractor standards a bad idea?
Firstly, because we import half of what we eat today. Those empty supermarket aisles were as much a warning to farmers as they were to Government.
We cannot yet feed this country ourselves and we shouldn’t pretend we can.
If we banned imports not meeting Red Tractor standard, we could seek to increase domestic production of substitutes – but it is the work of decades, not days.
Even then – yes, we’d have no bananas.
Secondly, we are not a big enough market to demand unilateral compliance. Even the EU (the toughest kid on the bloc) can’t keep all lower standard produce out of their huge market.
Thirdly, even without those two huge obstacles, discriminating against imported products based on methods of production is against World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and can only be – but never has been – negotiated as part of a bespoke trade deal.
So if an import ban was a nonstarter, what should we be pushing for? Well, here goes.
I’ll put forward three suggestions, all of which, like the best quality food, are home grown and not reliant on foreign agreements.
Punitive production labelling, VAT on non-Red Tractor ingredients, and carbon duties.
Like the pukey, khaki fag packets forced on tobacco, packaging for food produced below Red Tractor standard should be deliberately off putting.
Take bacon as an excellent example.
Grimy coloured packets showing graphic photographs of the production system in all its glory, such as sow crates and concrete slats, should become law.
Meanwhile, bacon from Red Tractor standard pigs – from whatever nation – could be any colour and design.
That law could be passed tomorrow and would have an instant effect.
Sixty percent of pork products consumed here today are not produced to UK standards. But they are cheaper.
While we can get creative on labelling laws, price is the big deciding factor for most shoppers.
The UK doesn’t currently charge VAT on food.
So let’s take back control and push for VAT on all food items containing any ingredients produced below Red tractor standards, from any nation.
That’s an immediate 20 per cent hike. No tariffs schedules or trade agreements required.
Before the Single Market there were wide variations in the levels of duty charged by countries on alcoholic drinks.
This only really became obvious at the Duty Free counter on the Dover to Calais booze cruise.
Governments chose to put duties on alcohol to reduce the wider harm greater consumption would cause, and to raise revenue.
Nowadays, the big public enemy is carbon. So it makes sense to put a carbon duty on food products which are relatively more polluting.
It also happens to be the case that the UK imports 36 per cent of our annual carbon emissions ‘baked into’ the goods, including food, we ship or fly in.
British and Irish Beef, for example, has a carbon footprint 2.5 times lower than the world average, so would probably escape any carbon duty, while US or Brazilian beef would probably not.
Now there are lots of other routes you could go down, and you’d want to avoid creating bureaucracy, but the farming unions and NGOs have called for an independent Food and Trade Standards Commission, and that is a good idea.
Such a body could spend all the time and effort needed to calibrate what exact category products sat in and therefore which labelling law, VAT or carbon duty band applied.
It wouldn’t be a good idea, however, to publicise your intentions for domestic measures like these just as you head into a round of trade negotiations with all your major suppliers.
Everything is on the table in a trade deal, and forewarning the other side just gives them targets to aim at.
I sincerely hope, but doubt, this is how the Government will try to keep its manifesto promises on food standards.
But what it seems to have done instead is the exact opposite.
Floating the idea of abolishing agricultural tariffs ahead of negotiations as an ‘enticement’ is actually just Unilateral Trade Disarmament – robbing yourself of any form of leverage before you have even sat down.
And suddenly Liz Truss seems to have forgotten that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ when it comes to trade.
Tom can be found tweeting at @Tom_Clarke