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Far from cooling the food standards debate, the Trade Commission has heated it up

The Government’s decision to set up a Trade Commission should have cooled down the debate on food standards, but instead it has heated it up, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London and author of Feeding Britain.

In the world of policy analysis and strategy, many metaphors are commonly used.

 

Level playing fields. War footings. Skating on ice. Balance of forces. Stakeholder round-tables. Back channels.

 

Most are or imply conflict of positions.

 

Outcomes are either a victory for one side or a compromise with bits each side doesn’t like but can live with.

 

Another metaphor – policy heat – is needed now to explore why food standards are heating up.

 

Last week’s launch of the Agri-Trade Standards Commission is unlikely to cool matters down.

 

Hot

 

The 2016 referendum meant standards would inevitably become hot. Historically, they always are.

 

So-called ‘free’ trade is anything but.

 

It pits farmers against each other. Not just how cheap their land, labour and production is, but what quality, standards and margins.

 

This isn’t just a political problem.

 

It raises fundamental challenges for how the food economy works, what sort of decision-making is applied, whose interests triumph, and how to resolve disputes.

 

If you didn’t know it, that’s what the EU single market was, an agreed package.

 

Remember its first name: common market.

 

Welfare

 

Three years ago, colleagues and I identified how issues such as animal welfare (think factory farming versus free range), environment (think pesticide residues or water safety) and health (think nutrients, safety, labelling) would become hot.

 

It’s also raising temperatures over the United Kingdom itself. Can the UK even remain a common mini-market?

 

I chaired a meeting two weeks ago where people both sides of the Irish Sea were scratching their heads about quite what would happen.

 

Three years ago, academic colleagues and I wrote that this would all be critical for the UK food system.

 

We even did the science work on what quickly became the memes in this issue – chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef.

 

The public was astonished when we first raised this.

 

No wonder the Government is in trouble.

 

Complex

 

Of course, the issues are furiously complex, but the policy homework simply hadn’t been done before the referendum.

 

There wasn’t a plan. Only a desire to get out.

 

Hating your enemy doesn’t win wars nor the peace. It simply adds fuel to fires.

 

But we are where we are.

 

This brings me to the new Agri-Food Commission. Note it is to be short-term.

 

This is no disputes resolution mechanism. Some see it as a sop to the NFU.

 

The NFU membership ignored its signals to vote to stay in the EU and it has thus had to negotiate hard on ground it didn’t choose.

 

That happens in policy. No-one wanted Coronavirus to disrupt life, but it has.

 

Decimated

 

Realising farming interests could be decimated if the Government throws open UK markets to cheaper sources, it came up with the idea that a new Commission could resolve the food standards issue.

 

Many trade observers were sceptical.

 

But the NFU played a blinder and did what many had urged it two years ago to do – myself included – to turn to the British public.

 

It did this well because the ground was already fertile.

 

Much is rightly made of the 1 million signatures on the NFU’s food standards petition. Another launched by Prof Erik Millstone last October has half a million.

 

The briefing papers we have written summarising the science have been downloaded in tens of thousands.

 

Volumes

 

Another petition by Which?, the respected consumer organisation, speaks volumes. It rarely does such things, a sign of frustration and concern.

 

It’s approaching a quarter of a million signatures.

 

The public is nervous.

 

That’s actually partly why the Commission was set up.

 

Politicians may do a trade deal, but if the public won’t eat it or retailers won’t buy it, it will be dead in the water. Stone cold dead.

 

The internal reason for the Commission was to call truce between Defra and the Department for International Trade.

 

Superficially, the Commission’s membership looks good for farm interests. Seven out of 16 members are farmers.

 

Economist

 

The one economist is a free-trader. Two ex-retailers, one vet, one food industry, one foodservice.

 

Skills ranging from intellectual property, trade, business.

 

The chairman’s public remarks that this is all ‘alarmist’ is strange for a canny operator.

 

This raised hackles among precisely the interests who put trade standards on the agenda: animal welfare, environment and public health.

 

They are not represented on the Commission at all. This has not gone down well.

 

It’s not a coincidence that a heavyweight group of 26 organisations have now written an open letter to Liz Truss at the Department for International Trade reminding the Government of its commitments.

 

It would have been wise for Tim Smith to have cooled things. Instead, it’s heated up.

 

Boils

 

If food politics are now boiling up, we must now ask: what happens if it boils over? What if there’s a modern Boston Tea Party? Farmers blockading hormone beef? Consumers boycotting retailers or foodservice who take T-rump steaks? Or retailers promising to keep high standards, only for T-rump mincemeat to slip into burgers or foodservice pies?

 

Which?’s June survey showed massive, cross-class, cross-income support for high standards, and great awareness about foodservice on this.

 

As this hots up, remember this is self-inflicted harm. It’s not the way to feed Britain.

 

Tense

 

Not good timing when geo-politics is so tense (US vs China vs Russia).

 

Food and farming need stability and confidence – not least due to stresses from the Covid-19 crisis.

 

Instead we live with uncertainty and disruption.

 

Tim can be found tweeting at @ProfTimLang

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