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The UK must decide whose food rules to take – EU, USA or WTO

If the UK wants to export food after Brexit, it cannot adopt a set of rules not shared by its trading partners. It’s time to choose whose rules to take – the EU’s, the USA’s or the WTO’s, says Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

Can we make sense of Food Brexit as it approaches? Alas, not clearly.

 

The implications of Brexit for UK food and agricultural policy are frighteningly unpredictable. The last time Whitehall and Westminster were in such chaos was probably during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

 

The uncertainties are uncomfortable both for those who voted leave and those voting remain.

 

However we voted, we watch as political positions and parties fracture. Insights are scarce.

 

Personalities and cliques plot. Wit is even rarer. One was Amber Rudd’s summary of Boris Johnson’s thinking as: ‘Leap – don’t look’.

 

Some call for a Peoples’ Vote on any Brexit deal. Others just for a No-Deal.

 

Swing

 

Brexiteers insist the people’s vote last time was clear. But two years on, and 6 months from B-Day, polling suggests a swing back to stay in the EU.

 

The Government’s Chequers plan appears to be sinking fast. Anticipation that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group would provide a competing plan evaporated because they can’t agree amongst themselves.

 

Professor Tim Lang [another Brexit hub contributor] and I have argued that several distinct positions are now in play, even in the Cabinet, with different views about where the UK’s food supplies should come from and the role of trade in agricultural and food products.

They are:

  • Atlanticists – The UK gets food imports from the USA, accepting its standards;
  • Globalists – We are fed from non-EU countries, anywhere and everywhere;
  • Neo-Colonials – Food comes from wherever land and labour are cheap enough to compensate for extra costs of lengthened supply chains;
  • Outer-Europeans – Food comes arms-length from the EU, as a member of the EEA or from other non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Morocco or Israel;
  • New Europeans – Brexit is called off, we re-join, perhaps argue for reforms, but resume getting 30 per cent of our food from EU member states and the other 11 per cent negotiated by the EU.

These all have supporters within the main parties. No wonder they can’t agree a food plan. No wonder many have argued Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s new Agriculture Bill doesn’t fill the policy void.

 

At least one thing is clear. ‘Taking Back Control’ is a great slogan, but hard to achieve in a world and food economy where supply chains are so interconnected.

 

The claim that, on leaving the EU, the UK can cease to be a ‘rule taker’, becoming instead a ‘rule-maker’, and trade freely with countries in all parts of the globe, is a dangerous illusion.

 

If, as an independent country, the UK sets rules covering food safety and standards which don’t meet the requirements of our trading partners, we may be able to import foods from anywhere, though only if their products conform to our rules.

 

Tighter

 

But UK producers won’t be able to export to countries with tighter rules than our own, unless they manufacture products specifically for export that differ from those intended for domestic consumption.

 

If you want to export, your products must conform to the importers’ rules. The suggestion that the UK could substantially increase its exports while adopting unique sets of rules not shared by our trading partners is a fantasy.

 

In practice, the UK must decide which agricultural and food rules it will take: those of the EU, the USA or the WTO.

 

The rhetoric about becoming a rule-maker not a rule-taker is especially dangerous for UK farmers.

 

It would mean cheap, low-quality foods could flood the UK market, depriving UK farmers of some of their domestic sale, while making attempts to export even more difficult.

 

Welfare

 

It would also undermine consumer welfare, because while some foods might be cheaper, that would be because they were of poorer quality.

 

If diet-related ill-health is to be diminished, UK consumers need better quality foods, not more junk.

 

For farmers, the choice will become how they farm: hormone-reared beef, yes or no? High standards or low?

 

Glyphosate used or banned? We still don’t know what the regulatory framework will be. The clock meanwhile ticks.

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