New Trade and Agriculture Commission member Shanker Singham has not always had the best reputation in the farming community. Abi Kay speaks to him to find out how he thinks UK farmers can be protected in a post-Brexit world.
When ‘brains of Brexit’ Shanker Singham was appointed to the Trade and Agriculture Commission by Trade Secretary Liz Truss, there was some trepidation in farming circles.
He is reported to have close links to the US agribusiness lobby and has consistently championed the free trade agenda, pushing for the UK to sign deals with countries across the world.
He has also been vocal in the standards argument, suggesting it is ‘meaningless’ to say the UK has higher animal welfare or environmental standards than other nations, because it has ‘good standards in some areas and not good standards in other areas’.
But despite this, he insists he is a friend to farmers and has a ‘good relationship’ with the community.
He said: “I have addressed the NFU conference several times.
“My views on agriculture were made public in a report I did for the Institute of Economic Affairs called Fertile Ground.
“When I published it, the reaction from the farming community and the NFU was ‘we agree with 90 per cent of this’.”
Mr Singham has regularly warned against taking an EU-style approach to farming regulation post-Brexit, and refers to it as an ‘outlier’ when it comes to food standards – uniting 33 developing countries plus Canada, Australia, the US and Latin America in opposition to its rules.
That said, he is adamant he is not a free trade purist when it comes to agriculture.
“There are people who advocate liberalising immediately, who claim farming is no different than anything else and we should have a completely free market in agriculture,” he said.
“I am not one of those people.”
It is unquestionable that Mr Singham is instinctively pro-free trade.
He is opposed to a dual tariff regime, reportedly backed by the Prime Minister, which would slap high tariffs on imports of sub-standard food while allowing quality imports to enter the UK with lower tariffs.
“Once you go down that road, it becomes very easy for it to become a protectionist charter for people to claim something is made in a way they do not like, when really what they are doing is getting protection for their domestic industry,” he said.
“That is why the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has historically been very opposed to that sort of approach, because it is inherently very dangerous.”
He also claims this kind of dual tariff system would affect imports from the EU, because producers in other member states do not always meet the UK’s standards.
But it is clear, too, that there is truth to his claim he is not a radical liberaliser.
When pressed on whether animals should be treated differently in trade policy to other goods because they are sentient beings, he acknowledged there is potential to use processes and production methods (PPMs) to protect welfare in WTO rules.
And he went on to support the idea of using quotas, which allow certain amounts of agricultural produce into a country with low or no tariffs, to safeguard the UK’s standards.
“You could have a similar approach to the one we have with hormone-treated beef from the US, where we have a quota of Hilton beef, which is a high-quality, non-hormone-treated beef,” he said.
“You could do something similar with organic poultry, for example. That is much better than applying a dual tariff, because that would skew the economics of imports and create an incentive for protection.”
Mr Singham is also keen to make the point that UK farmers are not competing on a level playing field in the EU at present.
He compares the UK’s level of voluntary coupled support – £38 million for two crofter schemes in Scotland – to the €1 billion which is shared between EU member states.
“If you are a UK lamb or beef farmer and you are competing with a French lamb or beef farmer who is selling into the UK, which they are, or if you are competing with them in other EU markets or world markets, you are at a massive competitive disadvantage,” he said.
For this reason, he proposes that in a no-deal Brexit scenario, the UK farming industry should be able to seek tariffs where a market distorting activity is taking place in a foreign country.
“This goes to the heart of how we support our farmers,” he said.
“It is not only us breaking down barriers they face around the rest of the world, it is not only integrating us better into global supply chains, it is also ensuring they are on a level playing field with respect to distortions.”
Mr Singham does acknowledge, however, that this process would take time, because industry would have to prove they had been affected, and the defendant sector in the other country and UK importers would have the opportunity to lodge counter claims.
But he denies it would be a multi-year process, claiming it could be carried out on an expedited basis.
One other area Mr Singham is keen for the Government to improve is farmers’ access to technology, including gene editing and crop protection products.
On neonicotinoids specifically, he suggests that Ministers need to take a different approach to the EU if they want to keep domestic production of oilseed rape, and claims banning imports treated with neonicotinoids would break WTO rules.
He said: “The sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules at the WTO give you a lot of latitude, provided the science is there, to ban products which are unsafe.
“But I think the neonics ban would fall foul of the SPS agreement. We will have to see when somebody brings a case as to how it pans out and what the science is saying.”
The need for the UK to comply with WTO rules is a theme Mr Singham returns to again and again.
When asked whether these rules take account of 21st century concerns such as animal welfare or climate change, he said there had been a ‘multi-decade body of work’ which had taken place in the Codex
Alimentarius Commission, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPCC), collectively known as the ‘three sisters’.
“The important thing is we do not just jump in and create new things, but recognise people have been working on these issues for 30 or 40 years while we in the UK have been inside the EU,” he added.
“The best way of solving the animal welfare issue is to ensure we have made the arguments in the OIE and latch on to the body of expertise which already exists.
“That is how you move the WTO system forward.
“You get consensus on the sound, science-based standard setting bodies which are connected to the WTO, you bring on board your trading partners and you work in coalitions to get people to accept things.”
Trade and competition lawyer and leads the International Trade and Competition Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
He is chairman and chief executive of policy consultancy Competere Group, and previously worked as a director at the Legatum Institute and managing director of the Competitiveness and Enterprise Cities project at entrepreneur education institute Babson Global.
Ex-Tesco Tech Director/FSA - Tim Smith (Chairman)
NFU England - Nick von Westenholz
NFU Scotland - Andrew McCornick
NFU Cymru - John Davies
Ulster Farmers Union - Victor Chestnutt
The Farmers Union of Wales – Glyn Roberts
Lamb Farmer - Rob Hodgkins
Institute of Economics Affairs- Shanker Singham
Former Chief Veterinary Officer - Nigel Gibbens
British Retail Consortium - Andrew Opie
Former Trade Minister - Lord Price
Trade Out Of Poverty - Tom Pengelly
Former Trade Minister and Agriculture Minister for New Zealand - Sir Lockwood Smith
UKHospitality - Kate Nicholls
Food and Drink Federation - Ian Wright CBE
LEAF - Caroline Drummond