With the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) about to publish its recommendations for Government on how to protect standards in trade deals, Abi Kay speaks to the group’s chairman, Tim Smith, to find out what farmers can expect.
The Trade and Agriculture Commission has faced a lot of criticism since it was set up by Trade Secretary Liz Truss in June last year.
But now, as it prepares to publish its final report in February, it appears as though it may well recommend what farmers have been demanding since the Brexit process took off – for imported food to meet the same standards as UK produce.
Former chief executive of the Food Standards Agency Tim Smith, who chairs the commission, told Farmers Guardian consumers had been adamant about maintaining standards.
He suggested it was unlikely that the Commission would recommend the UK should import food which had been produced in ways which do not meet domestic requirements.
“Consumers do not want food produced to a lower standard entering the UK as a consequence of any trade deal,” he said.
“They just do not.”
But the Commission intends to go even further than this, recommending the Government makes it a ‘red line’ that existing bans on produce reared using growth promoters such as ractopamine or Bovine somatotropin (bST) are kept in place.
“We have banned them for good reason and they stay banned,” said Mr Smith.
“The downside of that is we will signal to trade partners there are things in trade arrangements we are not comfortable with.
“When people say to me ‘will that not make a trade deal impossible’, I have to duck and say ‘that is not the Commission’s prime responsibility’.”
On products such as wheat treated with neonicotinoids, Mr Smith warned policy makers had a decision to make about whether to ‘level the playing field’ by banning such imports, or to turn the clock back by allowing them to be used in the UK again – a move which he described as ‘so bizarre as to be ridiculous’.
“The idea that we would want to lower any of our standards which currently prevail seems so unlikely,” he added.
Developing nations will not be excluded from the recommendation that all imported products should meet domestic standards, though an exemption was discussed by the Commission.
“As a principle, it sounds fine, but as soon as you turn to the practical and operational, it starts to become problematic,” said Mr Smith.
“In my mind, the best way of stimulating improvements in standards locally is to promote investment in those businesses.”
Asked whether Farming Minister Victoria Prentis was right to be concerned about the UK’s food security if low-standard imports were banned, Mr Smith made clear an assessment of the evidence supporting this claim would need to be made.
“There are products we buy and practices we have allowed others to participate in which are inherently unbalanced,” he said.
“The use of sow crates is probably the best example, where one country is being allowed to use them and legally import the product into the UK.
“That is definitely an uneven pitch and something which needs to be fixed. But it does not mean two wrongs make a right and we do it again.”
Mr Smith also rejected the notion that banning low-standard imports would make food more expensive in the UK, though he did acknowledge that compliance checks for overseas producers would add a cost.
“Most of the food which is bought and consumed in this country from overseas is being produced to the standard set by the importer or the retailer or the hospitality sector,” he said.
“I cannot imagine a situation where significant costs are going to be introduced as a consequence.”
Other recommendations the Commission intends to make around the environment will revolve around ensuring the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can be met.
But Mr Smith said the group may well be ‘more ambitious’ than that, and could recommend including WWF-type proposals on biodiversity in Government policy.
On exports, there are expected to be a series of recommendations on the UK’s exporting infrastructure, including ensuring smaller and medium sized businesses have a single point of contact to boost their trade ambitions.
“We really want to make sure organisations, large and small, are maximising their opportunities to export,” he said.
“If you think about the big dairy businesses in this country, for example, I am not sure how many of them have previously been involved in preparing objectives for setting trade deals up.
“Where is the big cheddar deal, where is the big skimmed milk powder deal?”
The Commission has also been tasked with finding ways to ensure the UK’s objectives are realised in international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Mr Smith is convinced the UK’s voice will be heard louder after Brexit, though he cautioned against expecting quick results on the global stage where processes move slowly.
He went on to suggest that leaving the EU had put the UK in a unique position, with an opportunity to think through trade and standards concerns from first principles.
“There is no doubt we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make changes,” he said.
Though the Commission is expected to make unanimous recommendations in most areas, Mr Smith did admit the organisation had been ‘tricky to chair’ because its members rarely agree on anything initially.
One of the areas where consensus is yet to be found is on what kind of import controls, such as tariffs or technical barriers to trade, the UK should introduce.
Commission member Shanker Singham, who leads the International Trade and Competition Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, has already made his opposition to a dual tariff regime known to FG.
This system would see sub-standard food hit with existing tariffs - which can be very high on certain agricultural products such as beef and lamb - while allowing quality imports to enter the UK with lower tariffs.
But other commissioners are known to be amenable to the idea.
“Import controls have been the most contentious area,” said Mr Smith.
“Even though we are only a few weeks away [from publishing our report], it is too soon to talk about how we might recommend modifying our approach on import controls.
“But we know we have got to make sure consumers do not find themselves with more expensive food, or food produced to a standard which is not something they would expect.”
Another topic which has divided commissioners is country of origin labelling in food service settings.
Mr Smith said: “Consumers have told us they would like to know as much as they could about the provenance of food.
“The question is not ‘should we be finding a way to give consumers the best possible information about country of origin’, it is about how it should be done.
“We have not come to any conclusions on that. There is nervousness in my mind because if we cannot decide how to do it, the war starts to be lost.”
Any decision on this matter will need to be made fairly quickly, though, with the Commission expected to publish its final recommendations before the end of February.
The Government will then consider whether or not to implement the proposals, as the current Commission is just an advisory body.
Its successor, however, will be a statutory organisation with legal responsibilities to scrutinise future trade deals.
The terms of reference for the new Commission are yet to be published, but it is expected to have a different set of members as its remit is changing.
As for Mr Smith, he is confident the Commission he has chaired for the past six months has done enough to ‘make a difference’.