What will the future of British food and farming look like as we emerge from the Brexit transition period?
The promise of Brexit was that Britain would leave the EU as a global trading nation, able to strike its own deals around the world tailored to the nation’s needs, rather than those of 27 other countries.
Now – just days away from the end of the transition period – Britain is about to find out whether all of upheaval of the past few years has been worth it. For the food and farming sectors, it is the culmination of years of arguments, lobbying, and – for many – fear, about the potential tariffs UK producers will face if there is no trade deal with the EU. At the time of writing, a EU trade deal was agonisingly still not agreed, although negotiations were ongoing.
Sean Rickard is an independent food and farming economist and consultant. He says there is good reason to believe that the UK agri-food sector will prosper in this new era, if it rises to the (significant) challenges ahead.
Rickard has set out a vision for the future of the UK agricultural sector in an independent report, published in November, which was commissioned by KW Alternative Feeds, Trident and ABN, and examines what UK agriculture should do to ensure its future success.
“Within weeks, farm businesses will enter a new era of reassigned support and the open trading environment captured by the term Global Britain,” said Rickard in a webinar discussion about the report. In addition to competitive prices and taste, the success of British food abroad “will require a greater emphasis on meeting the increased demands for the credence attributes embodied in ethical production systems.”
These so called ‘credence attributes’ of high welfare and ecological sustainability will partly determine the success of British food products in markets around the world, Rickard argues.
Success will depend on farm businesses and their food manufacturing customers rising to three specific challenges.
One, they must reinforce their commitment to raising standards by researching and adopting improved safety procedures and animal welfare systems, as well as enhancing the conditions and careers for all engaged in the industry.
Two, it will mean accelerating the productivity and ecological sustainability of farming operations in order to reduce the consumption of scarce natural capital, biodiversity losses and pollution.
Three, it will mean improving international competitiveness in order to take advantage of the global opportunities offered by a large and rapidly growing aspirational demographic, while simultaneously increasing domestic self-sufficiency and food security.
Graeme Dear is chairman of the British Poultry Council. He says the report “aligns well with our thoughts at the British Poultry Council in reflection to the future of the British poultry meat sector”.
“We certainly agree that international competitiveness, based on food products, is a priority, as is the domestic market for poultry products generated from farming to world leading high standards.”
Technology would play a role in helping to achieve these aims, says Dear. “Looking ahead, precision farming will enhance productivity while improving environmental sustainability, and this must be the focus in this new era that we are entering. Monitoring and measuring will become even more important. The application of new knowledge in the areas of genetics and nutrition will also be important.”
As ever, much of this ambition could be tempered by the availability of investment. “While the selective breeding of chickens can lead to improvements in many productivity scores, the longer-term challenge will be meeting the nutritional needs of that ‘improved’ bird with the available raw materials, at an acceptable cost,” says Dear.
The industry is on the threshold of a new era. If farm businesses and their food manufacturing customers are to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the vision of ‘Global Britain’, the report concludes the only way forward is via “sustainable intensification”, which is the only approach that is consistent with the aims of delivering a ‘productive, competitive farming sector’ whilst enabling farmers, as land managers, to deliver key environmental targets.
What does Global Britain mean?
The new Global Britain trading environment involves engaging in free trade via agreements with countries and trade blocs to remove tariffs and other barriers to trade. There is a risk that the UK will not have reached a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU by the year end, but while this would result in the application of World Trade Organisation (WTO), Most Favoured Nations (MFN) tariffs on trade with the EU, the assumption here is that within months an FTA would be reached. Apart from the EU, the UK is already negotiating FTAs with the US, Australia and New Zealand and has agreed an FTA with Japan. The likelihood is therefore that in the coming months agreement with these countries will result in the dismantling of trade barriers on imports of agricultural commodities and food products.