Analysis: Will coronavirus lead to more protections for food in Brexit trade talks?

Coronavirus-related disruption is making the case for protecting the British food sector in future trade deals. 

One man’s protectionism is another’s national security. Apart from anything else, the events of the past few weeks have helped reframe the debate about post-Brexit trade deals.

During the coronavirus crisis, food producers have been classified by government as ‘key workers’ and the whole farm-to-fork chain been praised as a national asset with a valuable role to play during times of emergency.

Many staff have been off sick from farms and factories and supply chains have been under strain. But people have still been able to buy food, even if they have faced longer queues in supermarkets and certain products have been snapped up as fast as shelf stackers can replenish them.

When this is all over, will the general public – and government – want to protect the industry that played such an important role?

Legal protections

There are now some encouraging signs the promises made by government to protect British food standards may be written into law – despite intitial reluctance on the part of government. And it comes at a time when – thanks to self-isolation and new rules governing shopping habits – consumers are far more appreciative of the role of farmers.

Defra secretary of state George Eustice told Minette Batters on stage at the NFU conference that producers had “nothing to fear” as talks between UK and US negotiators began. But he declined to commit to a legally binding ‘trade and standards commission’ made up of experts to oversee trade regulations on food and farming that the NFU has been asking for.

This line was also taken by his two precedessors Theresa Villiers and Michael Gove. Both were happy to give public commitments that chlorinated chicken would form no part of a US trade deal, but they were not prepared to write such a commitment into the Agriculture Bill.

But, in a move that will reassure many farmers, members of the cross-party EFRA Committee tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, calling on Government to enshrine commitments to upholding food standards in law.

It follows a Committee hearing with representatives from the agriculture, animal welfare and trade sectors, in which MPs took evidence on how the UK can ensure that  imports under new trade agreements are produced to the high animal welfare and environmental standards expected by the public.

Nick von Westenholz, director of EU exit and international trade at the NFU, told the committee that in some cases ‘protectionism’ was justified.

While UK farmers are happy to compete with other farmers from other countries, standards for imported food must be the same. Otherwise products like chlorinated chicken from the US would unfairly disadvatage British producers, he argued.

“In the current climate we are encouraging our farmers to produce in a way that is sympathetic to the environment, that upholds high standards of animal welfare. Often that will come with a considerable extra cost to those producers.

“At the very least you should you require the products they are competing with to observe the same standards,” he said.

Nature of the amendment

The amendment, reiterating the points made in a 2018 EFRA Committee report on the Agriculture Bill, will ensure that food products imported as part of any future trade deal meet or exceed British standards relating to production, animal welfare and the environment.

Neil Parish, Chair of the EFRA Committee, said: “The evidence the Committee heard this week highlighted that the negotiation of new free trade deals present exciting opportunities to uphold and even boost our high production standards, but the Government must ensure that consumer preferences for environmentally-friendly and humanely produced foods are respected.

“Lowering food production standards should not be a bargaining chip to be used in future trade deals – allowing imports to be produced in ways that are illegal here would severely undercut British farmers. For these reasons, we are calling on the Government to uphold its commitments by amending the Agriculture Bill.”

Public demand

It remains to be seen whether the government will heed the Committee’s recommendations. However, it appears both the revulsion around chlorinated chicken combined with the current crisis has led to some cut through with the general public, and their perception of the value of British food standards.

A petition has been signed by more than 15,000 people urging the Government to commit in law that food that would be illegal for British farmers to produce here will not be imported as part of future trade deals. The petition was launched by the NFU at its annual conference and will run over the coming weeks, as the UK begins trade negotiations with the EU and United States.

Areas likely to be considered include consideration of production standards under the WTO and GATT, the extent to which international standards currently compare to the UK’s, the efficacy of tariffs, the impact on food security, and the impact of policy changes on both farmers and consumers.  

Shelf stackers

In addition, the disruption to the supply chain caused by coronavirus has shown there are vulnerabilities in times of crisis.

Other nations are beginning to put new restrictions on the trade of key staples, as stockpiling moves from household to country. Russia is considering capping its exports of wheat, corn, barley and rye from April to June, according to the Financial Times, while Kazakhstan has banned exports of wheat flour and Vietnam has temporarily suspended rice exports.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation has warned measures restricting free trade will be counterproductive and could lead to food shortages around the world.  “The worst that can happen is that governments restrict the flow of food,” he said. “All measures against free trade will be counterproductive,” Maximo Torero, chief economist at the FAO told the Guardian, saying governments must resist the urge to stockpile.

It remains to be seen how severely the global trade in food will be affected by the pandemic. But the past few weeks has reframed the debate around food standards and the value of a robust supply chain from farm to fork. Will the government now prioritise protecting British farmers when it comes to signing trade deals?

 

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