So now we know the approximate direction of travel: the government stood fast in its refusal to legislate within the Agriculture Act 2020 that food imports must meet the same safety and animal welfare standards as those required of British farmers and producers.
Despite strong support from the farming and food industries, and across the political spectrum, for legislative protection for the UK’s food producers, the government repeatedly stated that its manifesto pledge was sufficient to ensure that food available to consumers will not be compromised by food imports produced to lower standards.
There is an old army saying:” No plan survives contact with the enemy”. Farmers know that more than most, battling not only the weather and the markets, but also political decisions, whether prompted by a change of circumstance or change of government. The Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point of an unforeseen change of circumstance that has affected all parts of the economy. But leaving the EU on 31 December has been a ‘known known’ since the country voted to leave in 2016. Despite the end of the transition period being clearly set out after the 2019 election, it seems unforgiveable that the shape of our future trading relationship with the EU is still enveloped in fog at such a late stage, and that a hint of desperation is creeping into other trade negotiations as evidenced by the rejection of the House of Lords’ proposed amendment to clause 16 of the Agriculture Bill.
Trade & agriculture commission is a sop to campaigners
The original rejection in May of Neil Parish’s amendment to the Bill to require all imported food to be produced to UK standards – clearly with US food imports in mind – caused a backlash. After an NFU petition collected over a million signatures, the government created the non-statutory Trade & Agriculture Commission (TAC) to advise Parliament on maintaining standards when negotiating future trade agreements. The House of Lords proposed amending the Bill to strengthen the Commission’s advisory role on the impact of trade deals on food and welfare, as well as report to the House on the government’s adherence to its manifesto pledge to uphold UK standards in trade negotiations. Despite the government’s insistence that the TAC would not have statutory powers, on 1 November it performed a volte-face and declared that it would be placed on a statutory footing, enabling it to scrutinise all trade deals thoroughly and report to Parliament before ratification.
Government ambivalence undermines commitment to food standards
No government will want its hands tied when negotiating trade agreements, particularly with key economies like that of the USA. The government’s refusal to incorporate a legal commitment in the Agriculture Act preventing imports of food produced to standards not currently permitted in the UK is designed to give it as much wriggle room as possible. Without such a legal requirement, there is little to stop ministers agreeing, regardless of what they promise now (and notwithstanding manifesto pledges), to allow such imports as a trade-off for higher value UK exports such as manufacturing or financial services. However, now that the TAC has legal leverage, it has a chance to influence the direction of trade talks with key trading partners but it would be naïve to assume that it will guarantee a level playing field on food imports.
UK standards treated as bargaining chip
What does this mean for British farmers? If the government fails to keep its manifesto pledge, the worst case scenario is that many will go out of business. At the recent UN Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, the Prime Minister’s commitment to protect up to 30% of English countryside ‘to support the recovery of nature’ is patently at odds with the government’s prevarication over protecting the livelihood of the custodians of the very countryside he claims is so important. His and his ministers’ insistence that UK standards will not be treated as a bargaining chip in negotiations remains to be tested; as will Liz Truss’s response that ‘we will simply walk away’ if other countries insist on including lower standard food imports as part of a trade deal.
Will consumers pay for the real cost of food production?
Perhaps the answer lies with British consumers and supermarkets. Faced with the very real possibility of being priced out of the market by cheaper imports (unless the government explicitly supports the extra cost of production) finding new markets, and new routes to those markets, will be critical. There is some reason to be optimistic, a much-quoted Which? survey carried out earlier this year indicated that consumers did not want their food produced to lower standards; indeed, consumers in lower socio-economic groups were particularly anxious not to have cheap imports thrust upon them.
While it is certainly true that UK consumers are demanding more traceability and, according to a recent YouGov survey conducted by The Grocer, would like to see better, clearer labelling about the provenance of their food, the proportion of their income spent on food remains among the lowest in the world. The UK market is dominated by the massive purchasing power of the supermarkets which, while trumpeting their support for British farmers, continue to screw down farmgate prices as they seek to offer their customers ever better ‘value’. Who will pay the difference between the actual cost of production and the cost at the check-out, the consumer – or the farmer? There is, undoubtedly, an increased awareness of the health risks posed by the over-consumption of cheap, processed food but it remains to be seen how many consumers will put their money where their mouths are by paying a realistic amount for high quality food that reflects the real cost of production, as well as consuming and wasting less of it.
Funding worries add fuel to the fire
The opposition to the government’s stance on food imports has borne some fruit and may yet bear more; indeed, Waitrose is the first supermarket to commit publicly to only buying food that meets British standards. However, for now, most farmers will be hoping for a sensible trade deal to be struck with the EU, followed by a seamless transition from BPS to ELMS (stranger things have and do happen!). Confirmation that the government is considering an interim payment option, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), whereby farmers receive support for looking after their soil and water resources will, no doubt, be welcomed but, at the same time, agriculture faces a massive task to de-carbonise its industry. Funding will be the major issue and, as we all know, money is tight leading to concerns that funds originally earmarked for ELMS will likely be siphoned off to support the SFI.
The government is fighting on multiple fronts at the moment and is probably hoping everything will just magically fall into place when needed. Unfortunately, its track record of launching any new system is woeful and it is likely that the road towards the sunny uplands of sovereign freedom will continue to be bumpy for the foreseeable future.