Trade and Agriculture Commission report: ‘bold vision’ or ‘hollow’ promises?

09 March 2021, 08:05 AM
  • The Trade and Agriculture Commission was set up to help protect British food standards in future trade deals. Its first report has provoked mixed responses from the industry
Trade and Agriculture Commission report: ‘bold vision’ or ‘hollow’ promises?

The food and drink sector widely welcomed the publication of the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s (TAC) first report, which called for the protection of British food standards and the liberalisation of trade, but industry leaders said more clarity would be needed.

The TAC was set up in 2020 following a petition to protect British farmers from low-quality food imports post-Brexit, with an aim of advising on new trade agreements. Consumers have shown a strong appetite for high food standards, but there are fears that when new trade deals are signed, imported products will not be held to the same standards as those produced within the UK, thus flooding the market with poorer quality food and undermining British farmers.

Here’s what the food sector made of the report.

‘A tough balance to strike’
NFU president Minette Batters welcomed the report for its efforts to “reconcile the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy” and commended the commission for setting out “a bold vision to manage those tensions”.

Minette said it was clear from the report that there is “a tough balance to be struck between doing trade deals on the one hand and safeguarding our high standards of food and farming on the other. This report dispels the notion that it is easy, which is the message UK farmers and the British public have too often been given”.

The TAC recognised that trade-offs will be made, and “there will be winners and losers as the government pursues its new, independent trade policy”. She continued: “Ultimately, how those trade-offs are managed and weighed remains a decision for ministers and it is vital that the government now sets out, without delay, how it intends to accommodate these recommendations within a trade strategy that works for UK farmers and consumers alike.”

‘Throwing UK agriculture to the wolves’
Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers), meanwhile, voiced his concerns that the TAC report was “merely a fig leaf for the UK government to hide behind”. In a letter to its editor, which was sent to Speciality Food, he said, “The UK’s agricultural industry faces being eviscerated by a lack of meaningful support and risks being left increasingly vulnerable to the whims of an unstable, imbalanced world food market.”

With trade negotiations ongoing with the US, Australia and New Zealand, Roger accused the group of making ‘hollow’ promises. “It’s a thinly veiled attempt to suggest food import and export standards will be maintained in the longer-term. By insisting UK farmers must maintain standards and compete globally without any trade protection appears to be throwing UK agriculture to the wolves.”

‘We need clear red lines’
Vicki Hird, head of farming at Sustain, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards and of undertaking strong impact assessments of possible trade deals, but she says the report prioritised trade liberalisation over other considerations.

“The report says that food that can’t show it is equivalent to our standards will not be permitted tariff free access. But that raises a number of questions about how and who will decide what is equivalent and will the government be committed enough to stand up to future trading partners on these issues?

“More than 2.6 million people signed petitions to protect food standards, such as bans on certain pesticides and use of hormones, and they will want clarity about whether the food on their plate is produced to the environmental and animal welfare standards they expect. We need clear red lines maintained.”

Kath Dalmeny of the Future British Standards Coalition also raised concerns about this: “In many cases global standards are lower than the UK’s. Big questions remain over who would decide what was equivalent, and how. We have been clear that tariffs are no substitute for clear blanket bans and that tariffs could be easily reduced or phased out over time, thus breaking the government’s promise of ‘no compromise’ on food standards.”

While the government’s position on the TAC’s recommendations remains to be seen, the report has given the industry some important food for thought.

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