What does the threat of low-quality imports mean for the agriculture sector?

12 June 2020, 10:03 AM
  • We look at why people are so nervous about ongoing Brexit trade deal talks, and what the prospect of low-quality imports could mean for British producers and retailers
What does the threat of low-quality imports mean for the agriculture sector?

With Brexit trade deals still up in the air, growers, producers, retailers, brands and consumers are all nervous about what the future holds – and for good reason. The UK’s ongoing talks have so far failed to secure agreements that would uphold the standards of British farming, and it means that the country could soon see an influx of low-quality imports that would currently be deemed illegal.

So why exactly are people so nervous about this, and, following mass petitions and a slew of support for British farmers, could this present new opportunities for field-to-fork producers and retailers in the UK?

Seeking transparency
Current concerns predominantly lie around the fact that low-quality imports could soon flood the UK market. This could mean cheaper imported products are placed in front of consumers ahead of British ones of a higher standard. Aside from being poor quality overall, the products are likely to be high in salt and sugar, contain harmful chemicals, and have been produced to poor environmental and animal welfare standards.

Specific imports that are of particular concern include poultry products from the US, such as chlorinated chicken and eggs, as well as hormone-injected beef. It’s also said that trade deals with countries such as the US, India and Australia could see a rise in imported food that has been grown using pesticides and other chemicals that are banned in the UK.
Eager to stop such products from landing on shelves in the UK, the British agricultural industry and its relevant bodies have been fighting hard to secure necessary amendments to the Agricultural Bill. The Government previously failed to secure support for British farmers during Brexit trade deal talks, but the industry continues to rally to have its voice heard and effect change.

More than 900,000 people have signed a petition that calls for the ban of cheaply produced, low-quality food imports. It’s part of lobbying efforts by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to ensure that imports from countries like the US aren’t allowed into the country. In May, the NFU attempted to amend the agricultural bill with a legal minimum standard that would have ensured any imported food was of the same standard expected of British farmers, but the attempt failed. The growing petition, however, adds to mounting pressure on ministers.

The NFU is also asking the Government and supply chains for more transparency around the standards of imported grains. Where UK grain producers are held to account by both regulatory standards and farm assurance standards, the standards to which imported grain is produced is still not clear. Valid concerns like these have yet to be addressed, and it means that British farmers and producers currently lack information about how the imported goods that they are competing with have been produced.

Speaking ahead of Cereals LIVE recently, NFU president Minette Batters spoke about farmers’ concerns and the need to address them: “As we embark on new trading opportunities around the world, it is essential that a level playing field is established. Many farmers have been struggling to grow key crops since the ban of products like neonicotinoids and chlorothalonil, and now face a double whammy of a trade policy that allows food into the UK that has been produced using the very products that are now illegal here. Yes, the domestic grain market needs imports to meet public demand, but transparency is crucial if we are to ensure British producers aren’t undercut by sub-standard imports.

“We also have to consider our climate change responsibility. British farmers are on the front line of climate change – much of this year’s crops have already been impacted by the extremes of severe flooding closely followed by the recent dry weather.

“Transparency around food imports is the first step to ensuring we don’t undermine our ambition to be world leaders in sustainable, nature-friendly food.

“Considering the impacts of COVID-19 and the long-term challenges of climate change, we must reflect on food supply both domestically and around the world. We want our farmers and the public to be confident that the food available on supermarket shelves has been produced to world-leading standards, no matter where it has come from.”

A once-in-a-generation opportunity
So what threat does the current Agriculture Bill pose for British food standards? Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson told us: “The Agriculture Bill will shape farming, wildlife, scenery, water management, and the food we eat post-Brexit. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to divert £3 billion of taxpayers’ money from landowners’ pockets, to fight climate catastrophe, deliver a better environment and safer food, while providing a fair income for working farmers.

“The much-quoted underlying idea of ‘public money for public goods’ sounds great – but the detail of how those goods will be quantified, delivered, rewarded and protected is almost completely lacking. My reading of the Bill is, essentially, ‘trust us’. But trust must be earned; those who demand it get only contempt.

“An amendment, intended to guarantee that UK farmers will not be undercut by lower-standard imports, was voted down under the Conservative whip last month. Former Defra minister Theresa Villiers said in January: ‘We will not be importing chlorinated chicken’, while Michael Gove stated in 2017 that ‘under no circumstances’ would it be allowed; this week, Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt tells us we should ‘trust the consumer’ to decide, and ‘put our faith in government’.

“In most cases, the consumer will not know what they are eating, and for many, trust in our government – who count a pair of gloves as two when reporting on PPE provision – is plummeting.

“It will take public outcry to prevent what now seems inevitable: the desecration of hard-won food and environmental standards, in a desperate scrabble to sell financial services.”

Reaching the public
It’s an understandably worrying time for those in the agricultural sector. But new opportunities could lie ahead for field-to-fork producers and retailers.

Many in the industry have agreed that the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic as well as the upcoming apprehension of Brexit have shed light on the need for the UK food industry to reconsider its supply chain. This opportunity to improve the system, together with the rise in Britishness and the growing link between food and our health could present various opportunities to really put British products front and centre. Could this be an opportunity for more foods to be produced domestically to promote self-sufficiency?

The recent petition and ongoing debate has made it clear that the industry is not willing to step down on its stance. What it may now mean is the food sector coming together to pledge to maintain its standards in the face of cheaper, low-quality imports, but also to make the public aware of what is happening in these debates, the importance of protecting standards in the UK, and the various benefits of buying British produce, both to the producer and the consumer.

For field-to-fork producers and retailers, it provides the perfect opportunity to cater to a growing demand for higher quality produce that is traceable, and made with the environment and animal welfare in mind. In the wake of lockdown and with a potential British food revolution looming, now is the time to champion local, to promote the fact that British produce adheres to some of the highest standards around the world.

At the end of the day, low-quality imports don’t only threaten farmers’ livelihoods, but also the health of consumers. And whilst consumer demand for high-quality products is still present, the opportunity is still there to meet that demand.

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