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

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

These words are not mine but a question posed by Speciality Food on publication of the Commission report in March. Given the high profile of the debate around food standards in the run up to the last-gasp Brexit deal, and during the passage through Parliament of the Agriculture bill, the response in the media to the publication of the Report has been surprisingly low-key. It is not as though the fears over imports of chlorinated chicken or intensively reared beef have somehow evaporated nor, indeed, that food exports have been smooth since January – the plight of the fishing sector  to take the most obvious and high-profile example.  And the Commission itself was a direct response to concerns over trade, including a petition with 2.6 million signatures urging the protection of UK food standards and bans on certain pesticides and hormones. So why the muted response in the mainstream media? Possibly the clue lies in the Speciality Food headline. This is one of those reports that can be read in different ways and specialists have done just that. Speciality Food contrast the responses of the NFU and Organic Farmers and Growers. Now these two bodies may have very different views on many issues but it might have been expected that on the issue of British food standards and trade they would have been at one. Instead NFU president, Minette Batters, welcomed the report for its efforts to ‘reconcile the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy’ and for setting out ‘a bold vision to manage those tensions’. By contrast, Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers condemned the report as ‘merely a fig leaf for the UK government to hide behind’. In a letter 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.’

The TAC Vision

‘The UK has an ambitious trade policy which contributes to a global farming and food system that is fair and trusted by all its participants, including farmers, businesses and citizens, from source to consumption. Our food is safe, healthy, affordable, produced in a way which does not harm the planet, respects the dignity of animals and provides proper reward for those involved.’

So what’s going on?  Well one answer is in the careful wording used in the report. Let me show this with one quote about the need for the Government to develop a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy. The words I have emboldened are the important ones:

‘…an approach to imports which would align with its overall approach to trade liberalisation and seek to lower its tariffs and quotas to zero within trade agreements over a reasonable time period. …contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers. It would be dynamic, recognising the interplay between general trade policy, the provisions of specific free trade agreements and the success of UK advocacy for animal welfare, environmental and ethical standards in international fora.’

A ‘reasonable time period’ implies a fluidity that might or might not deliver in short order what those 2.6 million people wanted, so too the word ‘dynamic’ has a certain slipperiness about it. Not that the Commission is anything other than explicit as to why it has chosen this wording (again I have imposed my own emphasis):

‘We know that we should be practical and recognise that the UK government is currently continuing negotiating a number of free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. There would be challenges resulting from changing this approach in the immediate short-term. Our recommendation is a strategic aspiration for UK trade policy in the medium and longer term.’ 

In other words we might get those higher standards within future trade agreements but not necessarily for these early agreements which, of course, includes the USA. Scarcely surprising then that Vicki Hird of Sustain, and a member of our Expert Panel, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards and the need for strong impact assessments of possible trade deals, but says the report prioritises trade liberalisation over other considerations.

It is quite likely that media attention will escalate as and when the Government responds to the report. It’s a long report and has 22 recommendations which you can see at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-and-agriculture-commission-tac/trade-and-agriculture-commission-final-report-executive-summary

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