Horizon blog: Future UK trade deals and their potential impact on food standards

Thursday, 29 July 2021

In this week's blog, AHDB's senior policy analyst Tom Forshaw looks at the contentious issue of food standards in future trade deals and why media attention might be focusing on the wrong things.

I should probably start off by stating that I am by no means a food standards expert – much of the work my team does at AHDB is very much focused on the impacts the changing trade and policy landscape will have at a farm level in the UK.  

That said, much has been discussed in recent months about the impact of signing new trade agreements will have on domestic standards – it’s a topic you can rarely avoid when talking about trade deals. When talking trade and trade policy, everything can get very technical very quickly. Because of this, there is plenty of over-simplification of the issues by the media. But when we look at food standards in trade deals, there are a number of mechanisms that can be put in place in order to uphold our domestic standards and ensure that our trading partners are exporting food that is safe for the British consumer. There are a number of ways, both at World Trade Organisation (WTO) level and as part of a Free Trade Agreement, to allow countries to define the safety of animal and plant products, such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreements and Technical barriers to trade agreements.

Standards are vitally important – I agree 100 per cent with the sentiment that product that has been produced to standards lower than ours should not be given access to our domestic market. If we do that, we risk off-shoring a proportion of our production.

However, we know that excluding products on the basis of how, they’ve been produced, such as from an animal welfare or environmental perspective, is a challenge under World Trade Organisation rules. How we square that circle will be critical. There is case law providing for both sides of the argument, and we explore this in our WTO report. Ultimately it will come down to the text of the agreements and the provisions contained within that.

But putting this aside, we know that countries such as Australia, NZ and the US, all large agri-commodity exporters, are already sending goods to a variety of markets around the world with differing standards to their own. For instance, the US exports hormone-free beef to a number of Asian markets and Australia has the European Union Cattle Assurance Scheme – this provides whole life traceability for animals entering the EU market to ensure the cattle have been reared and slaughtered to specific standards. For us at AHDB, it is more a case of looking at the economics of the trading environment. These determine whether trade actually takes place and thus how it will impact farmers here in the UK.

One thing that current trade policy means, from an agricultural perspective, is that UK farmers are going to face more competition and more exposure to the global marketplace.  While agriculture may be the sticking point in negotiations, it isn’t always a top priority.  Some of the partners we are currently lining up or have signed agreements with are large agri-exporters. While current demand from other parts of the world may mean that imports from these partners don’t fire up straight away, developments in the geo-political landscape can soon effect trade flows – UK agriculture needs to be aware of this as we open up our markets. For AHDB, this means we need to support our farmers and growers through this period of changing domestic and trade policy landscape, providing new opportunities for our products while making businesses more resilient here at home, giving farmers the right tools to adapt to this period of change.  

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