Most of us don’t have to think too much about the food we eat, beyond “what on earth am I going to cook this evening?” We assume there will be food we want at an affordable price, and that, if it is on the shelf, it is safe to eat and has been produced to acceptable environmental and welfare standards. But the new trade relationships we negotiate after Brexit could present significant risks to the UK’s food system which could put an end to this confidence.
Why is our food at risk?
The government’s intention to use trade policy to lower food prices is starkly at odds with its domestic ambition for a more productive and sustainable UK farming system after Brexit.
In the UK, we we import around half the food we eat. Cheaper food could be achieved by reducing import tariffs on food, and removing ‘non-tariff barriers’ to trade, which could mean letting go of food safety, welfare and environmental standards, or food traceability and labelling requirements. And this could happen as a result of new free trade agreements, or by the UK unilaterally liberalising trade in food. In either case, the results do not bode well for worry free food purchasing in future.
Where our food comes from now
The government has given assurances that food and environmental standards will not be lowered to secure new free trade agreements. But why would the US and the other big agricultural producers around the world open up their markets to the UK’s financial and professional services sectors unless the UK opens up its food markets to them in return. The US has been bullish on this point If the priority is to conclude new free trade agreements after Brexit, it seems likely we will end up accepting practices we have so far avoided, like chlorine washed chicken, meat from animals treated with hormones and a variety of other lower standard products.
Unfair competition for UK farmers
A policy based on cheap food will also undermine UK farmers, who will be faced with unfair competition from producers with lower environmental standards. We know that our farmers are proud that they have some of the best production standards in the world but, faced with this competition, most will be forced to cut short term costs. One consequence of this could be more damage to the environment. For example, they could plough up their field margins in an attempt to maximise yield, and they will be reluctant or unable to invest in the new practices, infrastructure and technology to achieve the government’s ambitions for sustainable agriculture.
Why not let consumers decide?
It has been proposed that we should open up our food markets and let consumers decide what they will accept. Improving consumer information is certainly important, but this won’t be enough for two reasons.
First, the US has been highly critical of many EU food labelling requirements, so consumer information could even be reduced if we do new free trade agreements. Second, over half of the food we eat is ultra-processed with many ingredients, and much of our food is now eaten out or on the go. It would be very difficult, and probably costly, to label such food effectively so that consumers can easily judge how it was produced or where it had come from.
How to avoid the risks
The risks are not inevitable if UK trade policy prioritises food and farming. The government should guarantee that food and environmental standards will not be reduced to secure new trade partners, and that all food imports meet the same environmental standards we expect of our own farmers. As a starting point, the government should amend the Trade Bill when it returns to the Commons this summer to mandate legally enforceable environmental chapters and clauses in all new trade agreements to ensure UK farmers are not undercut, and require Sustainability Impact Assessments prior to all new agreements.
The government can be rightly proud of its pioneering work to develop world-leading farming standards and policies. But its positive intentions are likely to be swept aside by the US juggernaut in any trade negotiation. Making good on Michael Gove’s promises will require locking-in high standards through legislation, to avoid them being traded away. This will be the acid test of just how serious the government is.
Read our report Protecting standards in UK food and farming through Brexit published on 11 June.