CLAIM 4. Enshrining our standards in law raises our current standards for imports, to the detriment of poor farmers in developing countries
The government has spent the last four years telling us that EU laws, regulations and standards would be carried over into UK law on an “as is” basis. How does “as is” suddenly become “dramatically raising current standards”?
It is touching to see such concern for farmers in developing countries, but is it credible? Brexit means forty-seven less developed countries (LDCs) will be deprived of access to our market on a zero-tariff/zero-quota basis through the EU’s “Everything but Arms” (EBA) trade agreements. Government’s recent downgrading of our world-leading Department for International Development (DfID) to an adjunct of the Foreign Office and syphoning off £2.9 billion of DfID’s budget doesn’t exactly send a clear signal of concern for LDCs.
There may be genuine concern, but it feels like an attempt to manipulate us by tugging on our heart-strings. Developing countries won’t be able to meet our standards, they say. Our imports will dramatically decline, and that will have a knock-on effect to British companies supply chains, which will be severely disruptive and may put some of them out of business, they complain.
Four things. First, (going to press) the latest in the EU trade deal saga is that this government will inflict a Yellowhammer-style Brexit on us without batting an eyelid, in the midst of a lethal global pandemic, the worst economic downturn in our history and during the winter flu season. This will cause far greater disruption to British companies than putting our standards on a stronger legal footing, yet the prime minister’s recorded attitude to this is, “F**k Business”. Second, these countries were already exporting to us when we were in the EU, and have already made the investment to meet required EU standards, which are ostensibly the same as ours. Third, flannelling about coffee and bananas is meaningless, as we don’t grow them here, so which of our standards would keep them out? They’re not banned now, are they? It goes without saying we would disapply irrelevant standards, as we do in the EU now. Fourth, companies from other developed countries manage to sell their products all over the world without their governments “betraying their populations and farmers through the food that they produce and feed to their children”, as SNP MP David Doogan so colourfully put it.
As someone who worked in LDCs for many years, I find the tone of some MPs patronising and paternalistic in the extreme. It is unimaginative and unkind to underestimate LDCs’ ability to innovate to meet our standards. Government is missing a golden opportunity to co-ordinate trade and aid. Where a potential trading partner does not meet our standards, we could put in place a plan with a glide path for them to comply, with UK technical assistance and aid to help them do it. That way we trade and use aid to help improve LDCs’ standards, which eventually spread to their non-exporting enterprises and embed. A virtuous circle.
CLAIM 5. The controversial claim that it would deny the least affluent Brits a cheaper source of food
The irony is, products produced cheaply won’t necessarily be cheaper to the British consumer, poor or otherwise. Tariffs are only one element of price. The prices of commodity fluctuate, due to a variety of factors, including the exchange rate. At the moment, there’s not a lot of difference between, say, farm-gate beef prices in the UK and those in the US. We’d roll over and assume the dead hamster position on food and farming standards and accept low-welfare, inferior food products, for no gain! Is it worth it?
CLAIM 6. It is unnecessary: the Trade & Agriculture Commission will scrutinise trade deals for violations of our standards, and we should trust the consumer
The Trade & Agriculture Commission has only been set up for six months, has next to no clout, and many in the farming community feel it is unrepresentative. In other words, more ornament than useful.
As to “trusting the consumer”, that’s all very well and good if the consumer has the necessary data to make an informed decision. This is rarely the case. We enter the realms of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) and dog-eat-dogism where marketing (not unlike political campaigning) is designed to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes.
In its trade negotiations, the United States typically insists that there be no informative food labelling, even to the point of removing country of origin. Canada, for example, prohibits the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a manmade bovine hormone that increases lactation in cows, because it was found to be too stressful for cows. The United States does not. As a result of the new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada is obliged to open a portion of its market to milk from American cows. There’s nothing in the labelling to inform the consumer about the source of the milk.
Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a workaround, in that consumers can avoid hormone-laden milk, which may have harmful side effects in humans, by sticking to those brands labelled “100% Canadian”. However, it serves as an illustration that it is naïve in the extreme to think a US-UK free trade agreement would not hurt our food safety and animal welfare standards.
CLAIM 7. Enshrining our standards in law would lead to contradictions
Anthony Browne feels there is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards. Without a well-designed system that might be the case. See the proposal under Claim 4 to combine trade with an aid package to help developing countries reach our standards. The problem here is not intrinsic, but rather a lack of ambition, consistency and imagination.
Where Browne may have a valid point is in highlighting an unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade under a free trade agreement, so trade with countries with lower standards could still go ahead on WTO rules. Clearly this loophole would have to be addressed in the “well designed system” to be put in place for trade + aid.
Is there not a greater risk of hypocrisy than of contradiction? If we ignore a trading partner’s poor environmental standards and effectively use trade to off-shore our pollution and other concerns, would that not be the height of hypocrisy? Michael Gove seemed to think so when he told the BBC’s Countryfile in 2018, “There’s no point in having high animal welfare and high environmental standards if you allow them to be undercut from the outside.”