Post-Brexit trade could pose the biggest peacetime threat to the UK’s food security
There is a real danger of Britain's food and farming sector becoming a bargaining chip to be traded away in negotiations, warns Kerry McCarthy
Quite rightly, the mostly commonly cited reasons for backing a customs union are peace in Northern Ireland and the future of UK manufacturing. Another issue should be added: the future security of UK food and farming.
It is not surprising that the new president of the NFU, Minette Batters, used her first public speech since her election earlier this year to say that British farmers would fight to remain as part of a customs union.
When the environment secretary, Michael Gove, talks about delivering his vision of a green Brexit, he most commonly identifies the opportunity to replace the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the common fisheries policy (CFP), both associated with poor environmental effects. But this is possible even with the softest of Brexit scenarios. The most carefully and sensitively structured policies which replace them could, however, be fatally undermined and count for nothing if we are not part of a customs union.
Our post-Brexit trade agreements potentially pose the biggest peacetime threat to the UK’s food security. The environment secretary and the farming minister have both insisted there will be no lowering of standards. But when I got an opportunity to quiz the minister at the Efra Committee recently, he wouldn’t promise a clause in our future deals – such as an environmental advancement principle – that could deliver on their assurances. Nor have they persuasively explained how their view would win out over that of the trade secretary, Liam Fox.
For Michael Gove, winning this argument in cabinet is critical, especially when so many on his side of the house are in favour of dropping to American standards, and several free-trade thinktanks identify American beef as a ‘Brexit gain’ for the UK.
US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, has made clear that any post-Brexit UK-US trade deal will hinge on the UK ditching its higher EU-derived food safety laws, which prohibit the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-pumped beef.
Our farming minister, George Eustice, has suggested a deal could be made that only allowed in better-quality US meat, but a recently published US Trade Representative report shows that an ‘America First’ administration is unlikely to budge on these more controversial issues.
This is a much larger list than chlorine-soaked chicken. Its wishlist includes more ‘science’ in agricultural rules (which could also, for example, include ractopamine growth promoters in pork, which can add three kilos of extra meat to a pig and is banned by almost every country except the US), as well as scrapping geographical protections (including rules saying Cornish pasties must be made in Cornwall).
In committee, the minister told me that the trade secretary saw real opportunities to do trade deals in areas such as digital, where we are seeing considerable growth, and in services. But the International Trade Committee has warned of the risk of an ‘agriculture for services’ trade-off in a future UK-US trade deal.
With food and farming a major part of any new trade deal – but always the last part to be agreed – there is a real danger of it becoming a bargaining chip to be traded away in negotiations, especially when protecting the UK’s large services sector is likely to be a priority.
If this does happen, the implications would be huge for the UK’s food and farming. It could drive out higher welfare and smaller scale UK farmers unable to compete on price and make it more difficult for British farmers to export to EU countries, with worries it could provide a backdoor to the EU for these US imports.
There are also food safety issues. One in seven of the US population contracts a food-borne illness every year at present, compared to just over one in 70 in the UK. We can’t trigger a race to the bottom on standards, with the British agriculture sector either intensifying to compete with cheap imports or going out of business entirely.
This carelessly destructive attitude to British farming – which is critical to the whole ecosystem of rural communities – has been rightly compared to Thatcher’s policy of closing loss-making coal mines, which decimated those communities.
We need to fight to stay in a customs union; the future security of our food and farming is at stake.
Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East, a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and a former shadow environment secretary