Last Thursday (4th February 2021) we linked with leading think-tank Respublica to host a roundtable on food trade (watch recording here), and we were fortunate to be joined by DIT Minister Ranil Jayawardena MP; LSE Trade Policy Hub Leader, Dr Elitsa Garnizova; and NFU Director of Trade and Business Strategy, Mr Nick von Westenholz.
We, of course, spoke about the chaos and damage currently being inflicted as a result of Brexit on food and food trade, but looking more strategically, two things really stood out for me and are going to be crucial to the long-term viability of UK food production.
The first was a comment by Dr Garnizova questioning how decisions on domestic legislation are to be made in the future. By diktat or consensus? Who will be consulted and asked to participate in the process? This directly reflects our food values and standards; from how we eliminate hunger in this country to being a global example of sustainable food security. Furthermore this process will shape our food trade policies and how we relate to other countries. How we make decisions domestically will affect the entire complex web of food production and trade, and speaks to the heart of our relationship with food.
The second major point is that this Government is never going to demand that domestic production standards apply to all imported food products, and we are only fooling ourselves if we hold out hope that they will. We have had repetitions of assurances that our standards will not be undermined but despite numerous opportunities these words are not yet in legislation, regulation, policy, guidance, or discussion paper. Instead we get the ‘sunlit uplands’ speech of Great British free-marketeers swashbuckling their way into markets distant and varied; of opportunities so treasure-laden and enticing that it makes you wonder how we missed them previously.
Yet historically food and farming have ever been makeweights in our Government’s attitude to trade. So we cannot be wholly surprised that the guarantees we need have not been forthcoming from this Government. Food and particularly food standards, thanks in great part to the threat of chlorinated chicken, has had an artificially high profile through Brexit times. I think, given its impact on health, nutrition, employment, and national security, food should be even more highly regarded in policy creation, but I have a partisan view. We should learn from past trade deal experiences that when it’s a toss-up between food and sectors like aerospace, defence, automotive, new technology, medical research, and financial then we are well down the list.
Even now I am here to be proved wrong. If our current Government steps-up and gives us the support and protections we need over the next two years – reducing the UK-EU trade barriers, maintaining regulatory alignment with the EU, and building standards checks into other trade deals – then I will sing their praises. In the meantime the question is what can we do for ourselves in order to secure our future?
We have a big challenge to embed the need to feed people well into the national psyche; that British food fills an emotional gap as well as a physical one and represents our values. In practical terms this comes back to the issue of how we make domestic decisions (and the role of food producers in that process) and how that in turn creates beneficial trade policy without the need for interventions.