Responding to the growing concerns of the agricultural industry with regards to potential deteriorating trade standards, here Brian Richardson, UK Head of Agriculture for Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank (owned by Virgin Money UK), shares his thoughts on the contours of the debate and what the future could hold for British farming.
“Now almost four years since the UK voted to leave the EU, the government and the public are still establishing what this will mean for trade. There will be significant repercussions for farming, even though it is clear that part of the attraction of UK Agriculture leaving the EU was to open new markets for our produce. The opportunity presented was a chance for farmers to export more and perhaps see their prices increase.
“In the UK, as the discussion on trade negotiations has developed, the debate in farming has increasingly been driven by concern. Coming away from the EU’s highly regulated model instigates a new period which brings the possible risk of the UK trading away its food standards in return for access to other goods in new territories. An example of these concerns has played out in the UK’s media recently – that chlorinated chicken could end up in UK supermarkets as part of a UK/US trade deal. There is a risk that cheap food could flow into the UK, and at much lower standards than British farmers are legally able to produce.
“The government has argued strongly that existing laws and regulation would stop these foodstuffs ever arriving into Great Britain, but while it will be difficult to achieve, we must ensure that this is the case. Given the desire to maintain the lower cost of food in the UK and lack of willingness by Government to see price rises, there is pressure building on how to find a way forward that will work for both the consumer and the farmer. This is in terms of a proposed continuity to the stringent regulatory framework around food production in the UK, as well as the rising general welfare and environmental demands on agri-businesses across the country. It has not been made clear how protections to the consumer will be guaranteed if Brexit means a discrepancy in food standards between import and export markets.
“There is evidently no public wish to downgrade British standards, and given the direction of travel, signals indicate that the regulatory framework around farming and particularly the environment will continue to become tighter. Regardless of the debate in the UK and Europe or whatever happens with trade agreements, the EU as our geographical neighbour will more than likely remain the UK’s main export partner for food, and farmers will be expected to keep up with EU standards in order to maintain access to these markets.
“The announcement of a New Trade and Agricultural Commission suggests that the Government is listening and that food standards on imports will not simply be traded away. With the appointment of Tim Smith as Chair, an ex-Head of the Food Standards Agency, in a call against alarmism he has stated the need for “cool-heads and thoughtful discussion” informed “by evidence [and]expert opinion” to be a more dominant cornerstone of the debate going forward. This will aim to ensure the long-term health of the UK agricultural industry and its consumers into a post-Brexit future.
“The farming industry will need to keep evolving as life outside the EU beckons, with an increased emphasis on home-grown produce and a national farming policy. The industry also has the challenge of Net Zero by 2040, a goal set by the industry itself. To meet these challenges will mean farmers must focus on what they can control, looking at their own productivity and preparing for this new future.
“UK Agriculture is a strong and robust industry that can play to its strengths and be better at getting the message out about the quality of food it produces. As the debate around food standards evolves, the industry does not have to be afraid of any food imported but is right to stand its ground on protecting UK standards.
“The industry is good at adapting and dealing with challenges and I have confidence the majority of farmers will be able to adapt and take up the challenge and farming will continue to deliver that great food offering fantastic value to the UK consumer.
“Making sure UK farmers can compete on a level playing field is important and getting the public to understand the high standards UK food is produced to will be as important as any regulatory regime. The next few months will be important for making sure that there is a balanced debate and that UK farming can continue to compete fairly with imports and that standards are maintained.”