Trade and Agriculture Commission Report
The Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) published a paper on 2nd March simply titled “Final Report”. Despite the front page giving no clues away, the Commission will shortly move onto a statutory footing, giving it a greater role in evaluating future Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), this report is likely to be the first of several.
Inside, the report is a well-polished document and sets out how much UK consumers are currently spending on food and drink (£46.60 per person per week in 2018/19), the volume of food consumed by food group, and the origins of food consumed in the UK (55% of which is UK-grown and produced). It also outlines the implications of leaving the EU, highlighting the disruption caused to devolved regions from friction on UK-EU and GB to NI trade as well as the changes in regulatory authority from the European Food Safety Agency to UK agencies. It urges that these issues need to be resolved quickly.
The TAC proposes an overarching vision for UK agri-food which centres on having an ambitious trade policy that ‘contributes to a global farming and food system that is fair and trusted by all its participants, including farmers, businesses and citizens, from source to consumption’. It also calls for food to be ‘safe, healthy, affordable, produced in a way which does not harm the planet, respects the dignity of animals and provides proper reward for those involved.’
Linked with this, the TAC suggests six guiding principles to develop a value-generating and values-driven UK trade policy. These principles focus on: promoting trade liberalisation; prioritising a thriving domestic agri-food sector; ensuring key standards are met; matching tariff-free access with meeting key environmental, animal welfare and ethical standards; leading international efforts to tackle key global challenges and supporting developing countries on global trade.
The guiding principles reveal the balancing act that the UK is trying to achieve by liberalising trade whilst safeguarding standards. The ambition of matching tariff-free market access over time provided standards can reach relevant UK/international requirements is complex. It suggests some form of ‘nuanced’ tariff system which could potentially add (yet) another layer of bureaucracy to an agri-food sector already struggling to implement the requirements of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Much will depend on how these high-level principles are implemented in practice as they are open to differing interpretations.
The report sets-out 22 recommendations for the UK Government. These can be grouped into five areas;
- Develop a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy: aligned to a broader UK Food Strategy that would seek to provide a unifying logic and direction for all UK devolved regions, Government departments and industry stakeholders. It would also strike an appropriate balance between liberalising trade and safeguarding key standards. This is something the UK should aspire to do, but it is challenging given the interests of UK devolved regions look set to diverge further as each implements its own agricultural policy and Northern Ireland remains subject to EU Single Market rules for agri-food goods.
- Provide international leadership on key issues such as climate change: the opportunities arising from hosting the G7 summit and COP26 this year should be grasped to show the UK’s leadership credentials not just on climate change but on animal welfare, labour rights, ethical trading and combatting anti-microbial resistance. One of the UK’s key objectives from COP26 should be to develop a more robust methodology to measure accurate net emissions from each farming sector (i.e. gross emissions less on-farm sequestration).
- Continue to strengthen the UK’s approach to negotiating and scrutinising trade agreements: lessons from the TCA should be applied elsewhere. Future trade deals need comprehensive impact assessments considering both UK-wide and devolved issues. These should also consider qualitative impacts where quantitative measures are lacking. Presumably, the TAC would play a key role here once its Terms of Reference have been agreed.
- Enhance export promotion, market access and marketing: the TAC highlights the UK’s food ‘offer’ being one of quality, traceability, heritage, safety and high environmental and welfare standards. It urges the UK Government to encourage exports beyond the negotiation of trade agreement. Arguably, the UK is behind the likes of New Zealand, Netherlands and Ireland in this regard and such initiatives need to be embraced by Government if they are to make an impact in markets such as China. The TAC rightly highlights the potential offered by ‘heritage’. Globally, consumers are increasingly seeking ‘experiences’ and authentic British produce is highly-regarded in many regions. In this era of Covid-curtailed travel, food is a key means to experience another culture. The strong country associations of iconic products such as regional cheeses, Welsh lamb and Scotch beef have the potential to be a source of competitive advantage.
- Align trade, aid and climate change policies relating to agri-food: so that these work together to strengthen UK relationships with developing countries, to diversify Britain’s food supply, support its food security goals and overseas economic development. Aligning these policies is worthwhile, but arguably it should be wider and include domestic agricultural policy which was not given much emphasis by the TAC despite being a crucial part of the policy framework.
A key difficulty for the TAC was that it was set-up in July. By then, negotiations with the US, New Zealand and Australia were already underway. Recently, the TAC Chairman admitted that he had no visibility of how those negotiations are going. This is a concern because what has already been negotiated with these countries, particularly the US, might contradict what the TAC is recommending. The true litmus test will be the extent to which the UK Government and Parliament takes on board the TAC’s recommendations when concluding and ratifying FTAs with other countries. Time will tell as to how much influence the TAC ultimately has in practice.
The report is accessible via:
Summary compiled by
Michael Haverty, Partner of The Andersons Centre and expert in trade policy.
Michael can be contacted on
07900 907 902