Poorly handled trade deals ‘biggest peacetime threat’ to UK food security

Trade deals with the EU and beyond post-Brexit could pose the biggest peacetime threat to the UK’s food security if current environmental and public health standards and existing farmers’ needs are not prioritised in the terms of the negotiations, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology for Food and Farming (APPG on Agroecology) warned today.

The cross-party group of MPs and peers conducted an inquiry into the ways Brexit trade negotiations could impact UK agriculture and food production, with special emphasis on areas of practice and legislation most likely to impact producers working to sustainable, agroecological standards.

The inquiry’s overriding concern was that issues such as food security, environmental protection and welfare standards may be significantly weakened by the UK exiting the EU.

Free-trade agreements

Kerry McCarthy MP, the group chair, said: “There are serious concerns that if negotiators don’t value farmers enough and build poorly managed trade deals that reflect this – particularly a US-UK deal – it could trigger a race to the bottom in terms of standards and ability of our own farmers to compete. The APPG is determined that this sector should not become a bargaining chip or something that can easily be traded.”

The most important trade arrangement for the UK to resolve remains the EU. As much as 60 percent of UK food, feed and drink exports went to the EU, with just 16 percent shipped to Asia and 14 percent to the United States.

The APPG on Agroecology believes Defra must work with DIT to make sure that in all new trade agreements British farmers are protected and not undermined by lower welfare imports, such as the US with the concerns over chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-filled beef, because those countries will oppose any improvements and want standards reduced.

These concerns would apply to environmental standards, which again would harm agroecological producers more than any other sector. The recent news that the DIT is pushing to carry out secret negotiations with the US only serves to fuel publicly held fears.

A statement from the APPG on Agroecology stated: “It is understood that free-trade agreements smooth the way for foreign direct investment, including by transnational agribusinesses.

Food security

“There is a very real risk that this could encourage farmers to adopt input-heavy, intensive systems, or systems which are not suited to local environmental or cultural conditions.

“All of this may have a detrimental impact on soil health, local biodiversity and broader ecosystem health, and move the UK ever further away from sustainable ways of producing food and managing land.”

Kerry added: “If discussions are not handled by a negotiating team ready to support our agriculture industry in its entirety – not just the largest businesses, or those with capacity to lobby loudest – then the government is severely hampering its own ability to make good on its election manifesto promises to farmers, and will run the very real risk of permanently damaging our leading role in setting and improving food standards for current and future generations.”

The APPG on Agroecology has released the results of its inquiry into the impact of Brexit on food and farming trade to coincide with the opening of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC).

Grasses and grazing

Kerry added: “The hundreds of farmers that attend the ORFC are among some of the most vulnerable groups in the UK’s agricultural sector and often the least heard.

“They will be the most affected by a botched Brexit trade deal, and yet they are the ones best positioned to preserve the UK’s food security for decades into the future.

“The APPG on Agroecology calls on Defra, DExEU and DIT to work together to not only maintain, but to improve our production, public health and environmental standards as we navigate trade deals, for the good of the country.”

Agroecology is increasingly being seen as the answer to many of the concerns facing modern land management concerns. This includes soil health management techniques that focus on crops, grasses and grazing rather than fertiliser, which has been a key driver of the FAO announcement that the world only has 60 harvests left. It also includes agroforestry techniques to combat climate-change related flooding and encourage biodiversity and natural pest control.

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Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist and tweets at @EcoMontague. 

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