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It goes without saying that the United Kingdom has some big decisions to make during 2020. On one level, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has “got Brexit done” and finally made the split with the European Union official. But as is so often the case, the devil is in the details — and there is plenty of disagreement about what those details should be. The impact on farmers and food quality are among the most controversial and consequential of several issues of great concern as the U.K. splits from the EU. With just 10 months remaining in the “transition period” under the Withdrawal Bill, during which time the U.K. is seeking to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, the U.K. has set itself a daunting task. It has made this undertaking even more complicated and difficult by simultaneously initiating negotiations with the United States with the goal to finalize a second trade deal within the same time frame.

Can the U.K. “have it all?”

The parameters of the public debate, and the nature of the trade-offs the U.K. will face, are much clearer now that the U.K. has published its negotiating objectives for both of these potential trade deals. The bottom line is that it’s hard to imagine how the U.K. can assure the EU that it will meet the high standards necessary to achieve relatively “frictionless” trade with the bloc, while at the same time significantly opening up its markets to U.S. goods. In particular, it is difficult to envision how the U.K. can meet a key U.S. trade objective, that is to significantly increase imports of U.S. agricultural goods produced pursuant to food safety, pesticide use and biotechnology practices that are anathema to U.K. and EU consumers alike, and currently illegal in both jurisdictions.

The EU’s negotiating directives specifically call for a continuation of existing health and safety standards for food and the environment, stating that “The envisaged partnership should ensure that the common level of environmental protection provided by laws, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period” and calling for the application of the precautionary principle as set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The top negotiator for the U.K.-EU trade agreement, David Frost, has rejected the EU’s approach in no uncertain terms, framing the negotiations as a matter of sovereignty and asserting the U.K. will “set our rules for our own benefit.” This nationalistic vision will almost certainly come up against the reality of an EU that is not willing to selectively waive food safety, environmental protection, animal welfare or financial services rules just because the U.K. wants it to.

The U.K. is betting that the EU will agree to a broad “Canada-style” trade agreement that would allow it to export to the bloc without formally aligning standards. The U.K.’s negotiating mandate for the EU agreement incorporates this strategy, calling for an agreement in the mold of CETA. This trade mandate omits mention of the precautionary principle and does not guarantee that current food and environmental standards will be either continued or strengthened. Instead, it states only that the “U.K. will maintain a robust SPS regime reflecting our existing high standards.” Leaked documents indicate the U.K. government is willing to accept border checks as the price to pay for “flexibility” to move away from EU food standards and toward trade agreements with the rest of the world — and in particular with the U.S. As Greenpeace reports, “In practice, this means U.K. negotiators are pushing for equivalence, rather than alignment with the EU on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards, or food and environmental rules which protect human, animal and plant health.”

“Equivalence” isn’t “alignment”.

If the U.K. were to stay “aligned” with the EU, then food traded between them would continue to meet the same safety and quality standards as now. If the U.K. instead seeks only “equivalence,” it would make the case that its standards could diverge from those of the EU so long as they provide the same level of protection and quality. While this may appear to be mere semantics, allowing the sale of food in the U.K. that diverges from EU standards would signal a radical shift in food, agricultural and consumer policy. Under this regulatory approach, the U.K. could effectively lower its standards by allowing imports of food from the U.S. (and from other countries), even if it did not formally change its own rules. This would effectively create a two-tiered system, with U.K. farmers following more costly, protective U.K. standards and being undercut on price by cheaper foreign imports.

While U.K. regulators would theoretically have the authority to refuse a determination of equivalency, there is evidence that under an equivalency arrangement between Canada and the EU, standards are being watered down through a behind-the scenes regulatory cooperation process that avoids parliamentary oversight and public accountability. The ongoing CETA regulatory cooperation committees established under that agreement have provided an effective forum for Canadian officials to push for changes to pesticide residue and GM authorization policies, as documented in a FoodWatch/Council of Canadians paper. With the U.K. government pushing for a CETA-like trade agreement with the EU with business support, regulatory cooperation could become a back-door mechanism to lower food, labeling and environmental standards.

In the context of a post-Brexit trade deal between the U.K. and U.S., “ambitious” regulatory cooperation focused on mutual recognition and equivalency could have far-reaching consequences. U.K. regulators or trade officials could decide that treating chicken with chlorine or peracetic acid baths (as the U.S. does) is “equivalent” to current U.K. and EU food quality and safety standards, including those requiring “farm-to-fork” cleanliness and allowing only water rinses of food. In another example, regulators could deem animal welfare rules sufficiently protective and “equivalent” even though the U.S. has no federal animal welfare regulations aside from slaughter and transport, and in these and many other areas the laws are far less detailed and demanding than U.K. regulations. Likewise, rules that allow higher levels of pesticide residue on food, including from 72 pesticides banned or phased out by the EU because they have not met health and safety criteria, could be designated “equivalent” under a trade agreement, despite the significant differences in levels of protection.

Weak U.S. regulations that result in the routine approval of genetically modified foods and agricultural inputs and fail to require labeling that actually informs consumers raise similar concerns. The U.K.’s push for international technical standards and regulatory cooperation, as expressed in the government’s negotiating objectives for reducing technical barriers to trade with the U.S., could be a problem for consumers and farmers wishing to protect labeling schemes including animal welfare provisions, nutrition and junk food warning labels, and labeling of chemicals. U.S. trade officials have already raised objections to the possibility that the U.K. might improve its food labeling laws after the country exits the EU. Leaked U.K. memoranda documenting preliminary trade negotiations show U.S. officials objecting to “warning labels as harmful rather than as a step to public health” and “concerned that labeling food with high sugar content… is not particularly useful in changing consumer behaviour.”

As a general rule, and certainly in the context of trade agreements, it is express U.S. policy to reject the precautionary principle in favor of so-called “risk based” regulation. U.S. trade officials and multinational chemical and agri-food corporations often employ the language of “science” to create a false choice to deny the potential for harm caused by lax U.S. regulation in the absence of the precautionary approach. Recent U.S. trade agreements including the New NAFTA have fully incorporated requirements that regulations be based on "sound science," a term invented by the tobacco industry to prevent or confuse scientific consensus. “Science based” in the U.S. never means based on peered reviewed science, but rather industry studies chosen by lawyers seeking approval to place products in the market.  

Stringent standards, without exception?

At first glance, the U.K.’s March 2, 2020 document setting forth its objectives for a U.S. trade deal appears to preclude importing U.S. foods produced according to these lower standards. It states, “Without exception, all food imports into the U.K. will meet our stringent food safety standards.” Unfortunately, this assurance is probably worthless. As Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming points out, referencing only “food safety” standards could omit requiring compliance with other measures such as animal welfare, climate, pesticides, environmental impact and working conditions. For a more accurate description of the U.K.’s plan, we can look instead to the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has derided consumers’ concerns about weak U.S. food standards as “mumbo-jumbo. Likewise, U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice has refused to rule out allowing the sale of chicken treated with chlorine or peracetic acid.

U.S. trade negotiators and key political leaders are certainly onboard with this approach. The U.S. negotiating objectives for a U.K. deal make clear that the only deal that interests them is one that includes agriculture and allows currently banned products. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said the two countries need to determine an agreement rooted in food science, not “the political science of fear.

Consumers and farmers object.

The positions being advocated by Johnson and Eustice are at odds with the views of most of the British public. Recent polling by UNISON, the U.K.’s largest union, found more than four-fifths (81%) of the British public are worried that meat quality standards will be relaxed by ministers in pursuit of trade deals with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Over half (52%) believe the government regulations for meat quality standards should be tightened following the U.K.’s departure from the EU. U.K. consumers have repeatedly rejected chlorine and acid rinses and supported farm-to-fork sanitary standards and enhanced animal welfare. Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy for the U.K. consumer group Which? said of the government’s negotiating strategy, “It is astonishing that instead of improved food safety and health, chemical washing techniques for chicken and hormone-treated beef are still being left on the negotiating table.”

Farmers are equally worried. Minette Batters, the president of the U.K. National Farmers’ Union (NFU), has called for minimum standards for imports to be enshrined in law. “We must not tie the hands of British farmers to the highest rung of the standards ladder while waving through food imports which may not even reach the bottom rung,” Batters told NFU’s annual conference in February. The British Poultry Council is also adamantly opposed to changing U.K. food standards. In a statement opposing Environment Secretary Eustice’s “latest stance on potentially importing chemically washed chicken from the U.S.,” the Council says the government “risks watering down British food standards and creating a dangerous two-tier food system with the less well-off forced to accept lower standards.”

Are the benefits of a deal worth it?

According to analysis by the U.K. Department of International Trade, the British economy would be at most 0.16% larger by the middle of the next decade under a comprehensive trade deal with the U.S. The Guardian reports that the government had previously estimated the economy would be as much as 7.6% smaller should Britain leave the E.U. without a deal, and about 4.9% smaller under Boris Johnson’s preferred Canada-style agreement. A deal with the U.S. isn’t going to come close to filling the economic shrinkage caused by Brexit.

Touting benefits for producers of English cheddar, Welsh lamb and Scottish salmon, the U.K. is seeking major reductions in U.S. tariffs. The U.S. is clear that its primary goal is to reduce or eliminate “non-tariff barriers” in the form of food and environmental standards. The U.S. already has a trade surplus with the U.K., amounting to $18.9 billion in 2018. With so many U.S. agricultural products essentially banned because they can’t meet the “stringent standards” the U.K. government pledges to keep, it is hard to see what else the U.K. can bargain with. Even U.K. grocers worry a deal will do more harm than good. The math just doesn’t add up — unless the government isn’t sincere when it promises “without exception” to bar imports that don’t comply with high U.K. standards. 

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