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“Brexit”—the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union triggered by the 2016 UK referendum—presents a number of significant risks to the future of sustainable food and agriculture in both the UK and the EU. Through the UK’s future trading relationships, there are also implications beyond Europe’s borders. Until now, the nature of those risks has largely been a matter of speculation. But recent actions of the UK government firming up details of its Brexit withdrawal plan, coupled with interest by both the Trump and May administrations in negotiating a “super fast” trade deal, have raised the stakes. We flag five significant risks posed by Brexit:

In early July, Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet announced their agreed-upon vision for the future of the UK after Brexit. The three-page “Chequers Agreement” was soon followed by a 104-page white paper outlining the government’s blueprint for the future relationship between the UK and EU, and the extent to which existing laws and regulations, including the tariff-free single market and customs union, would continue to apply to the UK. After weathering resignations by key cabinet members who opposed what in their view was a Brexit vision that was too “soft”—that is, still linked too closely to the EU – May’s government succeeded in enacting its EU withdrawal bill, which became law on July 26. That law repeals the 1972 European Communities Act, which took Britain into the EU, and provides the framework for UK governance after Brexit. To provide legal continuity, it will enable existing EU law to be moved into UK law, at least temporarily. The final scope of what is retained from EU laws and the extent to which the UK remains linked to EU laws, regulations and judicial rulings in the future is central to the debate still being played out within May’s Cabinet and her Conservative Party, in Parliament and across society.

The Brexit clock is ticking. Only eight months remain before the March 29, 2019, exit date agreed to by May’s government and the European Commission in the draft withdrawal agreement, to be followed by a transitional implementation period ending on December 31, 2020. A so-called “hard” Brexit, without any agreement with the EU, is still a possibility that both May’s government and the European Commission are warning about, in large part because the key issue of the Northern Ireland border remains in limbo. The no-deal outcome poses the greatest long term risk to food safety and in the short term, could threaten food supplies and cause significant disruption of the economy. Although the Brexit strategy outlined in May’s white paper is facing skepticism from the EU’s top negotiator on several grounds, including the viability of its agri-food proposals, it remains the best guidance available, along with the amended EU withdrawal law, to the UK’s future. With that in mind, we dig into its substance to flag five significant Brexit concerns not only for farmers and consumers in the UK and the EU, but ultimately globally as industrialized agriculture further expands its reach.

1. Weaker food safety and labelling rules

The May government’s proposal on agriculture and food policy has significant loopholes that threaten food safety and consumer protections. The white paper envisions a free trade zone for goods, with “a common rulebook for agriculture, food and fisheries products, encompassing rules that must be checked at the border, alongside equivalence for certain other rules, such as wider food policy,” (Chapter 1, para 12.d). This sounds good, seemingly promising adherence to EU food and agricultural standards, but the promise is undercut by the intention that the food safety “common rulebook” applies only insofar as needed to avoid checks at the border (“frictionless border”) and excludes other policy affecting food. Only “relevant” Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) protections would be within the common rulebook, (white paper at Chapter 1, para 34.a).  Environmental, agricultural and consumer rules, including food labelling requirements and limits on pesticide residue levels, as well as enforcement mechanisms, would not be covered by EU rules. The white paper explains the labelling rationale thusly: “It is not necessary to check these rules are met at the border, because they do not govern the way in which products are produced, but instead determine how they are presented to consumers. These rules are most effectively enforced on the market and as such it is not necessary to incorporate them into the common rulebook.”

Others would argue, IATP among them, that labelling requirements—whether identifying country of origin, genetic engineered content, ingredients including additives, freshness, and/or nutrition – lie at the heart of effective food policy. The EU has extensive food labelling requirements that, under the scenario laid out by May’s government, could go by the wayside in a post-Brexit UK. Not only will this limit consumers’ access to information about their food and undermine food standards in the UK, but non-compliance with EU labelling requirements would likely undercut EU consumers’ trust that post-Brexit UK food imports meet high EU standards. This EU government infographic for consumers shows just what could be lost, including

  • Legibility of information (minimum font size for mandatory information)
  • Mandatory allergen information
  • Mandatory origin information for fresh meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry
  • List of engineered nanomaterials in the ingredients
  • Specific information on the vegetable origin of refined oils and fats
  • Indication of substitute ingredient for 'imitation' foods
  • Clear indication of "formed meat" or "formed fish"
  • Clear indication of defrosted products

View the European Commission's food labelling rules 2-5.

Some of these requirements, indeed, address safety concerns-for example, noncompliance with allergen warnings could lead to serious health consequences or even death. In fact, recent UK food recalls due to noncompliance with EU food standards included “several products which contained allergens, including sulphur dioxide and/or sulphites, not correctly mentioned on the label.”

Needless to say, several of the EU’s labelling requirements (including disclosure of nano and GMO ingredients and identifying country of origin) don’t even exist in the United States, with which the UK is aiming to quickly enter into a comprehensive trade agreement. This circumstance creates strong pressure on the UK to abandon the EU requirements (see discussion below). In the case of SPS rules proposed to be within the common rulebook, it is unclear how these rules would apply to third parties exporting to the UK. If third countries are free to enter into trade deals based on their own standards, there will be significant risks not only to UK consumers, but also to EU consumers who could see unlabeled foods potentially transshipped or processed in the UK from countries such as the U.S. that do not meet EU food standards.

May’s proposal to place agricultural and environmental policy outside the common rulebook has significant implications not only for the environment and animal welfare, as we discuss below, but also for food safety. In just one example, if as proposed, pesticide rules are outside the common rulebook, food would not be required to meet the EU’s maximum residue levels (MRLs) limiting consumer exposure to toxic pesticides. This will affect consumers in both UK and EU, the latter of whom would be consuming UK-grown produce shipped through a “frictionless border” without further safety checks. Under this scenario, how could the EU guarantee that UK-produced foods will meet EU standards? Once again, this is a policy area where the U.S. (and other countries outside the EU) permit residue levels that are often higher than EU standards. The pesticide issue has already been flagged by Michael Barnier, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, as well as by independent researchers, as a major concern. Although the white paper suggests equivalence agreements could fill in these gaps (see Chapter 1, para 37), as IATP has detailed in the context of the EU’s trade agreement with Canada, mutual recognition of equivalence often does not achieve the same level of protection. European consumers’ opposition to proposed regulatory equivalence provisions for food in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership helped sink those negotiations.

2. Inadequate environmental protections

The white paper proposes that all environmental standards would be outside the UK’s common rulebook with the EU. Instead, the plan is “to maintain high regulatory standards for the environment” by means of a commitment by the UK and the EU to “the non-regression of environmental standards” and “a reciprocal commitment” to the 25 Year Environment Plan put forward by the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in January 2018, (white paper at Chapter 1, para 118). While this “non-regression” policy for environmental standards is a step in the right direction, there is no enforceable commitment to continue to update and improve environmental protections beyond what is in place today, and the referenced 25-year environmental plan lacks many specifics and enforcement teeth. As Professor Charlotte Burns of the University of Sheffield put it in her analysis of the white paper’s environment provisions, “The ideal would be an environmental progression principle that commits the EU and the UK to the pursuit of higher environmental standards. However, given that the pro-Brexit group of MPs, the European Research Group, has already expressed strong reservations about the non-regression principle, it seems unlikely that a more ambitious position will be adopted.”

This approach threatens the health of soils, water and air as well as risking the UK’s climate commitments. The risk to the environment posed by most Brexit scenarios is high, according to an independent risk analysis UK Environmental Policy Post-Brexit commissioned by Friends of the Earth. Among the concerns is controlling agricultural pollutants and the potential abandonment by the UK of the EU’s nitrate pollution directive. Recent investigative reporting found significant and frequent violations of the nitrate directive throughout the UK that are not being prosecuted or addressed even now. The white paper proposes that after Brexit the “devolved” governments—those of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—will have primary responsibility for agricultural pollution, such as from nitrates. Regulations limiting nitrate run-off from agricultural operations would be determined by neither the existing EU policies nor coordinated through a UK-wide regulatory framework. Since agricultural policy is currently highly centralized through EU policy and institutions, the four devolved governments currently lack the laws and governing institutions needed to effectively carry out this mandate. A legal taskforce set up by the UK Environmental Law Association to examine the risks of Brexit identified nitrate pollution as an example of the protections that will be at risk when European laws are rolled over into domestic legislation in 2019.

A glaring omission from the white paper is its failure to embrace or even mention the precautionary principle, a fundamental guidance embedded in the EU’s foundational treaty that promotes strong public health and environmental protections. Defra Minister of State Michael Gove confirmed in his testimony before the Environmental Audit Committee that the precautionary principle would not part be of the common rulebook. This principle, among other tenets of EU governance including the polluter pays principle, was also omitted from the UK government’s EU withdrawal legislation, purportedly intended to maintain the status quo at least through the transition period ending December 31, 2020, by moving current EU law into UK law. The House of Commons rejected an amendment to the withdrawal bill to specifically include the precautionary and polluter pays principles as part of UK law. As finally enacted, the withdrawal legislation includes only a government-supported amendment to move the precautionary principle into UK law by means of separate legislation to be introduced at a later date, but only insofar as it relates to the environment. Neither enactment of this legislation, nor the inclusion of the precautionary principle within it, is a sure thing. Moreover, even if successfully retained in environmental law, it isn’t clear that the precautionary principle would apply, as it currently does, to food safety and public health concerns.

Although the white paper seeks inclusion of the UK in the European Chemicals Agency, it lacks clarity as to whether or how the UK would continue to have access to many other key EU data collection and standard-setting entities that provide critical research and support for environmental regulatory decisions and implementation. It also doesn’t address the fact that the UK currently lacks the institutional capacity to enforce environmental laws.

3. Risks to strong animal welfare protections and biotech regulations

Keeping agricultural policy outside the common rulebook will allow the UK to break from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP, comparable to the U.S. Farm Bill) and develop its own “public good” farming policy model, a consequence some see as a bright spot in a post-Brexit UK. The National Farmers Union has praised recent public statements by Defra Minister Gove outlining the public good model, while others are skeptical, especially in light of prior comments by Gove and other pro-Brexit cabinet members extolling the opportunity to get rid of environmental regulations through Brexit .

This approach, however, could weaken animal welfare protections, which would no longer be governed by EU standards. For example, EU law currently requires eggs and egg packs to be labelled as to farming method. After Brexit, this and other animal welfare policies would be left to the devolved governments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to address. While a report from Compassion in World Farming notes that there is an opportunity post-Brexit for the UK to improve animal welfare standards, the report also emphasizes the risk that new trade deals with third countries with significantly weaker or largely nonexistent protections, such as the U.S., will drive policy in the other direction as UK farmers are undercut by cheap imports.

Likewise, regulation of genetically modified agriculture and foods could be weakened. Not only are GMO labeling provisions not covered by the proposed common rulebook, but regulation of GMOs and biotech generally would be a devolved government responsibility, albeit with UK-wide coordination. It is unclear whether the post-Brexit UK would be bound by a just-issued decision from the EU’s top court holding that gene-edited plants and animals are, in fact, genetically modified and must be governed by safety rules as are older technologies – a decision that challenged the UK government’s willingness to allow field trials of these organisms. As we discuss below, the UK will also be under pressure to weaken biotech regulation if it negotiates a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S., which has fought against regulating gene-editing and other newer techniques. The U.S. has already issued statements objecting to the recent court decision and “regressive and outdated regulations governing genetically modified organisms” in the EU.

4. Impacts from border and mobility restrictions

The white paper places trade in services and labor mobility outside the common rulebook. The paper states that nonetheless, "existing workers' rights enjoyed under EU law will continue to be available in UK law at the day of the withdrawal" and it calls for a "non-regression requirement for domestic labour standards," so that UK employment laws based on EU law will stay the same post-Brexit – at least initially, (Chapter 1, para 108.e and para 121). Without providing any details, the white paper commits to a "mobility framework" so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other's countries to study and to work -- while at the same time, it rejects outright the EU principle of free movement of peoples, (Chapter 1, para 76). Limiting immigration was a motivating factor for many of those voting for the UK to leave the EU, and eliminating the principle of free movement is a UK red line in the Brexit negotiations. How these diametrically opposed concepts can be squared is left unaddressed. 

Unsurprisingly, with only 8 months before the UK government expects to exit the EU, farmers and parliamentarians are worried about this lack of detail. Migrant laborers from the EU make up more than 30% of all workers in the manufacture of food products, including jobs such as processing cheese and meat, making baked goods and animal slaughter. Post-Brexit rules could significantly limit access to labor in the agricultural and food processing sectors, raising questions of at least nearer term profitability for some UK agricultural sectors heavily dependent on EU labor, such as horticulture. The impact of these labor shortages is potentially significant enough to threaten the UK’s food security, especially in the context of a “no-deal” Brexit, according to the UK-based Centre for Food Policy.

The potentially devastating impact on farmers in the absence of detailed planning, unresolved migration policies and the possibility of a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was highlighted by members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee questioning Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food George Eustice. Committee members noted that some Northern Ireland farm operations and agricultural sectors depend on Eastern European migrants for as much as 100 percent of their labor force. Members also raised concerns over the Northern Ireland border dispute, which, if left unresolved, could significantly impact the meat and dairy industries, which since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, has become highly integrated. According to the Irish dairy industry, 12 percent of Ireland’s raw milk is shipped to Northern Ireland for processing, and 75 percent of the processing facilities in Northern Ireland are fully or jointly owned by Irish cooperatives.

As IATP has reported, despite EU-wide labor standards that are protective of workers’ health and safety, work hours and other terms of employment, there are many abuses even under current law. A subcontracting system employed in the UK in the meat processing industry uses agency-contracted workers to maintain the lowest possible wages and evade many of these protections. While the white paper promises continued protections, details are lacking and the words “labour” and “worker” are mentioned exactly three times each in the 100-plus pages of the plan. Whether limiting migrants and seasonal workers will lead to higher wages and standards or instead chip away at current protections remains to be seen; other pressures arising from Brexit could make it more likely that protections will be reduced. If food safety standards are weakened, workers will face significant new health and safety risks. For example, expanding approved uses of the chemical peracetic acid, commonly used in the U.S. to remove bacteria from the carcasses of chickens and turkeys, would increase health threats to slaughterhouse workers, including potential damage to workers’ internal organs including the heart, lungs and liver.

5. New trade deals pushing lowered standards

The UK is already engaged in extensive discussions with U.S. negotiators preparatory to inking a trade deal, even though formal negotiations may commence only after March 29, 2019. There have been four rounds of pre-negotiation closed-door talks between the countries’ trade personnel covering a wide range of issues including agriculture and “regulatory issues relating to trade.” UK trade minister Liam Fox recently called on the U.S. Trade Representative to promptly notify Congress under the Trade Promotion Act, also known as “Fast Track,” of the intention to engage in bilateral talks with the UK so that official negotiations can commence as soon as allowed by Brexit rules. The white paper proposes to put such third-party trade agreements outside of the agri-foods common rulebook, thereby posing significant risks to UK and, potentially, EU food standards. These concerns are real. Top U.S. officials, from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to President Donald Trump himself, have repeatedly called for the UK to scrap EU food safety rules as a precondition to a trade deal with the U.S.

In its report Feeding Britain: Food Security After Brexit, the Centre for Food Safety lists many food safety rules it considers at risk due to trade pressures, including bans or restrictions on many practices common in the U.S. These include antimicrobial chemical poultry washes such as peracetic acid, ractopamine in pork, beef hormones, bovine somatotropin (BST) used to boost milk production, genetically engineered food and pesticide residues on produce. The commitment to a common rulebook with the EU for “relevant” SPS standards does not ameliorate these concerns. As we have discussed, there are huge holes in this commitment, which only applies to the extent needed to avoid checks at the border—an unclear concept apparently intended to limit the scope of the common rules—and explicitly excludes large policy areas integral to food and agricultural standards including labelling, animal welfare and pesticide residue levels. The incompatibility of weak U.S. food standards with EU protections and the inexorable pressure exerted by those weak standards combined with low tariffs favoring industrialized agriculture are well documented. 

UK farmers and consumers are right to be worried about a trade deal with the U.S. Moreover, the UK is intent on also cutting deals with other lower-standard countries. Besides the U.S., the UK also wants to join the renamed “Comprehensive and Progressive” Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which would commit it to corporate-friendly arbitration provisions that have been widely used to limit environmental and public health protections.

The path forward

For many in the U.S., Brexit may seem an obscure concept without relevance to our lives. What Brexit will entail remains undefined, even as the clock is ticking on an exit date less than a year away. Nonetheless, the specifics of the rules agreed to for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – or the failure to agree on Brexit rules – will have major implications for food and agricultural policy in Europe, the UK and globally. Agribusiness is positioning itself to take advantage of these changes, and U.S. trade policy continues to be largely shaped by these corporate interests. As information leaks out about the anti-democratic and corporate antecedents of Brexit (including Steve Bannon’s role supporting Brexit and seeking to destabilize the EU, and U.S. agribusiness funding of Brexit advocates) such worries are being validated. A UK with weak food, labor and environmental rules will help industrialized agriculture continue its worldwide expansion. A UK that aligns itself with more protective, if not perfect, EU policies will advance action on climate change, human and animal welfare, and sustainable food production. We all need to pay attention to Brexit.

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