The fate of UK agri-tech will be decided at home, not in negotiations with Brussels
Covid-19 aside, the coming months in British politics will be dominated by the question of EU trade talks. Now that Boris Johnson has chosen to let the 1 July deadline for any legal extension of the transition period pass, these talks have essentially become a binary choice between deal or no deal.
But this narrative obscures the bigger question for agri-tech: how far will a deal prevent – legally or through the threat of tariffs – the Government from making greater use of agri-tech after the transition period?
A deal is likely for many reasons – not least that, as the Government admits, the UK border will not be ready to cope with new trade frictions by January. Nor will this Government want to be seen to fail the basic competence test of securing a deal, so soon after taking a big hit in the polls over its handling of the Covid-19 response.
But if a deal is likely, how far will it constrain the Government in making greater use of agri-tech?
It’s worth recalling how EU rules currently restrict this – notably through the precautionary principle approach to licensing GMOs. That may be changing – the European Commission would certainly support greater use of agri-tech – but this remains intensely political at EU level. It may be a caricature to say that GMOs will only be widely allowed in the EU when the German Greens accept them, but it’s clear that the Commission will not go against strong anti-GMO sentiment in key Member States.
For UK agriculture, it would clearly be better to open up to agri-tech in step with the EU, but that depends on politics in Member States and Brussels over which the departing UK has little sway. Time is also a factor; Europe already lags well behind the US and other countries for investment in agri-tech – precisely because of those legal constraints. For any chance of securing global investment in the sector post-Brexit, the UK must move quickly.
Secondly, we need to keep in mind the likely overall parameters of any deal. The UK wants few, if any, constraints on its ability to regulate as it sees fit post-transition. But the EU wants firm commitments to maintain current standards across a wide range of ‘level playing field’ (LPF) areas – and the ability to protect its businesses and consumers if the UK later undercuts those standards. Any deal struck will likely lock in current LPF standards on the environment, labour market and State aid, as well as providing the EU with an essentially unilateral threat – tariffs, limiting market access – against the UK departing from those standards.
Those constraints probably wouldn’t directly apply to agri-food standards, but there’s clearly a big risk that the Government will be reluctant to do much in this area for fear of tariffs, which would be an overnight, visible and crippling hit to rural constituencies and farmers – almost all represented by Conservative MPs. As we saw with the Agriculture Bill amendments on food standards, there are enough Conservative MPs who will support the NFU line to worry the Whips and 10 Downing Street.
What could persuade the government to be more ambitious on agri-tech, post-transition?
Here are three thoughts:
1. Create an independent, statutory regulator, with a science-led mandate to ensure food safety above all. The Competition and Markets Authority – probably the UK’s strongest and most respected regulator – might be a better model than taking the advisory FSA as a starting point. Given the desire of this government for unbridled control of policy, an independent regulator feels like an essential first step to building confidence with the public, the industry and ultimately with the European Commission and EU governments.
2. A coalition-building exercise to bring farmers and civil society together to look at how agri-tech could help tackle biggest challenges farming faces post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 – reducing carbon emissions in agriculture, and improving food security. Without greater use of agri-tech, the two pull against each other and it is hard to see how agriculture can make the kind of contribution it needs to meet the net zero target.
3. Encouraging government to make a clear commitment to review the existing rules which effectively prevent farmers using agri-tech on any scale. This would build on Boris Johnson’s promise, on his arrival in Downing Street, when he said: “Let’s start now to liberate the U.K.’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world”. There is no need for action to deliver this pledge to become confrontational – provided that the first two steps are also taken. Industry engagement should therefore focus as much on the creation of independent, science-led regulation of the technology as on persuading the government to change the rules.
If and when a deal is done, the new trade frictions will kick in quickly, prompting desperate calls from the farming lobby for action to help them remain competitive. Rather than quick fixes, a genuine, sustainable part of the answer should lie in greater use of agri-tech. The window to secure that may not be open for long.
Paul McGrade is Senior Counsel on Brexit and Trade at Lexington Communications, having spent nearly two decades working on Europe policy at the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office and the European Commission. Lexington Communications is a member of Agri-TechE, supporting the growth of a world-leading network of innovative farmers, producers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs who share a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.