The post-Brexit UK livestock industry should be an ‘exemplar’ to the rest of the world when it comes to animal health and welfare, according to Defra Ministers.
There is little doubt ‘Britishness’, and the standards associated with it, already provide a premium in certain markets.
Over the past few weeks, Ministers have spoken of their desire to use Brexit to push this further by incentivising improvements to health and welfare standards to provide UK farmers with a unique selling point (USP) in the global marketplace.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “Our USP, both at home and abroad, should be the highest standards of animal welfare and the highest standards of food traceability.
“Those are the things we really want to focus on in order to ensure we can expand, grow and compete more, innovate more and export more, which will be incredibly important”
But is this just wishful thinking in the face of a much harsher post-Brexit reality driven by a cheap food agenda?
The nature of post-Brexit trading arrangements with the EU and beyond remains uncertain.
Ministers at the heart of the Brexit negotiations, including International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Mrs Leadsom, have been clear they are pursuing a free trade agenda.
For some, including former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, this should also mean ‘cheaper food’ as trade tariffs are cast aside under new trading arrangements.
Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed she will trigger Article 50 by the end of March, starting negotiations that could see the UK exit the EU in 2019. But that does not mean new trading arrangements will be in place by then. Retaining free access to the EU single market while losing core elements of it, such as free movement of labour, will not be straightforward.
“Our USP, both at home and abroad, should be the highest standards of animal welfare and the highest standards of food traceability”
Equally, it will take a long time to negotiate new trade arrangements with non-EU countries.
Initially, trade with non-EU countries, and possibly the EU if no deal is reached, is likely be subject to World Trade Organisation tariffs.
But over time, as the UK looks to pursue its global free trading agenda, efforts will be made to open up market access to all sorts of goods in both directions, alongside lower tariffs than those in place as an EU member.
While new export opportunities would be welcome, this could be a double-edged sword for UK pig producers.
Currently, almost all pigmeat imports into the EU are subject to sizeable import tariffs, ranging from €172 (£153) to €1,494 (£1,329) per tonne, depending on the cut.
In a report on the trade implications of Brexit for UK farming, AHDB said: “Should the UK decide not to impose tariffs on imports, or negotiate quotas with global exporters, this may leave the UK market vulnerable to cheaper pork, for example from the US, Canada or Brazil, which operate at a much lower cost of production.”
These products are cheaper primarily because EU welfare and environmental standards, such as the ban on sow stalls, are higher.
This influx could cause a large over-supply and lower prices in the domestic market and, with UK farmers unable to compete, lead to a ‘substantial decline’ in the UK breeding herd, AHDB warned.
Defra Ministers have stressed they are fully aware of these concerns, which have been repeatedly voiced by industry representatives, and insist they would not allow the UK livestock industry to be undermined in this way.
Farming Minister George Eustice said the Government would seek common trading standards, as he was questioned on the issue during the conference in Birmingham.
He said: “This Government has got a manifesto commitment to reflect animal welfare standards in any future trade agreements and that will be the case that when we talk about free trade agreements.”
“This Government has got a manifesto commitment to reflect animal welfare standards in any future trade agreements”
But he appeared to acknowledge it would be unrealistic to expect lower standard imports to be entirely kept at bay.
Currently the main barriers to trade, beyond tariffs, are sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, for example, the use of growth hormones in the US. It is, however, notoriously difficult to negotiate welfare measures into these sorts of deals.
If equivalent standards could not be agreed, quotas could be set on the amount of non-tariff imports allowed in, Mr Eustice said. The UK pig industry would seek this protected status, although it would only represent partial resolution.
Raising the standards
Hence the idea of a post-Brexit UK animal health and welfare standard USP for British farmers now being discussed by Ministers.
Mr Eustice stressed this would not be imposed on farmers via regulation, as was the case with the sow stall and tether ban in the late 1990s.
No UK pig farmer needs reminding how that imposed significant extra cost on them but without any of the promised premium coming back in return from the market. Meanwhile, cheaper imports produced in systems outlawed here flooded the market – some ending up in Government canteens – and the UK pig industry halved in size.
Instead, Mr Eustice stressed, farmers willing to take the plunge would be incentivised under a new domestic farm support system.
For example, premiums could be paid for membership of RSPCA Assured or organic accreditation, or for keeping pigs outdoors or even on straw inside. Payments to individual farmers could be tiered, depending on which elements of production were based on ‘welfare-friendly’ systems.
The Government also wants to incentivise improvements to herd health and food safety, which the National Pig Association hopes could take the form of, for example, grants to upgrade livestock buildings to help reduce antibiotic usage.
The Farming Minister likened the idea to organics, where farmers receive dual incentives – from public funding and the marketplace – to meet certain production standards.
The British premium
A win-win? While the notion has its attractions, it raises as many questions as it answers.
Clarity is certainly needed when it comes to the assumption higher UK standards will stave off competition against ‘inferior’ products produced elsewhere – and deliver a premium.
Organic, outdoor/free range and RSPCA Assured have, to a greater or lesser extent, delivered premiums for UK producers, while ‘antibiotic free’ is very much on the horizon. But they have done so as smaller – or niche – parts of the bigger picture.
Despite horsemeat and the spotlight it shone on the truth behind cheap meat, the reality is many consumers, globally, will continue to buy on price and have very little connection with how their meat is produced.
Pork exporters at the SIAL trade event in Paris were adamant the British flag and associated welfare, health and traceability credentials already carries a premium in the international market, although for some this applied mainly to niche markets.
AHDB Pork director Mick Sloyan pointed out, in the UK, eight of the top 10 supermarkets – the exceptions being Tesco and Asda – use ‘British’ as a USP or to position themselves in the pork market.
“There is something about British product that consumers want, certainly on fresh pork,” he said. “But does that stand us up in the rest of the world against the competition? In some cases, but not necessarily. Britishness and British standards works in some markets but exports are still predominantly about commodity.”
Cheap food agenda
NPA policy services officer Lizzie Wilson said the idea of policies to raise animal welfare standards on pig farms was well-intentioned and potentially beneficial – as long as it was not used to mask a cheap food agenda.
The NPA is calling for equivalent standards of production, including animal welfare, to be negotiated into any new trade agreements and, if necessary, for UK pigmeat to be granted protected status to control the volume of tariff-free imports allowed into the UK.
She said it could be misleading to suggest the welfare of an animal could be judged simply by whether it was reared indoors or outdoors, stressing that other factors such as husbandry and the state of buildings play a big part. She also questioned how the policy would tie-in with the drive to improve supply chain efficiency.
“The pig industry is always striving to implement standards that deliver improved animal welfare, but we must be mindful not to make the industry uncompetitive and effectively export our production to countries where welfare is lower,” she added.