Twitter LinkedIn

Towards better trade in food

Since the decision to leave the European Union there has been a welcome focus on food and farming policy. However, the government’s approach is to think about agriculture as a domestic matter, with ‘international trade’ relegated to a short and general chapter at the end of Defra’s Command Paper.

April 2018

This is a mistake. Whatever our aspirations, the current situation is clear: we buy the majority of the food that we consume from overseas. The public expects year-round availability of tropical and seasonal produce. We are 0% self-sufficient in popular, nourishing foods from bananas and avocados to grapes and sweet potatoes. We even import most of our onions, mushrooms and lettuce [1].

It’s not one-way traffic, either. The UK food and drink sector is a major exporter, selling £18 billion of produce overseas in 2015 [2] with ministers from Michael Gove to Liam Fox queuing up to trumpet the potential for further growth.

This vibrant, two-way trading relationship with producers and consumers around the world comes with obligations. The government should use the forthcoming Agriculture Bill to ensure that post-Brexit Britain trades agricultural produce with the world in a responsible manner that supports sustainable development.

Selling responsibly

Agricultural production is a central part of most developing economies, providing food security and livelihoods as well as opportunities for trade in higher-value processed goods. Strengthening the domestic agricultural sector is a major priority in many poorer countries and risks being damaged by exposure to foreign competition. For example, the UK currently exports much of its low value poultry parts (feet, head and necks) to the EU27. If the UK-EU relationship changes, it is likely that UK farmers will seek to sell to Sub-Saharan African countries at low prices. This carries a real risk of undercutting the domestic poultry sector in those countries, posing long-term damage to livelihoods and job creation.

The Command Paper announces the government’s intention to support UK exporters to open up new markets post-Brexit. This may be to the benefit of both parties. However, care needs to be given to whether becoming a customer for UK agricultural exports is in the long-term interest of each potential trading partner.

To achieve this, we need to have a post-Brexit trade policy that is transparent, democratic and open to scrutiny.

Buying responsibly

UK businesses should purchase responsibly from suppliers around the world. The international groceries sector is dominated by a handful of big players, and the UK is no exception. Powerful retailers and brands can purchase abusively from weaker suppliers – not paying invoices on time, changing orders at the last minute or demanding unwarranted payments from suppliers. This means that large food businesses get richer and larger, whilst smaller food businesses (both in the UK and overseas) struggle with unexpected costs and risks and are unable to invest.

To stop these practices, we need a Code of Conduct (mentioned in passing in the Command Paper) which is properly enforced, and which prevents unfair purchasing practices. In the Groceries Code Adjudicator, the UK has a strong track record with this kind of regulation.

The UK has a well-deserved reputation as a world-leader in development, we are committed to the SDGs and to spending 0.7% of our GNI to overseas development. The Agriculture Bill must not undermine that agenda and is an opportunity to ensure that the way that we buy and sell food supports sustainable international development, creating vibrant trading partners for us in the future.

Guest blog from Tom Wills, Policy Adviser at Traidcraft Exchange

Follow @thomasrhwills & @TraidcraftDepth



The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.