Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, claimed that a radical new approach to food and farming policy was needed, which puts the consumer first and brings prices down.
“The EU’s historic reluctance to open up trade in food products has repeatedly stymied trade deals and led to higher prices for consumers and a distorted farming industry,” explained director of research, Warwick Lightfoot.
Remaining in the customs union would be “the worst of all worlds”, Lightfoot and his co-authors claimed in their report, Farming Tomorrow. Outside the union, however, the country would be “free to conclude [free trade agreements] with as many partners as it wished and for which it had the negotiating resources”.
Critics suggest this approach would lead to the market being flooded with cheap food produced to lower standards. Indeed, the new report’s conclusions are largely at odds with those in a report by the Eating Better Alliance, published last month. Food policy experts also warned recently that Brexit could bring “less safe and nutritious products”.
But Policy Exchange argued it’s the perfect time to carry out a review of “restrictive” food safety standards and “perverse” agricultural policies. Adherence to the EU’s” ‘precautionary principle’ on food standards and safety has blocked a number of innovations and practices deemed safe in non-EU countries, it said.
“Wherever possible, the Food Standards Agency should adopt mutual recognition or accept the equivalence of other country’s standards rather than try and create additional regulatory standards.”
Clear labelling would provide consumers with a choice, the authors added. “GM crops may be perfectly safe to eat, but you should still be given the choice to avoid them if you want to.”They also said animal welfare standards need not be undermined by the reduction of trade barriers.
Is the price right?
Policy Exchange cited research showing that more than one in three (36%) consumers say price is the most important factor when it comes to their choice of food, but the poll is three years old. A survey in February found only three of the UK’s major supermarkets would ban chlorine-washed chicken in their products, including pizzas and readymeals.
However, chlorine-washed chicken – as well as hormone-treated beef and GM – are now headline news: first, as the EU first tried to thrash out a transatlantic trade deal with the US; then more recently as the UK embarked on its own post-Brexit negotiations with the US.
In July, UK trade secretary Liam Fox, who was in Washington for preliminary talks, suggested the media had become obsessed with washing chicken with chlorine – a practice banned in the EU based on concerns it could lead to food standards falling.
US President Donald Trump tweeted the deal could be “very big” and that “the EU is very protectionist with the US. Stop”. UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, last year claimed “we want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe”.
A move to end import tariffs on food would be “massively symbolic”, Policy Exchange noted, and demonstrate that Britain is “serious in its ambition to become a global champion of free trade”.
Rabobank research published in April suggested Brexit could make EU food products up to 8% more expensive. Whatever the outcome of negotiations, consumers are “going to have to get used to higher prices” for some products, the experts warned.
The Policy Exchange report is available here