5. How to Get the Food System Right
Brexit presents an opportunity to reconfigure the food system to provide better health and environmental outcomes, whilst maintaining a profitable agriculture and food sector. make the most of this opportunity – and not simply chase the notion of ever cheaper food at whatever cost – has a number of requirements.
- A food system that promotes public health: While Defra’s February 2018 paper Health and Harmony goes some way to establishing a coherent vision for agriculture and the environment (recognizing the links to the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Clean Growth Strategy and the Industrial Strategy), it has very little to say about the food system’s contributions to public health and nutritional outcomes.
- Alignment with UK industrial strategy: The UK government’s industrial strategy recognizes the importance of the agriculture sector claiming that it will ‘put the UK at the forefront of the global move to high efficiency agriculture’ and ‘deliver benefits to farmers, the environment and consumers whilst driving growth, jobs and exports’. Meeting these objectives will require an increase in public and private sector research and development and deployment. The UK government should commit to matching or exceeding the current level of research funding received by UK institutes from EU research funds, or alternatively agree to participate as a third party in these programmes.
- Close regulatory alignment with the EU, acknowledging domestic capacity constraints: One way to maintain consumer confidence would be to reform agricultural policy while remaining fully aligned with EU legislation and standards, including on sanitary and phytosanitary standards. This would minimize price impacts and maintain strong supply chains and standards. In the long term, the UK could look to make use of new technologies to ensure greater transparency on provenance and labelling for consumers.
- A trade policy that complements UK agriculture: Trade agreements should be supportive of, and finalized after, developing a comprehensive vision for the UK’s food system. Trade agreements need to reflect a holistic vision for the UK food system that respects wider societal values: UK agriculture and land management, economic outcomes and health, exporting countries’ land resources and environment, food standards as well as food price and resilience of supply chains. Full account must also be taken of the seasonality of domestic production.
Investing in the agricultural systems of exporter countries to improve food standards and production methods and build resilience to climate change: The threats of climate change and environmental degradation, increasing geopolitical instability and small interruptions caused by longer inspections of food imports at the border could all impact the resilience of the UK’s food system, food prices and availability. The UK should invest in more reliable supply chains and develop resilience in prospective partner countries. Investment could come through government ‘aid for trade’ strategies or from private capital.
- A steady transition: Changing market conditions could affect the profitability of the UK farming sector, be that through greater intensification or structural change (e.g. a reduction in small farms through inability to remain profitable). In line with Defra’s Command Paper and subsequent 2018 Agriculture Bill, the UK should aim to have an agricultural transition that would phase out direct payments, simplify existing schemes and change the regulatory culture prior to moving to a new regulatory regime. This transition could start as soon as the UK has the freedom to move away from the CAP (i.e. assuming no extension of the transitional period allowed for in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, at the end of 2020) and last for a number of years. This would allow for greater planning for a new environmental land management system that would reward farmers and land managers for greater environmental practices. A no deal scenario would make this transition almost impossible.
- A stronger but coordinated role for the devolved administrations in defining the strategic direction and oversight of British food and farming: Consultation, consent and coordination between Westminster and the devolved administrations will be essential to maintain the integrity of the UK’s internal single agricultural market. They will also help to minimize any risk of dissonance between the UK’s agriculture and trade policies, particularly if external trade commitments lead to changes in the direction of UK’s agricultural policy.
- Taking advantage of technological change: New data sources and technologies will not provide complete or quick solutions, but they may hold considerable potential to manage some of the risks and enhance the scope of food and agriculture policy in the medium-term (see Box 5). Notably, with particular reference to GM, the Agriculture Biotechnology Council has argued that EU regulations have constrained innovation. Outside of the EU, the UK could decide to align with the US’s regulatory standards, which would help the development of new technologies (although any disruption to the current level playing field with the EU could result in reduced access to the single market).
Box 5: The role of data and technology
- New data sources: Increases in the availability of production and consumption data are enabling greater understanding and scrutiny of production and supply chain impacts and improving transparency around the externalities generated – making the full costs and benefits of food production more apparent. The additional insights that such novel datasets provide have the potential to permit improvements in targeting public finances for public goods, enforcing standards, and encouraging positive behaviours. Remote sensing technologies have the potential to reduce the costs of monitoring compliance with environmental standards in agriculture.
- Pre-competitive consumer data: new trade arrangements will benefit from incorporating an understanding of consumer values beyond price. Pooling and anonymizing existing retailer data on consumer behaviour could be used pre-competitively to generate greater insights of existing behaviours and predict reactions to plausible new conditions and policy decisions post-Brexit.
- Blockchain: The UK government’s vision for future customs arrangements, as set out in a 2017 position paper, was met with considerable scepticism, particularly regarding the role it foresaw for implementing ‘technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures’. Commonly understood to be referring to blockchain distributed ledger technologies to verify chain of custody and border-check compliance, it is certainly true that this is still a very nascent technology lacking regulatory oversight or existing deployment at enough scale to offer a short-term cross-sector solution. Nonetheless, in the medium term, distributed ledgers could prove useful not just for border and standards agencies, but for instilling confidence in consumers regarding the provenance of their food by providing irrefutable transparency in supply chains, especially if the UK adopts a more expansive approach to sourcing food and agricultural imports after Brexit.