The Trade and Agriculture Commission report and what it might mean for us all

Posted: 9 March 2021 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott analyses the Commission’s recommendations and puts out a plea for the UK to get its own affairs in order before it begins seeking global export fame.

Chris' Corner

In July 2020, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, established the Trade and Agriculture Commission. While this was motivated by Brexit such an initiative has been needed for many years. The Commission, chaired by Tim Smith, has now delivered a long and quite detailed report. There was considerable stakeholder engagement and a total of 22 recommendations have emerged. While it’s not possible in this short article to review all of them, I’ve selected a number that are closest to my heart and have scrutinised them to some degree.

The overarching themes of the report seem absolutely correct; protecting our agri-food industries, protecting our planet and protecting the health of all our citizens. None of these are new and have been included in multiple reports from multiple sources in recent times. The hard part is achieving these hugely difficult, complex and often conflicting needs. It would also be naïve of us to think there won’t be hard decisions to make and compromises to reach. ‘Trade’ in the widest sense of the meaning will indeed play a pivotal role in how the UK moves forward.

The first recommendation calls for the development of a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy. This is not surprising, but with hardly a mention of the Dimbleby National Food Strategy in this report it does not augur well for this important piece of work. Perhaps I’m reading the wrong signals here, but we were promised Part 2 in early 2021 and there are no signs of white smoke on the horizon…

I often write and speak of the seven principles of food integrity and I can see that quite a number of the recommendations mention these in some shape or form; For example, climate change, animal welfare, food safety, ethical trading and workers’ rights. What I believe is missing is sufficient emphasis around producing healthier, more nutritionally dense foods, and moving away from the ultra-processed ‘junk’ that is causing detrimental effects on the well-being of our nation.

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a number of recommendations about global Britain; exporting more food, becoming a thought-leader internationally etc. I’ve no issues with these suggestions but shouldn’t getting our own national strategy sorted – and making sure it won’t get swamped with food produced to much poorer standards – be our focus?

There is also a recommendation (number two) about appointing a Minister with specific responsibility to lead on agri-food trade. There is the same ring of ‘global Britain’ in this, as the text calls for someone who ‘would lead in pushing for an elevation of global standards on environment, animal welfare and ethical trade in international forums’. My plea is more about getting government joined up on our national food strategy, with trade just a part of the portfolio of a Senior Minister.

There’s a lot of good and interesting recommendations in this report and it offers a nice framework on which to move forward. There will always be the fear of government ‘cherry picking’ recommendations; certainly to my mind, we cannot relax when it comes to protecting our food standards and agri-food industries. We must continue to drive a national food system that is based on integrity and won’t be ‘traded off’ by our government.

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