Lucy Bjorck, Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB, talks about part one of the Food Strategy, launched this week.

Part one of the Food Strategy was launched yesterday. Much of it rightly focuses on ensuring everyone can eat well but it also has some important recommendations on trade, which have implications for nature.

Many of the issues which beset our food system - high climate change impact, deforestation, unsustainable farming practices - mean that our food system is having a catastrophic effect on nature’s health as well as our own. All of these are heavily influenced by trade.

By some measures our food system might be considered successful - supermarkets shelves are generally full to bursting (even with the shocks caused by the current pandemic only a few lines ran short) and food is so cheap huge amounts are wasted. Yet this veneer of success belies multiple failings - nature squeezed from our countryside, exhausted soils and continuing deforestation out of sight along opaque supply chains.

The strategy recognises this and promises more on the future of farming, the potential for a UK land strategy, and the carbon footprint of meat production in part 2, we look forward to seeing this. What is covered here is the urgent need to get our trading relationships right as we barrel towards the uncertainty of Brexit. We welcome the Strategy’s recognition that we must uphold our high standards.

The market has failed to ensure sustainability – as the Strategy recognises the true cost of our food is just not effectively factored in.  It is unfair and unrealistic to place the responsibility on citizens to choose what is the right food to buy to safeguard their health and the health of the planet. The opacity and complexity of the systems can make the perfect choice dizzyingly difficult even for those who work in the sector. As Henry Dimbleby said at the Strategy launch citizens expect high standards on their plates.  We can to a large extent begin to put our own house in order, but this only works if the food we import does not undermine our efforts.

As such we have a number of concerns on the recommendations made in the National Food Strategy which rule out bans on food produced to lower standards and relies instead on tariffs.

The argument is that bans are too blunt a tool and will halt trade (which is indeed essential in a modern food system), but tariffs still leave the possibility of goods produced to lower standards on UK shelves. It may be that if the tariffs are not high enough, it could drive producers elsewhere to cut costs even further to make up the difference (where the governance and enforcement of laws may be inadequate), which would potentially be an even worse outcome for the environment, while still undercutting UK producers. In the UK tariffs are not set by statute and so could be lowered over time, undermining sustainable production at home.

The recommendations rely very much on the proposed Trace and Agriculture Commission (TAC) which lacks environmental representation.  If we are to protect nature the TAC must be beefed up. It must be genuinely independent and be accountable to parliament not just ministers. There should be clear legal guarantees that imports will meet out environmental standards. Exposing British farming to competitors farming to lower standards could foster a race to the bottom, and have a devastating impact on any hope of nature’s recovery.

Adequate scrutiny and oversight are an essential part of our trading relationship with other countries and we welcome the recommendations to improve these. Appropriate devolved scrutiny of trade deals from the outset will also be essential, even if trade is a reserved competency. The power for parliament to scrutinise deals, write reports and have debates is good but not enough without the power and obligation for parliament to properly ratify Free Trade Agreements (like most other mature democracies).

If there is one thing that the Covid 19 epidemic has shown us, it is that we can change the way we do things and we can do it quickly. The final poll at the Food Strategy launch event demonstrated that people want higher food standards even if we sign fewer trade deals. With Brexit looming on the horizon this is a watershed moment to get the trade approach right, so that it supports rather than undermines a shift toward more sustainable farming at home.