Brexit and Donald Trump: 5 reasons UK farmers should be concerned about a rushed trade deal with the US

Clare Oxborrow

08 February 2017

Donald Trump has promised the UK a trade deal to help make Brexit a “great success”. But this could have serious consequences for farmers and the environment.

This should concern environmentalists, UK farmers and the public. 

Even without Trump, the US is a famously aggressive trade negotiator. And it has long had a list of EU rules and regulations it would like to see rid of. 

With the UK desperate to prove its free-trading credentials once Britain leaves the EU – and to do so quickly – Brexit may finally provide America with the opportunity it has long been waiting for. 

Here we look at 5 farming-related issues that could be on the table in any trade negotiations between Trump and the UK post-Brexit – and the reasons why any deals should be made with caution.

1.     Hormone-treated beef

The EU prohibits the use of growth-promoting hormones in beef production. This, in effect, prevents American beef from making its way onto our plates due to the prevalent usage of growth hormones by US farmers. The EU ban is guided by the precautionary principle on the basis of potential human health risks.

The US has previously challenged this ban at the World Trade Organization (WTO) – claiming it unfairly discriminates against its producers – and won. However, the EU has continued to uphold the ban, agreeing a compromise, which has held for the time being. 

Hormones cause cattle to grow larger and faster, and produce leaner meat. The use of hormones props up an industrial system of beef production which has devastating environmental impacts – from the use of grains to feed the animals, to the vast amounts of water used. 

For the US to “win” in a trade deal with the UK after Brexit, it will not be enough for us to reduce our import taxes on their beef, or even put in place a quota for non-hormone treated beef – the ban on using growth-promoting hormones would need to go as well. 

It would be near impossible for British beef production to compete with US feedlot beef. Traditional pasture-based grazing farms producing high quality meat would be particularly vulnerable to imports of much cheaper US product. 

A cow on a farm
The EU currently bans the use of growth hormones in beef production

2.     Chlorine chicken

The US also objects to EU restrictions on the washing of chicken carcasses with chlorine. 

US food producers routinely use chemical washes such as chlorine at the end of the production chain to make up for poor hygiene on farms and in abattoirs – an approach that has been called “an ‘easy fix’ for dirty meat”. This means that chicken meat can be infected with Salmonella and Campylobacter (which cause food poisoning) as it is processed.

The EU’s “farm to fork” approach on the other hand, ensures that meat at all stages of the production chain is safe to be eaten and sold to the public, so it doesn’t need to be doused in chlorine before it hits our shelves.

EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has noted that there are likely to be greater public health benefits in controlling Campylobacter early in chicken production rather than later in the chain – as happens in the US system, essentially because it’s easier to stop the spread of the bacteria to humans through other routes. 

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Joe Biden, the former US Vice President, reportedly told Nick Clegg, in relation to the EU-US free trade agreement: “Listen Nick, we’re not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like.”

There is little reason to believe this position has changed under Trump. 

UK farmers have been rocked by a number of food safety scandals over the last two decades, from BSE and foot and mouth to bird flu. The last thing they need is a trade deal that risks a public health crisis at a time when they will be seeking to secure political and public support for their industry once Britain leaves the EU.

Chickens on a farm
After Brexit, chicken carcasses could be washed with chlorine, by Normanack

3.     Pesticides

The US has previously made it clear that it considers EU regulations governing the approval of pesticides, and the limits (Maximum Residue Levels or MRLs) for residues of pesticides in food, to be barriers to trade. 

Harmonisation of pesticide regulations between the US and UK will be bad news for bees if the US puts pressure on the UK to relax existing restrictions. 3 bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides are currently restricted in the UK, following an EU regulation based on European scientists finding a high risk to bees. To protect our bees these restrictions must stay in place when we leave the EU. But these 3 neonicotinoids are still used in the US despite mounting evidence of their harm.  

Bringing pesticides into a trade deal could be bad for our health too. During the negotiations over the TTIP trade deal in 2015 the US exerted pressure on the EU not to restrict pesticides which had been found to be hormone disrupters – linked to cancer and male infertility.

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Permitted residue levels in food tend to be higher in the US. The US has already complained that some EU MRLs could restrict US exports of fruit such as apples. We have already lost many of our British orchards and our apple growers would struggle to compete with an increase in US imports. If Brexit results in a race to the bottom on pesticide regulations, it would undermine the efforts being made by some innovative British farmers to cut or even eliminate pesticide use to benefit bees and other wildlife.  

Bees
It would be bad for bees if pesticide bans were lifted after Britain leaves the EU

4.     Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), GM crops and food

The US has long expressed frustration over the EU’s precautionary policies on genetically modified crops and foods, even launching a trade dispute against it at the WTO in 2003. 

While the US grows GM crops widely – mainly maize (corn), soy and oilseed rape (canola) – and has no mandatory national food labelling for GM ingredients, the EU has only approved the cultivation of one GM crop, and requires any approved GM ingredients in food and animal feed to be labelled. 

GM crop production in the US and elsewhere has caused huge environmental, agronomic and social problems, facilitating industrial monoculture production, and failing to provide the promised benefits to address global food security. 

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The US Government’s Trade Representative has highlighted that EU’s GM policies act as “substantial barriers to trade” both to GM seeds for cultivation and its GM food exports. EU GM food traceability and labelling rules are attacked as “commercially infeasible”.

It is unclear how much of the EU’s GM legislation the UK will retain post Brexit. However, the UK government (or more accurately, Westminster) has always taken a pro-GM position in EU votes, at odds with the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and despite a lack of public support. So there is a risk that ministers would be happy to relax rules on GM crops and foods to please our US friends. 

This should alarm UK farmers – if GM crops start being grown in the UK, non-GM and organic producers will struggle to grow the GM-free food that UK supermarkets and other important markets demand, particularly if weak, or no, rules are put in place to prevent GM crops contaminating others. And any attempt to remove GM labelling laws is likely to be deeply unpopular with the British public, especially at a time where US citizens are increasingly demanding their right to know. 

A wheat field
It is unclear how much EU GM legislation we will retain post Brexit., by Danny Nicholson

5.     Post-Brexit UK agriculture can’t compete with industrial agriculture

Post referendum, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Select Committee identified a triple threat to UK farming from Brexit in its report on the Natural World: the loss of subsidy; reduced access to European markets; and increased competition due to increased trade liberalisation. 

Any attempt to deregulate, and concede to a Trump-led trade deal making the demands listed in the points above, would likely see more checks put on products being sold into the EU – our biggest export market – and increased barriers to entry. 

It is also unlikely that UK agriculture would be able to compete with that of the US without dramatically lowering standards and increasing industrialisation and intensification of production. 

This is likely to have severe environmental, health, farm employment and animal welfare impacts, not to mention being publicly unacceptable. And even then, could the UK ever really compete with the US, given the relative sizes and economies of our two countries? 

What results do we want from Brexit?

We have a clear choice: do we rush headlong into a trade deal with the US offering up our hard-won standards in the desperate hope we’ll be able to compete on a level playing field? 

Or do we resist these efforts and instead use the golden opportunity provided by Brexit to bring forward new food and farming policies that deliver high quality food produced in ways that benefit the environment and provide meaningful agricultural employment? 

UK farmers, environmental groups and food businesses can work together to achieve this, but will need to join forces to resist any moves towards a race to the bottom.

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